The Prime Minister’s statement last week, that Trinidad and Tobago should not wait for funding from oil and gas revenues, may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some, but for several industries it was like preaching to the choir.
Industries in the cultural sector – music, film and mas – have for a very long time been opening new avenues for revenue streams into the country. Stakeholders in some of these industries have even gone so far as to say that they have been diversifying the economy of this country since its inception.
Revenue from past Carnivals which features mostly local creative content including soca, calypso, steelpan, locally made costumes and even locally filmed documentaries have drawn in income and foreign exchange in the hundreds of millions. In the last Carnival in 2020, despite the looming danger of covid19, visitors coming to TT spent a total of US$403 million. A total of 37,861 people came to TT's shores and spent an average of TT$820 a day. For Carnival 2019, 388,000 visitors came to TT, spending an average of US$400 million in that year as well on Carnival events, shows and products.
However, much is needed to compare with TT’s highest earner, oil and gas, which, despite several theories of depleting supply and demand, still accounts for just under half of TT’s GDP. Stakeholders in the cultural industries told Business Day that the cultural industry has the capability to be TT’s next top earner and contributor to GDP, but it needs support and funding from the public and private sectors.
Dancing to the beat of steel drums
One of the more popular features of TT culture has to be its national instrument, the steelpan, which draws people from all over the world to TT’s shores, especially during the Carnival season. But steelpan music is not seasonal. Performers and musicians have gone all over the globe promoting the instrument and the culture of TT.
This alone has garnered interest in the instrument from countries including places like Japan and the US. But according to Denise L J Hernandez, secretary of Pan Trinbago the instrument is only providing a minimum of what it can for the country.
In a conversation with Business Day, Hernandez pointed out that, if managed properly, the steelpan industry could be source of income for close to 50,000 people and generate billions in revenue through the creation, distribution, education and promotion of not just steelpan music but the instrument itself.
Hernandez said Pan Trinbago's drum factory, which manufactures steel drums used to make steelpans restarted operations in October 2019 and sought to not only supply pan makers but to make the factory an industry on its own.
“In our drum factory we use a specialised steel,” she said. “It is an 18-gauge steel that Dr Christopher Alexis at Northern Illinois University had worked on getting, as it had a higher tone of quality.”
“There are two ways we have seen this type of diversification working for us. Because we have the equipment, a company which produces lube oil has approached us and said they were interested in using 22-gauge steel to make steel drums for them,” she said.
She added that once the proper testing is done, they could be contracted to make a minimum of 500 drums a month for that company alone.
She also said Pan Trinbago is looking at the feasibility of supplying drums to Guyana which is developing their own oil and gas industry.
Hernandez also said Pan Trinbago has equipment that could also be used to make storage tanks for clients.
“The guys at the factory also thought of a downstream industry where we could produce collapsible stands for steelpans. We could adjust the height of these pans so someone could sit on a chair and play. We could have the collapsible stands, toolboxes and miniature collectable pans. We are continuing to recycle the raw material and not letting anything go to waste.”
She told Business Day the factory could also be at the core of TT’s ability to deliver its culture to other countries. The factory located in Macoya has the ability to produce single-sided drums, which could be developed into background pans, like a bass pan, and double-sided drums which could be used by pan makers and tuners to create a pair of tenor pans, a pair of double-second pans or a pair of double tenors.
Montserrat, she said, reached out to Pan Trinbago in 2020 with a request to assist in their revitalisation of steelpan. The factory was at the core of this effort as they made steelpans, pan sticks, cases and stands for an 18-piece band in Montserrat.
“They also wanted us to come and teach tuning, arranging, construction and music theory,” she said. “Our people could not reach them because our borders were closed, but we had a lot of people in Antigua who were graduates of the University of the West Indies. They were willing to go and teach, so we subcontracted them to give three-week courses in the different areas.”
She said by the end of the contract in December, they had successfully delivered the skills and equipment that would provide for a pan industry in Montserrat. She said the cost of that contract was over US$37,000.
“Think about the 100-plus countries that do not have pan, that may be interested in steelpan. Could we not market this to them? Is that not diversification?”
This comes along with the obvious appeal of the steelpan industry – the music.
“We can boast that there is not a genre of music that steelpan cannot play. In fact, if you put a piece performed by steelpan side by side to a traditional band you may not be able to tell the difference.”
In terms of music, Hernandez said that steelpan has been at the centre of TT’s appeal.
“The biggest draw (of Carnival) comes from Panorama and pan activities,” she said. “So, pan has been contributing to the economy of our country. We have been diversifying for a long time.”
Super soca needs support
TUCO president Ainsley King added that soca and calypso music have the same appeal as other genres and in its own way has been making its own contribution to diversifying the economy. But, the appeal and interest in soca and calypso has, for the most part recently, come from the efforts of individuals like Bunji Garlin and Calypso Rose. What is needed, he said, is for locals to buy into soca music the same way foreigners would.
“You have an era of Baron, Shadow and other modern calypso and soca artistes who find themselves in a position where they earn a lot of money, so there is great potential for the industry. But not enough is being done especially when we compare ourselves to Jamaica and other countries.”
King called for a change in strategy with how the music is packaged and delivered on a national scale. Pointing out that the international successes of soca and calypso artistes came through individual effort and the interest developed by people internationally.
“You would rarely find us promoting our own people. We would have to do that ourselves,” he said. “It is only when those individuals make it out there that they gain some form of recognition locally.”
He said despite the lax support from citizens and government for soca and calypso, it still penetrates several countries such as the US, UK and several African countries, however there isn’t enough national drive behind the genre, so the music's penetration in other countries, with their own cultures and styles of music, cannot compare to that of countries like Jamaica which promotes reggae on a national scale.
