Interviews March 12, 2018
Colin Lucas on Carnival Today

Colin Lucas has a long history with Carnival. Until his appointment to chairman of the National Carnival Commission (NCC) of Trinidad and Tobago in November 2017, people knew him for his music, particularly one massively popular hit in 1991: “Dollar Wine”

These days, he’s traded the moustache and tight shorts for a suit and tie and, in essence, oversees the whole of Carnival. He’s passionate but level-headed, and generous with jokes and opinions. He has a lot of ideas about what Carnival and its arts should be, and several about what they should not be. Lucas is of an older generation of Trinis who sometimes find themselves in conflict with the interests or aesthetics of the younger generation.

Unfortunately, many Trinis regard the NCC with skepticism, as they do most of the institutions that govern Carnival–and Trinidad as a whole. Money disappears into the vortex of the NCC, folks say; the governing body that Colin Lucas now runs often gets accused of mismanagement or even corruption. It’s tough to pin down hard facts to verify such claims, but it is true that money has been an issue in the Carnival institutions this year. And the unwieldy bureaucracy of the Carnival institutions very likely soaks up more funds than it makes use of. Blame gets tossed like a hot potato between the Ministry of Finance, the prime minister, the NCC, Pan Trinbago, and so on. But most agree that some of the blame is with the recession that Trinidad has been experiencing for a couple years. We’ll hear Colin Lucas’s thoughts on this subject.

You would imagine that, two weeks before Carnival, the man running the show would be in a mighty rush, but we sat down for a leisurely hour and a half to talk about all things Carnival. We started with his personal history. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Sebastian Bouknight: Can you introduce yourself?

Colin Lucas: My name is Colin Lucas and I am the executive chairman of the National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago.

What has your connection to Carnival been?

Well, my initial and most profound connection to Carnival is through music. I used to be a singer. Before that, I used to be a musician. Most people forget that and I’m annoyed when they forget. What I really used to do was play. I had a band. What I used to do before basically was give the lead singers of the band the songs to sing. But then the band split and I was like, O.K., so what am I going to do with this stupid song? I probably have to sing it myself. So I ended up singing a stupid song called “Dollar Wine.” And that kind of changed my life dramatically. [Laughs] And people started saying “Oh he’s a singer!” No, I’m not, O.K.? I just happened to sing, purely accidentally.

We used to play, as we say in Trinidad, on the road, for the [Carnival] parade. We used to play in all the major Carnival fetes, and for me, I though that was the whole picture. You know? It was an exciting picture and it was fulfilling and it was complete. I was quite surprised to find out when I walked into NCC’s doors, that that was a very miniscule part of the whole picture. So at first there was like bewilderment and then there was the “Oh my God” moment [Laughs]. And then the reality was like “O.K., you just need to calm down and address this thing from a completely different angle, or actually a spectrum of different angles, and see what contribution you can make in this role, this current role as chairman of the NCC—National Carnival Commission.

How long have you been in this role?

Well I’ve been here like...I’ve grown old in this role. I’ve been here since...November [Laughs]. Yeah. That makes me, what, a veteran?

What’s been the most challenging thing so far?

Well, first thing was the sheer number of people that it takes to make Carnival happen. For me, it used to be my band. You know, 16 players on stage, eight technical crew and a truck driver. That was it. But to make Carnival work, this organization is nothing short of amazing. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. They remind me of an anthill or a beehive. A lot of stuff is going on just so that things fall together. And it’s amazing. I am awed, actually.

How does the structure of this organization work?

Well, there’s the National Carnival Commission Act, right? Which established this organization to take care of Carnival. The act establishes a National Carnival Commission and says the commissioners shall be one from mas[querade], one from [steel] pan, one from calypso and six other people… TUCO, for calypsonians, Pan Trinbago for pan and, initially the NCBA [National Carnival Band Association]—now there’s some other issues surrounding other organizations that represent mas. But a lot of people consider these special interest groups a sort of untidy imposition on the commission. Clearly, the intent was so that those special interest groups must, as a matter of priority, have representation. And then the other six people, who should have competencies in accounting and law and economics and business. I know that over the next two years, I will get into a lot of arguments with people who see it as quite the opposite, that National Carnival Commission should be itself and dictate, for want of a better word, to the special interest groups.

Really? I would think people would want to make sure everybody has a say.

