Unilateral changes to Mashramani impeding its cultural maturity

It is the carnival season. In the very strong carnival countries in this part of the world – Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago – events are heating up to fever pitch for the climax of the festival on February 28. It is the same in the Republic of Guyana whose grand festival day is Mashramani on February 23. But in Guyana there are significant issues and these may be found in the way there are changes in Mashramani from year to year.

In all three countries there are several similarities; but they are not the same, and they are divided by a considerable compendium of differences. The fires were truly lit in Trinidad and Brazil since the end of the Christmas season immediately gave way to the carnival spirit.  It is similar in Guyana, where the carnivalesque is shared, the seasonal intoxication, spirit and revelry have similar impact in the minds of the people, but the flames are milder, the traditions not quite as deep. 

A section of last year’s float parade held in May to mark Guyana’s 50th Independence

Carnival in Trinidad is a culture, a state that Guyana’s Mashramani may still be striving to reach, and the background to this may first be found in the different origins and history of the two festivals. The Mashramani and carnival seasons coincide mainly by accident, not because of historical and traditional roots.

Each of the countries in the Caribbean have a grand national festival: they are all carnivalesque in their styles of celebration with many similar events, but there are two main divisions. There are the carnival countries – Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, and St Vincent –which have a Roman Catholic historical background and a traditional carnival season. Other countries such as Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas and Guyana do not have that background and are outside of the carnival belt. But they have national events – the Jamaica Festival, Barbados’ Crop Over, Jonkanoo in the Bahamas and Mashramani.

Carnival is the oldest, largest and grandest and is built on deep and ancient traditions, religion, and a history of development both before and after emancipation. All told, it has experienced the greatest factors of culture, creativity, politics and tradition of all the Caribbean festivals, and has become a culture in Trinidad. Crop-Over originated in plantation history and sugar, and although it was re-created and reformatted in the 1970s to its current modern form, it retains its firm historical traditions of more than two centuries.

Both Jamaica and Guyana have national festivals that were manufactured in relatively recent times and did not evolve from natural historical traditions. Jamaica created a festival to celebrate independence in 1962, but over the years, built many artistic and theatrical events around it, for a festival season of at least two months. Additionally, its timing August 6 saw the inclusion of a number of traditional practices usually linked to emancipation.

Mashramani was similarly created to celebrate Republic Day in 1970, and has attempted to incorporate a number of traditions that were in existence in the country before independence, and were marshalled around that event in 1966. But of all the national festivals, Mashramani remains the least defined and the least rooted in the kinds of traditions that lend strength to the others. It is the youngest of them, and at a disadvantage. Clearly, it may be argued that traditions are not the only things that can build a festival, and there might even be a school of thought that Mashramani can thrive on new ideas and youthful celebrations, be more original and less a repeater of what everybody else has. But even so, these new creations are yet to exert themselves; moreover, strong traditions take many years to develop, and tend not to be manufactured overnight.

In this present season, the carnival countries are looking forward to and preparing for a considerable bounty in tourism. Figures quoted for the Rio Carnival in Brazil suggest one million tourists are expected this year, and Trinidad is reputed to benefit from very large numbers of visitors. The important difference is that Guyana has long wished to sell Mashramani as a major tourism product, but is yet to attract a significant influx of arrivals. There is the usual return of Guyanese resident overseas, who make up the largest number of arrivals.

The question of tourism arises because it is related to one factor that differentiates Mashramani from other national festivals. All of them have been strengthened by attractions that have evolved or developed over time and have become interesting traditions likely to get the attention of visitors. These take time, and none of the other festivals have been subjected to changes from year to year as is the case with Guyana’s Mashramani.

Traditions and festivals do change over time – but these are natural factors of cultural change which evolve and normally help to develop the festival. They are largely driven by the people, the culture, popular tastes and the popular culture – rarely by administrative decisions made in boardrooms and handed down. The latter happens too frequently in Guyana and impedes the natural flow of cultural traditions, rather than allow them to grow and enrich the festival.

