“Listen, here’s what. We don’t want no chants and all that. All we want is a little drum rhythm, something simple …”
We stood there trying to pretend that we were not stunned by the aggression of the response. Our group had been asked to provide music for an important family event, so we consulted with experts from the African continent, discussed what we would wear and what chants we would sing. Turns out, all they really wanted was entertainment and not a performance that was culturally meaningful.
I tried to remove the emotion from the situation. In a nation of such diverse cultural and ethnic emanations, what explains our continuing inability to be culturally sensitive? I delved further, because this week we learned that more than 100 European tour operators may come to our country next year, to explore and market our “destination.”
Already, we are benefitting from the natural disasters that have rendered other Caribbean nations incapable of pursuing their lucrative tourism industries. More cruise ships, more visitors, more potential for foreign exchange and the diversification we so desperately need.
But what are the implications for our culture? The jargon of the tourism industry speaks volumes. What do we present to the “visitors” and how will it be “packaged” so we can “market” ourselves? In other words, to what extent do we ensure that our culture functions as a viable commodity to generate the financial results for our economy?
Alexis Bunten offers a fascinating exploration of the “commodification of culture and heritage” as it relates to Native American culture. While efforts are made to preserve fundamental respect for native culture, she points to the negative consequences of oversimplification of cultural practices, and placing emphasis on the exotic.
She writes, while “meeting authentic Alaskans is high on the priority lists of most people visiting the state, the average tourist is unlikely to encounter Native culture unmediated by tourism.”
Our own organisation has experienced this need to mediate culture. We have had to deal with the preference of some event organisers to present a politically-correct version of our history to avoid offending audiences, sponsors and other stakeholders.
It is a delicate balance to strike. Naturally, if we wish to share aspects of Indian, African or other cultures, it would be more impactful to wear indigenous dress and use the necessary costumes and props to put on a memorable show. However, problems arise when marketing needs cause communities to cater to perceived customer expectations of non-Western cultural forms.
“Standardisation is part and parcel …of high-volume tourism … the industry requires a reliable product that meets universal standards …” The result is that “sameness” eventually erodes the distinguishing features of our culture and heritage that set us apart in the first place.
Our Carnival is perhaps the most glaring example of this dilemma. The discussion has now extended beyond TT to diaspora communities who put on carnivals influenced by our model.
The renewed debate surrounding the viability of major festivals such as Notting Hill or Caribana is not surprising. As with our Carnival here, the core ideology behind the masquerade has largely become lost in a carefully constructed alternative reality, motivated by market forces and managed by those clever enough to seize the opportunity.
In the work of our organisation, we resolve never to just pong a drum, wave a chac-chac or jok our waist in time to market forces. When it comes to our culture, can policymakers follow the necessary path of resistance? It is a question that must be answered quickly, before this too spirals out of our control.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN