The Trinidad Carnival challenge

When Carnival's over, how do Trinidadians preserve all the elements that make their festival the Greatest Show on Earth?

  • The Wrath of Tutankhamun (Curtis Eustace), King of Carnival, competing at the Jean Pierre Complex on Dimanche Gras night. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Blueprint for a King Sailor headpiece, designed and made by Bill Trotman. Illustration courtesy The Carnival Institute
  • Rodney Duncan prepares the frame for Ohina, Lady of D’ Morning, one of two Queen contestants from Stephen Derek’s D’ Midas and Associates, who presented their band Amazonia on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Trini Revellers’ production for 2007, La Revolution Française, (led by David Cameron) on Ariapita Avenue. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Headpiece from the Colorado River section of the band Masquerade, designed by Chris Santos and Gregory Medina. Illustration courtesy The Carnival Institute
  • Masqueraders moved quickly which left streets like Charlotte Street empty for long stretches of the day. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Sailor shirt design by Narcenio Gomez, front view. Illustration courtesy The Carnival Institute
  • Tico Skinner and Associates’ One Hell of a Country, led by Basil Smith, is really a tribute band. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Midnight Robber headpiece, worn by Charles Harrington. Illustration courtesy The Carnival Institute
  • King Sailor costume, designed and decorated by Bill Trotman. Illustration courtesy The Carnival Institute

For two days every February, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, as well as San Fernando, the other city in Trinidad, and towns all over both islands. They come to look at costumed masqueraders dancing to the sounds of calypso and pan. The calypso is driving; the pan heartbreakingly sweet. The parade of costumes is stunning, with designs inspired by fantasy, history, contemporary politics, art and whatever else strikes the fancy of the mas designers.

But when Carnival is over, pieces of costumes litter the streets. Masqueraders literally strip themselves once the band has passed the judging points, where adjudicators examine the flow of bands that can be tens of thousands strong, an endless stream of colourful cloth, sequins, glitter, plumes and plastic. Having been seen, the mas players get down to the real work of the day: drinking, dancing and losing themselves in the thing that cannot be contained in words or images, the spirit of Carnival.

In the National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago, a two-storey Victorian building close to the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, two rooms hold artefacts of that annual festival. Dusty costumes on mannequins show the art of mas, with traditional characters like the devil and burroquite represented alongside larger, more elaborate one-of-a-kind costumes. There’s a tiny imp in small red leggings, his silver scales dulled by time, standing before a burroquite, the peculiar half-human, half-donkey portrayal created by strapping a large hoop skirt to the waist. This burroquite is half bird, with a parrot’s head and tail where a donkey’s would usually be. Here, there’s little signage to put the figures into context. A visitor walking in would come face to face with a frozen display of mouldering feathers and lamé and not know where to start.

In another part of the display there are sheet-music scores of calypsoes and photos of calypsonians, the most modern of whom appeared to be Bill Trotman, wearing a mid-eighties jheri curl. Jammed up close to that wall is a series of miniature sculptures showing the evolution of the pan, Trinidad’s indigenous musical instrument and the other leg of the Carnival tripod.

It’s arguable the elements are here for someone who knows something about Carnival to piece together a story, but still, there’s a critical element missing: the vitality. Carnival is a popular festival, involving thousands and thousands of locals and visitors whose work may begin as early as September: writing songs, arranging music, designing costumes, tuning pans—putting together the disparate elements of a massive cultural enterprise that earns millions of dollars and has generated spin-off festivals on three continents. Little of that is reflected in the National Museum. (Museum curator Vel Lewis did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

On the other side of the Savannah, in a room off the shopping centre in the Hotel Normandie, is another collection of Carnival artefacts. Here at the Carnival Institute, musicologist, painter and historian Pat Bishop is sitting in her office surrounded by paintings, posters and poems. In the tiny foyer leading to the office, there are articles on Carnival stuck to the walls (among them, a mournful elegy to the Queen’s Park Savannah stage, which was once the centre of the festival but which will by next year make way for a new Carnival arts centre). On the floor, pans lean against a wall opposite mannequins wearing costumes from old bands, remnants of exhibitions the institute has mounted in the past.

Bishop is the de facto director of the institute. She is officially a consultant hired in 2004 by the Ministry of Culture to run the show in the absence of a director.

The institute was formed in 1999 under the aegis of the National Carnival Commission. It was headed by one of the main champions of such an institute, Dr Hollis Liverpool, the celebrated calypsonian also known as Chalkdust. The institute opened auspiciously, with Cabinet agreeing in 1998 to spend TT$200,000 on starting it. It was an ambitious idea, but one that ultimately collapsed. In two years Liverpool resigned, after resorting to holding meetings with the media and businessmen to drum up funding.

When Bishop was hired in 2004, she set about regenerating interest through seminars on Carnival, exhibitions and discussions. One of those seminars, Reflections on Carnival, is a scholarly annual postmortem of the festival by its practitioners. There was no such seminar this year, for reasons Bishop didn’t want to mention on the record.

“We are open to discussion, interview, conference, seminar. The discourse does not turn solely on ‘I find,’ ‘I feel’ and ‘I like.’ We try to probe to encourage the carnivalists and others to say what they’ve really thought about it.”

