Carnival of Commercialisation

This post was written in 2008 and originally appeared on the first incarnation of the “Caribbean Axis” website. As we await the reign of the Merry Monarch — I decided it would be an apt piece to revisit.

Carnival in TnT is so special to all ah we, like we need blood in we veins–that’s how we feel about Port-of-Spain–” Destra Garcia.

This piece is really borne from a place of anxiety as well as one of love. I love Carnival but I get increasingly ambivalent about what it is becoming reduced to with each passing year. I’m anxious too about what “people” will say because you know, people get real vex any time you criticize Carnival and its commercialization.  I guess it’s kind of like hearing Sat Maharaj berate chutney music for the ten millionth time, after a while, people just get exasperated and say, “well yuh doh hadda listen to it nah!”

Which is kind of along the lines of the same thing that people will tell you when you critique Carnival culture.  In true Trini fashion, you will hear, “well doh participate nah!” Or, something or the other to that effect. True, makes sense. But what happens if you really do love Carnival, you know that Lord Kitchener’s “Carnival Baby” is about you; it’s almost like that song pulses in your veins. You cannot let it go — even when it’s over. You love it for its historical context, its social implications, its freeness, its energy.  You see how Carnival is really like a kind of  “thing” too, throbbing with its own lifeline while simultaneously existing deep within all of us true Carnival babies.  You almost can see it too and you can watch something or someone and say, “yuh see dat right there.  Now THAT is Carnival.”

One of the blessings from doing a women’s studies courses (which can also be a curse) is the way in which feminist pedagogy encourages you to actively critique the world in which we live.  Not only that, but it gives you a unique lens through which to view the world.  Not just blowing hot air, but understanding how and why we view the world the way that we do. A feminist perspective can be tremendously beneficial to one’s world view because it encourages you to step back from all these “things,” take stock, ask questions, challenge preconceived notions, rediscover and learn about those voices and perspectives that are not mainstream, among other things. Even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  Even if it’s about something you actively enjoy, and/or participate in, like your own culture.  In exploring the discomfort, growth takes place. Ideally.

Speaking of critical thinking, many people (not just myself) are concerned about the way in which elitist and classist ideals have invaded and almost totally transformed Carnival from what it once was, to the well-heeled, well-oiled money making machine that it is today.  Some of us understand this too but it does not stop us from jumping up and having a damn good time (honestly speaking, myself sometimes included).  I’m not even going to waste too much time on the exorbitant cost for costumes because that would be like beating a dead horse and we’ve all bitched and moaned about that before — AND saved for our down payments simultaneously.

Consider this, in and around the mid to late nineties, you could have purchased a costume for 600-800 +TT dollars at the average end of the scale.  Nowadays, average costume prices (I reference popular bikini mas here) have risen more that twice that cost allegedly due to the rising cost in “raw materials” among other things.  In some cases, costumes have simultaneously gotten smaller. I love when certain bandleaders sound bite “raw materials” as though they are musing and scraping around to craft something from these mounds of raw stuff as opposed to slapping some stuff onto pre-manufactured bath suit bases. You would swear they sewing all the bath suits too.

Coincidentally (or not) the new millennium ushered in some of the strongest growth spurts in the economy of Trinidad and Tobago.  The real estate boom continues now (booms for who though eh?)  coupled with the rising cost of imported food and other essentials, came hand-in-hand with this perceived economic growth that is NOT, I repeat NOT, trickling down to all sectors of society.  Just the other day, CNN’s talking heads were crowing about how oil had risen to over 100 USD a barrel and has been there for some time.  I think that this growth, both real and perceived in some instances, more than anything else is encouraging the sky rocketing band prices along with everything else. 

In the meantime, I am dying for someone to please show me how and to what extent, the cost of so-called raw materials like plastic beads, iridescent trimmings and feathers could have eclipsed epic proportions.  If there’s anyone who wants to send me on an undercover expose to China with a camcorder in hand plus an interpreter, to track down these oft referenced “outsourced costumes” I will gladly do so, not only to get a free trip to China but also to prove that these costumes are actually produced for pittance. Greater yield, plus lower overhead production costs is the name of the game. I mean, isn’t that was the whole point of outsourcing?  People outsource because it’s cheaper to do this, so in the final analysis, there is no reason for outsourced costumes to be the same price or even more — other than slick mas price gouging, of sorts. 

