Mashramani has still not hit its stride as a national festival

The opportunity arises after the events of Mashramani have concluded to assess their success and impact. This holds much relevance and importance because of what the festival means for Guyana. Evaluation is also of interest because of recent factors affecting it, and despite the long years of its existence, it still seems to be evolving into a truly permanent shape and struggling in some areas for deep traditions to properly take root. Then again, there is the concept of Mashramani with the noble ideals of the founders of the festival when they set out to design it in 1970. To what extent have those been realised?

We have offered more than once, analyses of the government interventions and other sins of omission. These have occurred too frequently for the good of the festival, its progress and its evolution through natural cultural change into a strong indigenous cultural tradition.

They include: The road march route has been changed twice in three years. It is too easily subject to decisions of the ministry with responsibility for culture. It has ignored factors which are cultural, traditional, economic and popular. The Soca Monarchy was allowed to be dropped from the festival because of the withdrawal of a private sponsor. There have been insufficient efforts to save the Calypso Competition. The Chutney Competition has been allowed to languish as a minor activity because of the obscurity of locations for the finals. Foreign borrowings have been allowed to seize prominence, dominance and ascendancy.

In 2018, a few serious criticisms of Mashramani as a whole have resurfaced, which have attacked its meaning as a national event of unity and pride. Criticisms of the quality and strength of the Calypso Competition have been repeated.

Mashramani is a carnivalesque festival whose form and activities mainly revolve around those of a celebration. It has overwhelming appeal to popular culture and entertainment. Questions as to whether it is fit to be a national festival and an appropriate way to celebrate Guyana’s republic anniversary have been raised. There have been public comments suggesting that bacchanalia cannot dignify republicanism or the Guyanese nation, particularly because of the displays of nudity and wining during the street marches and parades of bands and floats.

Of interest is the fact that carnival and bacchanalia are important festivals in many different societies across the world. Many of the Mashramani events are seen as ‘African’, but most of these carnivalesque traditions and events are also found in the carnivals of many countries in Europe, as well as Trinidad, Brazil and in Barbados’s Crop-Over. In particular, the nudity and uninhibited display of provocative dancing are common to them all. They are centuries old and have their origins in ancient rituals. It must be remembered that these carnivals have been considered important in all those countries that have retained and practiced them. They have meaning to culture and tradition in Europe and all the other countries and are very closely related to the Christian calendar and the period of Lent held sacred by Christians.

Indeed, these same concerns about nudity and wining have been repeatedly expressed about carnival and about Crop-Over in Barbados – most especially in Barbados. Similar questions have been asked about the appropriateness of bacchanalia as an expression of nationhood and a definition of who they are as a people.

So it is neither strange nor surprising in Guyana. But what does Mashramani mean to Guyana?  Why is it important enough to worry about, to preserve, to sustain, to allow to grow and evolve according to natural cultural development and change?

Mashramani was created and shaped in 1969 to celebrate Guyana’s ascendancy to nationhood as a republic in 1970. It was modified and crafted out of an independence carnival held annually by the Jaycees in Linden. It took its main form from cultural practices and the popular culture that had already existed in Guyana before independence, such as the float parade, costumed bands, the steel band, kings and queens of the band, band of the year and the calypso king. These were all Guyanese carnivalesque events.

However, the creators of Mashramani took pains to be faithful to what it meant to be Guyanese and the spirit of nationhood and republicanism. One example was that they changed the Calypso King Competition to a Shanto King Competition, because the shanto was a popular musical folk form indigenous to Guyana. This shanto revitalization, however, did not survive as the calypso was a more powerful popular force, and more accessible. This was a development driven by the popular culture and natural cultural forces, not by any governmental decree.

In addition, they introduced an award for the dance and costume performance that best dramatized Guyana’s spirit of independence and liberation. This was to be a ‘Revolt Dance’ driven by the 1763 Rebellion, to highlight and symbolize nationhood, independence, liberation and the historical struggles to achieve these.

