Sunday, 29 April 2012 02:30
By Derrick Nicholas
Antigua St John's - Carnival is mas and music. Carnival is calypso. Carnival is mas with a steelband, Carnival is bliss. (The Mighty Beckett)
I could not have said it much better than the Mighty Beckett did a few years ago. Beckett’s calypso captured the entire picture of what has become known as carnival in our part of the world not to be confused with the rides and games as it is known in the United States and other places.
This annual celebration, which was originally held during the Christmas holidays, was moved to the summer months in 1957. This year , Antigua celebrates 45 years of its annual summer festival. The celebrations, however, have shifted in focus.
Like everything else, Carnival has evolved into a highly commercial activity, and the emphasis on highlighting and celebrating our emancipation from slavery has been less and less over the years.
Like two other activities Sailing Week and Test Cricket Carnival has become of our three major economic activities on the Antiguan calendar. For this reason, the required emphasis and attention should be paid to the festival, not only for its own survival, but for the continued growth and strengthening of its position as the competition for advertising dollars, visitors etc becomes increasingly fierce.
In recent times, many of the neighbouring islands have moved their annual carnival events to the summer months. This, therefore, means that our festival’s organisers will have to become more creative in trying to lure visitors from abroad and thereby concretizing Antigua’s position.
This also means that funds allocated for the promotion and marketing of Carnival must be made available as early as November of the previous year. Carnival cannot afford to receive its funding in May or, worse yet, June.
Ideally, Carnival should be made to raise and retain its own funds. A festival of such significance to the country’s economic life must be accorded the importance it deserves.
That said, what is it that drives working folks business executives, lawyers, accountants, CEOs to revel on the streets in barely any clothes? Whether it is with Legacy Mas Camp (affectionately called “Legs to See”) or Xtreme Mas Troupe (affectionately called “Bare as You Dare”), the question is: What is the lure?
As one young told me a few years ago, she works hard during the year, and Carnival (Monday and Tuesday in particular) is a time for her to “free up herself.” I suppose that she is not alone in this regard.
What of the controversy that usually seems to surround the calypso competition?
One school of thought in Antigua is there is no calypso competition without controversy. Apparently, this is one of the most effective marketing tool the Antigua Carnival Committee has at its disposal although it sometimes wished it did not have the kind of attention these controversies sometimes bring.
There was a time when the rivalry between Short Shirt and Swallow pitted their respective two communities Point and Willikies against each other.
Ole Time Somet’ing has New Face
Legend has it that the microphone would be turned down when Swallow was onstage performing. So aggrieved was the Antiguan public that King Obstinate made a song “Crucify Him,” which sought to highlight the alleged wrongs done to Swallow by Short Shirt’s fans or residents of the Point Area.
There was a time, too, when the calypso king it only became calypso monarch in recent years could not be crowned on the night of the competition. The winner was announced the following day in the media. That we are now able to learn who won within an hour of the end of the show is another indication of how this process has evolved.
I have never understood the "unofficial" ban on calypsos, since this was never a court order and one could simply go to the tents and hear the same calypsos encore et al. In fact, I’ve found that this "ban" only served to bring more attention to the song and the singer.
Perhaps the powers that be should heed the late Dr Eric Williams’ advice to his fellow PMNites to "let the jackass bray" because "the calypsonians let me know about public opinion".
It is ironic how this thing once called benna, then calypso, now kaiso, has itself evolved. There was a time when benna could not be sung around the house; worse yet on a Sunday! Today, calypsonians are courted and have become the darlings of political parties, as well as pitchmen for products as diverse as snacks and financial services.
The music of Carnival was not limited to the yearly offerings by the calypsonians. Antigua, though not laying claim to the invention of pan (although this debate has its fine points), can lay claim to having the first steel orchestra Brute Force Steelband. Also, we can boast of having the first steelband to the record a vinyl disc Hellsgate Steel Orchestra (1949).
Evolution is evident in this sphere too. Steelbands are no longer pushed around St John’s by throngs of revellers, but instead are drawn by tractors.
Though some steelbands have remained vibrant, the active competition took a break for several years. However, 2001 saw the welcome return to the Carnival programme of Panorama.
With respect to the mas in Antigua’s Carnival, less has become more. It is always an awesome sight to behold the mas as conceived by the skilled mas builders over the years. But gone are the days when spectacular costumes were drawn through the streets of the city. Instead, the costumes have gotten smaller and smaller, leaving little to the imagination.
Another evolution that the mas have undergone is the accompanying music. In the not-so-recent past, the steelbands were the primary source of music for troupes on the road. But, as the years progressed, the steelbands were replaced by hi-fis and, now, by jam bands.
Two years ago , Antigua became the first Carnival to stream its shows live on the Internet, although not has been said in this regard. We can take credit, as well, for many of the things others have sought to emulate, including the imaginative presentations on stage during the Calypso Monarch and Female Calypso competitions.
No doubt, change will continue be a constant this year, as well. Whether it will enhance or detract from the celebration only time and distance will tell. Either way, it will be interesting.
The attached article was written by me 10 years ago for the Antigua Carnival Committee's official magazine. I believe it is still relevant.