By Raffique Shah
January 09, 2019
I was pleasantly surprised when the announcement by the National Carnival Commission that it was scrapping the North Stand for this year’s Carnival did not elicit an uproar of objections from stakeholders in the national festival and hordes of party animals whose love for steelband music lasts one day—the National Panorama Semi-Finals.
For all its symbolic representation of the spirit of Carnival, crammed as it was (note tense) with more than its 8,000 maximum capacity, the North Stand was a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. For close to 50 years, ritually, every January, contractors and hundreds of workers would engage in a frenetic exercise of erecting the facility, only to dismantle it two weeks after Carnival. The cost? Four million dollars.
Now, if attendance at eight or so big shows averaged, say, 5,000 in the North Stand (and a near-full Grand Stand), gate receipts would have justified this annual expenditure. But year after year, the stand was like a ghost town on steelbands’ biggest night, the finals, as well as on Carnival days, Dimanche Gras night, and several other premier calypso and masquerade events staged during the season.
It should have been scrapped decades ago—and I say this even though I was a North Stand “original” from the 1970s. Back then, it was indeed a “semis” stand. That competition was staged on Carnival Thursday night. But the vast majority of us were pan-lovers who not only knew the bands, but thoroughly enjoyed their performances—one dared not distract the audience with any misbehavior when a band was playing—and returned for the finals either in the Grand Stand or on “de track”.
For me, and I have written this before, the best pan music is not during the annual Panorama competitions, but at pan-yard and other concerts where one is treated to the bands’ full repertoires (calypso, pop, jazz, classical, etc), not to add the superb skills of the best pannists in the country. It is a thrill to see and hear our pannists perform on par with, or better than, world class conventional orchestras.
I understand that scrapping the North Stand means a reduction in revenue for Pan Trinbago, which gets the gate receipts from all steelband shows staged by the National Carnival Commission. I don’t know if the NCC’s proposed “North Park” will attract patrons in numbers that will bridge the shortfall. But all stakeholders in Carnival must know that the state of the economy does not allow for the extravagance of the past when governments spent hundreds of millions of dollars recklessly on what we deluded ourselves into believing was “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
For many years now, our Carnival has declined into an ordinariness that makes it so unattractive, even Trinis have abandoned it, opting instead to stay at home and not even watch the telecast, or head for the beaches or Tobago. It’s not just a North Stand issue, nor, indeed, is it a steelband or Panorama issue. In fact, I have repeatedly written that of all our cultural art forms, only steelband music is rising to new heights, setting us apart from anywhere else in the world. That, and perhaps what is called Soca music, which I don’t particularly like, is appealing to audiences across much of the world.
Calypso as we knew it is dying. Many might say it is already dead, lacking that clever combination of lyrics, wit and melody that made it compelling not just for Trinis, but for foreigners as well. The giants are exiting the stage—Shadow, Superior, De Fosto and Composer gone to join the ancestors last year; Black Stalin felled by infirmity; Sparrow, Rose, Nelson, Chalkdust, Valentino and Relator defying the aging process to keep the art form alive. Rudder and Gypsy flying the flag of authenticity against immense odds, and young Duane O’Connor breaking new ground with the recent launch of a year-round venue for performers.
Where is the surfeit of talent that, twenty, thirty years ago, had patrons queuing up to enter tents, to secure tickets for “Clash of the Giants”, filling the Grand Stand and guaranteeing that every television and radio was tuned in to coverage of the Calypso Monarch finals, and by extension an exciting Dimanche Gras show?
Today, the tents are deserted, their survival dependent on government handouts. Even the fetes have fallen victims to a new order that I dare say is all-exclusive, in the sense that the few that dominate the calendar price themselves out of reach of the ordinary people. It’s a case of brazen discrimination that has been allowed to hijack what was once the people’s festival, fence it off to keep out the masses, to cater for certain classes, for whiter shades of pale, if you will.
And we quietly accept this latter-day apartheid. We are too timid to even mention it lest we be branded racists. What a thing! Carnival, meaning here the masquerade bands, is colour-coded, catering for those who are willing to pay $5,000 for bikinis-and-beads, some eats and “wee-wee” trucks, as well as paid-muscle that keep the natives at bay, or beat them to pulp if they dare invoke Kitchener’s “de road make to walk on Carnival day…”
No, the North Stand is probably the least of our problems. The Carnival, as we knew it in the glory days of Bailey, Saldenah, Minshall and other maestros, is over. The masses, the throngs of spectators who once jammed the city streets, have voted with their feet. Sorry, Gypsy. It will take many men with many balls to reclaim our heritage, to put this Humpty Dumpty together again.