How should Trinidad and Tobago remember its cultural heroes? An opinion

Narrie Approo. Photo courtesy The Caribbean Memory Project

Narrie Approo, “masman extraordinaire” and keeper of the flame of Black Indian mas’ in Trinidad’s Carnival died yesterday January 6, 2022. This, after the passing of calypso icon Mighty Bomber, popular calypsonian and parang soca innovator Kenny J, rapso rebel Brother Shortman and kaisojazz pioneer Clive Zanda, in the first six days of this new year. And with this count of passing legacies, we are brought to the realisation that, all in all, we don’t know enough about these men, these cultural heroes.

Cultural heroes who passed in the first 6 days of 2022

Commentary on social media is noting that our cultural heroes, icons and major practitioners are only being recognised at death, and that it’s scant recognition even then, since material, memories and ephemera of these lives are minimal. The Wikipedia pages of these people are not plentiful enough and are not well populated with facts to make an obituary and/or continued editorial tributes beyond death have significant impact to convince the wider population that creatives are the heart and soul, and potential economic drivers of this nation. People are also blaming the government. Why bother?

The Trinidad and Tobago government implemented in 2011, a National Registry of Artists and Cultural Workers, (now known simply as the Artists Registry), which is a database, delimited by time, of nationals of Trinidad and Tobago who operate within the creative sector facilitating its development through “the recognition and certification of the bona fide of individuals.” So, that is not the problem.

In 2019, the government explored the formal recognition of cultural excellence via the creation of a National Cultural Recognition Policy within which 3 categories were suggested: Cultural Awards (Why??? 10 sub-categories including Best New Artiste, Most Consistent Artiste, etc. That is a job for the sector, not government), Cultural Ambassadors, and Cultural Legends. A launch during Carifesta XIV in August 2019 was planned with a hoped-for first awards in 2020. COVID-19 and the inertia of the public service scuttled those plans.

The chronology of this endeavour was that on May 28, 2019, then Minister Dr. Nyan Gadsby Dolly announced Cabinet-approved public consultations towards the Policy. (I served on a team within those consultations in Port of Spain making recommendations, which sadly did not seem to have been taken up.)

A January 8, 2020 draft was submitted to Cabinet and on February 28, 2020, Minister Gadsby-Dolly laid the approved Policy in Parliament as a White Paper. (A White Paper “may contain legislative or administrative proposals on which the Government intends to act.”)

I did see that current culture minister Sen. Randall Mitchell got some shade thrown at him from National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago (NCC) chair Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters back in February this year for promising to honour our artistes — “…we really, really do care about them” — while they are alive through the still unimplemented Policy. Gypsy said:

“I have been in this business for over 50 years and I have been hearing that for longer than that. All of the things we are going to do for the fraternity – and it is always said on occasions like these, when the person lying in the coffin and our emotions run high, and their significance (is) multiplied in (such) a way that we extol their virtues and talk about all the things we are going to do. Have we done it, and if not, what has prevented us from doing it all these years?”

Gypsy, speaking at cultural farewell for the late calypsonian Singing Sandra. Courtesy T&T Newsday

The policy is expected to develop the competencies in the arts, provide positive role models for our young people, encourage excellence in the arts, and manage the expectations of citizens with regard to cultural pursuit. That last one should be embedded in your brain. Entitlement is not a privilege nor a giveaway for a government, but please…we all know better. “I have a boat for fetes and restaurant activities during pandemic times and I have a direct line to the AG for legal advice!” So, that, too, was not the problem.

At the end of the day, our recognition and adulation of cultural heroes and their output will not be dependent on government fiat. WE have work to do. The cultural industries means that WE as citizens and individual corporate citizens have to do the work of communicating to the wider public the trials, tribulations and achievement of these heroes. ARTISTS, you too have to do the work of compiling your own stories without embellishment and hyperbole! The truth of your victories and losses will come out, but we as a nation can celebrate those victories and share them with a global industry that honours legacy, commercial achievement and national pride.

ADDENDUM

Is the Minister responsible for Culture and the Arts playing games or what? We read how the current minister clapped back at Gypsy, at the February 2021 event above.

“Since he, as a member of the UNC, was a part of the Peoples Partnership Government during 2010-2015 and also served as a Minister of Culture during that tenure and put absolutely nothing in place to recognise the cultural achievements of those outstanding persons in the cultural arena, from his comments I get the sense of hypocrisy.”

Sen Randall Mitchell clapping back at Gypsy. Courtesy LoopTT

But in January 2022, there is still no implemented policy — Gypsy ain’t lie — and all we are getting are words: “Clive ‘Zanda’ Alexander has made an outstanding contribution to the kaiso jazz genre and he leaves us with a rich musical legacy. We are certainly grateful for his contribution to culture and the arts and his creativity will be missed.” After Clive is dead. When he was alive, anyone ever came to a show of his? No irony, no shame.

Similarly, another press release is issued by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts the next day, praising Narrie Approo: “Another icon has left us but his legacy will live on. Narrie Approo will be remembered for his skill in wire bending and beading and his skill for making elaborately designed costumes which thrilled onlookers during Carnival.”

What was in the pipeline for implementation that one can be left so flat-footed after the shock of five cultural icons’ passing, and an already laid piece of legislation only awaiting promulgation, that the only actions are releasing condolence press releases? We wait to see.

© 2022, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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