The descent of Carnival

Barbados Nation
March 8, 2000

CARNIVAL is you, Carnival is me.

As the season closes in that Carnival feeling, particularly after an enjoyable night at one of the tents or making that grand lime at the Panorama preliminaries, gets into the system and the ghosts of Carnivals past seem, magically, to come alive.

The Trinidad Carnival (as Peter Minshall loves to call it) still remains very much Trinidadian-a festival in which prince and pauper become involved; the Prime Minister's wife playing in Poison; the top business executive making a total fool of himself jumping up in a dress in a Jouvert band. However, Carnival tastes are changing and the festival is clearly in descent as far as artistry is concerned and the glorious era of pierrot grenades, long nose sailor, the midnight robber and the creativity of the George Baileys, Harold Saldenahs, Ken Morrises et al is swiftly disappearing; notwithstanding Minshall and Wayne Berkeley.

If, as Minshall claims, our Carnival has descended to "trashy Las Vegas" or represents the "dregs of Western culture" with male and female masqueraders appearing, annually, in what looks, suspiciously, like recycled costumes then at best it is the American homogenised fast food paradigm-unappetising, well-packaged rubbish.

But the people like it, particularly women who claim that the less they wear publicly, the more fun they have. And that Carnival is all about having a good time.

Masmen are now talking about a Carnival museum, but can we place the isty bitsy costumes from Poison or Barbarossa, bands which look like each other year after year, in any museum? What is there in any of these bands for future generations to marvel at?

What is there in such bands to teach potential masmen, apart from how to access feathers or how to get a good bargain on bikinis or leotards? People have also pointed to the same artistic deterioration in what masquerades as calypso or soca nowadays.

The singers pay little attention to lyrics or musical structure: it's all about rhythm, a frenzied, cacophonous sped-up jab jab beat sometime with an electronically filched melody (euphemistically referred to as sampling) and simple words anyone can remember like "wave your rag", "put your hand in the air","jump" etc.

"Is pure racthifee on the radio", sings Rootsman describing the decline of calypso. It may, however, be perfect music for the aerobic input of physical fitness gyms and at an all-night fete a foolproof way of people shedding a few unwanted pounds. The current horrid hybrid also matches the lack of creativity in mas presentations and, similarly, it is difficult to remember the lyrics of last year's Road March or even the music. If one remembers the music, can one whistle or hum it like one can still do with those great Road Marches of the fifties, sixties and the seventies?

Just as Poison or Legends or Barbarossa cannot claim to be lineal descendants of Bailey or Saldenah, in the same way, today's young calypsonians cannot be considered heirs to Kitchener's fabulous heritage.

Which dancehall soca exponent has the potential to compose a piece of music like "Pan in A Minor" or "Bees Melody"? Which ragga soca singer can pen lyrics that can come close to anything calypso poet laureate David Rudder, Black Stalin, Chalkdust or Wynsford Des Vignes have written? They are, basically, responding to the demands of the marketplace with no pretence, whatsoever, to artistic quality: the credo being that whatever sells is good. Like Coca Cola, KFC, Nike, Carib beer or denim, soca and mas are all about popular taste; what is in fashion and "what town say".

Should one, therefore, conclude that the masses right and the culture purists wrong? The last century established popular culture with its own ethos, which was often awful, and spawned its own economy-Hollywood and rock music being the two principal examples-thereby, for the first time, in recorded history, creating a viable market for culture and entertainment. Singers, actors, musicians, writers, promoters, bankers and even businessmen outside of the entertainment economy (for instance, those involved in transport, taxation or food) benefited from this new industry.

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival and calypso have mutated and created their own mass market.

The product may be appalling but it has its own legitimacy and at the end of the day one cannot legislate against bad taste.

That is one way of looking at it: another way is that, in any field of activity, no case can possibly be made for the lowering of standards and our artistes have to understand this.

They have to acknowledge the towering contribution made by Saldenah, Bailey, Lee Heung, Minshall and others in mas and Kitchener, Sparrow, Lion, Rudder, Stalin et al in calypso and, therefore, their responsibility to build on these high standards rather than to simply acquiesce to the dictates of the market.