In Guyana’s Golden Jubilee Year, 2016, the float parade was removed from February 23 and staged instead on May 26. This was to fortify the independence celebrations in a special way to commemorate the 50th. It might have spiced up independence, but it interfered with and weakened Mashramani. It is worth referring to history. Fears of a polio outbreak in Trinidad some 45 years ago forced the authorities to suspend carnival and hold it instead in May the same year. It was a very controversial move and whether it was a success remains a matter of debate.  The important difference here is that the whole carnival was postponed and transplanted in full.  In Guyana’s case, a part of it was taken out and transplanted, the vital heart of the festival was dislocated from its traditional habitat, leaving a void on Republic Day.

Another important change made in 2016 was the route for the road march and procession of bands. It was diverted from the known, traditional and customary route along Church Street, Vlissingen Road, culminating in the performances passing the grandstand in the National Park.  The new route traverses Brickdam and ends inside the newly built D’Urban Park. It is proposed that this will now become the route for this year and in future. The prospect of this has caused quite a stir, and not without reason.

It is worth referring to history. The carnival route in Port-of-Spain has remained the same throughout the modern period and is a custom and a tradition, like the main artery of the revels.  One observation in Guyana is that this new route is considerably shortened. It cuts off what has become the major part of the revels, the vending booths, the family picnics, the viewing of the float parades and that vast area all down Vlissingen Road, Thomas Lands, the National Park – the stands and the spacious grounds, and all those picnic grounds outside the periphery of Camp Ayanganna. This is where Guyanese congregate in the populous multitudes on Mashramani Day to line the route of the bands and engage in many other activities determined over the past decades by the popular culture.

All of these cannot be squeezed into the Brickdam route. Additionally, there is a major economic factor. Hundreds of vending stalls, enterprises set up by the working people of the city will now be displaced and inconveniently relocated, or left cut off from the route of the parade of bands.  This was welcome economic activity for many. The Brickdam route is bound to shut out too many and too much. They may dwindle and dry up, cutting a great portion of popular Mashramani participation.

It is likely that this move is designed to make use of the new under-utilised D’Urban Park facility, perhaps with a thought that it is much larger than the stands and tarmac in the National Park. But sitting in the stands in D’Urban Park is not the same as the road – and the road is a part of the experience. This change drastically alters the DNA of the festival.

The fact that there will be no Soca Monarch competition and that there is uncertainty surrounding the Chutney competition strike more telling blows to the Guyana event.

As regards the Soca Monarchy, the private sector sponsors have discontinued their contribution. This very popular feature was largely driven by the private sector, but had risen to be a major attraction, far more popular and vibrant than the Calypso Monarchy that it had quite overshadowed. What Mashramani needed was an upgrade of the Calypso, not a dropping of the Soca. It ought to be rescued by the Department of Culture and kept alive; it will need an investment of funds from the government while new sponsors are wooed.

The development of the Soca Monarchy was natural cultural change driven by popular demand and the popular culture. Its evolution came when the Soca separated itself from the Calypso competition and grew independently to stand on its own. This was the same path taken in Trinidad and Barbados many years ago. The Soca Monarchy would have been another area of cultural strength in a festival gaining ground in youthful appeal and popular participation. Its absence further suppresses Mashramani’s march to becoming a settled tradition.

As regards the Chutney Monarchy, when Mashramani was invented in 1970, a part of its vision was sustaining indigenous traditions, and there was an attempt to develop a Shanto King competition. This did not catch on because Shanto was not really viable as a popular music form.

That noble intention gained ground when Chutney developed in Guyana as an indigenous folk tradition that escalated in popular currency. A Chutney Monarchy earned its place as a significant new addition and a result of the force of normal cultural change. However, rather than building on this, it has been allowed to flounder. The uncertainty of Chutney in Mashramani, further stultifies the cultural maturity of the festival.

Investment in these musical forms would help to lend Guyana’s festival identity and popular force. What is being promoted is the J’ouvert parties, borrowed from our neighbours. They are welcomed, but they are not Guyanese. These might have earned their place in Mashramani with much greater weight, if they highlighted Guyanese soca, chutney and calypso artistes, rather than importing entertainers from Trinidad.

Mashramani now faces a challenge to the way it will develop. It requires more a confident assertion of those elements that enrich it. It needs to put down consistent roots in the building of its traditions that can lend it an identity and make it more defined as a cultural force.

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