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Salvaging our gifts

I said: “I believe we’re all sent here with gifts. I believe finding and manifesting those gifts is our mission in life. The search for and the expression of our gifts gives us purpose. Living our gifts gives us joy, and in turn it will provide. In living your gift you’re simultaneously of worth to your community and yourself.”
You said: “But what if we live in a gift-killing nation?”

My last column on “Emancipating Genius” stirred emotional responses, so I’ve decided to go deeper. 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. The plans, although approved by the Ministry of Finance three years ago, haven’t been implemented since.

I’m writing this at a time when most of the super-gifted creative Trinidadians and Tobagonians I know are in absolute despair. They’re at points of bankruptcy, suicide, mental breakdown, exile, bordering criminality, and worst. Elders are in clinical-depression, feeling their works have been in vain. They feel they’re witnessing the destruction of everything they’ve created. They may be right. These are silent screams from our best. All are frustrated, stifled, artificially impoverished, dishonoured, disrespected. Each is potentially worth tens of millions of US dollars. They’re here, tortured, inert, underutilised.
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How to reload a Golden Age

Part I

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? Read the rest of this entry

Love and Carnival

I once loved a girl, but it was impossible. It was just one of those things. It had happened at Carnival time so we circled one another from afar whilst I tried to distract myself with fete after fete and the whirl of beautiful multiple female limbs… It did not work. After each wining moment died I was left hollow — and still in love. Carnal appetite could not satisfy the spirit… the rituals and spirit of Carnival is like that love — without it the festival is empty, reduced to appetite… And the human being requires more.

There’s something missing now from Carnival. Under-35s who’ve never experienced it will not know its wonder. They cannot compute that level of electricity.

There were waves of anticipations shuddering through each week, tinglings accompanying each ritual opening — Pan-in-the-City, panyards and tents opening, Panorama prelims, semis, King and Queens prelims, Viey La Cou (traditional mas), each song released by a genius bard… “What Shadow, Rudder come with?”

That holy trinity of Pan, Mas, and Calypso with their multiple ritual genuflections all sent a magic into the air that was inexplicable. Read the rest of this entry

Not different things

A Trini friend was a writer for the Wall Street Journal. I asked him about returning home to give back. He replied, “Rubadiri, you know how I love my country and business- but I can’t come back to a country whose leaders don’t understand that there’re people in this world who’re hundred-millionaires because they can skateboard! They don’t have a clue how the world works!”

I’ve been in meetings these last few weeks where it’s clear our leaders believe that “humanity” and “business” are two different things. The split comes in many forms. They believe they must choose between “culture” or “profitability”, “heritage” or “progress”, “people” or “development’. Not for a second seeing that these are not different things. That actually culture—even in its pure form—is profitable—that Bunyol- a small Spanish town- attracts 50,000 tourists annually for a tomato-throwing festival! Bunyol begun charging participants US$13 to throw. Do the math! This festival began as a re-enactment of a fight between youths- and is now a multi-million dollar earner. They haven’t changed an essential thing about how it works. They honoured its origins.

Phagwa in India, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, Macy’s Thanksgiving in New York, Brazil’s and Venice’s carnivals, bull-running in Pamplona, Oktoberfest in Germany, and many other festivals are multi-million dollar economies that don’t sacrifice origins, native-crafts, and ritual to earn money. And they’re more successful than us. They use the rhythms of their rituals to provide opportunities for earning- but understand the sanctity of the ritual that provides the attraction. The magnetism of authenticity… Read the rest of this entry

The post-genius age

We’re moving into a post-genius Age. We’re moving into a place where the landscape cannot replace its gifts. Gone will be the Age of towering samaan talents. The nation has failed to blood a second and third generation. Let me explain.

