Changes and shifts destabilizing the pillars of Mashramani

The road make to walk on carnival day

And I don’t like to talk, but I’ve got to say …

                          Lord Kitchener, “The Road” (1963)

The carnival season ended last Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday, otherwise called Mardi Gras) and the contrasting period of Lent started on Wednesday (Ash Wednesday). Even for the non-Christians those observances have meaning because of the powerful, popular influence of both carnival and Easter – the climax of Lent. Those traditions are not so distinctly marked in Guyana, which does not really have a carnival season, but it has been the season of Mashramani and the celebration of Republicanism – popular traditions known to all.

The point here is that we are dealing with traditions which are built on and evolve out of deep roots and foundations. They take time to build and depend on cultural roots. They are made by the folk – the people of the land, and in more recent times by the popular culture, which is still moved by the people. Mashramani lacks the roots, the history, the centuries of cultural evolution and the definition of carnival, whose origins in Trinidad and Tobago go back to 1783.

A reveler walks along Brickdam on Mashramani Day

In contrast, Mashramani is young and growing. It was created (‘artificially’) in 1970, but was built on the carnivalesque celebrations which existed in pre-Independence British Guiana (BG). It is therefore the youngest and least rooted of similar Caribbean national festivals. Without any doubt it has grown into a permanent immovable popular tradition, but it must be given what it needs to settle down as such a cultural tradition. Today it is a bit unstable and affected by too many changes, shifts and gaps that interrupt the natural evolutionary growth and tradition. There have been too many administrative decrees imposed upon it that did not come from the folk, or the popular culture, or natural evolution, but rather interfered with them. Mashramani is a festival which rides on a number of pillars – the music, the mas, and the road.  For Guyana the music is calypso, soca, chutney and steel band. Calypso is the staple, the oldest and most traditional, but at the moment it is weak. Soca developed naturally as a part of Mashramani, but is already threatened and has fallen off the programme. The steel band was strong in pre-Independence BG, but faded away. It was brought back into Mashramani a few years ago and is now quite revived and benefiting from the National School of Music. Chutney is an old Guyanese tradition, recently brought into the festival as a part of natural growth, but, like the soca, suffers from a lack of support.

The mas is the masquerade, the costumes, the theatricals, the bands and the float parade, the showpiece of the grand festival day. They flourished in BG, faded, and were brought back significantly in Mashramani. The road is the route taken by these bands on the high festival day.  It is the core of the masquerading, the place where the showpieces are shown off, the actual stage along which the main event is performed, along which the bands travel and people line up to watch and participate. It is the place of performance – the stage – the main attraction.

The route

Here is the concept of “the road”. The route taken by the costumed bands and float parades is a staple of the tradition of a festival like this based on ‘mas’ – a street performance which is the main attraction on Mashramani (Republic) Day, which brings people out and the central environment around which they congregate. It has been interrupted in 2016 and 2017.

Guyana used to have “tramping” – a march on the road with steel bands, dancing and parading, which had faded away by the 1970s. The Mashramani bands and float parade in a sense recreated this and a tradition was laid down along a route that became second nature to the festival.  It is a staple that everyone became accustomed to and settled as a tradition over a period of some 40 years. Several basic, as well as satellite and fringe activities naturally developed around it over that long period. They have all suffered from unnatural alterations that have interfered with this cultural stability.

First of all it was removed from Mashramani altogether in 2016 and placed by itself on Independence Day. Then the route was changed and the new route imposed again in 2017. It was clear that crowd sizes and numbers of people out on the road on Republic Day dropped considerably. 2017 was no comparison to what obtained in 2014 and 2015. The new route along Brickdam is very much shorter and has drastically cut down on public participation. Space and distance were reduced and took many activities and multitudes of people down with them.

Acres of space previously available were lost – along Church Street and North Road, (a wide double road) all down Vlissengen Road (an even wider double road), along Thomas Lands into the ‘Grand Stands’ – National Park. Multitudes previously lined that route. Additionally, vast extensions of space adjacent to the Road March route were called into service. The three gas stations (now two) on Vlissengen Road, extensive, wide areas surrounding the Guyana Defence Force’s headquarters at Camp Ayanganna, the former Celina’s area by the sea wall, and the grounds of the National Park. These environs were busily occupied by huge multitudes having limes, family picnics, and self-entertainment around parked cars. On the one hand there were families and on the other, young people who turned upper Vlissengen Road and the gas station areas into street parties after dark. This was natural cultural change driven by the popular culture and attracted a distinct demographic and ethnic cross section. All that vastness was an empty vacancy in 2017, while the crowds were relatively sparse in the restricted space along Brickdam.

