You are here
The economics of pretty mas
Carnival in Trinidad is a cultural object. Its evolution from the early 1800s to today reflects our social history. For example, during the 1980s, state involvement in Carnival increased as attempts were made to expand the economic potential of the festival. Trinidad Carnival was mobilised as a global brand and industry plugged into the global movements and forms of capital accumulation. Think “production” in China and “entertainment” out of the all-inclusive Las Vegas handbook.
At the same time, there also developed the marketing of “cultural tourism” with its “authenticity versus change” narrative. This helped to mask the question of who would now become the labour force supporting the new service culture of the festival.
The business model changed from populist art form in the lead-up to Independence and into the late 1970s, from those of the likes of Bailey, Saldenah, McWilliams and many others, to a more salacious and eroticised pretty mas commodity form (bikini-and-beads masquerade portrayals) by the late 1980s.
The economics of pretty mas reflect the libido of Euro-American capitalism—profit, mass production, luxury, sex appeal, service oriented. The high art aesthetic that led some commentators to describe mid-20th century Trinidad Carnival as a “theatre of the streets” diffused into various layers of local cultural production with each becoming commodities for the “desiring machine.”
From the mid-1980s, band fees and the cost of individual participation grew. As commodification of the festival increased, exclusivity (participation based on the ability to pay) overcame ideals of inclusivity (participation rooted in Carnival as a national commons accessible to all).
The timing of the shift correlates roughly to the upsurge in local petrol and natural gas revenues, and T&T’s insertion into global flows of capital and the cultural politics of neoliberalism from the 1970s to 1990s. These politics included: the upward redistribution of wealth, the marketisation of social life, and the cultural belief in individualism as the main indicator of personal success or failure.
The shift is also an example of what anthropologists call “accumulation by dispossession”— turning things once communal into things private and for profit. Some of those whom the late Rex Nettleford called “the people from below,” and whom he considered the legitimate authors and participants of Carnival drama as a populist art form, were displaced and became Carnival’s low-paid, service-oriented labour force.
Viewed through class and race, the late 20th and early 21st century pretty mas Trinidad Carnival might be described as a “gated community.” An analogy for this is Carnival Monday morning. The street parade begins at 11 am but the staff – the bar and food personnel, crowd control, security, roadies, and other staff - all start gathering for 9 am.
In 2012, a large “all-inclusive” Carnival band of around 3,000 masqueraders employed around 300-400 staff a day. These staff members, depending on their rank and role, got paid between $250-$400 each day to service and work for masqueraders who pay between $3,500-$7,000 for this mas. (Disclosure: yes, I play pretty mas each year.) Seen in such a light, the socio-economic changes in Carnival over the last 30 to 40 years describe a more general process of inequality and economic difference making in post-Independence Trinidad, in particular, the exclusion of low-income groups from other communal spaces, including politics, employment, nationhood, particular urban areas, security, and social mobility.
Such social boundaries to Carnival are by no means new. They were there from the beginning. According to Errol Hill, when the British arrived after 1797, the early European Carnival festivities found here echoed the earliest recorded private costume balls or French planter fêtes, mainly attended by the Spanish and those of mixed European and African descent, with the enslaved excluded.
Just like today, at those events the various costumes demonstrated signs of multicultural mixture, particularly French, Spanish and North African. Of course, the enslaved were never guests at these balls or those after the arrival of the British. Yet this did not mean they were completely removed from events. At the colonial Carnival celebrations of the elites, at their grand plantation balls, some were needed for housework including drinks service, musical entertainment, and food preparation.
So one story Trinidad Carnival tells us is that any post-Independence promises and inclusive national rhetoric about its development as central to a new nation’s growth weren’t as liberating as they might have been. As larger global processes became embedded in the mas, costume production was outsourced to China, while jumpin up with an all-inclusive wristband became an all-exclusive activity, reflecting similar class-based changes our society has undergone more generally.
• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff. Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.
Please help us keep out site clean from inappropriate comments by using the flag option.
Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments. Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.