Afropop Worldwide’s Sebastian Bouknight is in Trinidad and Tobago for Carnival season. Look forward to further dispatches and an in-depth audio program in the coming weeks.
Trinidadians proudly call their country’s Carnival “The Greatest Show on Earth.” No doubt that this year will be one heck of a show. I’ve been visiting some spectacular steelband rehearsal parties and hearing excitement from locals. In just the next few days, there are many shiny soca bashes and music competitions to attend and it’s still almost three weeks till Carnival.
Nonetheless, there’s a bit of a shadow over the show this year. Trinidad and Tobago, nestled up against Venezuela at the southernmost reaches of the Caribbean Sea, is grappling with some problems. Chief among them are a downturned economy and a striking rise in crime. The country’s economy is deeply dependent on its petroleum industry, fed by the extensive offshore oil fields to the island’s southeast. When oil prices dip, the whole economy feels it. In mid-2017, oil prices fell. Although they recovered by the end of the year, this cut in revenue, coupled with weak business elsewhere and, according to popular opinion, mismanagement of government finances, produced a sweeping recession. Some hopeful souls are looking up, putting their faith in rising oil prices and the sparkling new, BP-run offshore oil rig. But for now, a lack of funds is taking its toll across the board.
On top of that, crime has been on the rise, with a homicide rate steadily creeping up since 2011. There were a tragic 494 deaths in 2017 and already 48 in the first 24 days of 2018. This wave of violence is largely affecting those ensnared by escalating gang life and drug trafficking. Branches of the Latin American drug trade funnel through Trinidad to the U.S. and Europe, due to its ample coastline, porous ports of entry and proximity to an unstable Venezuela. Some locals get drawn into the business and violence ensues. Watch local evening TV and you’ll be sure to see any news show punctuated by rather sensationalized recaps of the day’s murders. Many people are grieving the loss of loved ones and many others are lamenting the loss of safety and societal ethics. This issue is a major one on Trinis’ minds, but too unwieldy to fully unpack here.
So what does this mean for Carnival 2018? What do crime rates and oil prices have to do with this pre-Lenten bacchanal and its calypso, soca, steelpan and feathery, ornamented mas costumes? For one, as you can imagine, an ever-present murder count or, worse, losing loved ones to violence, does not move a person to go out into the streets and party late into the night. Nor does it do much to encourage the tens of thousands of tourists who come to Trinidad for Carnival every year. Nonetheless, the party goes on. This drew the ire of at least one newspaper opinion writer, lamenting that her fellow citizens are “insensitive” and “feel that Carnival and fetes will help [them] blot out the pain that too many people are feeling.”
More explicitly, Carnival—especially the gravitational artistic competitions—depends on money, much of it from the government. Carnival, in a rather real way, is fed by oil. When oil sinks, Carnival gets skinny. In 2018, Trinidad is already seeing some troubles on the road; calypso audiences are slimmer, mas bands are getting fewer players, popular singers are vying for reduced prize money, and the upcoming celebrations are getting scaled back. Out of all the cornerstones of Carnival, this money pinch is hitting calypso in particular.
During Carnival season, calypso is mostly heard in the context of "calypso tents"—troupes of associated calypsonians who travel together from venue to venue, performing their songs in evening spectacles (not often in real tents anymore). The Calypso Revue, a tent founded 55 years ago by the late, legendary calypsonian Lord Kitchener, is reporting that it’s in danger of closing shop due to a lack of funds. Its current manager, Michael Osuna, A.K.A. Sugar Aloes, says that, on top of a government-issued TT$100,000 (US$14,285), they will need an additional TT$400,000 to come in from somewhere else in order to survive.
Calypso icon Dr. Hollis Liverpool, A.K.A. The Mighty Chalkdust, bemoaned the money drought, calling on the government and local corporations to step up and save the legacy of the great Kitchener. Chalkdust: “It is a shameful thing in the land of calypso nobody would come out and say for Kitchener’s sake, I will come forward and save the Revue.” He goes on to decry the damaging impact of not investing in local culture: “Without the panyard and the calypso and these art forms, what is going to happen to the society? Yuh going to go to work, go home and go in the toilet. Calypso is what keeps you happy and keeps you stable.” Several other calypso tents have reported similar woes—low money and low attendance—and have dialed down their operations.
To boot, the governing body for calypso, the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organization (TUCO), has a very quickly draining wallet this year. Of the TT$6.5 million (about US$930,000) they receive from the government, TT$5 million is already tangled up in debt. This is still weeks before their pivotal events of the year, the Calypso Fiesta semifinals and the Calypso Monarch competition. TUCO might have to reduce the prize money for the competition and is begging musicians and venues to work with them without sure payment. In the southern city of San Fernando, the Carnival commission has moved their calypso competition to a smaller venue and cut all awards but one. Money is tight for calypso this year, from top to bottom.