Exactly. Culture is of the people! And it’s people that determine Carnival, not the other way around! Of course, there must be structure, there must be planning, there must be vision, there must be strategizing, but every major change in Carnival has originated from the ground and has been pushed from the ground, not by the executive echelons.

Like pan.

Mas, and calypso. Yeah.

How do you balance the culture of the people and the industry side of it? I saw on the NCC website that the intent for Carnival, over the next 10 years or so, was to become more of a business than a festival.

But it’s already a business! And I think what causes some people to not see it as a business, or to see it as a losing business, is: they look at National Carnival Commission and say, “But wait a minute, they spent TT$160 million or TT$200 million and they don’t make that back. Its not about the commission making that back, it’s about the country making that back. And I don’t think anyone can plausibly argue that the country does not make a few billion dollars for Carnival, you know? And, so what the NCC does, I always argue that its not expenditure, it’s investment. NCC invests in Carnival and many other people, and many other organizations enjoy the returns. That’s the reality of it.

Like whom?

Oh, first on the list, hotels. Carnival is the only time in Trinidad and Tobago that all hotels enjoy 100 percent occupancy. Outside of Carnival a lot of hotels are glad for 30 and 40% occupancy. Carnival you get 100 percent. How dare you even think that Carnival is not contributing to your well being and your profitability? That’s absurd. Food and beverage industry. Particularly…

Beverage.

Particularly beverage [Laughs]. Particularly beverages of an alcoholic inclination. [Laughs] I mean, they thrive! And even things like water. Hours on the road, people drink water like it’s going out of style. Stuff like Gatorade, Lucozade, all those refreshers and rehydrators; they make a mint at Carnival time.

So, NCC, as you said, invests and then the returns end up in all of these…

In the public domain, yes.

So where does NCC get its money from?

From the government. We operate on subventions and we determine, of course, guided by government policy, how the monies are to be invested/distributed.

Who in the government decides the budgets?

Well, I mean, one can glibly say the minister of finance decides on budgets, but we know it’s not so. It’s a team thing. And people sift out priorities and determine where the injection of funds will happen. But remember, the board itself is not blind to government strategy and financing strategy. It’s all for the public benefit and for the public good. So, you make determinations as you go along, based on observation and good business sense. You realize that a little more injection this side, might, as you say, give you a better bang for your buck. That’s a business decision, you know? Next year, the contour might change a bit, you know? So, all right, maybe a couple more million there, or a couple less there. All in all, you must have an objective to ensure that the interests—that’s the interest groups, the mas the pan and the calypso—remain buoyant.

This year, things are a little bit different. Can you explain what’s happening?

Well, things have been getting progressively different [Laughs] over the last four years. It’s a global reality and even more so, it’s a national reality. The economy is not as strong as we would like it to be, and therefore funds are less available as we would like them to be. You have to pay a little more attention. You have to be a little more analytical as to where you put the funds at your disposal. Of course, when people get less, there’s always less joy. Apparently joy and money have this sort of symbiotic relationship. [Laughs] So less money normally equates to less joy. But I have to say, particularly in the context of this year’s experience, that the kind of acrimony that would have been expected from the interest groups as a result of reduced subventions, just hasn’t happened. There has been discomfort, but that discomfort, to date, has not morphed into acrimony.

Who’s been affected most?

In terms of sheer quantum, pan. Because its budget is the biggest of all. We’ve had subventions of TT$40 million to pan already, and this year its TT$20.5 million.

I’ve been hearing about calypso getting hit hard.

But their subvention has been traditionally lower, so again, quantum is lower. Their subvention this year is TT$6.5 million.

Would you say calypso relies more on government funding and pan has other sources as well?

Pan gets a greater percentage of the pie. Pan represents more people. They both rely on the government to a great extent. They’re also both focused on reducing that reliance and they’ve come out publicly and said so. Yes, we have traditionally used government funding and so on, and there’s a justification for that. But nonetheless as organizations, they’ve recognized the need to make themselves more self-reliant as they go along.   

You know, I think 10 years ago, the organizations were pretty comfortable in not being weaned. And we had an economy that could have sustained that. But now the reality is that things have to change. And I think they’re stepping up to the plate very laudably. I have to say that. So we’ll see where their efforts lead us.

I’ve read in the papers that there are some winners of various competitions—calypso and soca—that have yet to receive their prize money from last year. Is that true?

No, I don’t think there’s any prize money outstanding from any of the subventions, at least that NCC is involved with. There may be other organizations—people hold competitions all the time, and there may be some promoters that have not coughed up the prize monies, but I cannot…bring to mind any 2017 competition that is funded by the NCC that the winners haven’t received prize monies.

