Not your parents’ carnival

Times change, and Carnival changes with it — for better or for worse? Mark Lyndersay, Laura Dowrich, and Tracy Assing talk to eight Carnival insiders about the state of the mas and the state of the music, where the festival is heading, and how it will get there

The popular Carnival band Yuma hits the Socadrome stage. Photo by Dwayne WatkinsAs an alternative to the traditional Savannah stage, the privately managed Socadrome has raised controversy. Photo by Dwayne WatkinsTrinidad Carnival Diary websiteDesigner Robert Young. Photo by Mark LyndersayVulgar Fraction’s Carnival 2015 presentation was inspired by traditional Black Indian mas. Photo by Leslie-Ann RobertsonJanelle Forde. Photo courtesy NH Productions TTJ.Angelique’s Monday wear has a loyal clientele among trendy masqueraders. Photo courtesy NH Productions TTPhoto by Mark LyndersayPhoto courtesy Fay Ann LyonsPhoto courtesy Fay Ann LyonsJason “Shaft” Bishop. Photo by Mark LyndersayCarl “Beaver” Henderson. Photo by Mark LyndersayKurt Allen. Photo by Mark LyndersayCalypso Rose performs at the Barrack Yard Tent Experience. Photo courtesy The Barrack Yard Tent ExperienceHaving the time of his life at the Carnival Socadrome. Photo by Dwayne Watkins

Look at photographs from the Carnival parade fifty years ago, and there are things that don’t seem to have changed much: the layout of the main stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah, the joy and abandon of the masqueraders in their spotlight moment, the advertising hoardings in the background.

But there’s much that’s obviously different in those archival images: the design of the costumes, the scale and organisation of the bands, even the gender of the masqueraders — women nowadays dominate most mas bands, by a wide margin. And there are more profound differences that photos can’t capture, in the logistics and economics of the festival.

Carnival is a season of creativity and commercialism that dominates the first two months of every year in T&T. But it’s also — and always has been — a kind of battleground for certain social ideas, for notions of cultural identity. Over the two centuries in which the twin islands have evolved from colonies into a postcolonial nation, Carnival has evolved too.

Purists believe today’s Carnival retains the DNA of social resistance that shaped its nineteenth-century incarnation. Entrepreneurs see the festival as an opportunity for investment. The state subsidises the Carnival season to the tune of many millions, arguing that it stimulates tourism. And ordinary revellers, for the most part, just want to have fun, which increasingly means spending big bucks for an “all-inclusive” experience. Somehow, Carnival still manages to accommodate all these agendas — but not without an annual upwelling of heated debate.

To grossly oversimplify, you can divide opinion into two broad camps. Producer Carl “Beaver” Henderson calls them “Traditionalists” and “Globalists,” and the terms, though imprecise, are as good as any. Traditionalists decry what they see as a commercial erosion of the festival’s creative and ritual elements: anything goes, as long as it makes money. Globalists argue that Carnival organisers must realise they serve a market: masqueraders and audiences alike are consumers, and Carnival is already a product packaged for local and foreign buyers.

There’s truth in the arguments of both camps. And the simple fact is, Carnival isn’t exempt from the social pressures of the wider society — as we change, Carnival changes with us, and nostalgia just can’t keep up.

For the foreseeable future, the ultra-popular, mega-scaled bands which now overpower Port of Spain’s Victorian street grid — Tribe, Yuma, Bliss, Spice, et al — are here to stay. Traditional calypso, with its strains of social and political commentary, will continue to be vastly outplayed by soca. Congestion around the Savannah will continue to drive those bands uninterested in the official competition away from the judging points to an alternative “big stage” — whether at the current Socadrome or elsewhere. Costumes will remain skimpy, and — barring a change in the economics of trade — many large bands will increasingly rely on cheap components imported from factories in Asia.

But it also seems reasonable to predict that children’s mas — with its own parade and competition days — will continue to be an arena for innovative costume design. Traditional masquerades like the sailor, the Midnight Robber, Indian mas, and the Dame Lorraine, will survive on the fringes of the festival — and perhaps even reclaim some space nearer the centre, if larger bands remove themselves to their own venue. And small, quirky, design-driven bands with a community ethos will continue to offer an alternative to masqueraders looking for a mas with meaning.

That’s one perspective — but what do people inside the engine of Carnival think? In the following pages, we’ve rounded up eight insiders to give us their take on the state of the mas and the state of the music. We’ve asked: what are the biggest changes you’ve seen during your Carnival career? How would you define current trends? What’s your own role in the evolution of Carnival? Their answers are sometimes surprising, sometimes not — but always outspoken.