My recent articles about Carnival provoked debate from various quarters. Some said my warnings of the collapse of Carnival traditions are too apocalyptic. Some believe that ‘things evolve- stop fighting progress’. Some think that- despite our national sins of omission and commission- Carnival will regenerate itself. That somehow we’d be blessed with the continuance of Genius, beauty, and light… Oh how I wish…

I am here to let us know that ‘it doh wuk so!’ That ‘civilisation’ is a verb. It’s a conscious act. That you actually have to work at it, like agriculture- removing weeds, fertilising soil, guarding for parasites. When you fail to do so bad things happen. Civilisations die. History is littered with societies that went through Ages of genius- some even became empires- and then their light went out. There’re signs that accompany such decline. We have all of them.

I’m not being pessimistic. I’m warning us that we’re on the brink. Many have heard me say this. Trinidad and Tobago experienced something majestic called a Golden Age from 1930-1950. A period of extraordinary activity when pan, mas, and calypso rose to classical forms, ethnic festivals came into their own, male ethnic secret-societies consolidated their community’s power, the trade union and independence movements blossomed.

That pioneer generation is now 75 and over—and dying. We lost 18,000 of a possible 20,000 geniuses in the last decade—failing to document and transmit skills.

During our Golden Age we were the metropolitan epicentre of a massive cultural explosion that changed the globe. Each one of the traditions from that age evolved sophisticated skills—from a King of Carnival, to a champion calypso, to the mind of a CLR James. These are not things that can be replicated by guess. Traditions survive with apprenticeship. We failed to build institutions to document, analyse, codify, and transmit this genius. It’s not present in curricula, museums, media, or anywhere in our mainstream life. It’s as if it never existed. Most youths born after 1980 have no clue of any aspect of this legacy. This is the crisis of inheritance we’re living in. It’s the reason why communities, traditions, and institutions are collapsing.

During the last administration—and the $300 billion boom—we gave government all the blueprints to institutionalise Legacy. The UTT Academy and ‘the real NAPA’ were supposed to be the vehicles for the transfer of Elder knowledge. Instead UTT concentrated on buying status by hiring foreign experts. Classical symphonic musicians were paid millions with houses and cars- whilst local Masters died in poverty with their knowledge vapourising into thin air.

Pat Bishop found herself fired and silenced for championing what was ethical and urgent.

We artists are now about to launch a rearguard action to create the missing institutions. The three projects are: Project Memory—to record biography of surviving Elders; the Guild of Masters—to pass on skill; and Grounding with the Elders—to engage the nation in questions of Inheritance.

The national question is this: “How do you sustain the gifts of the Golden Age long after the conditions on the ground that created it no longer persist?” We’re not the first people to face this question. Nations that answered it successfully have survived, those that didn’t see their civilisations collapse into husks of their former self.

Certain conditions produced classical symphonic orchestras. Europe decided it wanted to continue the tradition and created conservatories and other systems to ensure it survived beyond its Age. We must do likewise.

The greatest example of what’s going to happen if we don’t act is West Indies Cricket. West Indies fell from being the greatest team in sporting history to second to last in the cricketing world. For a decade 11 island boys beat former Empires, sub-continents, and first-world countries through indigenous skill. We failed to build the West Indies Cricket Hall of Fame and Academy.

Australia built theirs—using our Elders. Our collapse has lasted 15-plus years. Once we were able to elevate beyond third world economics to become world-beaters, now we’re third world without the science of how to transcend those limitations. Repeat this story for every tradition. That’s our future. Humiliation. Oceanic mediocrity. We have instinctive talent. We lack finishing schools. And finishing schools are everything. Finishing schools are your civilisation.

Some query my designation of certain people as geniuses. Here’re just a few who have no replacements, their passing will (and did) leave gaping national holes. We’re experiencing generational collapse in every tradition- we should be blooding second generations of these: Pat Bishop. Carlysle Chang. Leroy Clarke. Minshall. Aldwyn Chow Lin On. Ravi Ji. Kitchener. Rudder. CLR James. Shadow. Zanda. Meiling. Claudia Pegus. Winsford Devine. Genius artisans from Ramleela, Hosay, and the industrial arts. Where would we be after these losses? No youths come close. We have a year to get this right.