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Raffique Shah


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Killing Carnival not so softly

February 26, 2006
By Raffique Shah

WHEN I note the many fiascoes that bedevil our Carnival celebrations every year, and this for at least two decades now, I often wonder what obtained during the days when there was little organisation (and fewer organisations) and more freedom for those whose talents were critical to making ours the best Carnival in the world. Somehow I suspect our predecessors enjoyed the festival much more than we do today. I also think that we have ended up over-regulating what was meant to be a period of abandon, hence all the bottlenecks and ultra-marathon shows that precede Carnival days, and the chaos that rules on the actual days.

Take the calypso component of the festival. A semi-final that ran for almost nine hours really, how did we reach this sorry pass? Time was when Skinner Park was considered the Mecca of Calypso, since the belief was that one got many more bards performing at their best than in the finals. As I recall it, that competition always finished by 7 p.m. to allow the competitors to fulfill their other obligations. This year it ran from around 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Little wonder the judges left out a few calypsonians who deserved to be in the finals: how the hell did TUCO expect them to remain alert for that lengthy time-span? Ever since "props" were allowed, they have been turned into full skits in instances, or complete side-shows in others, and they add to the delays.

Because no one thought of pruning this show, it has become a bore for all but diehard fans of the art form. I disagree to a point with fellow columnist Terry Joseph, as well as TUCO president Protector, that the songs were all "funeral dirges". True, many calypsonians believe that social and political commentaries must be as boring as politicians' speeches, hence the turn-off. And I need add that their composers believe that a formula that works one year will forever remain attractive to audiences and judges. But can one really refer to Skatie's "Picture Picture" as a dirge? It's up-tempo and yet it's a masterful political and social commentary, as are Luta's "Foundation" and several other songs. Another point: do we really need to have finalists sing two songs for the title when, in the main, they all rely on one of their renditions to win?

Pan has followed suit, though mercifully, not with respect to the quality of the instruments and players' talent. Where they have fallen short, or rather, taken us into the realm of the concert-hall music, is when the all-important "arrangers" stray so far from the melodies, they lose their audiences (and possibly some pannists), most of whom, like me, judge their performances by ear. Last week I referred to All Stars playing Scrunter's "Woman On The Bass" in 1980, as one of the memorable moments in the history of Panorama. I can add to that Renegades (okay, so ah bias!) interpretation of Baron's "Somebody" in 1989, Despers playing "Musical Volcano" in 1991 and Oba's "In My House" in 1999, as well as Clive Bradley's interpretation of Rudder's "High Mas" with Nutones in 1998. In the latter, which I listened to over and again as this band did its final rehearsal outside Memorial Park, "Brados" did not stray much from the beautiful melody that King David composed.

This year I wondered who came up with the "bright" idea of staging semi-finals for all three categories of pan on one day/night. It was an almost painful exercise. Few fans will have remained in the Savannah for the entire competition. And as I write this (Carnival Friday), I don't know what's in store for the finals on Saturday night. If the organisers have no consideration for the mass audience who must endure these marathon sessions, they should at least have pity for the poor pannists, many of whom are children. Worse for those who enjoy pan music is that after Saturday night we can virtually kiss good-bye to pan for the rest of the Carnival. In fact, those bands that fail to make it past the different stages of the competition just "park up" for the remainder of the season.

As for the rest of the festival, what is there to say? But for a few mas band leaders who are trying to restore some creativity that gave us our uniqueness in an ever-expanding global arena of carnivals, there is little to look at by way of costumes, and even less by way of good music. We are bottoming out or maybe I should say our Carnival bottoms are dragging perilously close to the road. Check on the number of people who stay away from most of the shows, who no longer patronise calypso tents, who even travel abroad for the long weekend. And they are not all "old fogeys". Nothing short of radical surgery will save our Carnival from a slow, painful death.