Monthly Archives: August 2011

Battle for the Soul of the Republic

For Pat Bishop, RIP

Imagine this: the whole of George and Nelson Streets is a great heritage arcade of restored turn-of-the-century buildings on the outside—but inside are concert halls, restaurants, recreated barrack yards and a sprawling modern multi-media museum called the House of Music. It is based around the restored Christopher Brothers Recording Studio at 7 Nelson Street—one of the oldest recording studios in the world. Here, legendary Spoiler recorded his great songs. Trinidad has the second oldest recording industry in the world, it is only fitting. The House of Music is a magnificent facility and Port of Spain’s main tourist attraction—a place where great concerts of all types are held.

The project to build it and restore these buildings was one of the major projects in the rehabilitation of East Port of Spain and the resurrection of Laventille and environs. The East Port of Spain Heritage City project had finally honoured these great communities that are the mothers of pan, mas and calypso. Beautiful schools, community centres, redesigned panyards… all kinds of industry had sprung up overnight. Fish farms, local delicacies, master artisans of all sorts had become global brands. A cable car system now connects the Hill to the city…

Magnificent stylish buildings—combination museums, concert halls and Internet cafes—have been built all over the hill as rewards to communities which had eradicated crime. But it was the genius of the people that had finally been given the resources to fly. In fact, the cultural renaissance in T&T was being led by Laventille—just as it was before…

Laventille’s pan and mas factories pour out hundreds of millions of dollars in goods every year to service the 300 Trinidad-style carnivals worldwide. The Hill, South East Port of Spain and Belmont are known worldwide as responsible for the renaissance in mas. Young boy band leaders have suddenly sprung up with dozens of innovative bands based on the new prize scheme for bands 30-100 with the $3 million first prize. It is said that some of these bands used to be gangs…

Acoustic Carnival Monday has been a hit. Because of the ban on DJs in the city centre on Monday and because the only amplified thing can be live music, there has been a proliferation of live bands, steelbands, tamboo bamboo, acoustic brass bands, African and East Indian drumming sides… All are all over the place making glorious music. The vibe is different—more intimate, more real, yet more epic, more joyous… All village Carnivals are also on Monday. Public Transport Service Corporation tours leave every 15 minutes to all parts of the country so people can experience the 100 different Carnivals T&T has to offer during this magic time. There is a sense of an entire island humming with a different beauty, a different truth…

The quality of costumes is magnificent because of the creation of the Guild of Masters. The Guilds are massive workshops where the country’s Master Elder Artisans were placed with Master Students and given the resources to re-create the country’s greatest Masterworks. Their entire processes were recorded and formed the curriculum of the now world-famous University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Academy… The Guilds recreated the 100 greatest mas costumes of all time—all displayed at the magnificent Carnival, Steelband and Festival Museum—Trinidad’s wonder of the world…

Every day a roster of these costumes dances for the public in the great restaurant courtyard at the Museum centre—serenaded by Road Marches and great songs from our past. In the Museum great recreated Hosay tadjes also stand with magnificent Ramdilla effigies—all recreated by the Guilds… These masterworks inspire hundreds of young people who learn skills from the brilliant UTT Academy programmes teaching our masterworks. It has led to a renaissance in style all over the country—in houses, landscaping, sculpture, industrial design… all manner of innovations. Our students are known as the most creative on the planet—proficient in the skills of five civilisations…

But it is the hills that are the greatest thing… There are avenues in Laventille where all houses are white with blue roofs, flowering plants and trees abound. There are neighbourhoods where houses are every colour of a deep rich rainbow. Everything is solar-powered. And during poui season every house has a golden poui courtesy Peter Minshall—and for days the hills are ablaze with golden magic.

Many youths are away most of the year. Steelband orchestras are only in the country for two months. They’re on year-long tours playing the planet’s biggest festivals. Many started smaller combos inspired by the seven-side pan competition that had captured the nation’s imagination. The cultural sector had gotten its act together: tour agents are booking T&T acts world-over. Best Village troupes, painters, dancers, filmmakers—most of the year are abroad touring. Every year hundreds of new artistic millionaires are minted. There’s a running joke—parents want their children to be artists instead of lawyers and doctors… But nah, we need doctors and lawyers, too…

All over the phenomenal island—magic, beauty, truth and industry. Industry emerging from native genius. We have found ourselves in ourselves. We have looked inside and found two of the greatest truths: “To thine own self be true.” And as Minshall said: “Islands have a right to be magical!”