 

“We’ve single-handedly shaped trends in mas”

For the past decade, the blogger known to her readers as “Saucy” has been an outspoken and influential commentator on most aspects of mas, from costume design to behind-the-scenes logistics, via her Trinidad Carnival Diary. And it all starts from her own experience as a masquerader — as told to Mark Lyndersay

 

There’s a disconnect between the government agencies and NGOs responsible for the infrastructure and managing of Carnival, and the private entities who are involved at the ground level.

The Savannah congestion [at the main Carnival stage] has been an issue for as many years as I have been playing mas, and that’s thirty-five years and counting. It took the combined efforts of Tribe, Yuma, and Harts to bring some ease to the problem with the introduction of the Socadrome. It’s an example of the kind of collaboration that can come from both parties working together for the benefit of producing the festival. It’s what’s needed to move forward.

My own goal is to bring awareness to the issues that affect me as a masquerader, and to give people who need to voice their opinion a platform to have their say. Trinidad Carnival Diary is the first web initiative in the age of social media to provide Carnival content 365 days a year. We’ve single-handedly shaped trends in mas and given emerging Carnival entrepreneurs unprecedented support. The project is ten years old this year, and we are expanding the brand into regional and international Carnival coverage.

The biggest change in Carnival has been the emergence of all-inclusive bands that have taken the pampering of masqueraders to another level. Gone are the days when you had to stop at a vendor on the side of the road for a drink, and eat a boxed lunch while on the move. Now you have concierge service in the band, bringing you Champagne and foot massages at air-conditioned tents during a rest stop.

We need to find new ways to set our Carnival apart from the many other events that are now following our model, from costume design to fetes. Trinidad and Tobago needs to offer the Carnival enthusiast something that they will not find elsewhere, cheaper. This will be our biggest challenge, because the cost of experiencing Trinidad Carnival is not cheap — and the experience has to be positioned as premium.

Launched in 2006 by pseudonymous blogger “Saucy,” Trinidad Carnival Diary (TCD) quickly became known for its opinionated and well-informed commentary on the masquerade experience, from reviews of costumes and band packages to interviews, gossip, and advice. Now expanded into a full website offering year-round coverage including international Carnivals, TCD is essential reading for thousands of dedicated masqueraders, especially from the large all-inclusive bands. Find out more at trinidadcarnivaldiary.com.

 

“I make my mas like me”

Designer Robert Young, leader of the small independent mas band Vulgar Fraction, on his fascination with masks and the psychological value of crafting your own costume — as told to Tracy Assing

 

When I learned how to make a mask in school, I came home, made a mask, and played in the neighbourhood, because it reminded me of what I saw when I was a little boy.

I always used to play mas by myself. When I came into Port of Spain the first time for J’Ouvert, I had a mask on my face. I think I was about nineteen at the time. Why was that mask important? You ever see me dance? [He laughs.] Right.

Mas was always a part of my life. When I was a child, we would go to downtown Port of Spain, because downtown was where the mas was. That’s where I saw [legendary Carnival bandleader] George Bailey as a child, on Independence Square.

The thing that I think has changed about Carnival is the feeling that it is yours.

Vulgar Fraction is a loose — very, very loose — collaboration between me and [designer] Lupe Leonard and the people who play in the band. It got that name in 1997, because it was considered vulgar to be making your own mas, to be a small group in the road.

The first year of Vulgar Fraction, the band had [artists and art world players] Susie Deyal, Charlotte Elias, Richard Bolai, Christopher Cozier, Irenée Shaw, Annie Paul, Sean Leonard. Vulgar Fraction is a band of craftspersons and artists who engage with people who want to reclaim their creativity. They design their mas with support. So you end up having a band but also a community workshop.

I don’t register [for the Band of the Year competition]. I choose not to register. I am not saying that everybody should do what I do, but you have to reclaim mas. Vulgar Fraction and other bands make an attempt to do that. I try to design components that people then utilise and manipulate, so you can choose.

It is important for the masquerader to participate in the making of the mas, to bend and craft it yourself. I see it as a psychological thing. I can create as a human being. I can manipulate something and make it look like me. I draw only like me. So I make my mas like me. It is about reclaiming the ability to use your hands, to do work — it is about being challenged like that.

When you play a mas, you transform, and there are no rules to doing it — because only at a certain time mas was packaged and a prize was given, other than that people played it, people came out their house and did things. So the competition and the packaging it and the managing it for tourist reasons and whatever, has affected it. The people who want to play will come out to play every year regardless. It is changing. It has changed.

