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Fixing the Carnival landscape

Published: 
Monday, September 29, 2014
The vision is for the Carnival Institute to become a place where people can learn to make traditional mas like the Indian mas that Astil Alleyne makes at her home in Union Hall, San Fernando. PHOTO: MARK LYNDERSAY

A one-storey building houses the Carnival Institute on Jerningham Avenue. The ground floor opens to a group of cubicles leaving little wiggle room for the display of Carnival artifacts—posters, standards from costumes or even minimal headpiece—to indicate that the edifice is the home to Carnival’s history.

The top floor includes executive offices, one of them belonging to the director of the institute, Dr Kim Johnson. He acknowledges the snug fit but he has plans for the institute to have more than just administrative accommodation. The collection that the institute has since harvested is in a warehouse but there is no curator.

“It (the institute) should be in a heritage building,” he said. Perhaps as expansive as White Hall, he added. “We need a building that benefits the cultural and intellectual element. The building has to be part of the history. We must have that space.”

By the end of his three-year tenure, Johnson said he wants the institute to be a significant force in Carnival, to be an internationally accredited institution of higher learning and research.

Only three months in the position, Dr Johnson picks up where the late Pat Bishop left off. In 2004 when Bishop was director, the Institute was located in an enclave at Hotel Normandie. Yet, she initiated the collection of everything related to Carnival—costume creations, video and audio.

According to T&T Guardian’s archive, the Carnival Institute was first launched on August 13, 1999 at the Queen’s Park Savannah. In May 2000, Dr Hollis Liverpool (known in the calypso arena as Chalkdust) was appointed its first director. But he resigned a year later, after problems with funding and a disagreement between him and the National Carnival Commission, under whose responsibility the institute fell. In February 2004, the institute was revamped under the chairmanship of Kenny De Silva, who appointed Pat Bishop as the consultant.

Johnson said the institute was directionless until his appointment, although the staff which comprises a graphic designer, two research officers, an administrative assistant and a public relations officer continued to record Carnival data. 

Of his own credentials, Johnson has worked as a journalist and a Senior Research Fellow at The Academy for Arts, Letters, Culture and Public Affairs at The University of T&T. In 2011, he was awarded the Anthony Sabga prize for excellence in Arts & Letters. 

He is also an author and video producer. Johnson’s books include The Fragrance of Gold: Trinidad in the Age of Discovery; Renegades; Descendants of the Dragon; Tin Pan to Taspo: Origins of the Steelband Movement 1939-1951 and The Illustrated Story of Pan. His 2010 multi-media exhibition The Audacity of the Creole Imagination, commissioned by the National Museum and Art Gallery, included a 13-minute film of the same name. He produced and directed Learning to Look about the experience of deafness.

In 2013, he made The Radical Innocence of Jackie Hinkson, about the artist. All Johnson’s films were screened at the T&T Film Festival. His most recent project, PAN! Our Music Odyssey, premiered at the Sunny Side of the Doc film festival in France and opened to rave reviews at the T&T Film Festival earlier this month. He is currently directing a film on pan in Nigeria: Our African Odyssey and one on young men in the Youth Training Centre, Wishing For Wings.

From his multi-media experience, Johnson understands the need to demonstrate and highlight what the institute has to offer. First things first, understanding Carnival the festival before it dovetails into an industry component, he said.

“We have to nurture the Carnival first—the pan, the mas, the music,” he explained. “The problems we are faced with now were affected back in the 60s. Back then, at my age, I could have easily sung a Sparrow or Kitchener road march. But now, at best, the songs are catchy but not very clever lyrics. 

“When I go to Panorama every year I see people my age for the youngest, except for those who playing. As for mas, as a child I loved mas. I remember people rushing home to see Minsh (Peter Minshall) on TV. What are they doing now?”

Not that he objects to a pretty masquerader in bikini, feathers and beads, because that is freedom of choice and, of course, pleasing to the eye. But Johnson speaks of the quality and leverage that is added to the Carnival landscape. 

“The Carnival Institute will contribute to fixing it,” Johnson said. “For calypso and soca, we are working with Tuco (the overarching body for calypso and soca artistes—the Trinbago Unified Calypso Organisation) to have courses in adjudication and composition. 

“We have to start with the children. Use the technology. We have to go on YouTube so that they can learn almost every musical genre. If you go on now, you may not find anything that teaches them how to learn calypso. We need to get experienced people to post on YouTube. We need to deal with youth in their medium—audio-visual.”

As for pan, he said there are plans to host an international course that is certified at the University of the West Indies and UTT. The modules will include composing, arranging and improvising on the pan. “A graduate of mine, when I was supervising his thesis, found 41 universities already hosting something like this,” Johnson pointed out.

For mas, it means going back to the roots of construction by teaching how to build traditional mas.

“We will teach them. We want to change, turn it around to the University of the Institute of Carnival,” Johnson said. “We are going beyond data collection and dissemination. We plan to do it in a grander way.”

To be recognised as an international resource, he added, other facilities must be included. A virtual museum, for example, is the first step in that direction. But before it can reach there, Johnson said proper computer servers are needed to ensure proper recording and back-up of data. 

At the same time, there is a need to interview the pioneers.

“We need a full crew to do that. We need to make connections with people like Ray Funk who has a vast, personal archive of calypso. We need to establish links with the Smithsonian; with Dartmouth College where the (T&T playwright and Carnival author) Errol Hill archives are kept,” Johnson added.

Another focus will be income generation for the sake of heritage preservation. Using legendary pan musician Bernie Manette, as example. At West Virginia University he charges students to attend a three-week summer course in music, arranging and pan-tuning. Johnson believes something similar can be done at the institute.

“People from as far as Tokyo are coming to do that with Bernie. I thought that we should be doing that here. People will come down to be taught by Boogsie (Len Sharpe of Petrotrin Phase II) or a “Smooth” (Leon Edwards of Massy All Stars),” he said.

An understanding of festival of Carnival, Johnson believes, should be the focus before the industry begins to develop. It begins by using the institute as its anchor.