Audiences scarce at Carifesta

Members from the Guyana National School of Dance at Carifesta XIII in Barbados (DPI Photo)

Carifesta XIII is in progress in Barbados. This edition of the region’s premier festival of the arts has underlined a number of issues affecting the festival and a number of patterns that have formed, indicating trends that have developed.

More immediate has been the public impressions of the event. The Barbadian public, as well as general observers, have made very significant comments expressing their views, and these have been characterised by large-scale criticisms, lamenting the several hitches that have plagued the festival.

From another angle, it is of interest how much of a force majeure Guyana has become in successive Carifestas, and how much this has been noticed currently in Barbados. This may be placed against the factor of the waning emphasis placed on Carifesta by some Caricom nations and the declining stature of the festival as the tour de force in the arts of the region.

Distinct patterns have emerged.  One of the new trends in Carifesta has been the factor of the local audience – the local people and the audience for Carifesta. The local populace has now become much more of a force in festival events and this runs parallel to the definite decline in foreign audiences, both in the sense of tourists coming into the country to see the events, and members of other delegations turning up to see the performances of other nations.

The decline in foreign audience is an important point of stagnation and an indication of how the festival has not advanced as a major and attractive international festival the way it was envisioned. The host country is (was) supposed to see large numbers of arrivals for the festival, but this has not manifested in the audience for various shows.

Twenty-six countries are participating in Barbados, and there is obviously a large number of arrivals who are Carifesta participants and members of country delegations. But these large numbers do not translate into audiences for the various performances. No matter what good was intended, artists are not seeing the work of their peers. It goes back to a complaint coming out of Carifestas in Trinidad in 1992 and 1995, where it was lamented that the performers from each country were given schedules that were too busy – they had to be ferreting around, performing at sundry venues as far apart as San Fernando, Arima and Port-of-Spain and were rendered too occupied or too tired to go and look at the work of their counterparts from other territories.

On the other hand, the local population as a factor in Carifesta first came into sharp focus in 2003. The factor of “the man in the street” was first registered in Suriname in Carifesta VIII.  There seemed to have been a direct appeal to the people, which worked. Carifesta was a popular public event.  There was overwhelming interest and turn-out of the people at events. This was observed most clearly at the Palmentuin – the Palm Gardens in the centre of Paramaribo where there was not only a festival atmosphere, but nightly stage shows and other Carifesta events attracting crowds till the very late hours. This clearly helped to sustain public interest, while suggesting the power of the popular culture.

The people as audience was most seriously registered in Haiti during Carifesta XII in 2015.  There the festival was also extremely popular.  That fact was particularly marked in the Opening Ceremony, just as it was in the Closing Ceremony of Suriname and in the Grand Market. The Grand Market as a merchandise market place is similarly very well attended in Barbados at this time.

But the shows and performances attracted the local populace to a very significant degree in Port Au Prince. Some of the theatre venues were located in very public places, such as close to markets and bus stands close to the city centre. There was overwhelming attendance by members of the communities.They turned out to be a particularly participatory audience, giving life to the theatre.  A notable factor was that it was a working class audience to a recognisable degree.

The greatest benefit from so many of those shows, and perhaps even from Carifesta itself in that country was to the Haitian people. At the same time, from a wider perspective, there was a major set-back because of the language barrier. A wide range of performance forms requiring too much of the spoken word met a language barrier in an audience of Patois and French speaking people. Markedly, this did not happen in the case of dance.

The various notable trends continue in Barbados. There is no language barrier, since most participating nations are English speaking, but there are other hindrances. There are major set-backs in administration. The events of Carifesta XIII were pushed back by two days because of the passage of Tropical Storm Harvey. The Opening Ceremony slated for Thursday, did not happen until Sunday, even though some events were held on the previous Saturday.

The cynical comments, however, were that Harvey did the organisers a favour.  It hid and distracted attention from the chaos that prevailed and provided an excuse for the lack of preparation that characterised the festival arrangements. The storm provided a convenient delay while administrators hustled to get things in order – it bought them valuable time.

Criticism of what is seen by the Barbadian people as widespread maladministration has been expressed over many days in letters to the press, and in an editorial in the Daily Nation (August 24).  The editorial, the letters, as well as an article in the Sunday Sun (August 20), recalled Carifesta IV in Barbados in 1981. That event was notorious for horrendous administrative blunders and the fact that the Barbados Defence Force was called in to rescue the situation. It was the army that rushed in military discipline to bring some efficiency to the chaos. The Nation editorial asked if Barbados had not learnt from that experience.

Where the programming for Carifesta XIII is concerned, information was scarce in the early days. Then when this should have settled down, there have been daily changes to the schedule. Participants have suffered quite a bit of waiting around at various venues.

A truly serious flaw in this present festival is related to the development concerning the local people as audience. There has generally been poor attendance at shows.  The most (in) famous incident was when the dancers from Bermuda refused to take the stage in the Frank Collymore Hall, insisting they would not perform to an empty house. A rare report of a good house was a popular show with mostly music – Guyana’s National Steel Orchestra, Jamaican reggae artistes including an all-girl band, and Trinidadians, held at the Esplinade, a popular outdoor venue in Bridgetown. Quite unlike the cases of Haiti and Suriname, the local people have not been showing up in Barbados.

There was virtually no imagination in the Opening Ceremony – speeches and songs from a staid choir. What was good was the street parade that preceded it. In this, all the participating territories marched through a route going through a section of Bridgetown, through communities and among the local people in good carnival style.  There was much colour and tradition including the devils from Trinidad, the Guyanese masquerade, the Barbados Land Ship and a sample of Haitian spirituals.

A significant exception to the scarcity of audience is the Grand Market. There are daily crowds traversing through the large conference centre looking at the exhibits and quite likely purchasing items. The main activity there is merchandising. There is fashion craft, writers’ work, and several varieties of items brought by Barbadians as well as visiting delegations. The daily crowds have the opportunity to view and to buy, while the delegations have the opportunity to exhibit and to sell.  This kinds of commerce is one of the visions of Carifesta, that there is a place and an opportunity for the cultural industries of the region.

 

 

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