There were economic consequences. The route change caused a definite loss of business – removing opportunities for earnings among vendors, part-time vendors and franchises. The location of industry is a very serious study among learned experts, but it is very well understood by the Georgetown vendors who rebel against the frequent relocations forced by the City Council for that very reason. They would not set up a stall where they are remote from the hub of business and could not all be accommodated close enough to the new route. Several working class people who depend on Mashramani for welcomed earnings lost considerable opportunities. The city itself lost a source of income from stall space that could have been rented. The Barbados authorities earn lavishly from these kinds of concessions at Crop-Over.

The Soca Monarchy

There was no Soca Monarchy in 2017. This created another similar vacancy and stalled another important growing tradition. The Mashramani soca competition separated itself from the normal calypso crown years ago as natural cultural change was prompted by the popular culture. This followed the trends in both Trinidad and Barbados where soca emerged to take over from calypso and drive the music of the festival. The soca events are immensely popular in those countries’ festivals with immeasurable economic opportunities. They are popular enough to interest the private sector.

And that is precisely where they have fallen down in Guyana. There was no soca because the private sector sponsors withdrew. That action should never have allowed the lively and popular Soca Monarchy to be scrapped. The government should have been prepared to fund it while selling it and negotiating with other corporate concerns, since it must be kept alive at all costs. You do not kill off a developing popular tradition in this way. It is worth investing in for the strength and continuity of the national festival. There are economic opportunities around this for private companies as well as the working class vendors and for the city who can outsource and sell franchises.

As in those other countries, soca drives the festival, and particularly “the road”, in Guyana. Yet the country does not produce enough soca, or tunes of sufficient quality, to meet the needs.  Mashramani therefore depends on foreign music from Trinidad and Barbados. The irony is that any of those foreign songs could be the Road March in Guyana over the local contenders. A fully developed, properly produced and highly promoted Soca Monarchy with a standard high-profile show for the final can be a success and can push development of quality and popularity of local soca and soca artistes.

The gaping cavern created by the absence of a Soca Monarchy was filled by mega shows called “Jourvay” featuring Trinidadians and Barbadians with very little to build the struggling locals.  As a start, these mega shows can be converted into the local soca final and have a small, manageable number – two or three – foreign stars appearing (as guests) in a big show that can attract crowds and interest private sector sponsors. But the Monarchy should not be scrapped for lack of a corporate sponsor. It is the state’s responsibility to see it developed, while at the same time building the local cultural industry.

The Chutney Monarchy

The other recent development in Mashramani music is the introduction of a Chutney Monarchy some years ago. This was progressive and another sign of normal cultural growth. A Chutney Monarchy can add identity to the festival while developing an indigenous cultural industry to high commercial and popular levels. In 1970, as part of the original vision for Mashramani, an attempt was made to replace calypso with a Shanto King, which failed. Circumstances today are different since chutney is now being pushed by the popular culture with the help of the recordings from Trinidad. It was this natural movement that earned it a place in Mashramani.

Here is an opportunity to claim ownership of a musical form indigenous to Guyana and help define the festival. Most people regard chutney as Trinidadian because of the thriving industry in that country. But Guyana has equal claim to it since it grew up here as well among the indentured servants. Yet, the Chutney Final was relegated to an obscure location in the countryside with no fanfare or ceremony and no one heard about it.

The government must invest in this cultural industry and raise its profile in Mashramani. The popular potential is there, already proven in a year when a chutney hit was the true Road March of the country, although not officially crowned. In most years no local song made enough impact or impression to be a real Road March, even when one of them is declared as such. Rajendra Ramkellawan produced “Dem A Watch Me,” which was a runaway as the most popular song in the land. It demonstrated what a chutney could achieve, and the opportunity for this is still there.

Mashramani must have a Calypso Final, a Soca Final and a Chutney Final each with a grand Mashramani Show in Georgetown, well decorated and promoted. There could be preliminaries or semi-finals held in other places like Albion or Uitvlugt, but the finals need to be established in Georgetown. This is a national duty. Concomitantly, the route for the float parades needs serious rethinking, and the traditional route restored.

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