Trinidad and Tobago


Land of the free

June 20, 2001

BEING away from the executive level of commercial show production for more than a decade, I had hoped the interim would have cured us of wanting to enjoy top-drawer entertainment for free.

To say I was wrong is the short version of a very large disappointment experienced over this past week, as persons who should know better kept begging for free tickets to an event with which I was associated.

Among them were many who seemed comfortably able to afford astonishingly expensive cars, linen shirts, tailored dresses and designer outfits that virtually redefined haute couture.

Either from experience or through bold initiatives, there was no beating around the bush. Some were frighteningly forward: “Can I get two complimentary tickets to the dance?’’ Apart from being land of the free, Trinidad and Tobago can now also lay a confident claim to being home of the brave.

Mark you, a few were sheepish, begging for tickets on the basis of hard times clashing with a continuing interest in calypso. Others, perhaps out of sheer frequency of such requests, actually shortened the term to “comps’’, suggesting a certain familiarity with the process.

Now, this was a charity affair, with part proceeds publicly pledged to the cause. As a parry, it didn’t cut the thrust of freebie-seekers. None among them asked about the cost of staging the event, indicating disinterest in anything but their own welfare.

It was a throw back to my several years on the boards of the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) and its successor, the National Carnival Commission (NCC). Unprovoked, successive administrators of the festival annually gave away some 2,000 tickets for each major Carnival show at the Queen’s Park Savannah. When the figure was eventually reduced to 900 “comps’’ per event, members of the Board actually toasted the improvement.

It’s a Trini thing, they tell me, to get entertainment for free. The fact that artistes live by their talents, or that a standby generator costs $1,500 per show whether you use it or not, doesn’t faze the freeloaders.

Now, no one asks a neurosurgeon for a “freeco’’ or even a discount, perhaps out of respect for that particular type of profession, or concern that the doctor might perform a job precisely equal to the amount tendered.

Barbers too are seldom underpaid, because an “oops’’ could result in the type of zaug that takes weeks to repair. Taxi drivers might be short-changed sometimes, but always by prior agreement and people are deathly afraid of attempting to cheat those who serve them food.

But just say you’re throwing a fete and out of the woodwork they come, asking for free tickets as if it were a constitutional right then, dependent on warmth of reception, they ask for more.

Pan has provided us with one of the more dramatic examples of this national malaise. After years of having the single-pan bands parade downtown for the preliminaries of the annual panorama competition at no cost to the public, Pan Trinbago moved the contest to the Grand Stand at the Queen’s Park Savannah for the 1999 contest and attempted to charge a minimal fee.

Of the 15,000 who attended when it was free on the street, more than 90 per cent simply vanished, leaving a pitifully small group at the venue. Recognising defeat, Pan Trinbago has since repatriated the event to the city streets and the freeness continues.

When talk first arose about charging a $10 entrance fee to the track area for the preliminary round of conventional orchestra competition, objectors cited wickedness as the inspiration.

Mark you, the value of the entertainment is not in dispute. If it were, no one would want to see it even for free. It is because the freeloaders know its worth they seek to enjoy it at no cost, thinking only about the bargain.

Interestingly, the syndrome kicks in more so for local entertainment. When Buju Banton or Shaggy comes to town, somehow there seems to be a greater respect for their art, resulting in reduced demand for freeness.

It must therefore be a feeling that whatever is produced here is either sub-standard or should be offered freely. Since pan and calypso is “we ting’’, a weird logic develops, one that says we should not pay for it.

Taken to its most outrageous conclusion, promoters will stage entertainment events and simply open the doors to all comers then, from their own pockets, pay the artistes and ancillary service providers.

The belief that we are owed these services is apparently quite difficult to erase. People who jump into Carnival bands, oblivious to the financial arrangement between costumed masqueraders and the music producers do so on the same basis of freeness and argue that it is only snobbery on the part of the bandleader that makes him mad at such incursions.

Just how the public will arrive at the realisation that this style cannot continue is really anyone’s guess, given the firmly entrenched behaviour.

Perhaps an appeal to the parasites on the basis of empathy might work, since slaves and indentured servants were once subjected to unpaid performance and no one really wants to think of our artistes in quite the same light.

But then when we look through our history, the word “free’’ holds great significance. All we need to do now is confine its usage to democratic and trading principles and not abuse the concept by stretching it to include such blatant devaluation of arts and entertainment.

And such maturity should cost very little. In fact, it could be had for free.

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