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The bottom line in Carnival

February 10, 2002
By Raffique Shah

IF anything, it should have happened last year when, in the run-up to Carnival, I was struck down by a pack of "pot hounds" (who let the dogs out?), suffered five fractured ribs, and was forced to miss out on most pre-Carnival activities. I limped my way to the Panorama preliminaries and subsequent pan shows, took in part of J'Ouvert (with friends covering my back, shielding me from bear hugs and flaying elbows), then wondered whether I was well enough to make it to Tuesday evening. I did, thanks to Shadow's "Stranger", the best Road March tune since what? Rudder's "Bahia Girl".

This time around, I've been reflecting on what passes for Trinidad Carnival today, a very pale imitation of the glory years of great lyrics, good music and colourful, imaginative costumes. For many years, traditionalists have warned that we were courting trouble by trying to imitate Rio's internationally infamous sex, skin and samba orgy. But those who understand this descent into hell are not about to rock the bikini boat, what with masquerade being driven by exposed bottoms that make bandleaders' bottom lines bigger. Our music, too, once the strength of the festival, has fallen into a black hole of banality.

So what is there to excite people like me, who, at age eight, jumped like a "wild Indian" to the compelling beat of Blakie's "Steelband Clash"? In the calypso arena, 2002 is certainly no 1979, one of the "golden years" of the art form. Among the top bards, few have maintained the standard that we have grown to expect from them. When I look at the lineup for tonight's Calypso Monarch title, I see a straight 18-18 clash-meaning a showdown between the PNM's Sugar Aloes and the UNC's Gypsy. With no offence to these two outstanding calypsonians, or, indeed, to Chalkdust, Stalin, Shadow, Rudder and Denyse Plummer, few are enjoying more than an ordinary year.

If there is hope for the art form, it lies with young singers. I write of artistes like Heather McIntosh, Raymond "Patches" Patrick (his "Tribute to Sparrow" is excellent), Devon Seales, Roger George, and a few others whose names and songs I do not now remember. And much the way Shadow stormed the "party" last year, showing the "wave yuh rag" crowd how an inane refrain could be transformed into a musical gem, Andre Tanker has injected life, lyrics and oomph into this year's party offerings with "Ben Lion".

It's good to see "The Tank" back on the scene, more so in Carnival, and with a stirring piece that is chockfull of rhythm. If he and 3-Canal do not make it onto the road come Carnival days, blame it on the "soca controllers". In the tents, one has to put up with varying volumes of "tatah" before you get a few good songs that make the long nights worth it. And really, while comedy has always had a place in our culture, I don't know what pass for "laugh tents" are more than re-runs of age-old jokes dressed up in new millennium jackets. They remind me of the old television series "Sanford and Son" that currently enjoys prime billing on a local station, "Fred" being long dead, and "Lamond" now an old geezer.

On the musical side of the Carnival, all is not lost, though. Panorama underwent radical surgery this year. Judging bands in the preliminary rounds at their panyards was a step in the right direction. There were many flaws in the first run-confusion over actual judging times, abrupt changes in venues, and so on. But I'm sure these teething problems could be ironed out within a year. Pan Trinbago officials must have noted the large crowds that followed the judges around, hence the prospects for bands earning some money from this venture.

To tell the truth, though, and this from someone who has not missed a Panorama in close to 30 years, the "Savannah party" has become very boring. Except for diehard supporters, few among the thousands who make the annual pilgrimage for pan actually listen to what the bands play. Really, while Preacher's "Dulahin" is melodious, how many damn "dulahins" can one take on in the space of a few hours? It's a pity that this one-tune show still dominates our pan culture, that people feel there is no pan without Panorama, and worse, that pan exists only during Carnival.

In fact, Carnival has all but sidelined pan, and I must salute the few enterprising souls who strive to give the national instrument its rightful place in the festival. Panyard concerts, even the few that were held early last week, are also a Mecca for pan music lovers. Let us not, however, love it to death by carrying on noisily as the bands play repertoires that would keep audiences riveted to their seats in the best concert halls in the world. But my people, as Composer would ask, what do they do? Greet "pardners" loudly, carry on across-the-street conversations, and generally make so much noise, unless you get close to the band you don't even know what tune it's playing.

Incidentally, I believe it was a good decision to postpone the Pan In The 21st Century competition until Easter. Spread out the music, man. As for mas', outside of the main costumes (kings and queens, where they exist), there is nothing to look at. If one's interest is watching "wining bumsees", both male and female, then you'd enjoy the NCBA fare. I often wonder how the judges determine that "Legends" is better than "Barbarossa" or "Poison". But I don't intend to be a spoiler, or be dubbed a "grumpy old man" who has had his fun-and now wants to "diss" others as they enjoy themselves.

Let the Carnival be. For the first time in my life, though, I am not sure I'll be there for the duration of the bacchanal. I can assure readers it's not for lack of energy. It's because I wonder what the hell I'm doing, suffering in the sun, waiting for some gravel-voiced "singers" (inverted commas deliberate) commanding me to "raise yuh han', wave yuh rag". Really, that's not my idea of fun or calypso or Carnival. I resent some two-bit excuse-for-a-singer issuing orders to me. Sorry, fella(s), you don't outrank me.

But the show goes on. From tonight, the Merry Monarch reigns. And not because I'm not excited I expect others to follow suit. Play mas'. And keep the festival as clean as is possible, given the volume of alcohol that is consumed during those 48 hours.

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