Mashramani was to have a strong component of cultural development. There were to be activities and performances in all regions of the country, and the best of these then brought to Georgetown for the finals. In that way, Mashramani would exhibit and showcase the best of the nation. At the same time, cultural performances would be improved and sustained in far away regional locations because of the competition.

Going against those currents, serious criticisms of the Guyanese calypso resurfaced in 2018.  Truly, calypso in Guyana has struggled for several years. Quality has been questionable, often downright weak. The craft and skill are missing. Persons simply take to the stage and belt out words with little understanding of rhythm, lineation, creativity, double entendre, subtlety or metaphor. Listen to some of the old masters – Lord Canary’s “Doctor Beckles”, for instance, or King Fighter’s “Come Leh We Go, Sukhi” or “Fighter, Fighter, No Go Back Ah Demerara”, or one or two from the Mighty Rebel. “Doctor Beckles”, especially, is one of the classics of composition.

Dave Martins has commented on this. And he should know. He claimed he was “too modest” to name his hit “Copy Cat” as an example of the classical art of calypso. Nevertheless, many of Martins’ compositions demonstrate the art, like “Honeymooning Couple” for instance, or “It’s Traditional” or “Cricket in the Jungle” et al.

Martins, who is now Artist in Residence at the University of Guyana, observes that there is no evidence of calypso as a sustained art in Guyana today. He points out that persons cannot expect to be calypsonians only once a year at Mashramani time. They come out and spend some three or four weeks coming up with a song and singing it for the Calypso Monarch Competition; that could never make a calypsonian. There is much to learn and to practice in achieving the art.

Martins also expressed what others have concluded, that “calypso is dead”. He has reiterated many times that natural cultural change and the demands of popular culture have seen soca overtake and outstrip calypso as the popular music of the day. This has been reflected in both Trinidad Carnival and Crop-Over. The Soca Monarchy has developed a world of its own.

By far the most popular and the biggest event in Barbados is the Soca Monarch Competition at Crop-Over. It is held on what is called “the East Coast” where it has carved out a tradition and culture as a grand event driven by popular culture.

In contrast, Guyana has failed to capitalise as Barbados did on the popularity of soca and its ability to drive a big event. Not only did Guyana allow its Soca Monarch Competition to die (albeit temporarily) but it has surrendered Guyanese soca to a foreign invasion and a borrowed event at Mashramani time and at independence. This is the Guyanese version of J’ Ouvert, borrowed from the Trinidad Carnival. This is a very shallow use and application of a loan word. It describes a mega concert of Trinidadian soca artistes.

This has grown so big, so popular, that for Mashramani 2018 there were three of them: at Providence, at the National Park and a smaller version at Club 704. These should be turned into the event for Guyana’s Soca Monarch Competition. Use the Trinidadians as guest performers, which will draw the crowds, and turn this superficial, meaningless J’ Ouvert into the grand finals for the Soca Monarchy.

It was indeed a masterstroke when the Chutney Competition was introduced into Mashramani, but it has not grown. It has stultified, although it helped to broaden the ethnic diversity of Mashramani and regionalize a bit by having sessions in rural villages. But to restrict it only to those venues is to give in to an argument that it thrives best in locations where the population loves chutney. It is better to sell chutney to everyone else – to showcase chutney as the national indigenous folk music that it is and broaden its base. In 2017 in Trinidad, a chutney number – “Ramsingh Sharma” was a serious contender for Road March. A few years earlier “Bachelor Forever”, a chutney song by K I, took the country by storm.  Years ago in Guyana, Rajendra Ramkellawan produced the nation’s most popular song, a chutney titled “Dem Ah Watch Me”.

Guyana must capitalize on that and hold the Chutney Monarchy finals, not lost away in Uitvlugt, but at a grand event in George-town. Each of the song finals should be a major Mashramani production stage-managed with grandeur. They have the potential to realize some of what the original founders of Mashramani had in mind when the festival was conceptualized and crafted.

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