Emancipation, Carnival and our festivals
This article continues exploring the stakeholder masterplan for the Creative Sector—plans to grow it from a $1.9 billion annual earner to a $7 billion one in four short years. These interventions were submitted to Cabinet for inclusion in the 2013/14 Budget. Festivals earn about $1.3 billion annually. Carnival earns the lion’s share. Festivals can earn $3 billion annually. Here’s how.
In my last article I said it’s our Gift that we’re ‘the Festival Nation’. Somehow the ‘festival tribes’ of the races of the world ended up here—and created a nation where every month we re-initiate ourselves with sacred and secular festivals. Unlike other places in the world we’ve made these festivals public, national, and inclusive. The entire island feels ownership and belonging to the narrative of these festivals to some degree. Few other people open their ethnic festivals to outsiders. This coming together of festival tribes from Amerindian, Africa, Europe, and Asia created the mother Festival of Trinidad’s Carnival.
In many festivals with an East Indian component we’re past 100 years of celebration. In Carnival we’re moving into 180 years. Other festivals are into their 50th year… These ages are important because we’ve not built the institutions to document, analyse, and pass on our Festival Legacy. This failure to create institutions to support our civilisation—like proper Academies and Universities, proper Museums or Heritage Sites, or proper Historical Societies and Guilds—means we’ve left the responsibility of recording and transmitting tradition to practitioners themselves.
The age of our festivals is important because traditions collapse after the fourth generation if the central institution has fallen or been weakened. Twenty years is a generational cycle. This means most of our traditions are past their fourth generation…
Let’s also remember that we experienced a Golden Age from 1930 to 1956—a period of extraordinary achievement in our Arts and Festivals. Pan Mas, and Calypso emerged in their modern forms during this period whilst most ethnic festivals consolidated nationally and in terms of artisan skill. This means—in terms of Golden Age skill—we’re in the middle of the fourth generation. We’re therefore in the age of collapse of premium Festival and artistic Legacy.
Most festivals are made up of three unique types of individuals. The first are high priests who hold the sacred belief—like an imam, pundit, Orisha priestess, mas band leader… The second types are visionary artists—like the Ramleela ‘director’, mas designer, or parang/ kaiso/ folk songwriter. The final set are artisans—the craftsmen who build Hosay Tadjahs, Carnival costumes, Ramleela effigies, or the musicians who play the bhajans, tassa, African drums, calypso, parang, etc. Each of these classes is important to the existence and health of the festival. Each depends on a particular set of initiations, trainings, and nourishment to become successful practitioners.
We’ve done next to nothing to support any of the three types of individuals necessary to preserve our festivals. The Maha Sabha and others consolidated the ‘high priest’ part of their tradition by re-establishing links with practice in India—and because the practice is grounded in the sacred books of the Gita and the Ramayan. However a lot of indigenous nuances have been lost. Similarly ASJA consolidated Islamic practice by joining up conversations with global Islam. These tactics have strengthened ancestral links—but have not preserved indigenous nuances of practice.
Whilst religions have consolidated their high priests, the secular traditions haven’t had the necessary institutions built to replenish their cadre. Where are the next generations of ‘high priests’ for pan, mas, calypso, parang, tassa, etc to come from if we are not initiating them? Things get worse for religious and secular traditions when we deal with the other essential occupations. Visionary artists are laymen ‘high priests’ obsessed with the artistic side of festivals. The Ramleela must be directed, the Carnival band designed. Somebody must write all the songs for every single one of our musical traditions. Somebody must lead the steelbands… These individuals are freak geniuses that societies throw up—charismatic leaders, brilliant artists… But if these individuals aren’t initiated into a tradition they belong nowhere, their talent floats unconnected to nation and legacy. We have brilliant charismatic young leaders and artists, but they ‘ain’t’ initiated into our traditions. They are instead gang leaders, fete promoters, or creative mercenaries.
The artists have no sense of local style, no connection to indigenous traditions, and are creating masturbatory foreign-imitative music and art that does not connect to the population. They are aliens to their nation. Therefore the talent who should be innovating traditions from inside is alienated from it—compromising the relevance of the tradition itself…
The final talent pool necessary for our Festival world to exist is the most overlooked and undervalued artisans. Normally working-class with little formal schooling they’re the backbone of our culture. They build the Tadjahs and costumes, they play the instruments. Without them the nouns, adjectives, and pronouns of our existence don’t exist. We’ve invested nothing in them. This is where our crisis is deepest and where collapse is imminent.