“We may not have the exact measure of how our music has penetrated into other cultures, but it is an appealing music to people all over the world. I feel we can break down barriers beyond what we have already done,” he said.
Mas producing TT culture
Carnival in general, according to NCC chairman Winston “Gypsy” Peters, is one of TT’s greatest exports. From the music to the costumes to the dances, TT-style Carnival is in every metropolitan city in the world.
“Our Carnival is unique and what we have exported to the world via the diaspora and given to all these people is something that they can move to,” he said.
Through airport traffic, hotel accommodations and tourism, Carnival has been able to contribute to TT’s economy.
TT Carnival Bands Association president Rosalind Gabriel added that not only the costumes and music are exported, but the skill and know-how of some of the greatest minds and hands in the industry also cross the oceans to create carnivals in other countries that could compare (but not compete) with TT Carnival.
“We are the subject matter experts on Carnival,” she said. “The bands, their leaders even their devoted followers who never miss a year to play – all of this provides the foundation and truth behind the claim that we are the home of Carnival. TT brand Carnival is the greatest export that the industry can provide.”
She said while there is no empirical data of how much money comes back into the country because of TT’s influence on carnival celebrations all over the world, one of the key indicators for a successful Carnival band is its ability to leave TT shores and “make mas” in other countries.
“One thing the more successful bands have in common is that they have and do business outside of TT,” she said. “From as far north as Canada to the UK and in the East, the larger locally based bands have successfully brought their particular brand of mas to the world. Sadly, not every band can do this, but there is a growing call for many of the smaller bands to become more evolved, not just in their planning and logistics but in their accounting principles and planning.”
She added that once the industry continues to develop through the support of the people and the government the benefits would eventually reveal themselves to the point where the Carnival industry could provide for the country the way other industries do.
“The government does all that it can to ensure the industry’s development and survival. Moreover, in light of the constraints we face as a nation cause by the pandemic, the narrative of government investment continues to shift to include support from other sources. The industry simply cannot sit back and expect handouts from the state. Now more than ever it is important to explore additional avenues of supporting the Carnival industry including but not limited to members within the industry working together to provide for each other.”
TT film playing its role in diversification
An industry that is also playing its role in diversifying the economy, is the film industry.
Film TT president Leslie-Ann Cato said that in the past six years, TT has produced over 80 films and generated up to TT$119 million in revenue. These films provide employment for more than 700 people each year.
“For the Amazing Race episode, we employed over 300 people,” she said. “It was filmed in two days, but the pre-production process took about three weeks.”
She added that in the pre-production process, the various stakeholders injected revenue into several industries ranging from hospitality to transport.
“When you are working on a film it is not just the actor and the crew. It is the catering company, the transportation company, the fabricator, the plumber. When we did Home Again, we had to have someone install a washer and a dryer so that the wardrobe could be washed. The film industry needs lawyers, nurses, doctors and even teachers.”
For the Amazing Race production, she said, the cast and crew who worked on the pre-production of the episode had to rent out 100 hotel rooms at the Magdalena Grand in Tobago and stayed there for 21 days.
“The film industry is one of those industries that can develop an all-inclusive ecosystem. If we are able to create content and push TT as a film friendly destination, we will have not just millions but billions of dollars coming into the industry. And every sector will benefit.”
Buy into the culture to sell the culture
She said, like most other industries, the film industry needs local support if it is to better export TT film.
“Yes, Bazodee showed in different cinemas, Cutlass is streaming on Amazon Prime, Play De Devil also aired on Amazon Prime. But the sustainability is that we need our local audience to say this is the content we would like to see so that filmmakers can continue to create.
“I talk to a lot of field agents and distribution companies and the first thing they talk about is the attraction locally. The first thing they would ask you is what is the reception in your country. And if I cannot tell you that everyone watched it and it stayed in cinemas for a number of weeks, they would not know what they are negotiating to buy.”
Similarly, the music industry needs to be supported by locals with the same fervour as internationally recognised genres.
King, in speaking on calypso and soca, said that lapse in support starts at a governmental level.
“What I find about TT government is that you don’t have much people who would look at the human resources as far as people going out there to develop other people,” King said. “Calypso Rose and Bunji Garlin’s successes did not come because TT caused it to happen. It happened because Calypso Rose drew the interest of some individual who decided they would promote her in Europe. This is my concern. We in Trinidad, we need to have the foresight and the vision to start creating these opportunities for the arts. Most of our leaders are failures when it comes to promoting the people.”
For film, Caton said another concern was an inability to access funding. Despite the various grants that are available, filmmakers have trouble accessing the needed cash to make the quality of films that the Trini palate has grown accustomed to.
“If a budget should be $10 million, we might have $700,000 to make it. And that might affect the quality of the product. There may be a good script but because we are so big with Netflix and these various types of films, we have a palate for a particular quality.
“So, I am glad Dr Rowley said what he did because we need more investment. Not just in the public sector, but in the private sector as well. We need to let them know the value of product placement and be ready to build on the quality to raise that demand.”
She said the Film TT has also been doing their part, teaching filmmakers about the business behind filmmaking, doing workshops with various stakeholders to teach filmmakers about various grants and what is required to access these grants and teaching them how to register their businesses. But like most cultural industries in TT, film must gain local recognition before it can successfully go global.
“Our eyes are all on the international streaming platforms, but we need to go locally then regionally then internationally. We could have a large audience in the Caribbean.
“Every Carnival concert we watched, every music video you watched even the one-minute video that you saw on social media that made you laugh was because of this industry. So, what other argument do you need?”