Given your position and the oversight that you work with now, how can you say Carnival changed since you were a youth?

Visually, there are more people and less costumes [Laughs] and less of costumes, if you get my drift. The costumes moved from highly depictive and extravagant to the three Bs. [Laughs]. Bikinis, beads, and the other "B." [Laughs] And some people are highly appreciative of that, by the way!

But from a festival point of view, the direction our costumes have taken seem to put us in the same sphere with the Carnival of Brazil and so on. Where it’s just about really nice bodies as scantily clad as possible. And I think we have moved out of a niche that we would have well controlled: the more depictive costumes, that took people months to make—wire-benders and people gluing feathers and stuff like that. Really creative things. And that also required a lot of research and so on. I think that is a niche that nobody could have competed with us there. And we’ve moved away from that, into a niche that everybody’s in and everybody’s buying costumes from China. I think we need to recreate the fight, bring them in our ring and knock the lights out. 

I heard that [the legendary mas designer Peter] Minshall is back in town.    

If I’m not mistaken, hes bringing out a mas with Exodus [Steel Orchestra]. That’s a nice collaboration. They’re one of Trinidad’s best bands and [he’s] one of Trinidad’s best mas men—some would argue the best mas man. He’s incredible. One of God’s gifts to the planet. And guess what? He’s here! [Laughs]. 

Peter Minshall's "Eyes of God" mas band
Peter Minshall's "Eyes of God" mas band

How has Carnival changed with regards to music? 

The music moved from pan-dominated to DJ-dominated to brass band-dominated and now we’re back to DJ-dominated. Hmm. So I suppose in a few years time, pan will re-emerge. Come on pan guys! I’ll put it how my friend put it. He said, “Long ago, bands used to have singers. Nowadays singers have bands.” It’s true. You had the Sound Revolutions… Leon Caldero and Derrick Seales. You had the Shandileers…Carol Jacobs, Ronnie Macintosh. You had Blue Ventures, that had Sanell Dempster. And Traffik with Eddie Charles, you know?

What era was this?

That was in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and even early 2000s. From the time 2005 or so hit, the bands basically disappeared and you had singers now, like Machel Montano, who had HD and Pranasonic Express. You have Destra [Garcia]. She has her band. You have my boy, Bunji [Garlin] and Fay-Ann [Lyons]. They have a band. So their band plays for them, end of text. You will never hear an interpretation of Bunji’s song done by Machel’s band. Now, that was a whole different color in Carnival years ago. So, a song would come out. Blue Ventures would play it, Fireflight would play it, Shandileers would play it, Sound Revolution would play it. And they all played the same song differently. And people would get drawn differently to the bands, like: “Boy, you hear how SoundRev play [the Mighty] Shadow’s song?” So, part of the thing was Shadow’s song, but a very important part of the thing was how SoundRev interpreted Shadow’s song. So that was a whole different dimension there that doesn’t exist now. You will hear [each song] played like that, if you go to a fete tonight and if you go to a fete tomorrow night and next week.

How do people feel about that?

Trinidadians are a little…we’re very tolerant people, especially if you love people. So you love the Destras and the Machels and whatever and you’re loath to criticize them. But I say, if you love the person, criticize them. That helps them grow. Long ago—that’s like five, 10 years ago—you could go and stand up outside a party and without hearing anybody’s voice, you know which band was playing. Now, all the bands sound the same. They just play different songs.

We need to be mindful of where we want to take the music and where we want to take the festival. I have had discussions of this ilk with many [young] people. I keep saying guys, it’s not about age. This is about stepping back and looking at what we’re producing. I ask many young people, “So, what [song won the] Road March [competition] last year?” Immediately, you see their eyes start to look up to the ceiling and look around…How you can’t remember the Road March from last year? That’s insulting. We need to step back and ask ourselves—if we want to sell this music to the world, you have to sell music that has what I call residual value. Beyond the party, beyond the drinking and beyond the wining. When these foreigners go back to their homes, to their “humdrum existence,” and they must be at work and say, you know something, when I go home I’m going to put on that Machel album. Yes. But the reality now is that’s not how it is, you know? They enjoy the party and they enjoy the rhythm and they enjoy the “Ahhh!” But beyond that environment, we’re not touching them. And we need to touch them.

Right. I’ve talked to several soca artists who say they have that very goal, to spread soca across the world.