Vulgar Fraction, led by designer Robert Young, is one of a handful of smaller design-driven mas bands offering an alternative to the all-inclusive mega-bands that have come to dominate the streets during Carnival.

Like Vulgar Fraction, Cat in Bag Productions (founded by artists Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran and Shalini Seereeram) is a band of a few dozen masqueraders, many of them hailing from the art and media world, well known for its light-hearted political and social commentary. Band members volunteer to help with costume production, and Cat in Bag has become notorious for the tongue-in-cheek placards carried on Carnival Monday, a conscious throwback to a punstering old mas tradition.

Launched by sisters Karen and Kathy Norman, medium-size K2K Alliance and Partners offers “fashion-forward” costumes and exquisite craftsmanship, consciously aiming for an aesthetic with one foot on the Carnival road, the other on the fashion catwalk.

The small band Touch D Sky won major recognition in 2015, when queen of the band Stephanie Kanhai won the Carnival Queen title — a major coup, considering that the band, made up entirely of stilt-walking moko jumbies, has just a handful of members.

Newcomers Mas Rebellion, as their name suggests, have set out to swim against the Carnival tide, with a masquerade presentation strong on storyline, a focus on social commentary, and a proclaimed emphasis on diversity: “no one is too big or too small to be a rebel.”

These and other similar bands give masqueraders a more intimate experience on the road, drawing on older community-based mas traditions and rethinking them for today’s Carnival context.

 

“People want to look glamorous”

Carnival masqueraders used to wear a single costume on both Monday and Tuesday. Increasingly, that’s no longer the case. “Monday wear” is a raging trend among many women masqueraders, and the hottest designers — like Janelle Forde of J.Angelique — find their collections sold out months before the festival, writes Laura Dowrich

 

There was a time when women masqueraders wore their costumes on both days of Carnival. After jumping and prancing on Carnival Monday, you would go home, repair whatever sequins had fallen off, wash your tights, and hang everything behind the refrigerator to dry for the next day.

Over time, and perhaps due to rising prices coupled with the fragility of costumes, masqueraders started wearing only bits of their costumes on Monday, opting instead for shorts and t-shirts, to preserve the full beauty of their ensemble for Tuesday. Some bands even offered their masqueraders specific costume options for Monday. And in recent years a new trend has sprung up, called Monday wear. Fashion designers, sensing opportunity, now design costumes specifically to be worn on the first day of the parade.

Janelle Forde, working under the label J.Angelique, was one of the first designers to get into the Monday wear business, and boasts of being the first to present a full Monday wear collection, in 2012.

“It just came from thinking shorts and tube tops weren’t my style, and I needed something more fashionable to wear on Carnival Monday,” says Forde, who was born in Trinidad but raised in Barbados. “When I came to Trinidad to go to university, I always tried to create my own thing — and as my interest in fashion developed, it was a natural progression. The only other person who did Monday wear then was Christian Boucaud, but no one was doing collections. With my background in fashion, I wanted to present more of a collection of items,” she explains.

Forde designs for the woman who has money to spend. Monday wear is not for the thrifty, with costumes ranging in price from US$230 upwards. “A lot of my clients are upwardly mobile,” says Forde, who also creates bespoke pieces for those who really want to go all out. But this year, for those who can’t afford the exclusive pieces, Forde will be partnering with a retail store, TKD, where masqueraders can get a design from Forde and then embellish it themselves.

One of the factors she suggests for the popularity of Monday wear is the sophisticated tastes more and more people are adopting when it comes to fashion. In fact, fashion has pervaded all aspects of Carnival. Shorts and t-shirts have also been replaced in the fetes, where partygoers pose for photos in wedge heels and clutch purses while sporting the latest designer wear. “People are more exposed to the Kardashians, people on TV and celebs, so they want to look glamorous . . . it is changing tastes, the want for more and excess,” Forde says.

While Monday wear is lucrative for the designers, with many sold out shortly after they launch their designs, Forde says it goes beyond monetary reward for her. “I see this as more than making money. I see it as part of my brand. I still have personal goals that don’t relate to the business side of it.” Looking at her role in Carnival, Forde says it is the same as any designer’s: to create new concepts and ideas in fashion. “People are watching and being inspired. I get satisfaction when people see the value in the work.”

