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The future of T&T Carnival
Posted: Sunday, March 27, 2011

By Derren Joseph
March 27, 2011

The Web site last week advertised a Symposium to Examine Carnival's Creative and Commercial Inputs. The symposium hoped to address the question of "Trinidad and Tobago masquerade's traditional creativity and what presence it commands in the highly commercialised 21st century look of the festival today." It was scheduled to take place on March 24 at Medgar Evers College in New York and I do hope that some of its findings would be published on the web.

This symposium is, of course, very timely given the recent debate raging on the future of this national festival. I spoke with one well known band leader last week who wondered what all the fuss was about. In his mind BBF (bikini, beads and feathers) were just the next step in the evolution of the art form and evolution is natural. On the other hand, a Carnival researcher was clear that if BBF evolution continues, we will have a festival that anyone with some working capital and the email addresses of some costume suppliers in China or Venezuela could easily replicate. Let me give three examples of what is happening.

-- Firstly, Seychelles just hosted their first Carnival since the 1970s, and scored some valuable points for their aggressive online PR. Their team was issuing press releases daily in the run up to their Carnival. Their self described "Carnival of Carnivals" included participants from some 20 other countries, including Trinidad and Tobago. This is according to one of the press releases.

-- Secondly, the Web site recently had an article entitled "Trinidad and Tobago Carnival to Sex-Cite Kampala." In it Uganda declared its intention to have a Trinidad and Tobago-style Carnival in July this year. The "best ever Carnival in Kampala" will be staged by the High Commission for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the Republic of Uganda and the Uganda private sector. H E Patrick Edwards, Trinidad and Tobago High Commissioner to Uganda revealed that the SHS 2.5b (or US$ 1 million) Carnival "will be modeled along the lines of the world's famous Trinidad and Tobago Carnival." According to the article, the Carnival will "have some of the sexiest babes wriggle their butts for revellers to see." Sounds interesting doesn't it?

-- Thirdly, South Africa will be hosting a Trinidad-style Carnival in December this year. The government has already set up a fully staffed unit to manage this project and a Trinidadian led team is already on the scene offering technical support. The South Africa project is not too concerned with the ability of the Carnival to stimulate tourism. The country already has a population of 49 million so they understand the potential economic and social impact that domestic tourism will produce. The economic impact is obvious. As the Trinidadian leader of the team explained to me, if only ten of the population gets involved, their Carnival will be massive. More importantly, however, is the social impact. The South African government is attracted by the social cohesion that Carnival produces.

Delegates from South Africa were here for our Carnival earlier this month and were witness to our celebration as people of all different backgrounds jumped together as one. As I heard my Trini friend speak about it, I was reminded of the movie Invictus in which South Africa enjoyed a spirit of togetherness during a Rugby World Cup tournament. Of course, it is easy to see why South Africa would love to replicate our Carnival which has a similar effect. Suppose one of these overseas transplants, armed with the email addresses of costume suppliers in China or Venezuela succeeds in producing a 'better' version of our BBF festival? Could we awaken one day to see modern Carnival being made synonymous with a Seychelles or South Africa with Trinidad forgotten?

A friend of mine argues that Carnival stakeholders do not care about tourism and they see Carnival as a local product. He goes on to say that if the product is good enough people will come and the product keeps on improving. Others may argue that the real risk is perhaps that traditional artisans, designers, wire benders, those that play traditional characters etc, die out and take their craft with them. A risk that cultural activists like Rubadiri Victor have repeatedly warned us about.

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