WHAT DOES Carnival mean to us? Is it primarily a profitable business or an expression of people’s right to freedom? Is it just a fleeting orgy of escapism or an opportunity to showcase our creative talents? Is it designed to benefit a small, privileged group or empower the practitioners who hold the key to its soul? In a post-covid19 future, who will benefit from the business of Carnival?
I grappled with these and other questions after listening to a panel on the possibilities for rebuilding our Carnival industry. This week, the University of TT (UTT) hosted a national discussion about the business of Carnival in light the global pandemic. Although the National Carnival Commission (NCC) was not officially represented, it was good to see young stakeholders trying to work through the difficulties presently facing the sector.
The timing of Carnival in 2021 is crucial to this discussion. The reality is that a vaccine may not be available for at least another year. Travel may become even more tedious with requirements such as coronavirus-free certificates and quarantine on entry. As such, one idea discussed at the UTT forum was shifting Carnival to later in the year, perhaps July or August.
Ideologically and from a business perspective, the TT Carnival should have already been moved to a fixed date. This would have allowed long-term planning, and would have shifted Carnival away from its proximity to the Christian observances of Lent and Easter.
The conflict between notions of pagan ritual and Christian values still impacts the Carnival business space today. Historically, apart from the banning of instruments and cultural practices, conflict was generated by upper class and religious voices who complained that the festival “undermined the morals of the entire society.”
Prof Hollis Liverpool (Chalkdust) documents a confrontation in 1919 that forever changed the way our Carnival is organised: “...the festival was economically beneficial to businessmen and the country and, above all, the Carnival was now a national festival...
“To counter the petition of the fundamentalist Christians, Argos (a prominent newspaper of the time) presented to the governor another petition signed by doctors, lawyers and prominent businessmen and showed their faith in the Carnival...by organising the Down Town competition.”
Subsequent to the 1919 power struggle, the running of Carnival was for the first time officially given to the middle class to run and the idea of competing for prizes became a common feature. Carnival began to be organised along lines that were acceptable to those who funded the celebration and the sensibilities of the elite.
Conservative and religious misgivings about Carnival linger today. They explain why my grandmother refused to allow calypso to be played during Lent. It also explains why in the 21st century we are repeatedly given warnings about “going back to work” after Carnival. This type of language dismisses the effort and value of the community workers, teachers and mas-makers who create the very festival that generates sizeable employment, income and global visibility for our nation.
How is all of this relevant to the business of Carnival? In 2020, the way we manage Carnival has implications for who it benefits. This is connected to the people making the business decisions, how they define culture and how they allocate resources.
In this context, it is not enough to feel validated when large television networks praise our culture or when famous people give us good reviews on their social media feeds. Business solutions must also look to stickfighters, traditional characters, wirebenders and others at the core of this creative space to drive business and investment policy.
As we celebrate the coming of East Indians to TT, we are reminded that our Carnival is enriched by the many cultures that infuse this festival. The influence of East Indian music styles inspired the creation of soca, while chutney continues to grow in popularity even outside of a Carnival context.
Carnival is much more than a pre-Lenten bacchanalia. It is a nuanced space, filled with contradictions, satire and humour, masking and transformation, sexuality and love, diligence and abandon. It reverberates with shared histories of oppression, domination and rebellion. Its heartbeat emerges from the yards and cultural spaces deep within our communities, rooted in ancient practices and ancestral belief systems.
As we navigate a reality reshaped by a global pandemic, the business imperatives of Carnival must align with the needs of the practitioners who embody its soul. The solutions have always been here; we simply need to adjust the way that we look.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN