The State and the COVID-19 Carnival: “No wining indoors” and missed opportunities

Carnival 2021 is making the government show its true colours. Aside from narrow definitions of Carnival and a reticence to allow innovation at the public sector level, we see that once foreign money and status borne by outsiders come to the nation, we good. Money talks, bullshit walks may have been apt had action speaking louder than words been a real thing here. But, this is not a new phenomenon.

Back in July 2014, there was a minor brouhaha with the name of the CPL team Red Steel, now Trinbago Knight Riders. Then, the Minister of Sport, Anil Roberts, laid out the time tested protocol that the name brand “Trinidad and Tobago” could not be used by a private sector organisation in for-profit ventures. (Companies Registry Online has a whole lot, otherwise.) In a matter of days, then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s attack dog Capt. Gary Griffith (in his role as Minister of National Security?) usurped Roberts’ rank by stating that the Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel was good to go. The CPL thanked Gary. He was the hero of the day, doing the bidding of the government. PM Persad-Bissessar noted that, “the final matches (of the CPL) are being played in T&T and Red Steel is amongst those that will be performing. Those games for T&T are going to be immense for promotion as a destination.

On 9 July 2020, Government announced that CPL cricket will take place in Trinidad. Later, the PM justified the cricket on the grounds that it generates “not an insignificant figure” of revenue. We see a grinning PM Rowley saying of the CPL that “the benefit we get from it is that we promote the country…it is an activity that is beneficial to us.”

Carnival IS beneficial to us as a nation, but the state and its actors are blind to its commercial significance. It promotes the country. It also locks in the idea of the financial potential of the country via Orange Economy activity. Money talking, but nobody’s listening. I have often quoted Derek Walcott’s line from 1970 about “the State being impatient with anything which it cannot trade.” He also said in his Nobel Lecture in 1992:

“This is how the islands from the shame of necessity sell themselves; this is the seasonal erosion of their identity, that high-pitched repetition of the same images of service that cannot distinguish one island from the other, with a future of polluted marinas, land deals negotiated by ministers, and all of this conducted to the music of Happy Hour and the rictus of a smile.”

Derek Walcott. THE ANTILLES: Fragments of Epic Memory. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993)

And so continues another saga of controversy, of ebb and flow in the native ideological and commercial contestation of this space for Carnival to maneuver and evolve. The fact that Carnival 2021 in T&T, in a grand celebratory and mass participatory way, is not on, is not questioned. It is how that decision came about. Obviously, pandemic mitigation is a priority: no congregation, reduced spread, lower chance of taxing ICU beds and our limited health care system. But what philosophy, so inured by ministerial entitlement, could have missed an opportunity for development of a new industry? What credo could move men to stifle innovation in a native industry that we lead the world in? The dogma from on high that Carnival is a parade and the associated activity is only physical has spawned actions that challenge reason.

After the recent success of Sekon Sunday at Queen’s Hall, the government seemed very antsy about the way patrons engage. As if it was not bad enough that the NCC still can’t rationalise the new ways that the creative industries are making headway and showing directions for revenue-based entertainment, and the Queen’s Hall management were setting new standards for patronage for live shows there, the Minister of Culture and the Arts, Randall Mitchell, MP, taking a chain up from a leaked video of the performance, calls in the mangers of State-managed venues — Queen’s Hall, Naparima Bowl, NAPA and SAPA — to review patron behaviour and ways of curtailing excessive dancing.

Minister Mitchell teleconferences with State-run venue managers

The minister’s action to this became a news story. But his lack of reaction to the NCC’s chairman stating that “TT can’t have a virtual Carnival, as that was an oxymoron,” was a story in itself that was not widely deciphered or reported. Nothing? No retort, no response? There has to be more than simply Carnival is a super-spreader event for COVID-19.

Trinidad Express newspaper articles
T&T Guardian newspaper article

This kneejerk reaction to the perception of breaches of safety protocols even led the Commissioner of Police to get involved — as if history is repeating itself, CoP Gary Griffith, once again is doing the bidding of government, this time without context and nuance. The Minister’s actions and statements reek of a prior attitude towards the indigenous arts in these performance halls. This abhorrence to Carnival festivity mirrors viewpoints founded in another time not too long ago when NAPA was new, and Carnival was seen not as a festival of ideas, heritage and commercial creativity, but as a cathartic release and a tourist magnet.

In 2010, Vijay Ramlal’s (President of the National Chutney Council) requested to have a chutney show at NAPA. The ministry of Culture did not accede to the request. The Minister responsible for Culture, Marlene Mc Donald, MP did not approve of chutney being staged there: the facility was not built “for those kind of things.” Junia Regrello, MP, then Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs is reported to have said, “NAPA is not the ideal venue for tassa, chutney and parang.” The T&T Guardian also reported:

“What the Minister [McDonald] really meant is NAPA is not the space for that. It is infectious. People respond to that kind of music with a real amount of energy, vivacity and joie-de-vivre. “The Minister had also denied Pan Trinbago the request to stage Champs In Concert there, too. “She never meant it as any disrespect. But merely she wanted to keep it upscale… keep it to a certain type of entertainment. We may even have to upgrade a Best Village show to bring it in here.”

Michelle Loubon. “Regrello: $20m to fix NAPA flaws“. Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. 26 March 2010.

…she wanted to keep it upscale.” As Naipaul say, “at once analysis is made ridiculous.” There is a gnawing feeling that Carnival and the “vivacity” of patrons’ reactions to music and performance has a role in the government’s understanding of Carnival. In these COVID-19 times, that stance has to evolve. Getting up in a performance is one thing, moving around is another. Warnings were made. Context and situation were deemed unimportant to the bigger picture of the industry of Carnival. And as always, the State’s actors, including the Chairman of the NCC, were behind the learning curve.

What’s good for cricket has to be good for Carnival. The reaction of the State’s actors to Carnival innovation is noted. The business of Carnival, like any other business activity has to be put on the front burner. Delayed action towards making a case for public sector genuflection to the business of Carnival and the festival with the same verve as the genuflection to the employment demands of the manufacturing and oil and gas sectors, and cricket tournament organisers, falls on the shoulders of the Carnival business sector. The Trinidad and Tobago Promoters Association has come forward as an advocacy group for the fete promoters, a key aspect of the Carnival industry now, but has received minimal government engagement. The CoP ultimately met with the group. Money talking, and nobody’s listening.

Note, it has been previously reported that:

  • 2019 figures estimate the creative industries sector’s contribution to be $427.6TTD Million or 0.30% of GDP (Est.)
  • In 2018TT$318 million were spent by visitors for Carnival with 33,873 visitors. In 2017, TT$335 million were spent by 37,448 visitors to the island specifically for Carnival.*
  • In 2016, approximately TT$373 million generated from Carnival, the last confirmed figure.

*UPDATE: TT Carnival Visitor Expenditure up to 2020

TT Carnival arrivals table

The numbers don’t lie. And, they are not insignificant figures!

The continuing sidelining of creative industry voices reveals the long held State patronage attitude towards the arts and Carnival. Zero dollars for the Carnival bodies in the 2021 Budget would have put a nail in the coffin of the annual celebration. The reality is the rise of the Carnival entrepreneur in the mix of commerce, advocacy and influence. The State’s reaction to this has its roots beyond pandemic concerns. When the Prime Minister, in September 2020, saw “no future for Carnival in the months ahead,” his vision of the industry was just mas’ on the road. What should be a public-private engagement has become a comic ritual of getting in the last word. Those words appear to be: “Carnival is not on. I say so. Talk done!Money talking, but nobody’s listening.

The official destination website for Trinidad, #visitTrinidad stated since November 2020 that, “… due to COVID-19 restrictions, there will be no physical Carnival celebrations in February 2021. However, we look forward to welcoming you to our shores to experience the Greatest Show on Earth in 2022!” There is resignation that a physical Carnival was off the cards. To be better safe than sorry, in an advanced world, would have incorporated a new vision for how everything could and should be done going forward.

The failure of the NCC or the government, for that matter, to make any inroads into the media event that is Carnival with global audience possibilities — March 2020, when the pandemic took a dangerous turn in the country, should have marked the beginning of licensing negotiations — is a mark against them. A late pivot by the NCC to a digital online platform stands as rearguard action amid the flurry of commercial broadcast options for a Carnival experience on the airwaves and on the world wide web of the internet. The enabling environment for the revolution and evolution of T&T Carnival was stymied by myopia and bad mind. Bullshit walking.

To reduce the Carnival to wining and where you can wine is a shameful act of convoluted leadership and unimaginative management of the State’s money and influence. The futility of regulating Carnival joy is playing out as we speak. The dictum of “Carnival is not on” has been met with resistance in the form of action, innovation and ideation in search of money and new audiences. Trinidad Carnival came about through resistance to Colonial manners, masters and maxims. The continued evolution will move beyond the State and its controversies that can’t see the forest for the trees.


A timeline to the controversy and chaos of Carnival 2021 in T&T

  • 21 March 2020

    Government begins restrictions on gatherings in bars, clubs and restaurants that come into effect via the Public Health [2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)] Regulations, 2020, amended and updated regularly.

  • 24 June 2020

    Government has not made a final decision on hosting Carnival 2021.

  • 28 September 2020

    PM Rowley makes his “Carnival 2021 in not on” speech at the Trinidad Hyatt Regency.

  • 5 October 2020

    Budget 2021 laid in Parliament where documents show  ZERO dollars for “transfers to Carnival bodies” and “grants to regional bodies” for Carnival 2021. 

  • 25 November 2020

    National performance spaces under the Ministry of Culture are open to the public under strict Covid-19 protocols and safety guidelines created in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. “Dancing” is not mentioned in the Protocols for Invited Guests, Patrons, Other Ticket/Invitation Holders at the facilities.

  • 10 January 2021

    Sekon Sta’s Sekon Sunday held at Queen’s Hall, Port of Spain with limited seating and social distancing as prescribed by the management of the Hall.

  • 12 January 2021

    TT Police Service launches a probe into “Queen’s Hall Carnival fete” based on a leaked video. The Commissioner would later recognise that this was not an illegal activity.

  • 13 January 2021

    Click to expand

    Queen’s Hall releases a statement restating that “all Covid-19 protocols were observed and undertaken at that [Sekon Sunday] concert.”

  • 14 January 2021

    A meeting between Trinidad and Tobago Promoters Association (TTPA) and Ministry of Culture was originally planned for 8 January 2021. No meeting was held. TTPA did, however, meet with the CoP on 14 January 2021 to discuss matters arising from Queen’s Hall event. Click here for TTPS Media release, “CoP: TTPS to Monitor Virtual Carnival Events.”

    Photo courtesy TTPS Facebook page
  • 15 January 2021

    Trinidad and Tobago Promoters Association holds a press conference outlining the Carnival 2021 paradigm and how to overcome it. A statement was delivered by TTPA advocate Paige De Leon.

  • 26 January 2021

    The NCC announces less than 3 weeks before Carnival, the launch of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival World, a digital entertainment ecosystem that is FREE to the public, to go live on February 14, Dimanche Gras.

© 2021, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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