They all share that objective, eh? Give them that. They see the need for that. We have something else that works against us. More than 300 people record every year but quite often it’s the same 11 or 12 that have hits. We, as a society, and we as a world being deprived of some awesome pieces of music, because, as they say, they’re not in the system, they’re not in the mix. It’s easier to convince a few billion people that you have a viable and interesting and attractive art form if there’s 400 different proponents of that art form pushing down the door!

I’m not a heavy party person, but the value of Carnival goes way beyond a party. You know? I think societally we understood that 40 years ago. I think once they start to understand that again, that will give the Carnival a boost.

Now you have these mega fetes, so instead of eight parties happening on the same night, all with 4,000 people, three, five thousand people, you’ll now have a night with one big fete that has 20,000 people.

Like Machel Monday.

Right. Going to a party in Soca Village with 5,000 people is a very different experience from going to something with 25,000 people. I’m not saying we haven’t gained anything, but what we have lost is that the personal touch.

When you were under 10, what do you remember about Carnival? What was a thing that struck you? 

When I was that young, I was just terribly afraid of J’Ouvert and the blue devils. I was really terribly, mortally afraid of them. Part of traditional mas[querade] and ole mas, there are characters. And one of the characters is a devil. And blue devils in particular painted their entire bodies blue and there was a red dye that they would put in their mouths that made it look like they were sucking blood. I mean it was really very up in your face, very vivid. And they had these forks and they would taunt you and say uhhh, look the devil, paint the devil. And as a 10-year-old child, I used to be mortally afraid. 

A blue devil
A blue devil

But then we would get to go into Woodbrook [near downtown Port of Spain] on a Tuesday afternoon and look at the regular mas, all the Indians and all the sailors ashore. That was really, really good. I remember that, it was a stark contrast to the J’Ouvert morning experience. 

What’s the relationship between J’Ouvert (dirty mas) and pretty mas on Tuesday? Why they need each other?

The pretty mas is showoff mas, eh? You’re showing off your nice costume or your nice body, or both. The J’Ouvert mas is nasty mas, it’s abandon: “I could do what I want, I could drink liquor out of a potty!” A bed pan, I kid you not! People buy bed pans—I mean, yeah, they’re not used for anything else but the drinking—but just the idea that you could put your mouth to the bed pan and drink alcohol, is something that a lot of people get their jollies off of, you know? They could paint their bodies in mud and hug up people forcefully who don’t want to be hugged. You put mud and paint all over people and yeah, I could do that, you can't do me anything because it’s Carnival, it’s J’Ouvert! There’s a band called Chocolate City. And there, what is mud for other people, is chocolate—real chocolate that you can lick of their bodies. I’m serious! Completely covered in chocolate.

J'Ouvert paint
J'Ouvert paint

Incredible

You know? My thing is, I don’t eat chocolate before 8 o’clock so, can you not hug me please?? [Laughs] It’s a different experience. I have two daughters. They both play J’Ouvert. Neither of them plays pretty mas. They just love the freedom of J’Ouvert. They go out at 4 a.m. and they spend four or five hours out there and they come back and they’re like, “Yes, Carnival was great!” That’s it.

The route wasn’t as controlled as it is now you know. In fact, the Carnival proclamation that they read at 4 o’clock in the morning [when J’Ouvert begins], when they say Carnival starts now, actually says "it is legal for Carnival and things to happen in every street in the city."

This year, the police service said that if you a thief a wine [start dancing with someone suddenly and without asking], you can get arrested. What are your thoughts on this?

You have no right to wine on anybody unless they want you to wine on them. Oh no, I’m clear about that. [But] how many police are going to be out there? By the time you wine on somebody and she demonstrates or shows you her disapproval, that’s the end of that and that episode is over. But even at various levels of inebriety, the normal Trinidad man knows “No, no she didn’t want that.” Now, if somebody is being overly aggressive and wants to force himself and so on and so on, then I could see the time frame allowing a policemen or policeman or policewoman to arrive on the scene and intervene. But how it happens on the road, somebody will just go duhduhduh [Makes wining gesture] and wine on somebody. Now, if they don’t like it, they will immediately will turn around and move away. That’s a few hundred thousand episodes every day.

I cannot see anybody going up to a lady and saying, “May I wine on you please?” It’s not practical! Within the context of personal space and rights and so on, it makes sense. But in the context of Carnival and everybody’s dancing, I can’t see anybody going up to somebody and saying you know, can you sign this form [Laughs] or can I wine on you please? It’s not a likely occurrence, you know?