Still, there are those who often cry that progress and change are the true marks of an evolving society.  As a result, it seems as though Carnival must undoubtedly adapt because of this growth. Carnival culture today seems almost warped beyond recognition in some ways.  This is the Carnival culture that is largely mass produced today, packaged and sold to the world and supported by many of us.  This Carnival culture is supported by a slew of online communities who obsess over the ins and outs of the season, plus bloggers, and freshwaters who fly in and out only for the greatest show on earth; locals, many young people, foreigners and assorted other interested enterprises for whom the entire essence of Carnival revolves around: bedazzled boots (of course, only because they’re in style now and not necessarily because they are functional, even though in all likelihood, they very well might be), beautiful bodies, the perceived socio-economic borderline between the frontline and the backline, the extent to which one can be able to match accessories months in advance, among other factors from the mundane to the quite frankly, ridiculous.   

The so-called branding of mas bands epitomises the capitalistic consumer culture that permeates Carnival culture today.  People today name drop mas bands like a luxury brand name, like it defines their character, or defines their self-worth.  The clique-ishness of the tight inner circles of these mas band enterprises are often reminiscent of secondary school in-and-out social circles.  Some people are obviously delighted to be in the know and others are clearly out.  Enough of us want to know to consistently incite speculation and postulations all year round, right into the next season. We want and we want and we want. We covet the exclusivity of special section costumes echoing our own social anxieties and dreams, as we prance in the streets for two days.  If and until you are seriously tight over some Johnny — this seems to be what matters most.  Already, we want to know: what colours?  What themes?  Who’s in and most importantly, who’s out this band or that band, and why?

Mas bands then, mimic our own social prejudices now more than ever before. Carnival has a serious dark side beneath those lovely feathered plumes; though growth can be a beautiful thing, we must be careful that the entire discourse of Carnival (if there is any) doesn’t get reduced to nothingness or dollars.  On top of all this, the yearly price gouging for essentially a similar if not same product forges on. Mas bands like any good corporate giant gleefully exploit the insatiable need for masqueraders to participate in their successful branding schemes.  Kind of reminds me of that David Rudder song, “dis is not de kinda jam where yuh stand up like a moomoo, de riddim go jam you!” And who yuh think is the one getting jam?  Real madness going on here.

The ultimate value of one’s Carnival expenditure in dollars and cents begins to trump the cultural one because we’ve begun to value the trappings so much more while the historical, cultural and social implications get lost beneath all the glitter. As Trinbagonians, we presume that all of us have had access to and at least exposure to the range of our own cultural artifacts and our own cultural history inside of our islands. So we want to believe and we take this for granted even though this is clearly not always the case. What about less informed souls?  I have encountered many people who think that this is what Carnival is all about: superficiality of outward presentations, copious amounts of money to be spent on skimpy costumes. Devoid of any kind of theatre, we wear these temporary flights of fancy disconnected from the past in drunken abandonment wining alongside others who live just like we do. When in fact, Carnival hasn’t been economically accessible to all walks of Trinbagonians for a long, long time now.  

In fact, for some people, they think, this is what it is all about. I sometimes get tired trying to tell some people, no, no, no, it’s not just about that.  I sometimes get frustrated  when people do not understand the full historical context of Carnival (or care to know) and there is no reason for that.  We could damn well sell that just like we are selling everything else.  Not just pretty mas either, but pan, ole mas, traditional mas, calypso and all other branches of our vibrant Carnival culture.  On the topic of Carnivals devoid of meaning and historical context, Jamaica’s Carnival is great example, of a shell of a Carnival.  Certain elements were imported to sell the concept there.  I understand that Jamaica doesn’t have a “Carnival culture” per se and all that, but that’s my point.  What about when the shell becomes difficult to separate from the supposed real thing? Worse yet, many of own people think the same.

 Those superficial elements with mass commercial appeal are certainly not what the entire discourse of Carnival should be about and that is essentially what I am saying. At the risk of sounding as though I am on a moral high ground, I think it’s important for a people to be able to contextualise their own culture and history.  All aspects of it. We all need to be able to realise how there is a Tribe and an Islandpeople because of pioneers such as George Bailey and others. No one else will do it for us if we ourselves do not.  We must be interested in being the preservers of our own culture for future generations. Celebrate it.  Engage in it, discuss it, keep it current and keep it alive.  Please, keep it alive. It is up to us to ensure that the legacy of Carnival gets passed on in all its many complexities from the Canboulay riots to 5,000 TT dollar bikini mas.  We can do more to improve this picture than simply count down to the next band launch.

And yes, there have always been and always will be expensive costumes. I know there will always be some people willing to buy them I am sure.  There probably will be no true Carnival revolution this time around or anytime soon. I critique Carnival because I am a Trinbagonian and I care about our culture.  Like a great-grandmother passing on family stories, we must be the bearers of our own, pay homage where it’s due and not let our culture sink into this abyss of superficial revelry and complete consumerism. All I am saying is complicate things.  One day, when you and I are not here anymore, what will be the legacy of the reign of the Merry Monarch for future generations?  Be mindful if you can, when yuh play yuh mas and throw yuh frame.  When the dust clears, experiences and memories live on through some version of history.

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