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Masking Fear

By Terry Joseph
January 16, 2004

The history of this country's national festival-Carnival-is littered with examples of resistance to change, suggesting that the same people who can so easily (as calypsonian Mighty Duke puts it) "Get on Radical", may well be among the world's most conservative.

It was way back in 1956 when first I discovered this widespread passion for maintaining Carnival's status quo. The scene is an Ash Wednesday night gathering in the front gallery of our Success Village home. My mother, Geraldine, standing with arms akimbo (as if her presence ever required amplification), is piloting a motion: "I want to put it to you all that calypso is now dead," she said.

Mother was, of course, referring to the intervention of The Mighty Sparrow, whose national triumph three nights earlier at Dimanche Gras upset many purists, staid in their fragile conviction that any singer who failed to repeat the opening rhyme of a calypso was per force guilty of killing the art. Geraldine's petition was carried without debate. Sparrow, however, went on to become Calypso King of the World.

As calypso evolved during the second half of the 20th Century, traditionalists expressed similar misgivings at every major change. Veterans threw a fit when Lord Shorty invented soca early in the 1970s. Kitchener, who loudly lamented that the young upstart had destroyed precious art, proceeded to establish the still-standing local record for album sales and soca's best-remembered benchmark with "Sugar Bum Bum".

Unexpected change had disoriented both Geraldine and Kitchener who, rushing to conclusion well in advance of analysis, first disqualified the experiment itself, he later raising a musical toast to Audrey's bottom and mother-at much the same time-relying on Sparrow's 1956 lyrics for suitable picong, as I dressed for a night on the town: "Is the glamour boys again, going to rule Port of Spain," she chirped.

And it has been so for more than 100 years, this annual vacillation over whether Carnival was dying or born again, if changes were for better or worse. "Fire Brigade Water the Road", an early 20th Century calypso petition for relief from dust generated by masquerade bands chipping along unpaved city streets, peacefully co-existed with protest over a 1919 attempt to alleviate the problem by moving the parade to the Queen's Park Savannah.

As the president of Pan Trinbago, Patrick Arnold and his counterpart at the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO), Michael "Protector" Legerton discovered this past week, bringing about change in Carnival has not become any easier with time-no matter how unassailable its rationale may seem in the boardroom.

Albeit for completely different reasons, Mr Legerton's expressed anxiety about the quality of recent road marches created quite a storm, although his remark was not different from widespread public opinion nor, for that matter, significantly removed from the import of a comment in the Port of Spain Gazette of Ash Wednesday 1905.

A long-standing critic of the festival, The Gazette had itself astonished readers three years earlier by changing step, defending calypsonian Pharoah when the latter was convicted of "masking prematurely" in a racially tinged matter. Now back in character, its 1905 report said in part: "Although it is not expected that effusions of the Carnival bards should excel in literary attainment, yet in many past instances, they have abounded with at least some degree of originality."

Mr Legerton's concern had to do with a contemporary situation, the extent to which already popular non-calypso music was simply being adapted to road-march tempo, imbued with quick rhyme and submitted-often successfully-for the competition's first prize; a car valued at upwards of $130,000.

Sampling, his antagonists argued, was simply a change in the method by which modern music is constructed. That change was acceptable to them, quite unlike TUCO's position on how it would disburse funds from The State and the competition's sponsors.

Mr Arnold's troubles sprung from a Pan Trinbago decision to seed orchestras in the Panorama competition, reduce their performance duration from ten to eight minutes and detail a strategy for dealing with the inordinate length of time bands took to set up on stage.

None of the bands seemed to recognise that Panorama had changed from a contest of 21 conventional orchestras in 1963 playing for a total of $2,450 in prizes, to 60 much larger bands competing in 2003 for a first prize singularly worth $320,000 and therefore required new strategies, logistics and regulations, nor did any among them address Mr Arnold's articulated concern about dwindling audiences.

We who sit, watch and listen to the sights and sounds of Carnival appreciate the effort by pan and calypso officials to finally respond to our anxieties and I, for one, feel that notwithstanding the murmur, Carnival 2004 is about to deliver much more pleasing results as a direct consequence of these sweeping changes.

But Trinidad Carnival remains the ultimate jam 'n' whine festival, one in which participants grumble and enjoy with equal gusto, forever fearful of new approaches, masking insecurity with and over-abundance of caution, debunking the long-held theory that you can't play mas and 'fraid powder.

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