I don’t know if the entire paradigm would change—I doubt it. But I still say to guys, “Listen. A woman’s body is hers, just like yours is yours. Hers is hers. Understand that, respect that, don’t violate that. Be clear about that. And no amount of drunkenness could justify anything to the contrary.”

Right. Why do you think this statement came about now?

Actually, I think how it emerged was more on a humorous vein, eh? But when all these things started flying on social media with permission slips and everything, people were amused. And it kept it buoyant and it kept the momentum. So there it was, a serious issue and discussion that was happening and there’s this big humor thing that was being made of it. And that can cloud the lines, that’s why I took my time just now and said “Guys, joke or no joke—or as they say in Trinidad, drunk or sober—mind your business.” You know? Don’t get yourself into trouble. Respect a woman, respect women and their bodies, they’re theirs.

I mean nobody ever complains when women wine on men. I wonder what that’s about? So I exhort the gentlemen in particular: understand the environment and be watchful, be mindful and be clear that you’re understanding…the communication that the ladies are giving you. If you’re not clear, when in doubt, keep away, that simple.

Wining’s not going anywhere.

No, it's part of the culture. Some people, of course, have abused the privilege and that is where that discussion has come about. Some guys feel that they have a right to wine on who they want, when they want, how, for how long they want. No they don’t!

Great. Speaking of the law, Trinidad is experiencing higher rates of crime right now. Is that affecting how Carnival is playing out this year?

Well, there have been advisories internationally, that say Trinidad is experiencing crime and so on and so on. And some people have heeded these advisories. Some have said, “Listen, if I’m careful not to put myself in the hotspots, in the areas where the crime is being experienced most, then I’m pretty likely to be safe. And actually, that’s the reality. You know it’s so unfortunate because crime is such a high visibility thing, it gets so much attention and it can give the impression that Trinidad as a country is overridden with crime. There are a few areas that appear to be crime-prone so far. I have confidence in the police service that they will solve it. Carnival is going to be a very safe carnival. And you just be vigilant and stay where you’re supposed to stay and you’ll be safe. 

Have you seen a relative drop in tourists? Do you track that?

Yes, there has been a reduction in foreign visitors for Carnival. It was a little more than 10 percent over the last eight years, but we’re working on reversing that. In fact, one of the mandates of this board, right after Carnival, is to partner with the tourism authority, you know, and really ramp up combined efforts to, you know, sell Trinidad and Tobago, and one of the selling points, of course, would be Carnival.

Very interesting. Any last comments for the world before we go?

Trinidad and Tobago, and Trinidad and Tobago Carnival are must-experience things for you. Wherever you live wherever you come from, wherever you reside, wherever you party. Tomorrow, get up and put a tick in your diary or your phone or whatever, that you must make an appointment for Trinidad Carnival 2019. And I’m going to add “ and beyond,” but I don’t need to, because once you come here for one year, you will be back. You may not be here every year consecutively, but you will be back, because we have something that’s addictive here. Other than me! [Laughs] But we have an amazing society and an amazing country. My mother was [St.] Vincentian and she always used to say that Trinidadians are the most remarkably talented people she’d ever come across in her life. You know? Come and make my mother a true woman. [Laughs]

One more question, what are you going to do on Ash Wednesday, once Carnival is over?

Come to work. I always work on Ash Wednesday. Let me tell you something. Even when I was actively involved in music—as I ascended the ranks of the organization that I worked at the time, which was the port, a lot of people took umbrage to the fact that I was a manager at the port but I’m singing in a band. So, the one time I did not take vacation leave was during Carnival. Most people involved in music took leave around Carnival. I decided I wouldn’t. For a simple reason. I wanted to show them I could sing in a band till 3 o’clock in the morning and come to work 8 o’clock in the morning and do a full day’s work and then go back again to my band and perform wherever I had to perform and come the next morning. So therefore, as an extension of that philosophy, the one day I never, ever would miss work was Ash Wednesday. ‘Cause that’s when they would expect me to. Never miss work on an Ash Wednesday, or a Thursday or a Friday.

Just to show ‘em.

Just to show ‘em.

So, when are you going to start planning for 2019?

Ash Wednesday. [Laughs] Aren’t you listening? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Thank you so much.

Now you’re sure I’m crazy! You thought I was crazy…

And now I know. [Laughs]