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Raffique Shah


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At that price we expect nothing but the best...

By Raffique Shah
November 15, 2009

It's most columnists' nightmare, having to return to a topic he or she will have dealt with recently. It gets worse when the target is a politician, matters not what side of the divide he or she is on. They never look into their mirrors and wonder why writers focus on them. They conclude you are against them, that you support their enemies, hence your criticisms.

But, as I learned early in my many years of writing opinion pieces, you write and be damned; if you fail to address burning issues, readers conclude you are on somebody's payroll. There are so many important matters I wish to address, to have my fellow citizens focus on. Sadly, because of the insensitivity of our politicians, I have to forego serious issues and zero my computer on Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

Last week, amidst much fanfare, the $500 million Performing Arts Centre was officially opened. Based on images I saw in the media of both the interior and exterior of this edifice, clearly it's a work of art. The PM claimed it is superior to the Sydney Opera House and better than many similar facilities elsewhere in the developed world.

I cannot challenge him on that statement since I have never been to any of these exclusive concert halls. Indeed, I may never sit on the inside of ours-even though as a taxpayer, I think I own at least quarter-of-a-tile somewhere near the toilets. Still, what did we expect to get for $500 million? A cowshed? A North Stand with velvet chairs?

At that price we expect nothing but the best. With seating accommodation in the main auditorium restricted to 1,500, and with all the supporting facilities outlined, we are talking about a structure that cost close to $10,000 per square foot. So why are these ungrateful sods-on-the-street griping about a showpiece edifice, something we should all be proud of?

Isn't it ironical that even as the Centre was formally opened, promoters of our culture and members of the steelband and mas fraternity are wondering where different aspects of next year's Carnival will be hosted? We boast about our Carnival being the 'greatest show on earth'. The PM is among those who bask in the glow of our musical talents, pan being the centrepiece, with calypso, chutney, a variety of dances and mas making us a multi-cultural showcase.

Do any of these art art forms have a place at the $500 million Centre? No, they don't. That centre is ideally suited for operatic performances, for concerts by groups like the Marionettes Chorale, for intimate musical performances or high-end steelband concerts.

How many of these do we have? If there are more than 30 in a year I'd be surprised. Theatre in Trinidad is limited to small audiences, as playwright/actor Raymond Choo Kong pointed out. Opera-type performances are fewer, with audiences that can easily be accommodated at Queen's Hall, a short walk from the Centre.

In other words, Mr Manning and his government built an arts centre that is wholly unsuited to our culture! Ours is a 'jump and wine' society. People attend shows, be they pan performances or soca and reggae concerts when they can 'play themselves'. At any of these chutney or soca shows, audiences do not sit quietly in their seats and politely applaud. Our audiences are very much part of the performances. Indeed, at times members of the audience outperform the artistes on stage.

That is the stark reality of our culture. We cannot escape it by funding and foisting on them Divine Echoes. We would be fools to think we can get Trinis to sit quietly and listen to Iwer George or Machel Montano. Even when relatively laid-back artistes like David Rudder or Mungal Patasar or Relator perform, our people want to 'roll dat bum bum', as Shadow sang.

So what Mr Manning spent so much of our time and money to deliver, while it looks impressive, has no place in real Trini-culture. With mere weeks to go before Carnival fetes descend on us (forget Christmas-that gone already!), tens of thousands who cannot wait for the real national festival have no idea where they would be doing what they love best: jamming, waving flags and rags.

Common sense would have guided a good government to consult with stakeholders and construct a proper Carnival Centre as a priority, especially after the Savannah facilities were demolished. I should add that as someone involved in sports, I fully support the exclusion of huge Carnival or other cultural events from our major stadiums. My friends in the culture-circle fail to understand that the track and field season starts in January, and they cannot deny our athletes, who bring glory to their country, the only training and racing facilities they have.

I agree with Mr Manning's suggestion that these promoters be given (for free!) a part of the Savannah to host their monster-parties. But that does not excuse the folly of a government that would construct a glass-and-velvet-elephant at a humungous price-tab, while ignoring the needs of our artistes and cultural ambassadors.

That is rank stupidity-nothing more, nothing less.

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