How to reload a Golden Age
The critical question we must ask is this: how does Trinidad and Tobago continue the Gifts of our Golden Age long after the conditions on the ground that created the Golden Age no longer exist?
Revolutionary surgery is required. By now, it is clear to all but the blind that something is dangerously wrong with the Carnival—and that it resembles terminal decline. This is not habitual complaining, this is a diagnosis rooted in identifying traits in cultures and civilisations in decline. Why empires fall. T&T’s arts and culture—and Carnival in particular—exhibit many of these traits.
I trust that all those who thought Carnival was a secular festival and “just an event” that simply needs to be “planned better” so you could just change elements, now realise how wrong they are after the wreckage that was this year’s Dimanche Gras. This thinking has only led us to increasingly dizzying levels of disaster. Let’s get it clear: Carnival is not secular. It’s a constellation of sacred rituals that have lineage in several ethnic tribal memories. These rituals merged in a beautiful dance to make this thing we call Carnival. Together these rituals represent “we the people” attempting to make this country a home. Why else do more than 150,000 people of a population of 1.3 million suddenly change their behaviour and launch off annually in a series of ritual choreographies— most of which earn no financial profit—to manifest tens of thousands of works of art, most which will be discarded after one day of use?
The King and Queen of the Bands; Calypso, Soca and Chutney Monarchs; Dimanche Gras; Panorama, Pan-round-the-neck, and Bomb Champs; Stickfight King; Ole Mas Monarch; Band of the Year… all these are sacred rituals where our communities attempted to cipher and find the artistes who had the power, vision, skill and magic work of art that conjugated the mood of the nation.
As long as the process of selecting the combatants and monarch had integrity, there was nothing that compared to those competitions. The national electricity accompanying SuperBlue’s Soca Monarch comeback and Road March win this year reminds us of the sacred energies a true Carnival monarch channels—and the power each of these competitions once held. I believe they can hold that power again—but only after surgery.
Different generations will remember the electricity of great artistes matching the mood of the country with their work—and the battles to have it crowned: George Bailey’s Back to Africa; Peter Minshall’s River Trilogy or Papillion; David Rudder’s triple-crown Carnival; Scrunter’s “The Will”; Wayne Berkley’s and Minshall’s kings and queens slugging it out at Dimanche Gras; Jit Samaroo versus Len “Boogsie” Sharpe versus Ken “Professor” Philmore versus Clive Bradley versus the spoilers Pamberi! Remember how it felt when the rightful monarch was crowned. Remember the loss of interest with each betrayal of the rightful Monarch.
What I’m saying is that the events of Carnival work because inside of them there’s a “spiritual magnet” that draws artistes to create, audiences to care and attend, villagers to work and a nation to spectate. That magnet has been interfered with—and that’s why we now fail. Our first intervention must be to re-charge the magnet.
There are some who believe “fete” and “alcohol” can be our spiritual magnets. Alcohol cannot be the god of this Festival. Europe lost sight of its gods and fell in love with the alcohol—and their carnivals died. We’re at that same juncture. We’re in the process of forgetting ourselves.
The interventions to resurrect each ritual—Panorama, Dimanche Gras, etc—must understand the anthropology, mythology and poetics of the ritual. They must understand the condition of the source community of creators. They must understand that many collapses have been the result of previous hair-brained interventions by the National Carnival Commission, Carnival judges, or ministers—not “the will of the people” or generational evolution. We must do the forensics to figure out the moment the collapse entered—then reverse it. The interventions required will not be acts of business, but poetic acts. They will not be conventional. They must be revolutionary and precise. They must emerge from the deepest truths of who we are—and why we do the things we do. Then you can apply event management and business principles.
We don’t have time to waste. Next year is our last chance. Witness the scenes of the decline: the empty North and Grand Stands—despite the fact they never looked prettier; the failing King, Queen and Calypso Monarch competitions; the dwindling interest and spectacle of Carnival Monday; and the suicidal miscalculation that is “The Greens”.
In the next two articles, I’ll detail emergency interventions necessary to revive different aspects of the festival, recalibrating it for the modern world, while retaining all its vital traditional power. These ideas come from a number of sources—visionary and grassroots. Together they form a blueprint of “How to Reload a Golden Age”. Along with the Artists’ Coalition and CNMG, I’ll be hosting a televised national symposium on “Saving the Carnival” in two weeks. Stay tuned!