Monthly Archives: February 2012

Carnival — of genius and ceremony

I’m still putting my thoughts on this year’s Carnival in perspective—so hold this plate of pelau in the meantime…

I’ve been a judge at many Trini competitions: Soca Monarch, NACC calypso shows, private sector, government and national art competitions. In these competitions I’ve found certain patterns.

There’re always some competitors who are very bad. So bad you wonder how no one from their family, friends or neighbourhood ever intercepted them and told them they should stop what they’re doing—immediately—before embarrassing everyone on a national level.

Then there’re the obviously brilliant talents. Clearly ahead of everyone else. These people understand their craft. Their mastery of materials is exceptional. They grasp the history and tradition of their form. They are rooted, yet global. Their work just works. Many are natural geniuses, without formal training. These two groups—the very good and the very bad—have the same numbers. They’re a small bunch.

What is plentiful in T&T competitions is the mediocre, the bland and the boring—people who learned the rules, but have absolutely no poetic bones in their body applying them. They are dull. They’re the students who read the book teacher said to read, repeated what the book said, enough to pass the test. The majority are like this. Mediocre. Instantly forgettable.

Normally my scorecards look like this: in a field of 100—with marks out of 100—ten people are soooo bad they get fewer than ten marks! About ten people score over 80—about three are absolute genius… The vast majority—80 per cent—score between 48 and 52 points, with just a decimal point separating them! There is hardly anything separating their mediocrity!

Why have I spent so much time talking about this? Because listening to those boring essays passing as calypsoes at Dimanche Gras showed me again that our judges are failing us. Our gatekeepers have been promoting the 80 per cent mediocre—at the expense of the ten per cent genius. I know this because in the competitions I’ve judged, my scorecard differs greatly from the judges around me who are using criteria other than excellence to judge art…

The collapse of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture is due to the advancement of mediocrity by elite gatekeepers in media, Government and the private sector. One result has been the collapse of the competitions that came from the belly of the people.

I am making two cases here. One is the importance of genius to civilisation. The other is about the brilliance of Trinidad and Tobago’s civilisation which evolved certain competitions connected to our soul to keep us healthy. Destroying these competitions destroys the community.

First let’s talk about genius. We in Trinidad and Tobago do not understand how the world works. We don’t understand that the whole point of all civilisations is the facilitation of genius. Subtract the works of geniuses from any civilisation, you realise what a wasteland that nation will be, how much it depends on genius for life.


Let’s deal with my percentages. What is America in the last century if we subtract just ten geniuses from it? Not ten per cent. Just ten. Steve “Apple Computer” Jobs; Michael Jordan; Jim “Sesame Street and the Muppets” Henson; Steven Spielberg; Louis Armstrong; Elvis Presley; Frank Lloyd Wright—the architect; Walt Disney; James Brown; and Michael Jackson…

Subtract those people from America, and all of a sudden America’s footprint in the world is reduced substantially. These ten people alone have been worth trillions to the US economy! They transformed its soul and that of the world. You remove genius and every horizon has severed several Mt Everests. All is now flat land. America is as bland as Finland. The point I’m making is genius makes all the difference. A real civilisation facilitates its genius class. It creates systems whereby it identifies, advances, rewards, resources them. America does. Despite its demonic racism America has enough systems of merit for the emergence of Beyonce. The failure of Trinidad is that it seeks out and destroys its genius.

There’re no trustworthy indigenous systems whereby local geniuses advance—except in the African and East Indian folk culture—especially in Carnival. The monarchies created by the people have been the only institutions we could have trusted: the Dimanche Gras Calypso Monarch; King and Queen of Carnival; Band of the Year; Panorama Champion; Road March; and now Soca Monarch…

Each crowned genius. Each genius captured the mood, hopes, fears and dreams of the nation—and delivered it back to us in a cup of beauty and truth to astound. Up to 25 years ago we knew we trusted those institutions—with one or two blips. But in the last 25 years the same systems of mediocrity, graft and corruption everywhere else in the society infected these institutions.

Our very best have been silenced. What we’ve been seeing this last 25 years is the best of the rest! I’m begging our leadership to give genius a break. If decent grant money were given to ten geniuses for Carnival—the entire vibration of the nation would be transformed. Let them give us back our civilisation.