This is what Pat was fighting for. Let us make this dream manifest.

Getting into the system

In these articles I am attempting to illustrate the fact that governance in this country is now paralysed after the nation overthrew the culture of maximum rulership. Through the persistent campaign by my group—the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT)—to get an agenda of cultural reform into the budget, I am showing what that paralysis looks like on ground level. A system that has only worked by commands from a singular dictatorial voice since slavery days now has to figure another way to move forward. ACTT’s testing of the system allows us to see the places where reform must happen.

In the last articles I showed how ACTT used the space created by an election campaign to try to get both parties to commit to a plan of reform for the cultural sector. The People’s National Movement refused and the People’s Partnership took the entire agenda and put it in their manifesto. During the election, communication remained open between both parties.

Once the election was over, all communication with politicians disappeared. ACTT tried a series of open and circular gambits to get dialogue, with the aim of getting a sector masterplan into the national budget. Each of these attempts kept getting aborted by the Minister or members of the public service—possibly because some of them were afraid of what those reforms might mean for them.

Many of these people owe their positions to the culture of maximum rulership… It looked as if for the 48th year artistes’ demands would be locked out of the system and the collapse of the great legacy of Trinidad and Tobago arts would continue…

Until Minister Winston Dookeran historically opened up the national budget for public consultation. ACTT leapt into this, ready to engage. The Ministry of Finance immediately confronted us with the truth of the nation’s finances—and requested us to be practical in our demands. We were given formats and training in how to present the demands to technocrats. Although this process can be tweaked, it worked. After about a month, we left our demands with the Ministry. But ACTT did not stop there. We kept pestering the Ministry to get updates as to what would be included.

In weeks that followed, communication broke down between the Finance Ministry and ourselves. We began to worry. Just when we were mobilising again, we got a call that we would have the opportunity to present our demands to the Honourable Prime Minister.

It was minister Dookeran’s initiative again… We presented to the Prime Minister and five Ministers. We carried 14 sector heads with us into that meeting so that the Government would see the faces of the sector. The Prime Minister’s meetings were running late. Our original two hours had been reduced to 15 minutes—she graciously let us present for 45. In the end, we were asked to present a reduced list of demands. ACTT assembled stakeholders and—in a brutal whole-day session—cut out hundreds of millions of dollars of programmes, for a lean wish list.

We arrived too late to meet the Prime Minister and got the list to her constituency office and into the Government’s budget retreat.

But our sector continued to be worried. Yes, Minister Dookeran had opened a way for the sector’s demands to be heard—but we had not succeeded in getting our line Ministry to listen… What would be the outcome? Two weeks later, when the budget was read, almost every single item read out was from ACTT and the stakeholders! It was a revolutionary series of programmes promised to the sector, never before uttered by a standing Minister of Finance—or Culture. ACTT had won promises in a manifesto and now in a budget.

Again we did not wait. We immediately engaged the Ministry of Finance to begin implementation talks. We were the only sector that did this! For three months, we sat with various teams of technocrats within the Ministry of Finance—from Permanent Secretaries to an Implementation Unit. We came up with budgets and month-by-month practical steps to roll out every single promise made in the budget.

During this process it was clear: who were the technocrats who were committed professionals; who were PNM party loyalists who would try to frustrate the process; and who were Partnership people around for the ride. At any point, any one of these people could have derailed the entire process. It took ACTT’s day-by-day vigilance to push the process through to keep the promise alive.

Finally we arrived at a feasible plan for implementation. Then we had to help craft the Cabinet Note. It took three tries to get the perfect note. It then took about six tries to get it to Cabinet! The Cabinet Note itself comprehensively dumbed down the entire implementation programme, and suffered because it would be presented by a technocrat or Minister who had no working knowledge or passion for the projects. We were worried again.

The culture of the Cabinet Note seriously needs to be reformed. From the time the Note went into Cabinet, all communication between us and Government ceased. For six months! Once again our sector was locked out. And not one plan was being implemented.

(To be continued on August 26, the day after my birthday—and I accept gifts… LOL…)