Too much damblay in Mas
As the country prepares to welcome visitors to its shores to enjoy the annual Carnival celebrations, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival continues to lose its unique characteristics as a traditional, national and cultural festival. The trinity of the celebrations, which comprise three major elements—mas, calypso/soca, steelband—are encountering tremendous challenges to now reproduce spectacular masterpieces that can be favourably compared to the golden era of this Carnival. What was it about the ethos of the Trinidad Carnival that captured the imagination of the early West Indian immigrants in New York as early as the 1920s and influenced them to try to reproduce aspects of this Carnival?
Other migrants later transplanted this Caribbean festival to numerous destinations in the West Indian diaspora. Many people from all over the world have described Trinidad Carnival as a unique cultural event. Trinidadians for decades proclaimed their Carnival as “the greatest show on earth,” but the validity of this claim is now irrelevant. Although the T&T model of carnival has been one of the most replicated festivals in the world, at home this model is now undergoing tremendous modifications in almost every aspect of its celebrations. The sustainability of this carnival as a major cultural and tourism festival appears to be hanging in the balance, and without some serious intervention, based on discussions among major stakeholders representing the three significant sectors, “carnivalists” and the state, the precipitous slide of this once magnificent cultural event will continue.
Local Carnival has always attempted to retain specific traditional features. It still displays the unique creative forms of masquerade, both the traditional or indigenous mas, with its strong African influence and the European stream that contributed the glitz to the celebrations. J’Ouvert celebrations and “Ole mas” competitions were entertaining while offering severe critique of the society and the performances of those people entrusted with the responsibilities to manage the affairs of the state. The steelbands, drummers and rhythm section ruled the town during the J’Ouvert festivities, but DJ music has now marginalised the steelband to mainly their participation in Panorama competitions. Calypso, although still a part of the Carnival celebrations, has ceded the function of supplying “festival music” to its derivative soca.
It has also relinquished its traditional role as the mouthpiece of the small man and provided critical analysis and introspection of major current events. Steelband music has persisted as a cultural symbol of the emergence of creative ingenuity, from nothingness and societal rejection, to the development of an exquisite artform. The steelband movement continues to encounter difficulties from the DJs who demonstrate abject disrespect for the these orchestras, by refusing to turn down the volume of their music systems to allow them just a few minutes while they are passing, so they can perform their selections on the streets.
Some bandleaders usually place extraordinary emphasis on the supply of minimalist costumes at exorbitant prices in order to generate maximum returns on their investment. They also have utilised the all-inclusive concept as a major aspect of their marketing strategy. Patrons can have the unique experience of playing mas with dignitaries and VIPs, while enjoying the choice of select cuisine, premium liquor and access to mobile washrooms. The marketing of “playing mas” as a unique experience has now emerged as the most significant attraction for young masqueraders, replacing influences of the stature and the awe of the beautiful mas costumes.
The large bands seem to have taken over Carnival because of the sheer numbers of their masqueraders and the majority of youth that gravitate to their successful marketing hype. There has been a gradual reduction in the number of music bands providing live music in the large mas bands on Carnival Tuesday, and this has resulted in the increased popularity in DJ music. Some people argue that the live bands have out-priced what the market can sustain, while others blame their poor performances on Carnival days as the reasons for their decline.
Today, most of the large bands do not offer the same high quality and variety of costumes produced by previous counterparts. Some of these popular bands appear uninterested in Carnival competitions, so they frequently explore fantasy-based themes. Discussions in the media over the years, questioned whether bandleaders and designers are utilising these themes to provide artistic licence to mask their creative deficiencies. Does this situation justify the opportunity for some designers and bandleaders to repeat (damblay) their designs? Carnival zealots also lament over the decline of the visual appeal of this once magnificent spectacle. Should spectators accept the transformation to beads, bras, bikinis and belts, knowing that in many instances, colours are cleverly changed or juggled as a variation of the theme of “bottoms and bosoms”?
Spectators have continuously expressed frustration and disappointment that only a small number of bands have produced creative and outstanding portrayals that capture the images of the era when Trinidad Carnival was “the greatest show on earth.” Who are the people responsible for the present depressing state of the Carnival? What are the major contributors to this sad situation? Should the State be more involved in establishing broad parameters for the staging of this national festival?