A friend just gave me a bellyful laugh when he remarked that he looked forward to seeing my troupe on the road again this year. If you’ve been here before, you’ve read about Grace’s Merrymakers inspired by the tree faerie from my children’s picture book, late 2016 release With Grace.
It wasn’t meant to be the birth of Antigua’s new mas dynasty but the 60th anniversary of Carnival in 2017 gave me and some friends who love mas the opportunity to try doing our own thing. And so I laughed – though the Mas sub-committee had already reached out to remind me to re-up my registration – because not me and that again (at least not right now, but never say never after all I do have a couple of picture book characters who haven’t hit the road yet). Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did it (for the time with my girls, just us three, as much as the return to mas which I hadn’t played in a minute – as I discuss in this essay in Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters) but mas is so much more fun when you don’t have to worry about all the behind-the-scenes stuff – I have new-found respect for any of the leaders of mas I’ve played with over the years who managed to wrangle all the moving parts, including literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, without looking harassed.
This energy and expense has to come from a place of love of the art and of Carnival because what you walk away with, literally the only thing you walk away with, is the experience. And yet for so many of our artists, year after year, it’s worth it.
Carnival, Antigua and Barbuda’s Carnival, is a weird hybrid of culture and commerce. When it launched in 1957, it was a tourism low season event that re-focused, some would say leached, the creative energy that used to be put in to the Christmas masquerade – a mas of john bulls and long ghosts and more – or so the mythology goes. In doing so, it also intersected with, some would say overtook, the Emancipation Day, August Monday, observation. To this day, the tension between the cultural and artistic value of Carnival (artists creating music, costumes et al, celebrating freedom and self) and its value as a financial investment (event tourism, domestic economic stimulus) remain in tug-o-war. Every year it creates bacchanal. Some of the headlines so far this year have focused on the pre-season fetes, to be taxed or not to be taxed; on pan, how practical is it to acquiesce to the demands of the association re the staging of panorama in order to enhance the quality of the sound; on the parade route, hew with tradition and jam down Scotch Row or take it out of town and give the revelers more room to wild out; on the programme itself, as Calypso steps in to the sunset like an ailing grandparent who the young ones find charming but not as intoxicating as soca – yep, Soca by way of Party Monarch, has won the battle for Carnival Sunday Night (it’s been a long time coming: from the Party Monarch’s slow grind to relevancy to its explosion as the biggest draw of the season, to this, and Calypso didn’t even really put up a fight).
At heart, these headlines point to questions like what is Carnival really about, to whom does it belong, who is it for, and why does it matter? For some the answers are easy – it’s an expression of our creative selves and a celebration of our cultural identity, it belongs to the people, it is for the people, and it matters because our core creative selves matter. As Short Shirt sang back in the day, “we are the ones”, right? But idealism aside, with corporate branding and government management, and a reported $7 million owed to individuals and service providers involved in previous Carnivals making news at this writing, it’s never been purely about the art – in fact, at times, depending on which chairman, minister, or administration happens to be at the helm, there can even be a sense that some shows which have artistic value while not being huge draws, have to justify their very place in the line-up as a financial concern. Some, like pan, which the government says has given what amounts to an ultimatum to press for certain changes to the stage to improve the quality of sound on panorama night, changes which the government deems logistically and financially impractical and unnecessary, as it hasn’t hindered the upward trend in crowd turnout, have fought their way back to centre stage from the very edges of Carnival (there was a five year panorama timeout, 1996 to 2000, the longest break since the first panorama in 1949; and the youthful energy through schools of pans and pan showcases like Moods of Pan are credited with reviving interest in its return).
Even the schedule shuffle was justified along economic, i.e. the economic value of Carnival as entertainment, lines when Culture Minister Daryl Matthew was quoted as saying, “(the change) gives someone who may be visiting Antigua & Barbuda for Carnival an opportunity to be partying all day, all night from the time they land on Thursday right down until Last Lap.”
The changes certainly seem rational (with the arguable exception of children’s Carnival falling in the middle of the work week). Art isn’t always rational though. It’s a soul connection, a calling of the spirit. And some of these changes, even some that can be attributed to time, shifting generational tastes, and good financial sense won’t sit easy on the spirit. Whatever the case, the Carnival will go on and next year there’ll be some other bacchanal in the build-up. But it would be lovely if it felt like we had a long term vision for Carnival (and maybe we do) that balanced these sensibilities, the artistic and cultural value, the commercial aspect and the event’s profitability – and within that a recognition that yes, Carnival must pay its way, justify its existence, but art is not purely commerce. It is something deep in the soul that finds expression in music, mas, and more, and, impractical though it and artists sensibilities can seem, Carnival wouldn’t exist without it. Or it might but as a confetti-like concoction (some argue it already is) that captures nothing of the character of the people and the country, and not even a shade of what made it at one time, without exaggeration, the Caribbean’s greatest summer festival. – By Joanne C. Hillhouse
The Creative Space series appears on journalist and author Joanne C. Hillhouse’s Jhohadli blog, syndicated here and in other spaces. It is an opportunity for companies located or operating in Antigua and Barbuda to BOOST your BRAND while boosting local Art and Culture. Contact Jhohadli/Joanne C. Hillhouse if you wish to sponsor a future post. All Rights Reserved.
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