If you haven’t heard by now, some carnival activities will be happening for Trinidad 2022, but not in it’s regular format. While there will be no parade of bands with costumes taking over the streets, and no fetes, select venues have been declared “Safe Zones” by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts. These safe zones allow access to only fully vaccinated patrons and staff. These will be used to stage events put on by the state agency for carnival, The National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago (NCC), and their special interest groups, representing the areas of steelpan, mas and calypso. Some of the events include King and Queen of Carnival, Steelpan shows, Stick Fighting competition, Calypso Monarch and the Re-enchantment of the Canboulay Riots of 1881, a significant turning point for carnival in Trinidad.
But what has really gotten a lot of attention in recent days over this announcement is the use of pods that have been built at the Queen’s Park Savannah, replacing the annually erected North Stand, located to the north of the infamous carnival Savannah Stage. There have been mixed reviews on social media to these pods, which have previously been used at other festivals and carnivals internationally. Of course, health concerns aside, some believe that while it is a great idea to maintain social distance, it comes a little too late with carnival in less than a month, and signals a disrespect to carnival practitioners. Others are more concerned over the management of these crowds, as little detail was given on this when revealed to the public. How exactly will organizers ensure patrons don’t go into other pods? What about restroom usage? More so, with a mandatory seating policy during events at these Safe Zones, will standing and/or dancing be allowed in these pods?
Admittedly, most of the events to be held at the Savannah typically don’t evoke an excessive type of festive gyrating behaviour that we associate with carnival, but that excitement and ecstasy can still be experienced, especially at a steelpan or calypso show.
Up to last evening, a Twitter Spaces was held on the topic for this year’s season with a panel of contemporary entertainment industry personalities. Search “Carnival” on twitter and you’re guaranteed to see how that went, with once again, opposing views on who is really “for the culture”. A general feedback was that several felt the panelists were guilty of not doing enough to preserve the more traditional elements of carnival, as seen with the NCC events, and they used the Space to vent about their exclusion, despite their commercial endeavours having contributed to a decline of these events. As complicated as this topic is, due to the multiplicity of the carnival industry, no one group or audience can really claim hold as the gatekeepers of carnival and culture, as what unconsciously happens in these debates. What makes the popularity of the fete promoter believe their arena is the most prized possession? What makes the avid attendee of traditional carnival events believe their appreciation for it is superior, and that the modern carnival contributes nothing to culture? One week, we curse the public sector carnival for planning a last minute carnival; the next week we curse the private sector for their commercial moves.
While life isn’t meant to be so rigid to pick only one side of these arguments, it’s a moment for all of us working in this industry to listen, assess and improve what our audience experiences. Equally, there is much work for the audience to also be intentional as to where their money is spent, what events they attend and ultimately know what joy they are seeking each carnival. With the apparent ‘failures’ of both the public and private sector carnival producers, now is the perfect opportunity for the millennial crowd to remind themselves that if we’re really “for the culture” it’s possible to be thoroughly entertained without wine and jam, and attend these traditional events, especially with no competing fetes. If we’re “for the culture”, we’ll be reminded of our spending and social power and don’t always assume, after decades of exploitation of cultural practitioners, that those who genuinely seek to create models to generate an honest dollar for once in the industry, equally makes them public enemy number one. Is it that every year, at every carnival across the globe we’re going to end up in a ‘rabs’? We all have to truly do better, audience and practitioners.
After two years of this damn pandemic, I think every carnival lover just wants to partake in our culture freely. We’re all going to have an aspect of carnival we love and support and that’s fine, but we should also broaden our experience and understanding of what Carnival is, because it surely isn’t just one thing. As this now viral video demonstrates, rabs aside, this is how we all want to be in any carnival, be it in person, online, at a fete, in a steelband or in a pod!