Carnival — death and resurrection

Carnival Tuesday night, some Carnivals ago, at the western junction of the Savannah, under the samaan tree, I bounced up Earl Lovelace one of our greatest writers—author of The Dragon Can’t Dance. He had just watched the big “bikini and bead band” cross the stage. He said: “I always wondered what happened to Europe’s carnivals. They used to have carnivals like us. How was it possible for all of them to die? Carnival seems so immortal. But Europe’s died. I never understood how. But watching that band cross the stage, for the first time I see how…” Before he finished, I understood.

The producers and consumers of bikini and bead mas—like all the purveyors of the current “Carnival is fete” culture—are completely removed from the “rituals” that produced mas, pan and calypso. What our political and moneyed leaders—and this entire middle class of “feters”—do not understand, is that without the “rituals”, the entire festival will collapse. Someone somewhere has to believe. And less and less people do… And those that do are being strangled of resources. Someone has to believe it’s worthwhile to be in a panyard or a mas camp for 39 nights from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., rather than be in a fete. Somebody has to believe in risking $200,000 on a vision in their head of a story told in mas. Somebody has to believe in something called the Midnight Robber and Fancy Sailor. Rather than being in a fete getting dunk… When that dwindling population of believers reach critical negative mass, the Carnival is over…

When it eventually becomes one big fete without any tradition, then it can be competed against by a bigger fete. Or succumb to any distraction. Faddish distraction can be replaced. Ritual belief does not relinquish its hold so easily. The ascendancy of the ritual-less class and the corresponding pauperisation of the ritual class is the death knell for the T&T Carnival.

How is it that even the most out-of-touch lay person has a better understanding of how Carnival should work more than the people we hire every year to figure it out? Last week I spoke of possible interventions like: establishing secret societies for traditional mas; creating architecturally appropriate houses for each tradition—the House of the Sailors etc. Making Carnival Monday “Acoustic Monday” with only steelband and live band music played. Traditional mas, kings and queens, and village Carnivals will be out in full costume splendour. PTSC could have shuttles taking people to outlying Carnivals. All local TV must cover these community Carnivals equally. Tuesday will be the full blast!


Minshall’s idea is to restrict the big stage to bands numbering 30 to 300 masqueraders with a first prize of $3 million called “The Future of Carnival”—to regenerate costume genius. This should be accompanied by a merit-based (as opposed to welfare-based) grant-funding scheme which honours brilliant submissions. It would work alongside sector venture capital and small business loans and incubators.

Studios can be established for certain old-skills that honour green initiatives like papier mache and mould making. Attention must be placed on creating raw materials currently imported—and which result in delays —like: feathers downstream from our poultry industry; reflectors and beading from our can and plastic waste; and other such elements.

There’s a desperate need to look into the creation of a local swimsuit industry—a tops and bottoms industry—whilst minimising cost of inputs into it. We need to fast-track the creation of mas factories—omnibus mas camps—working year-round on producing mas for the 300 Trini-Style carnivals worldwide. Economies for Laventille and rural areas. There’s work to do.

The creation of the Carnival, steelband and festival museum which will recreate genius costumes from the past—with modern displays—will be the cornerstone of the Renaissance.

I’ve been to panyards. The level of offerings is mediocre. Many bands found problems getting full complements of players. The work ethic of young players is depressing. Panorama would collapse were it not for a handful of very skilled players who play in five to ten bands, hustling money from each. It’s the sound of these players that’s keeping Panorama alive. The flip-side is some players forget which arrangement they are playing! This is not helped by the crisis in arranging with the same scalar runs being repeated ad nauseum.


Where’s the musical genius of pan? Where’s the brilliance of Holman’s “Penny Lane”, Phase II’s “Theme from Exodus”, All Star’s “Woman on de Bass”? All Stars at semis came closest. Where’s the Despers magic? This is 2012. Laventille’s soaked with murder. Despers is exiled to the rim of the Savannah! Where’s the arrangement that speaks from that gut? Where’s the Panorama calypso that speaks to these realties? Where in the entire Panorama are songs and arrangements that speak of rescuing the country from murderous anarchy—that sing of a world where there is the Arab Spring, Kim Kardashian, the world financial collapse, Steve Job, and Mayan prophecies? Where’s music with the terror and sweetness of Jamaican dancehall geniuses Movado and Vybz Kartel, the sonic inventiveness of Kanye West and Jay-Z—a sense of the vastness of the universe?

