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Carnival controversy

February 21, 2001
By Raffique Shah

CARNIVAL without bacchanal is like pelau without peas. Can anyone recall the last time that at least one of the many components that combine to make our Carnival was not mired in controversy? I’d be happy to hear from the octogenarian (well, that had to be in the 1930s or 40s!) who remembers a trouble-free Trinidad Carnival. Luckily for us, we have never allowed the perennial problems that plague the biggest national festival to deny us having a good time. What infuriates me, though, is that while we, the public, have learnt to accept that the “carnival controllers” will always find something to squabble over, after almost 100 years of staging Carnival they battle over basic things like the venue for Panorama finals.

Let us for the purposes of this column forget the fight over financing the festival. That will always be problematic. Governments will never agree on the indirect revenues that flow from Carnival, hence what money should be ploughed into it. And what little they do give is often misappropriated or misspent, with the “controllers” using much of it to massage their egos and line their pockets, while those who give so generously of their time, skills and talents, pannists, arrangers, wire-benders, calypsonians, artists, musicians, get little or nothing in return. But that, I guess, is the story of the world today, not necessarily only of Carnival.

Why, though, on the eve of Panorama finals, must there be confusion over where the show is to be held? Even as Patrick Arnold and his executive fumed and threatened to take the competition “down south”, those of us who appreciate pan music and understand the significance of the finals knew it would end up in the Savannah. Sure, Pan Trinbago has a point regarding the timing of the Junior Carnival, the problems associated with its timing and the mess that the venue is usually left in. And that mere hours before one of the three biggest attractions for the season in terms of patrons (the others being Panorama preliminaries and Dimanche Gras), more so tourists, is staged.

The main problem here is that while the population has grown significantly over the past 50 years, with a consequential growth in the numbers of participants in the various parades and competitions that make Carnival, our venues have remained stagnant. The Savannah, with its limited seating capacity, is still the Mecca for all shows. Everyone who is associated with the festival wants to perform in the “Big Yard”, where, outside the stage itself, is big only if one considers the entire Savannah, and not just the small portion that’s allocated for Carnival activities.

There is a downside to the Savannah that few among the “controllers” bother about, and which, I believe, they will never come to terms with. Of the scores of Carnival-related events staged there, how many are profitable? How many attract the numbers of patrons that make the shows financially viable? And if the money-losing shows prove to be the majority (yes, they are), what have the “controllers” done to reverse the trend? Besides Panorama preliminaries, and you can count only on the Sunday to have capacity crowds, there are few shows that merit being in the “Big Yard”. The Schools’ Panorama attracts its own crowd (although I don’t know that the young patrons pay), as do Dimanche Gras and the pan finals. Oh, there are, too, the few “clashes” between calypso tents, but those are private ventures.

Outside of these, the Savannah can be a “ghost village”, and that for some very good shows. The pan North Zonal Finals, held last week Thursday night there, saw a very small paying audience taking in what proved to be music of a very high quality, much better than what obtained at the preliminaries. The South Finals features fewer bands but bigger crowds, and therein lies a lesson for Pan Trinbago. The semi-finals last Sunday (I am writing this piece before the show) will have also seen quality performances by the bands. But the “North Stand Posses” that brave batons and pitbulls to crowd the stand on the previous Sunday will not have been there-at least not in as large numbers as the previous Sunday.

And so it goes for the few remaining days. The masqueraders who have spent big bucks to make elaborate costumes for the King and Queen of Carnival preliminaries parade before close-to-empty stands. There is some improvement in the finals on Carnival Friday, but that’s marginal. The Calypso Category Finals, another decent show, plays to an empty house. Skip Saturday and Sunday, when the two big competitions are held. On Carnival Monday, the Savannah is also sparsely patronised. Clearly, the time has long passed when the “controllers” should have reviewed these grim statistics and re-deployed some of these shows. The NACC has moved its main competitions to smaller but more comfortable venues, and I am certain they enjoy some profits from their ventures. Instead of having 16 “Children’s Carnival”, why can’t the organisers of these events seek to merge some and host fewer parades or competitions at venues that are more children-friendly? Would the North Zone Pan Finals, staged in a concert format, not be more lucrative, not to add enjoyable, at the Jean Pierre Complex? Why not take the ex-tempo and humorous calypso competition to, say, the Rienzi Complex in Couva, since people in Central Trinidad are starved for good entertainment?

Look, I know that there have been experiments in changing venues that have gone awfully wrong. One example was when the East Zone Pan Finals competition was held at the Expo Park in the middle-of-a-highway. That same show in the Arima Velodrome might have done much better, since East Trinidad, like Central and South, does not enjoy its fair share of the many shows that make the festival. And decentralisation should not be limited to far-flung districts. Right in Port of Spain, if the “controllers” are creative and have the means to promote their events, they can find venues that they can fill, and where they can make profits.

But such deviation from what has been the norm for decades, calls for creative thinking among the “controllers”, which is asking for too much. Every sector of Carnival has its bosses, and that’s what they want to function as–bosses. They will give no quarter, nor will they be inclined to accept change, especially if the suggestions come from outside their command posts. It matters not that they are driving patrons away from their shows, that one-time Carnival devotees are heading for the beaches instead of the bleachers. They have already slaughtered costumery in the mas’ bands. The only reason pan has survived–nay, improved–is because of the devotion of the management committees of most bands, their year-round initiatives to keep their players together, and also because of young players who have taken to the instrument like ducks to water.

The latest row between Pan Trinbago and the NCBA over the staging of the Junior Carnival on the same day, and at the same venue, with the Panorama Finals, is symptomatic of a deep malaise that has been adversely affecting our single biggest tourist attraction for much too long. If we do not deal with the culprits decisively (we know who they are: they have been the “controllers” for years), then they may deal our Carnival the death blow.

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