T he year 2009 is one of those when the calendar conspires to have a clash of dates in three countries very close to each other in the Caribbean-South America carnival belt, so that tomorrow the festival will be at its peak in all three of them. But the several events which are central to the traditions and lead up to this peak have already been in progress this weekend and actually got going a long time ago.
In Trinidad and Brazil the dates are always identical each year. They are the two leading carnival countries in the world, sharing the same ancient tradition with similar roots which date back nearly 400 years. This secular tradition is historically fixed in the annual Christian calendar to end on the night before Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, 40 days before Easter. Although within the belt, Guyana is not known to be a carnival country and the festival in its present form is only some 40 years old. Its date is only coincidentally close to carnival, since it is not tied to the same history and is the celebration of Guyana’s Republic Day.
The Rio ‘Carnaval’ in Brazil is the world’s largest and most spectacular, involving millions of Brazilians and an estimated 500,000 visitors. What is called “the greatest show on earth” developed around 1723, and is an event that belongs to Rio de Janeiro the former capital of the country. It moved into high gear on Friday with a number of programmes including the Carnaval King, with the two peak days being Sunday (today) and Monday (tomorrow) when there are the samba parades and the samba schools’ competitions. These come after yesterday’s costume competitions and samba parties before and after. It is the closest you can get to the bacchanals of ancient Rome.
Trinidad is not far behind. But opinion is divided; Trinidadians have no doubt that they are ahead, and their Carnival is known as “the greatest show on earth.” The major events in Trinidad set the tone for the carnivals across the Eastern Caribbean, the real carnival belt in Caricom. The season begins immediately after Christmas and builds up to the big colourful carnival band competitions on Tuesday. The other main highlights are the Dimanche Gras show tonight with the Calypso Monarch, Carnival King and Carnival Queen. Tomorrow morning is Jouvay (jour ouvert). Already decided are the champion steel band at Panorama and the Soca Monarch. Waiting for Shrove Tuesday night is the declaration of the Road March. These are very big events in Trinidad. The Dimanche Gras is the year’s major production and the various titles are serious national honours.
T he Guyanese Mashra-mani is three centuries behind these giant festivals – the Rio ‘Carnaval’ to the south and the Trinidad Carnival to the north-east. It is surely entrenched as a Guyanese tradition but it lacks the strength of history that has built the carnival. It therefore has many disadvantages.
One is the already mentioned history and tradition. Secondly, two hundred years’ experience in the organisation of a deep-rooted people’s festival is not replicated in less than 40 years. Mashramani does not yet have that wealth of development including struggle, controversy, tradition and a long-standing infrastructure.
The next is the competition brought about by this very coincidence of the calendar. As an international tourist attraction Mashramani is too close to Carnival. It is not big enough to lure too many visitors away from Trinidad, and even for those who may be so inclined, the dates are so close not many will go home after carnival and return for Mashramani. For many arrivals, the trip to carnival is already a package, often an all-inclusive one, and it is somewhat awkward to then attach an extension to Guyana at the end of it. Realistically, they will have to choose one or the other, and Carnival is the one with the international publicity, the fame and the reputation. Guyana’s marketing machinery as driven by the Tourism Authority, Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana or the Ministry of Tourism has not yet begun to make a dent in the international market.
Since it is not going to compete in grandeur or in tourism, Guyana’s Mashramani will have to build its own brand, its own identity, character and reputation. The festival has overcome the problems and controversies of its political history and exists as a popular tradition now in its own right, in spite of the politics and threats to divide it racially. During the past decade the present government changed its attitude to Mashramani, began to organise and promote it vigorously and has taken ownership of it as a national festival. Yet deficiencies in the level of sophistication of the major events remain.
Despite the differences Mashramani is not too far removed from Carnival in form and is, in fact, well within the carnivalesque. Its major events are similar and include three musical ‘monarchies,’ the calypso monarch, the soca competition and the chutney contest. It is interesting to briefly consider the state of these. It is important that they succeed since they have the potential to carry Mashramani as a popular tradition in the weeks before February 23. They are flagship events and can help to define the festival and win it popular and private sector support. There have always been problems with the quality of the compositions, but they have had high points before what appears to be a very recent decline.
T he chutney competition is the newest addition to the monarchies and yet, already there are reports of reductions in the number and profile of competitors. It is a strategic event for a few reasons. It deepens the multicultural scope of Mashramani. It is one of the predominantly Indian traditions that have captured the national imagination and are established in Guyanese popular culture as intensely as either calypso or soca. It is a vivid representation of a populous sub-culture with the flavour of contemporary versions of the former Bhojpuri communities from which it descended. It needs all efforts to give it a strong place and presence in Mashramani since it will bring with it the unqualified integration of its multitudinous following. The popularity of the chutney has been further enlarged by its alliance with soca, particularly in Trinidad, and the new blend of music which has broadened its popularity.
T he prize money is attractive and is unlikely to be a source of complaint. Yet there are reports that the heat of the competition has cooled and numbers have dwindled. It is not known whether the reigning monarch will defend the crown or will even turn up to any event. The scaled down finals were relegated to take place somewhere in Rose Hall rather than at a prominent venue in the capital city.
A national monarch not bothering to communicate with the organisers and not bothering to defend the crown is unheard of in any of the Caribbean islands. It would be a scandal of the proportions of a national crisis in Trinidad. But it is normal acceptance in Guyana. The same was reported in the soca competition where the reigning monarch Adrian Dutchin simply did not bother to put in an appearance to defend the crown, and it was a ‘watered down’ competition. Already because of past controversies, if not travesties of justice, some of the leading soca performers chose not to enter. In fact Dutchin was a beneficiary of such a travesty when the judges’ decision was overturned to give him the crown.
Winning these contests ought to be such a high-profile, prestigious honour, and reputations should be so dependent on success in the monarchies that nothing should keep the top contenders away. That is the case in Carnival as it is in Barbados’s Crop-Over, and it is part of the reason for the great success there. The tradition should be so powerful that the Guyanese performers should feel that they would lose something by casually staying away for no apparent reason. Rivalry is fierce in Barbados as these contests are deeply etched in the national agenda and the popular culture. A major part of Trinidad Carnival is the rivalry in the tents with every singer aiming for a place in the finals.
In the same vein, for the calypso monarchy, the signal Mashramani event, there were reports of “lack of interest” by the crowd in “the lacklustre” performances and, again, the absence of some leading national calypsonians. The same performers who often complain about the marginalization of calypso in Guyana seem not to recognise their role in keeping the art firmly in the national consciousness. On the other hand, the organisers indeed contribute to such marginalisation by the way the competitions are managed. While it is a deliberate ploy to take the activities to the regions and hold the semi-finals and/or the finals in a location far from Georgetown, the practice is a bit counter-productive. To make things worse, they have at times been deliberately time-tabled to clash with each other.
What these events need is greater prominence, more glitter, fanfare and prestige. Each competition should be a major production under a powerful national spotlight in a setting of well stage-managed grandeur. Mashramani can take note of the way similar monarchies have contributed to the popular sub-culture and to the success of Carnival and Crop-Over. It has to if it wishes to close the great gap that exists between it and those older traditions which have the benefits of history, three centuries of development and superior organisation.