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For better or worse
I’ve spent a minimum of five weeks subjecting myself to what constitutes the soca offerings for this Carnival season. During that period I must say I have faced more peril in the pursuit of my columnist duties than American journalists covering the social upheaval in Cairo. This was all part of an ill-conceived follow-up to a column written last year about the abysmal slew of recordings that made their way into the public domain. I stumbled onto something that actuarial scientists would probably consider both fascinating and quite pedestrian at the same time.
On three separate radio stations, one song, some noisy number by a performer known to me only as Blaxx, was being played on each frequency with so little separation of time one might be forgiven for assuming that the three radio stations had synchronised their airplay of this one track. This was the sign I was looking for. I really felt that this was the manifestation of an anomaly in the space time continuum—the arrival of an epochal event that would either reinforce our belief in God or shatter it all together. Sadly, this was a simple mathematical coincidence, made more likely by the fact that radio DJs seem to have one eight-soca track file on an endless loop all day.
There is nothing good to say about the music for Carnival 2011. With the exception of Kess Differential, Benjai and, to a lesser extent, Machel Montano, the rest of what is brazenly masquerading as music does not qualify for serious consideration by anyone without a tin ear. Although I have to say of Benjai, he seemed not to know himself how special a tune he had (most likely because this was simply purchased from the producer in New York). It was later revealed that Trini, or at least the music, was lifted directly and bold-facedly so from a recording done in the 70s. The truth is my opinion of the music is as of little interest to the people making the music as their music is to anyone with half a brain. Trinis will happily jump out of their skins to the din of scrap iron falling off a transport truck on the highway.
We have to accept that our culture is evolving and the most treasured tenets of our “mas” will eventually become sketches in poorly written history books. The Minister of Arts and Multi-culturalism, in vehement condemnation of imported costumes, is proposing punitive tariffs. As I have written documentaries on traditional mas, the minister’s passion registers quite easily with me. It breaks my heart that some of the traditional mas characters like the jab jab, fireman, bat and Dame Lorraine have been exiled to regional Carnivals to make way for the prettier, younger and sexier “portrayals” of bejewelled babylons and glitter-dusted buttocks.
Fact is fact, most bandleaders recognise that the Carnival economy now hinges heavily on the 75 per cent participation of women and these women want showgirl’s mas. As always, we are masters of bolting the barn door after de goat dem done gorn. The traditions of mas such as wire-bending have been in decline for years. Economic imperatives and market demand drive the costs and end product.
Bandleaders complain bitterly about the spiralling costs of music trucks and security. The companies providing these services, fully aware of the band’s profits, adjust their rates accordingly and the orgy of greed escalates each year with the masquerader happily supporting it.
In 2009, I interviewed famed masman Senior Gomez in a tiny apartment where he lives with his wife. There is just enough room for two humans to live in relative comfort given the number of sailor mas costumes that crowd his modest quarters. I was mesmerised by the exaggerated wrinkles and furrows on his hands, the physical legacy of years of wire-bending, as he guided me through the numerous plaques and awards that adorn the walls of his home so extensively. Even as he pointed out to me the work he had done for this band and that, his wife grumbled (she thought only to herself but it was audible to people in the hallway) that he was never rewarded fi-nancially for all the work he has done.
From what Senior Gomez has told me, he has spoken before audiences of university students in the United States of America. In this country he might get a call from a band around Carnival time, but his phone is not exactly ringing off the hook. That is because it is cheaper to have most of this work done in foreign markets where, quite conceivably, there are 100 Indians or Chinese crammed into a small building with no ventilation and they are provided with a steel bowl each containing a single serving of water for both consumption and ablutions (so use wisely my little sweat shop worker bees). Can we even be sure where our costumes are coming from?
This also does not matter and the likely response of the business community to punitive tariffs will be to pass the cost onto the consumer. Given that Trinidadians are rarely prone to revolt, unless it concerns work or pay, the costumes will fly off the shelves because a significant part of playing mas is letting people know just how much you paid for your rhinestoned thong and cheesy beaded door-curtain from the 70s. Ultimately, we have to accept that Carnival as we know it has been altered irrevocably by commerce and what I believe to be severe talent evaporation. I could not have said it better than David Rudder. When he was on the CNC3 morning programme recently, he questioned: “They are paying $2 million (for the Soca Monarch) but what is the quality of the product? And when you can no longer sustain those payments, are those whose lifestyles are now influenced by this prize money going to come and shove a gun down our throats to demand it?”
It is also too late to close that barn door. The Soca Monarch is now undeniably the single biggest show of the Carnival season with an estimated 25,000 people in attendance. The Calypso Monarch is now mere filler until Carnival Monday and no one seems to care who prevails in that competition half as much as the public anticipates the outcome of the Soca Monarch and the Road March. The people’s mas is a noble idea; envisioned as Government’s attempt to include those of us who are living in the squalid townships on the outskirts of the beautiful Carnival city. I have a sickening feeling though that this free opportunity will amount to little more than a mass of uncostumed civilians walking behind a music truck; essentially a Labour Day parade. You cannot stop the march of time. Carnival, for better or worse, is for the young. Sure Brian McFarlane will pick up us time fighters, clinging with arthritic claw to the nostalgia of the good old days. The rest of us will either have to go down the islands or stay home and keep our as--s kwart.
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