People are promulgating many theories for the financial pinch, on top of the recession: corruption and mismanagement in the government, poor marketing, fear of crime and even a diminishing interest in calypso from Trinis of Indian descent (calypso is largely performed by Trinis of African descent). Reading through newspaper articles, press releases and talking with locals, it’s difficult to pin down reality among all the stones being thrown in all directions.
Echoing a critique I’ve heard from several Trinidadians, the Minister of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, said that this money problem exposes a deeper issue. Calypso, and other Carnival happenings, might just be too reliant on government funding for survival. This argument could be taken as government-issued scapegoating to cover for financial mismanagement, but it does hold some water. As popular interest shifts more towards soca music, calypso can be seen as a bit stale. No doubt, Trinidadians young and old still hold lots of respect for calypso and there are some promising young calypsonians. But it seems that, recession or not, the audience for live calypso is ebbing and aging. Minister Gadsby-Dolly and other commentators put the onus on calypso tents to rebrand and bring calypso up to date in order to attract a younger audience and corporate sponsorship. Or, as one opinion writer suggests, tents just need to have better calypso if they want better crowds. Another stone thrown.
Does the issue go beyond calypso? The National Carnival Commission (NCC) chairman, Colin Lucas, also suggested rebuilding the Carnival model as a whole to become less reliant on government support, which can waffle with the economy. The Trinidad and Tobago Newsday publication collected some public opinions on how Carnival will be impacted by the recession. Half agreed that the festivities thus far, especially calypso, felt diluted. They added that people just don’t have the money to go out and party like usual. The other half saw no difference this year, and mostly cited the unwavering presence of the massive, privately run and corporate-sponsored soca fetes (fete is Trini for "party"). Whatever the case may be about calypso, it’s clear that soca music is keeping on.
Soca—the hyped up, liquor-soaked popular dance music of Trinidad—is staying strong in the private arena. Local radio stations play the season’s top 10-to-15 soca hits on repeat, to the point that you wake up with those melodies running through your head. If you still can’t get enough, you can buy tickets to a multitude of all-inclusive, thunderously loud fetes that feature many of these soca stars in one night. These are for-profit spectacles with high ticket prices; they may be sponsored by liquor companies, oil companies or banks and offer unlimited alcohol and food. Some go from 10 p.m. till dawn and some even begin at 3 a.m. and go until mid-morning. This industry is plenty lucrative, driven by social media and catering towards the country’s fete-loving youth.
The soca industry reaches beyond Trinidad too, to party-oriented music markets in the Caribbean, the U.S. and further. Unlike calypso’s highly topical, site-specific lyrical witticisms, soca’s message is broadly digestible: fete, party, drink, dance, go wild. Soca has a leg up on calypso that is hard to beat. The corporations looking for a big return on their sponsorships might just end up backing soca over calypso.
But on the institutional end, soca is also getting hit financially. In 2018, 140 artists registered for the International Soca Monarch competition, a big drop from last year’s 240 artists. That drop is attributed to a shorter Carnival season (the dates change in tandem with Lent and Easter) and a cut in the prize money by at least a third--down to TT$300,000 (about US$42,900) for first place. Due to their high production costs, some artists might still end up in the red, even with the top prize money. The Caribbean Prestige Foundation, which runs the competition, has received support from the government (much of it from the National Lottery), but it says corporations are remiss to sponsor due to the recession. Another turn-off for artists: some winners from last year are still waiting to get paid. For the audience, the budget cuts means no live backing band to look forward to at the competition. The parallel but less-dominant Chutney Soca Monarch competition is feeling the same losses. (The world of Indian-inflected chutney soca is a major one in its own right; more on chutney soca in a later post).
So why does all of this matter? Other than the obvious negative impact of a recession on everyone, a blow to the vitality of Carnival is a blow to the pride of Trinidad. Alongside Carnival in Brazil, Carnival in Trinidad is the top of the tops. The party scene is wild, the music is the hypest it can be, the costumes are extravagant, the steelpan is blazing hot and the tradition is mighty deep. During the weeks between the New Year and the beginning of Lent, Trinidad lives and breathes Carnival, from the pervasive, nonstop soca to the nightly steelpan rehearsals, to the traveling calypso shows. When the Carnival season is made tamer, things are not right in Trinidad. When the Carnival art forms lose support, people like calypsonian Mighty Chalkdust start worrying about the degradation of vital Trini culture.
Of course, it’s not just a matter of pride and national identity: the industries built around Carnival are significant. When budgets and events get cut, people from musicians to food vendors to stagehands lose money. Now, talking grimly about budgets and paychecks is one thing, but it remains to be seen exactly how the rest of the season will pan out. In all likelihood, we’ll still see much of the vibrant bacchanal Trinidad is known for. We’ll keep you updated with words and pictures as the days go on and the fetes get fetted.