Controversy about the changes that come to popular culture are somewhat amusing in that part of the commentary is the ingredient of surprise, even shock and outrage, as expressed in the frequent “what the hell is going on” reaction. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that cultures constantly change and in the furor in recent days about various behaviours in the new “Guyana carnival”, what we’re seeing is simply an expression of today’s culture – of what today’s market wants; that’s what the hell is going.
Mankind forgets its history very quickly, so that we seem to have not noticed that these conflicts between what was and what is, or is about to be, are constantly in play throughout our past. Furthermore the changes are not confined to the popular music or dance moves of the day; they are taking place across the board in everything from the clothes we wear, to the foods we eat, to our moral standards, even to the way we speak, the way we communicate, and even to the appliances of every-day life. In the middle of the carnival row, for example, I was struck by a coincidental series of posts on Facebook where persons were reminiscing on various products in the society, common in earlier times, but virtually extinct now. Among them was the hand-made wooden scrubbing board for washing clothes. An everyday item when I was growing up in Guyana, one would obviously have to explain to a teenager today what the hell is that weird piece of wood with grooves cut in it. Change, in fact, is a continuum in societies on earth; it is constant and pervasive.
Consider, for example, that there was a time in this country (I was about 10 years old then) when a mature woman’s dress almost inevitably covered her from ankles up to her neck – that was the commonly expected standard – and while I don’t recall the furor when the hems rose and the neck lines were lowered, there were clearly persons shouting “disgraceful” back then, as they are shouting today at the skimpy carnival wear. What I do remember is that Trinidad Carnival of 1967, the first year I saw it, was a relatively conservative creature in that regard, and the changes that eventually came in were gradual, but steady, until we got to the level we see today. The point, again, is continuum. What we are seeing is not an overnight outburst from some demented individual; we are seeing the gradual progression of evolution, and notice that the change is always up on the graph of more lax moral positions, if you will. It is always a case of more leeway, rather than less, in the culture, so that we never see a fashion designer coming out one year offering dresses with lowered hem lines and reaching up to just under the chin. And notice, too, that these societal shifts are taking place without any street protests (like the parking meter ones) indicating that popular support for them has been established via a gradual and expertly orchestrated public testing over time, as opposed to the parking meter approach.
To take one particular aspect, consider the question of cleavage in females. I guarantee you that, aside from perhaps seeing a mother nursing a child, young men in the 1960s would have no knowledge whatsoever of cleavage. Indeed, most of us were not even aware of the word in that context. Consider where that continuum has taken us when we consider the difference today; not only are the models in the fashion show at the Marriott displaying it, but “cleavage” abounds in the audience, as well, and, here’s the key point, there is not a murmur of protest about it. The continuum of change has overtaken us and while a few prudes may still exist, they are seen as relics from another time to be laughed at and ignored.
To narrow the discussion, that is exactly the process that has been going on in the field of music, so that mature people today who tell the young party-goer “your music sucks” are missing the boat completely. In fact, such a mature person is blind to the fact that in his youth, his own parents were dismissing that person’s popular music, as he is now doing. It’s just another case of the wheel of life turning and creating excitement in the young patron but dismay in his/her elder.
It is the same story in the evolution of carnival music. When Tradewinds started in 1966, calypso was the music of the day; our first hit, Honeymooning Couple, was in that genre. But by the early 1980s, in a more fast-paced world, the continuum of change resulted in Lord Shorty’s experimentation with the shift to soca (interestingly, some Trinidad bandleaders were initially disdainful of it) and the Trini song-writers since then have moved soca itself into another gear with higher tempos, more emphasis on drum tracks, and high-energy performances.
The shift to more skimpy female costuming in carnival is another example of it with the continuum being to less and less and with the Brazilians even going as far as to nudity in carnival bands, with only body paint covering the more private parts.
Although the process of change is not a very exact science, it is clear that societies, over time, have found ways to introduce these changes in an acceptable manner, and they percolate across the spectrum, so that while “backballing” may still offend some, even our political leaders have been seen trying the move, albeit with some hesitation.
Ultimately, the complaints about carnival behaviours are simply running up against current popular culture which sees nothing wrong in them, and most of the consumers of the product would disagree with popular arts critic and columnist Al Creighton who sees the Trinidadian product, in my words, as diminishing Guyanese cultural efforts. It is a today product for today’s world, and the people drawn to it would dismiss the negatives. In the light of Mr. Creighton’s point, however, one could be excused for asking, “What the hell has Trinidad let loose on us?”