“I think we need to stop thinking of it as a February construct. February is the peak period for international arrivals...but it is not translating into year-round occupancy. Carnival is a product that should be year-round.”
– Brian Frontin, Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association
I CAN already hear the collective gasps of those who think that Carnival is just a party. Or that it is “against God,” or can barely wait for it to be over so we can “get back to work.”
Earlier this week, we met the principal of a primary school who believes in the transformative nature of Carnival. We were talking to her about supporting our Carnival band for children.
She listened to us, smiled and said, “You don’t need to sell me. I’ve been doing this for years. Parents would ask me if we’re having Carnival jump-up this year and I would say no. No jump-up. We’re doing Carnival projects because I see the value of it to teach social studies, English and even maths.”
I had never met this amazing person before so I resisted my urge to shout “yes” in her office. But you must understand. In the more than 15 years of incorporating Carnival and theatre arts into our community programmes, I have never, not once, heard a head of a school articulate the value of our Carnival in this way.
It has taken 50 years for an announcement to be made about the inclusion of steel pan in all schools and the introduction of calypso as a teaching and empowering tool. Since the 1970s, calypsonian Chalkdust laid out in clear terms the ways in which Carnival and other elements of our culture may be incorporated into the curriculum in a motivating and transformative way.
I get it. Too many of our leaders are still mired in the confines of colonial thinking. This was designed to devalue indigenous culture and arts in favour of “mother country” practices. Thus, we have still not provided enough educators with the tools to embrace the arts and impart knowledge using techniques beyond their traditional blackboards.
There are other challenges with our inconsistent approach. The sluggishness with which we dealt with calypso and pan is reflected in our inability to understand how “disruptive technologies” have been affecting the earning potential of Carnival. For instance, have we even begun to process the impact of Airbnb on hotel and guest house occupancy?
Although we always welcomed visitors into our homes, today there are possibilities for private citizens to have paying guests, facilitated by a structured and digitised format. This type of disruptive practice impacts occupancy and the potential of hotels to receive foreign exchange or generate enough capital to maintain properties, hire staff, support local farmers and so on.
Further, we have not quite worked out how to convert the euphoria of Carnival into a year-round opportunity for small businesses, artists and other stakeholders. As Brian Frontin pointed out, although September is the lowest period for arrivals, we still have to develop a synergy between tourist arrivals, hotel occupancy and the band launch season. Worse, to date there is no Carnival museum or a philosophically-driven Carnival village.
Perhaps our biggest shame is the non-existence of a state-of-the-art teaching and performance institute for pan, the only percussive instrument invented in the 20th century and an integral aspect of orchestras and university teaching programmes across the globe.
For the most part, conversations about Carnival as an ongoing pursuit have not been driven by successive administrations, but by business interests. The current management structure is part of the challenge.
A national festival should be spearheaded by the government, but its role goes beyond co-ordination of infrastructure, competitions and routes through the cities. It is the government’s responsibility to guide special interests about where their “interests” end and that of the people begin, and not the reverse.
Further, any post-Ash Wednesday philosophy must be created for the benefit of all, not dominated or driven by a few.
However, before this vision is realised, key elements within the state machinery need to stop seeing Carnival as just a party or a temporary state of existence before we return to normal. Eventually, we must accept that this creativity is our normal. If not, we risk paying a bigger price if we wait another 50 years to give our Carnival the respect it deserves.
Carnival all year round is not just a good idea; it is a socio-economic imperative. Just ask Miss.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN