Trinidad and Tobago


Faking Independence

August 29, 2001

IT’S not that I am especially fond of women in uniform, but among yesterday’s larger pleasures was a Daily Express picture of four police officers attached to Tobago’s mountain bike patrol, a group that included at least one female.

A praiseworthy project of Senior Police Superintendent Frank Diaz, what the sight of officers perched on bicycles said to me was that we are finally growing comfortable with our culture, albeit some 39 years after the attainment of political independence.

Now, don’t rush to the impression that, as a policy, I remain unmoved by women in uniform. Friday’s military parade to mark the independence anniversary, would not be quite the same without female officers.

But no matter how precise or aesthetically pleasing these military demonstrations, spectacular fireworks displays and other such trappings of national celebrations cannot, by themselves, render a country independent; if its social and cultural calibrations continue to be guided by external value-systems.

Police officers in foreign countries who wear full-length trousers do so because the greater part of each year presents temperatures that require such clothing. The very British who taught policing to its colonies designed short pants uniforms to combat tropical heat. Like their brothers and sisters in Africa and India, our cops successfully argued for the more uncomfortable option.

So, in this season of demonstrable appreciation, Snr Supt Diaz deserves some kind of award, perhaps one for bravery, for having the will to address this simple manifestation of residual colonialism. That he could also put his officers on bicycles takes the initiative to another rung.

And we must let him know this, because it seemed for more than a moment that we would never begin the process of development duly informed by our culture. Even as we complete some four decades of independence, the startling discovery comes that indigenous music amounted to less than ten per cent of the 175,000 entries aired on local radio last year.

This was the year, mark you, in which alien cultures began taking an even more serious look at the music that comes from Trinidad and Tobago. Scientists from all over the world converged on Port of Spain last year to discuss pan, players came from Europe and the US to match skills with locals.

It was also the year when Machel Montano secured a multi-million-dollar contract with Atlantic Records and a cover version of Anslem Douglas’ “Who Let the Dogs Out” became the anthem for American sporting events nationwide. Just two months ago, two Tobagonian groups took first and second places in a world contest of folk arts.

The Trini-style Carnival, troublesome as it may be in some manifestations, is spreading to cities never before contemplated, yet we have to beg—perhaps bribe—radio to play the very music that brought that about, or the several varieties available in every known genre.

Each of the 16 radio stations currently in operation has already proffered a well-thought-out excuse why it shouldn’t dedicate a larger portion of airtime to home-grown music. They have also put up equally contemplated defences for their role in exporting 75 cents from each dollar collected here as copyright fees.

Even so, the export figure is a fake in our favour, the ratio having been arrived at through extraordinary benevolence of foreign copyright administrators. As we found out, the stations do not play anywhere near 25 per cent local music on a daily basis.

And it gets worse. Come January 1, 2002, if there is no change in reality, the copyright fee split will be calculated electronically and will therefore move to our handing over 91 cents of each dollar collected locally. The princely sum of nine cents from each dollar will remain at home to run the agency and pay royalties to indigenous artistes and music producers.

So, nothing about this scandalous situation must be confused with independence. It seems clear that we prefer to finance the sustainability of cultural products from already developed countries, rather than take a chance on our own.

With Indian music programming already accounting for an appreciable slice of copyright fee haemorraghing, the other dominant tribe is pushing for a matching quantity of African music on the air. If successful (and there is no change in current programming), it would mean exporting even more than 91 cents from each dollar collected from you and me.

But meanwhile, we lustily celebrate independence, with nothing but cultural tokenism on the actual day. Indeed, just as we were developing a tradition of playing the national musical instrument on the roads on Independence night, all sorts of regulations were invoked to thwart the possibility of this kind of celebration becoming entrenched. Last year, then Finance Minister Brian Kuei Tung risked arrest for leading a peaceful steel orchestra procession into Port of Spain.

Consequently, we are left with an unconvincing definition of self-determination, one that eschews our culture for the apparently more appealing combination of an American July 4 parade and Britain’s old Guy Fawkes Day.

It is against that backdrop that I wish you all Happy Independence Day.

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