Carnival lessons from Barbados
August 8, 2001
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UPON returning from Paris last year, rudely dismissive responses met my suggestion that Trinidad and Tobago's self-anointing as "The Home of Pan" could face a serious challenge from European steel orchestras.
Indeed, such was the standard of music at the Parc de la Villette, that when those bands came here for the October playoffs, the fourth-placed orchestra at the Paris contest, Switzerland's Panch 2000 topped the first of two nights of semi-finals, sending "The Home of the Pan" into a tailspin.
From Northern Illinois University came another provocation to this title Trinidad and Tobago had long considered unassailable and as if to further irritate the wound, celebrated pan innovator Ellie Mannette was in town, telling of strides being made at other learning institutions in the US and Canada.
Concurrently, at the International Conference of Science and Technology of the Steelpan, engineers from around the world were in "The Home of Pan", exchanging notes with practitioners about ongoing research and development of what is, let me remind you, the national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.
Clearly, other people had been studying pan, noting its behaviour in academic terms, classifying physical properties and generally adding value to the instrument by using it as a tool for teaching music from primary to tertiary levels. In short, they were hastening its otherwise slothful evolution, while we fiddled for six weeks annually, dedicating the rest of each year to painstakingly polishing the banner of global pan supremacy.
That myth reduced to a desperate hunt for palliatives, this country shored up its confidence of Carnival leadership, by citing unshakable sovereignty in soca music and mas. After all, losing Trinidad Carnival's major attractions to countries once laughed away for amateurish attempts to copy "The Greatest Show on Earth" would mean unspeakable humiliation.
But having spent last weekend in Barbados taking in the climax of their Crop Over Festival, it also became clear to me that Trinidad and Tobago's legendary lead in soca and mas had at least been significantly reduced.
For some time now, names like Allison Hinds, Red Plastic Bag, Gabby, TC, Ras Iley and Edwin Yearwood have been familiar to Trinis. Last weekend I added Oshaka, Andy "Blood" Armstrong, Carolann and Adrian Clarke to the list of Barbadian soca singers that can now safely hold their own onstage alongside counterparts from The Land of Calypso.
At Monday's Grand Kadooment parade, there were other pleasant surprises, not the least of which was a programme that stuck to its promise, with 16 bands fielding some 12,000 masqueraders, the island's highest participation ever, justifying Barbadian pride in its mas as well.
The presentation of Mas Mania by the Power X Four band, although staged by Trinidadian leaders of the Legends mas organisation, eclipsed even what is possible for them here. And after adjudication at the stadium, masqueraders danced through the streets of Bridgetown to Spring Garden, unhindered by invasions of uncostumed revellers.
Since 1999, Barbados passed legislation making it unlawful for uncostumed persons to disrupt the aesthetics of mas bands or the enjoyment of those who paid to play, a law that has so far taken no prisoners.
Insisting that Crop Over is "more than a carnival" and "sweet for days", the Barbados Tourism Authority spent millions marketing its prime product internationally. The BTA hosted 75 foreign journalists for the extended weekend, many of whom sent live reports via radio, television and the Internet back to stations in other Caribbean islands, the US and UK.
Visitor arrivals over the two-week period of the Crop Over Festival now exceeds that of winter months, formerly the island's best tourist season. And at every sequence, hospitality was the agreed attitude of Bajans.
It was, to my mind, yet another lesson about how tourist attractions should be handled. The core product might not yet outshine Trinidad Carnival, but it is clearly on course for providing visitors to the Caribbean with an alternative that would leave them no less fulfilled.
Quite unfortunately, no T&T Carnival or local tourism official was on hand to assess the strength of competition that Crop Over has become.
Probably, like the rest of the people here who believe our festival simply cannot be outdone, they were at home dismissing the Bajan attempt, inadvertently repeating that crucial part of our experience with the European steel orchestras.