Where’s music rooted in the best of us, from Kitchener to Sundar to Tanker to Boogsie? If such music was to emerge, it would silence the guns of the gangsters, would have those boys returning to the panyards like their ancestors… They would re-enter society as creative citizens of the mas…

This year, for the first time in decades, in the young soca, such music has started to emerge.

The collapse of the Carnival

First some facts. Nearly every single small and medium size band—and all but about four of the large bands—is losing money. Massive sums of money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. The economics of the Carnival has fallen.

Part of the reason is that the all-inclusive model is not sustainable. It is quickening certain class-based biases in the Carnival. Corporate resources have migrated toward the four biggest bands. These bands were started and sustained by independent wealth. Their corporate relationships are all network-based.

Mas bands from historically poor communities with problems sourcing capital in all aspects of their lives are now locked out of Carnival economics. The collapse of the community bands which began 25 years ago will be complete in two years. By this time most of the pioneers will be dead. We are looking at the complete marginalisation of the lower class out of Carnival. Except as servants in the middle class bands.

The young, black lower-income male who was the propulsive force of the Carnival and its principal architect and inventor will be completely locked out of the festival—except as a holder of rope and cleaner of pee trucks… This will spell the death of the Carnival. It will also have implications for the country during the rest of the year…

Of the 30-something traditional Carnival characters that were in existence from our Golden Age period—1930-1950—fewer than ten are still in existence. The Panorama is in a crisis of songwriting, arranging, skilled players and in community participation. The North Stand is becoming a symbol of the alienation of the young generation from the festival.

Calypso has become completely excised from the radio and the festival. The tents have been mishandled out of relevance. The Dimanche Gras has been so interfered with that the Calypso Monarch does not matter to the population. King and Queen costumes are built at massive economic losses which the prizes cannot sustain. The Golden Age technology of constructing them resides in only about three people’s heads—and they are over 80. There are a number of such issues. When these problems in the Trinity of Mas, Pan and Calypso come to a head in the next two years, the entire festival will collapse overnight into something we do not know.

The custodianship of Carnival by every single political administration and NCC has been decrepit, imbecilic and found wanting. It has been their interference and mismanagement which have led to these issues. The continuing ministerial refusal to consult with stakeholders while continuing the bombast of “this year was the biggest and best Carnival ever” is going to be a fatal mistake. The festival is at a critical stage of its life cycle. The nature of the intervention at this stage will determine its life or death—and possibly that of the nation as well…

The solutions must come from a place that understands the ritual root of things. The business will follow. Here are some ideas: establish secret societies for traditional mas traditions. Create architecturally appropriate houses for each tradition—the House of the Midnight Robber, the House of the Sailors—within the communities with the highest concentration. Build it and they will come… The people who want to belong to those select orders will find themselves at the doorsteps. These will be lodges with their own initiations, rituals—our own Carnival priesthood.

Create guilds of traditional mas alongside the other guilds of masters requested by the creative sector. Here masters are attached to master apprentices to create masterworks (in this case “bands”) where the ceremonies and techniques are transmitted, documented and analysed. Curriculum will be extracted from this for the Performing Arts Academy.

Carnival Monday could become “Acoustic Monday”: only steelband, drummers and live band music should be played inside select zones. No DJ music and DJ music trucks. The bands required to be in full costumes would be traditional bands, Kings and Queens, and select small, medium and large bands which will cross the stage as decided by lottery. Every steelband should be aligned to traditional mas bands. Steelbands would receive a special prize with points for music on the road and mas. There should be designated traditional mas performance stages throughout the city.

Mas bands at one time originated from certain Golden Age communities like Belmont, San Fernando, Pt Fortin, Woodbrook… Now mas bands are created by people who are independently wealthy, investing and corralling social networks. Something needs to be done to facilitate the new type of modern “communities” to create mas bands and to revitalise Golden Age centres.

Peter Minshall’s idea is to restrict the “big stage” to bands numbering 30 to 300 masqueraders. The first prize should be $3 million—a category to be deemed The Future of Carnival. With this, many fine artists and working-class artisans will get involved in mas and risk to create bands. More importantly, limes, youth groups, families, communities and other new social groups will become involved in mas making… This will become the second Golden Age generation of mas making.

Next, I’ll explore more solutions.