Regional Carnival may be on the decline but some stakeholders agree that it is not dying.
Some events are seeing a growth in spectators and participants due to creative initiatives by organisers, such as introducing new activities on the Carnival calendar.
Dr Jo-anne Tull, lecturer, and coordinator of the University of the West Indies’ Carnival Studies programme agreed that over the years there had been fewer regional Carnival events, fewer or smaller prizes, and calls for bandleaders to become more self-reliant.
Some large bands pulled out of a few regional carnivals, she said, because of a lack of funding or uncertainty of what they would get as prizes.
One of the reasons for the decline, she said, is the clash between the perception and reality of regional Carnival.
She said the reality is that, because of the country’s “recessive economic context,” the government does not have as much money to allocate to regional Carnivals. She said softer issues, like culture, is often overlooked when compared to other areas such as trade and health.
“Then it goes beyond that because there is the perception that Carnival is what happens in Port of Spain. We see that play out even in the realms of governance where tourism policy would go in the direction of PoS as the epicentre of this mas. So where the pie has to be broken up, there are times where the outliers, regional Carnival and San Fernando masquerade, would see less of that pie.”
She said regional Carnival tends to produce more traditional mas which could be considered “quality mas” and “the real thing” so people assume the government would always support it.
Some traditional mas bandleaders, Tull said, believe since they are rendering traditions, and because it is community-oriented, it is the government’s responsibility to support them. People in the private sector have the same idea and so sponsorship becomes a low priority for them.
“And why is this happening? Really, the absence of policy. There is no real policy in terms of what should get funding, the array of Carnival, what would be a high or low priority, criteria, and so forth.”
She said there are systems in place with the National Carnival Commission (NCC), which is governed by an act of Parliament. She said there needs to be a clearer and more consistent policy communicated to all instead of it changing from year to year.
“The fact is that the policy itself has not been crafted in a way that would ensure a particular kind of sustainability that would, in turn, encourage the longevity of these particular forms of Carnival.”
She said these issues had been around for years. She recalled about five ago, during a strategic analysis workshop with some regional Carnival stakeholders, the same challenges were highlighted.
Tull said there are committee members who are passionate about regional Carnival and who do not have a problem putting in the money to develop it. However, they still need money to showcase the mas and get it out on the road or in a show. She said the uncertainty about allocation forces them to stay in a box, and let go of some of the ideas or events to ensure something else happens. She added that if the economy continues as it has, the subventions will continue to decrease.
Opportunities for growth
However, Tull said these challenges could be seen as an opportunity for the stakeholders to be more innovative in both creative and business aspects. She said the regional Carnival committees regard themselves as community-engagement and engendering entities so they should come together to make a product that works beyond Carnival, such as community-based museums or wire-bending workshops.
“Carnival then becomes the climax, so to speak, of whatever may have happened in the year before.”
She said a lot of the mas produced are traditions in certain communities. Therefore, communities should create their own policy agenda as to how they believe they should be offering mas, not just to generate returns for the communities which could help them sustain what is offered during Carnival, but to sustain the mas itself for future generations. These policies can then be used to push their agendas towards the government in a structured way which will allow some of their needs to be met. At the same time, she said, it seems more people are becoming interested in regional Carnival. She has heard people say they are not going into PoS for Carnival for one reason or another but would attend a regional Carnival instead.
Also, she said, young people are becoming interested in traditional mas because they study it in school on the CSEC and CAPE levels. This interest sometimes extends to playing certain mas characters.
She said even some of her tertiary level students were opening non-mas businesses using the skills they learned at UWI.
“Because we are stuck on “tradition” in a particular way, we don’t see or look for the opportunities for growth which is, of course, innovation in and of itself. Sometimes the dynamism is not necessarily in the thing itself but more in the way which you do something.”
Carving out a niche for traditional mas
NCC CEO Colin Lucas believes one of the reasons for the decline of regional Carnivals is that over the last few years a lot of attention is being paid to “pretty mas” and regional Carnival is mostly about traditional mas.
“So there are some people who would not be interested in that and who would follow the allure of the bikini and beads, the party mas, as opposed to the more depictive costumes.”
He said while the NCC did not, at the moment, have the financial resources to support regional Carnival as it would like, it intends to focus on traditional mas in its marketing initiatives since pretty mas would sell itself.
“What NCC has determined over the last couple of years is that you could find bikini and beads anywhere the world. If we have to carve out a niche for Trinidad Carnival, notwithstanding the appeal of the pretty mas and the legitimate place they have in the Carnival landscape, the niche we could carve out, that no other place in the world could carve out, is traditional mas. Nowhere else can give you the kind of costumery that we can do.”
He said the NCC did not need everyone in the world to be interested in traditional mas because that many people could not be accommodated on the island anyway. He said even if less than one per cent of the world’s population were interested, it guaranteed hundreds of thousands of visitors every year during Carnival.
Passion drives traditional mas
San Fernando Mayor and Chair of the San Fernando Carnival Committee, Junia Regrello said regional mas is not dying because bandleaders are passionate and committed.
“The bands that play traditional mas, for the past 20 years they have been consistent. They are still there. And they are improving in quality and standard. I don’t know any bands that stopped playing mas because of the depreciation of or unavailability of the cash prizes. People in the arts, whether it’s mas or calypso or whatever, they are passion-driven, so they will do it come what may. That’s not to say they should not be compensated or treated fairly.”
He said San Fernando Carnival is becoming an all-inclusive street party with bands having the same amenities as bands in Port of Spain such as toilet and cool-down trucks. He thanked Kalicharan Carnival for raising the bar which made other bands follow suit.
