Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Carnival is Money II, or The Commodification of Fun

Carnival done, or so it seems for the popular mas' bands. And it's not even midnight. Yet my black ass on a computer writing! Now that I am back from liming in Woodbrook and seeing the mas' from the roadside, I am in awe at the level of organization necessary to pull of that moving party called Island People Mas, and for that matter any large modern Carnival band that is in effect an all-inclusive travelling fete, with costumes.

The first part of this note dealt with the power of a promoter to change the focus of the conversation from who win to how come he win while laughing all the way to the bank. In that gayelle on that night, the order of things were upset by theories born of doubt of the success of this music called soca. The simple fact is the artistes named as the top four in each competition are the best performers in soca, period. The score weight placed on vocals versus crowd response matter not, or we would have had a winner from outside this bunch. If you want to successfully export soca as the next big thing from the Caribbean, this is the group you have to go with. And that's the next move for Monro.

Now, as the Carnival closes, one is looking at the simmering conflict in the minds and blogs of some between mas' as art and mas' as fun, and which represents Trinidad and Tobago better. Henry Regnery, the American publisher of the early novels of Earl Lovelace, said, "in matters of excellence the market is a poor judge." The decline of traditional mas', the reduction of "pretty mas" playing to 12 hours on a Tuesday, the realignment of the clans at j'ouvert and Monday mas, the death of rural mas—Was rural ever popular or was that a chimera for politicians to make face?—weigh on the minds of observers while tacit recognition is given to the fact that the government during a time of a tax amnesty is investing heavily in Carnival with hopes of collections down the road by ALL. The Minister invested less money in the People's Band than he did in the winners of Soca Monarch, Panorama, Chutney Soca Monarch or Calypso Monarch. The Mas' didn't get a bligh! That is not a contest, that is commerce.

Derek Walcott said in his Nobel lecture in 1992, "...the Caribbean encourages the delights of mindlessness, of brilliant vacuity, as a place to flee...seriousness." I am no prude. I like fun. Fun is contagious. Beautiful women of all sizes doing things in public they wouldn't do on any other day of the week in the year is cool to look at. Converting that experience of being into an industry is an act that has evolved over the years from the daring who played with Edmund Hart who begat Barbarossa and Poison that begat Legacy and Tribe and Pulse8 and Bliss and the numerous "bikini and beads" mas' bands that offer, as Tribe calles it, the "Ultimate Carnival Experience." In this scenario, the masquerader is placed ahead of the designer in terms of satisfaction and possibly influence. The Tribe website, for example, lists a number of elements of the experience with the final element being, "...And of course your costume," almost like an afterthought.

What boggles the mind is the level and magnitude of "event" management in place with logistics that rival any major rock star tour. I see men and women, all descendents of African families and I suppose in need of a job for the Carnival, with tee-shirts identifying their roles in the "experience": Security, Extraction, Rope Crew, Truck Escort, Spotters, Bar Staff, Hospitality Support! I am sure I saw Police with guns in one band providing security. I heard the Commissioner say he had all officers out to protect and serve, but this is curious. Could one pay the Police for private security for a segment of the crowd at Carnival? At the expense of how much manpower? Dean Ackin and Derek Lewis are bandleaders, but not in the way that Stephen Lee Heung or Edmund Hart were. Organising designers, building costumes and distributing them are part of the story of this new generation. Additional layers of planning and execution are achieved for events and outcomes not envisioned two decades ago.

I don't have the exact numbers, but there are varying estimates that put the percentage of masqueraders in this category of band at over 50% to maybe 75% of total maqueraders. And that is in Port of Spain only. I wish there was a statistic of the number of masqueraders versus the number of onlookers versus the number of persons not even in the city centres watching the mas' altogether. That would yeild an intersting profile of what is the impact of the mas nowadays. The money traded in the months of fetes and days of mas' has been quantified in the hundreds of millions approaching and maybe exceeding one billion dollars. Food and beverage manufacturers and suppliers, transport companies, music copyright holders, even the POS City Corporation banking dollars at this time. (Food badge not free!) The government spent $100 million on the Carnival alone. I note with amusement that the THA was asking for half a billion dollars to host Miss World! Wow, money talks, bullshit walks.

To transform fun into revenue, the intangible into the tangible, is an act I have noted in awe done successfully for years by the Americans. Walt Disney made billions on the experience of bringing out the child in everyone. Ackin, Lewis, et al are making millions bringing out the uninhibited in everyone on a level they can only afford once a year. Guilt is gone. Shame is supressed. The mind is muted. Anyone can be king. Rules can be broken. The velvet rope is the symbol of exclusivity for a few who need the succour of being in the tribe that defines one as upwardly mobile and belonging. And that can all be had for a few dollars more. The punitive levies envisaged by the Minister of the Arts on costume importers in a bid to revive the carnival art industry is now another expense item to be dealt with by accountants and auditors. One day, we'll get the balance right, but for now, in this free market, fun rules and that costs and pays big money.

Next year for the Merry Monarch.

Ash Wednesday morning, I am hearing on the news that Brian MacFarlane is lamenting that the "bikini and beads" mas' is portending a death in the mas' in Trinidad and Tobago. A recent article in the New York Times has a video interview with Dean Ackin of Tribe who asks the question, "those bands that claim to be more creative, how many people do they have?" Ackin's business model puts the customer first over consideration of the artistic director/designer. A parallel would be the US film industry which for many decades put the director of the movies front and center. Then came George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, ironically a top director himself, who created the blockbuster movie where customer satisfaction is taken into consideration, and profits boomed. The US film industry still makes artistic movies which are the envy of many and still vie for awards in "competitions" like the Oscars, and the industry leads the US exports of cultural products. (The UK film industry also is a haven for art movies, but everyone wants a piece of the Harry Potter pie.) The "Ultimate Carnival Experience" is here to stay. The lesson to be learnt is how to access the organizational accumen of a Dean Ackin or a Derek Lewis and put it in place in an artistic band. The carnival industry in Trinidad and Tobago is not going to die in the next decade or longer as long as creative and innovative thinkers and doers in the arts and entrepreneural fields live and work together in this space. The question is whither the NCC?

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