The rest of the work goes on. “This is work that should have been going on years ago,” said Bishop, talking about the collecting of not only Carnival-related information and artefacts, but the cultural objects and traditions of Trinidad and Tobago, which are largely undocumented, unstudied and unarchived.

“As you collect that story you have to capture it on film, in words. If you want to keep it for the next thousand years you have to put it away. If you are going to collect the history of the public arts of Trinidad and Tobago, you really do need a very complicated system or systems of archiving. Some things are on paper, but other things come in different materials—iron, fibre, sequins. In order to keep them safe, you have to dismantle them.”

Bishop and her staff of about seven artists and performers have undertaken the massive task of documenting Carnival and all its related activities in Trinidad and Tobago. So they photograph and film every show, go to panyards, interview those involved in Carnival, collect pans, costumes and music, and then analyse and store them.

Bishop said traditional museum techniques can’t work. “You can’t have people with a bit of glass between them and the morris chair…you can’t put up costumes from Carnival or (the Hindu religious outdoor performance) Ramleela, and leave them up for ever and ever.”

So how to do it? Bishop suggests dismantling costumes, instruments and so on, storing the pieces and exhibiting filmed footage of the artefact in its natural setting.

Miami-based US historian Steve Stuempfle, who has written a history of the steelband, in an e-mail response, said the biggest challenge in creating any museum of Carnival is sheer volume. “Comprehensive documentation means audio and visual recording of an event with multiple activities happening simultaneously. Plus, to really understand Carnival, it is necessary to document the preparations for the festival in the mas camps and panyards, as well as the seasonal activities in the calypso tents and fetes. An archive or exhibition can only be as good as the initial documentation.

“Then there is the problem of the artefacts. Though pans, for example, are quite durable, most costumes are fragile. Thus, they are hard to preserve long-term in a museum collection and often difficult to display in an exhibition.”

US calypso researcher Ray Funk, also interviewed via e-mail, voiced a similar sentiment. “Finding the materials, getting access to them, preservation—refrigeration, storage” are some of the challenges, he said. “There are many things that apparently have disappeared over the years or have been destroyed.” Digitising materials is key to any Carnival archive, he said. It makes it easier to put them together in a display, such as the virtual one at “Here you can get CDs, access digital archives, hear audio, video, hear podcasts, educational units—you need to get the archives out to the public in as many ways possible.”

Kim Johnson, a writer and pan historian, is the author of If Yuh Iron Good You is King and Renegades. He is now working on a pan archive project, in conjunction with Beat publisher Media and Editorial Projects. He is collecting and digitising photographs, paintings and other artefacts of the instrument that was created in Trinidad in the mid-20th century. To do it, he visits the owners of the artefacts carrying a laptop computer, a portable scanner, a backup hard drive and a high-definition digital camera. The artefacts need never leave the hands of the owners.

About the broader question of archiving Carnival as a whole, Johnson said, “The essence of African-American culture is contained in music, dance, masking. The museum form does not adapt to that very easily. Museums grew up in Europe and their culture is very material. There are problems of how do we take a form that was created in a very specific historical context and use it in another culture—and do we want to?”

Centres of a storm

Sheet-metal fences surround two sites in upper Port of Spain that are the centre of a brewing controversy. One will be a centre for the performing arts, initially estimated to cost TT$379.2 million.

The other site is in the Savannah—nearly directly opposite—where government plans to build a massive, turtle-shaped, Carnival performance arts centre. Construction began this year, months behind schedule, and was initially to be finished in time for Carnival 2008; that date has been pushed back.

The Carnival structure, first said to cost TT$700 million, is now to cost $450 million, said Rubadiri Victor, a multimedia artist and cultural activist who heads the group Artist Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT). ACTT is engaged in a vigorous campaign to stop construction on both sites because of what Victor says is a lack of stakeholder consultation.

Victor said the Carnival centre design had been “universally panned by artists”—indeed, one who didn’t want to be named scathingly called the centre “the morocoy,” and complained that when built it would block out the view of the whole of the St Ann’s hills. That person and others also dismissed the government’s enthusiasm over the success of the “Grand Stand-less” Carnival 2007.

Masqueraders walked the streets without their central judging point. Pan was judged in panyards and at the much smaller Skinner Park in San Fernando, shutting out many supporters. Large costumes struggled to fit into a sports complex not designed for mas. Those vendors who depended on the festival for sales found themselves running at a loss, since there was no one point for public and player alike to congregate.

But an article on the website of the National Carnival Commission (NCC) enthused, “Most seemed to have enjoyed a ‘Grand Stand-less’ Carnival this year, [and] it is assumed that masqueraders and Carnival jumbies alike will not mind waiting one more Carnival for the new structure.”

That new structure will get a warm welcome from Davlin Thomas, playwright, local government councillor and president of the National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago.

On the Carnival centre, Thomas, who has himself designed Carnival opening ceremonies for the National Carnival Commission, says, “The beauty of the centre is as a catalyst for utilising the epic possibilities of the Carnival.

“Any Carnival arts centre has to have the intrinsic possibility of accommodating a bigger thing for Carnival—light, smoke, sound, cyclorama. The costumes are designed for movement. [Carnival designer] Peter Minshall has used it [that way on stage] before. We have to be able to accommodate the next genius. A national Carnival centre is one of the spaces to do that.”

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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