He added that the number of J’Ouvert bands has been increasing over the years. And free mid-day concerts is expected to begin on February 7 on Library Corner.
He said the committee had yet received its allocation from the NCC and it needed between $1 million and $1.5 million to run the city’s Carnival. He said in 2016 the previous mayor received $1.3 million but since then there has been a steady decline to $800,000, $600,000 and $400,000 in 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively.
“There are constraints. We know how the economy is but I think that we are trying. The south chamber is coming on board to assist. We are moving the judging point to High Street, we have had several meetings with stakeholders, we met with the large bands and the J’Ouvert bands, we listened to their concerns and we’re all on the same page.”
School children, an important audience
Junior Bisnath, founder of the San Fernando School of Arts, Sports and Culture said the popularity of his work and his group, the Kaisokah Moko Jumbies, shows that regional Carnival is not dying.
“People say that every year and they are very wrong. For the past 25 years or so I have been going to schools and Police Youth Clubs throughout TT via the NCC to do the artform of stilt-walking. We train all these people and in turn, they perform for regional Carnival in their communities.”
He agreed that for several years the regional Carnivals have received less money and as a result hosted fewer shows, but he said the mas itself was striving. He added that through schools, many children were getting involved in cultural activities such as playing the steelband, singing calypso and soca, and playing traditional characters. As the children's interest grows, they encourage their parents to get involved and so traditional aspects of Carnival were being sustained and have even grown.
“The government needs to step up a little better and see the importance of Carnival and put a little more emphasis on something that brings so much money in this country.”
Ashton Fournillier of the 2001 Jab Molassie from Paramin agrees there has been less money and events for regional Carnival which has contributed to a decline over the past ten years.
He said while his band plays mas in PoS on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, the members would often perform at various regional Carnival events throughout the country. Recently, however, there have been fewer calls for their services.
“Around 2005, 2006, 2007, around this time so we would be busy. Each region had a festival and there were requests for us to perform. But now, its everybody bawling they have no money and they are just doing the show without us.”
However, he said mas was alive and well in Paramin, which is where they go after crossing the savannah stage. “Our village is where the action is. That’s where all the real blue devils are. So everybody heads home to their village and where they have their mas.”
A little goes a long way
In the face of reduced allocations from NCC over the years, Chair of the Sangre Grande Regional Festival Committee, Lorraine Heath, said the members of her committee have worked “beyond the call of duty” to ensure that Sangre Carnival does not die.
She said although allocations are yet to be received from NCC, they have already carded ten events for Carnival.
“What I can say is that on the receipt of subventions, committees have to make adjustments in order to meet the needs of the community and to work with what is afforded to them...Our committee is made up of young people within the community. We are an innovative bunch of creative and resourceful members here.”
She said for the past four years the committee has increased the number of events, and it has seen an increase in the number of visitors and participants in the junior and senior parades.
J’Ouvert, both the traditional competition and party bands, is their biggest event and continues to grow. Also growing is Monday Night Mas which the committee introduced three years ago. She explained that the committee introduced an all-inclusive band and subsidised the costumes. Now over 500 people participate in the event.
However, she said there are challenges with the king and queen competition as bandleaders are generally unable to secure funding to create the more elaborate individual costumes.
“Even though there are challenges with funding, we aim to make it work and that’s what we continue to do.”
Sangre Grande Carnival was launched on Saturday on “a very minuscule budget” with a traditional character street parade, an official ceremony awarding people who contributed to Carnival in the region, and a calypso and soca show.
Steady decrease in spectators, mas
As of Saturday, the Tunapuna Regional Carnival consisted of Children’s Carnival on Sunday, J’Ouvert on Carnival Monday, and mas on Monday and Tuesday. There may also be a calypso show featuring Cro Cro on February 20.
A member of the Tunapuna Cultural and Festivals Committee told Sunday Newsday there had been a decrease in the prizes and a decline in participation in Tunapuna Carnival. Despite that, there has not yet been a significant decrease in spectators.
“There is usually a lot of people out on the streets but then, like last year, we did not have many bands parading so that and all may decline soon.”
The official said the committee hoped it would receive early notice of the allocation from NCC so things could be put in place, but that was not to be as it is only three weeks to Carnival. They said they just have to hope to at least get notice of the sum by Monday.
The current committee members, whose term started last year, had ideas to try to revive Tunapuna Carnival but that has been limited by the lack of notice of the amount of funding to be received and a lack of time to put things in place. Instead, they have to hope some of their plans could be initiated next year.
All set for Tobago competitions
Tobago Carnival seems to be thriving with more than a dozen events taking place. These include the Tobago House of Assembly Pan Champs; senior kings, queens and individuals competition; Windward Junior Extravaganza; J’Ouvert, ole mas and Monday Night Mas in Scarborough and Roxborough; Windward Afro Queen Show and Calypso Competition; and New Tobago Soca Monarch.
An e-mail from the Tobago Festivals Commission said that last year there were 144 mas bands – junior, senior, traditional, J’Ouvert, ole mas, and Monday night mas – and the number is expected to remain the same this year.
“The senior bands tend to gravitate towards bikini and beads but there are a few who do not follow this trend. There are occasions where bands may alternate from year to year between bikini and beads and other types of costumes.”
It said Tobago Carnival competitions take place mainly in Scarborough and Roxborough, but the Crown Point and Calder Hall communities usually host J’Ouvert competitions on Carnival Monday and Tuesday respectively.