During a post-Carnival interview, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Ali and Associates mas’ troupe, Alister Thomas, indicated that it was his belief that in order to improve our Carnival product, there must be a review of how carnival has been produced in the past. Specifically, he stressed that party politics needs to be removed from the annual event. That is a truism that no one can successfully argue against.
Beyond any important cultural contributions, Carnival is a business. It is an extremely important event on our calendar for both locals and visitors and it likely holds the greatest potential for growth when compared to the other signature events that we host. That potential is squandered because Carnival is treated as a political football and the business structure that is required for its ongoing success is ignored. This has been going on forever.
Mr. Thomas’ point that Carnival is a uniting force amidst political division should not be lost on anyone. When Carnival hits, and the festivities begin, the colours red, blue, orange, green, etc. have no political meaning; they simply blend into the kaleidoscope of colour and pageantry. It becomes a time when strangers ‘jam-up’ on one another and there is not a care as to a person’s political leanings. Considering our usual tribal politics, it is a magical time.
Sure, there is political commentary in calypso and other music, but that is what the artform is all about and that is where the politics should end. In years past, politicians seemed to have a better understanding of the need to allow that type of criticism but times have changed and the thin-skinned politicians of today cannot endure a few lyrics of criticism. Political disagreement is no longer allowed and songs are banned from airplay and calypsonians threatened in court. That is not a today thing but it needs to stop.
To be clear, we are not advocating for any defamatory or crass lyrics. We respect and protect a person’s right to criticise, but it must be done fairly and factually. It is here that the calypsonians must share some of the blame. Gone are the days of clever lyrics and the smart use of double entendre to entertain and criticise at the same time. Today, writers seem to want to go for shock value and burst through the boundaries of acceptability. That too must stop, if the artform is to survive.
Putting aside the politics for a moment, Thomas also proffered that there needs to be greater focus on traditional mas’, and he has suggested that one of the ways of ensuring the longevity of the country’s culture is to introduce costume designing in schools. This speaks to education and to the long-term business plan for Carnival. As he rightfully points out, the focus of carnival revelers is shifting. Traditional mas’ is suffering as participants choose j’ouvert and t-shirt mas’ as the preferred avenues to spend their money. The same can be said about the shift to soca, party monarch and fetes.
Obviously, there is a general cultural shift that may be irreversible, and certainly economics play a role, but at the same time, a lot of the disinterest comes from a lack of appreciation. And that lack of appreciation comes from a lack of education. It is difficult for a person to appreciate something if they do not understand it. Take steelpan for example. Antigua and Barbuda has the potential to become a global mecca for pan. The potential is real, however, the lack of appreciation of the artform and its economic capacity holds it back.
Carnival represents a real business opportunity if we remove the politics. We are small enough to make this a big thing but we need a professional entertainment manager to ‘run the show.’ That person will obviously take his or her directive from the Cabinet so that it aligns with broader goals, but execution should be based on an agreed business plan and left in the manager’s hands. That manager should be assessed based on performance and not politics. Not only that, Carnival management needs to be a year-round thing, not three or six months, and it should encompass all aspects including marketing, education and culture, to name just a few.
The business of Carnival is everyone’s business and as Mr. Thomas said, it needs to be treated as a business if it is to survive and deliver on its true potential. We couldn’t agree more.
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