For the love of memory
In the year 1999 I did a population read and figured out that there were about 20,000 genius elders alive in Trinidad and Tobago belonging to the Golden Age generation.
These are individuals who have contributed to the nation in extraordinary ways in every field—from science, arts, business, or labour. T&T’s Golden Age lasted from 1930-1950—a period of extraordinary achievement, when giants walked the earth.
It was a magical period where ethnic festivals came into their maturity. Pan, mas and calypso rose to their modern forms and became globally influential.
It was the age of the trade unions and the beginnings of Independence. Male ethnic secret societies rose to consolidate their community’s identity and dreams.
Many things we think of as distinctively Trinbagonian were forged in this period. As a nation we have actually been driving on the fuel of the Golden Age ever since. The people who were the active participants in that period are now 80 and over. In the late 1990s they began passing away en masse.
I did a further calculation as to their rates of death and postulated that by 2010 most of that generation would be gone. Given that fact, I tried to tell both private and public sector that the duty of the 2000s was to concentrate on recording the elders’ stories and pass on their specialised skills and traditional knowledge.
Added to this, I said we should patent and trademark these elders’ unique indigenous skills, inventions, and information pools. Those “patents” would be worth billions as they involved everything from the science involved in masmaking to unique local agricultural and farm animal processes to scientific inventions.
Our duty, therefore, was to take this knowledge and create institutions around the expertise and traditions we have pioneered in the world.
All the stars lined up for this nation. We came into a massive boom worth over $300 billion. In this period it was also announced that a University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) would be created.
This was exactly the vehicle that could pull the entire process of honouring the elders and institutionalising their knowledge together.
From this base, dozens of multi-million dollar industries could have grown. Many would have been rooted in grassroot practitioners and working class communities.
The knowledge of these elders and the industries born out of them would become the pathways for these communities out of poverty and into riches.
For example—apart from other social and educational programmes—the grounding of a global pan and mas industry in East Port of Spain was a no-brainer.
The businesses located in those communities would service the $15 billion 300 Trinidad-style carnivals worldwide with pans, costumes, merchandise, musicians, technicians, managers, etc. Mas and pan factories, the panyards, and redesigned community centres would have been the engine room of the transformation of the area.
Different locations all over the country would be hubs for other traditions and industries. We were blessed. There were hundreds of billions with which to do this.
Well it’s 2012. We know what happened. Both private and public sector refused to take the responsibility. Money was given to gangsters rather than gods.
Between 2000 and 2010, 18,000 elders died. Most died with their stories unrecorded, their skills and knowledge not passed on. We lost dozens of traditions. In Carnival—minstrels, pierrot grenades, devils, beasts and imps passed from the road. In the arts alone there are over 144 traditions in clear and present danger of disappearing because they exist only in one or two elders’ heads.
These range from drumming traditions like those lost with the deaths of Sylvan Bharath—tassa Master and Ja Ja Onilu— African drumming Master—to the loss of skills that threaten King and Queen mas costume-making.
In two years we could be looking at Golden Age King and Queen mas costumes and they will be like the pyramids. No one alive would know how to build them!
Of the 18,000 elders we lost, formal and informal historians were able to record about 5,000.
Of those 5,000, less than 100 were recorded at the optimum level in terms of anthropological and biographical data and in terms of quality, 100 out of 18,000. That is genocidal. If an invading army wanted to wipe us out as a civilisation they could not have done a better job.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Independence. The tragedy of our nation is that despite the sheer quantity of our genius, none of it is anywhere visible. 2012 is also: the 100th anniversary of our recorded music; the 75th anniversary of the Butler Riots; and much more.
This is also effectively the last year we have left with survivors of the Golden Age. 2012 is then the year that we must make a stand and do our postponed duty.
We must honour our majestic Golden Age, document the survivors, and pass on the golden skills.
We won the vehicles to do this in the budget five months ago. So why in God’s name have we not yet started?