 

Beyond Socadrome

After decades of documenting the Carnival parade at the Queen’s Park Savannah, in 2014 photographer Mark Lyndersay moved to the controversial Socadrome, a new venue paid for by some of the festival’s biggest mas bands. Here’s his take on a development that’s raised a sharp debate among Carnival insiders

 

To hear the bands that have favoured the newest Carnival Tuesday party space tell it, the Socadrome was a pressure release for congestion at the Queen’s Park Savannah, a place for the massive all-inclusive bands so popular in the street parade to party to their hips’ content.

The Socadrome — featuring a custom-built stage temporarily retrofitted into a tournament-class netball court at the Jean Pierre Complex in south-western Port of Spain — is some distance from the traditional Carnival nexus points at South Quay in downtown Port of Spain and the Savannah Grand Stand to the north of the city. But, as it turns out, that’s exactly where the bands want to play: outside the city centre, along the wider, less congested streets of Woodbrook and St James, two residential city districts the Jean Pierre Complex borders to the west and east.

It doesn’t hurt that very wide thoroughfares approaching the sporting centre easily accommodate these big bands, which hit the streets in full costume on a Carnival Tuesday at brigade strength, and now have room to spread out. Since these colourful troops cannot travel on hipflasks alone, they are accompanied by suitable cavalry support: mounted bars, restrooms, and restaurants that roll along with them in converted shipping containers.

Along with providing a custom-built space for these big bands, the Socadrome has emerged as a flashpoint for divisions in modern Carnival. While the bands party merrily at the venue, questions of history, exclusivity, and the importance of traditional spaces cross-examine the development of the project.

There have been only two Socadromes built so far, in 2014 and 2015, but they have created a storm of controversy, calling into question the very meaning of Carnival. Right from the start, the Socadrome laid bare the fundamental differences between what Carnival officials say bandleaders want and what they create for themselves when given a chance.

Photographers and videographers pay no fees at the new event space, a sharp contrast with charges running into thousands of TT dollars levied at traditional event spaces run by the National Carnival Commission and the lead Carnival stakeholders.

Masqueraders play less to the crowd than to the lenses of the image-makers who prowl the stage freely, and in 2015 the event added live performances by soca stars to the mix, a nod to the middling crowds who patronise the venue. But they are an afterthought, and the Socadrome is built for a Carnival that’s captured in multi-megapixel and HD resolution by razor-sharp lenses trained on toned flesh. The presentation and consumption is for an audience that is, for the most part, not present at all at the venue, and the masqueraders are well aware that to be seen requires the attention of expensive glass.

The Socadrome isn’t a perfect solution for the challenges that face Carnival — but it’s an entrepreneur’s response to the festival’s problems, and an acknowledgement of a fundamental shift in the way the event is performed and seen. More independent, fact-based thinking has to guide the development of the biggest event on the national calendar — and, for at least one sector of the festival, the Socadrome is a big win.

 

“What I do will shape the industry”

A soca superstar in her own right, and perhaps the genre’s most successful woman artiste, Fay Ann Lyons is also the musical and life partner of Bunji Garlin. Together, the power couple have been pushing soca in unexpected and unexpectedly successful directions — making trends instead of following them, and defying purists’ criticism. Laura Dowrich hears about Fay Ann’s determination to do things her own way

 

There is something magical happening at the Viking House. The headquarters of the Vikings Asylum band — headed by soca royalty Bunji Garlin and his wife Fay Ann Lyons — has become the epicentre for experimentation, collaborations, and new genres of music, all featuring soca at the base.

Leading the charge, of course, is Bunji, real name Ian Alvarez, who — since tasting mainstream success with his 2012–13 hit “Differentology” — has opened the floodgates for soca to travel the world, mainly on the back of EDM, electronic dance music, a current global craze.

But his wife Fay Ann is not to be outdone. Bunji’s labelmate on VP Records, Fay Ann is a musical force to be reckoned with on her own. Daughter of the legendary soca king Superblue, Fay Ann is the only female soca artiste with multiple Soca Monarch and Road March titles to her name. Like her husband, in recent years she has eschewed the high-profile International Soca Monarch competition to focus on a global audience — and her music has evolved to suit.

Last November, I got a sneak peek into some of Fay Ann’s post-Carnival projects, including a few EDM tracks, one of which was recorded with up-and-coming Mad Decent label group Bad Royale, who spent two weeks recording an EDM/soca album with Bunji at the Viking’s Soundlock studio. There are also a couple of reggae songs, one of which will be remixed after Carnival 2016 into an R&B number.

Fay Ann writes all of her songs herself, which gives her the freedom and flexibility to be as versatile as she wants and to continuously push the boundaries of music. For Carnival 2016, she’s introduced a new genre she calls “Afro Soca.” Her first release under that title was “Block D Road”, with Ghanaian artist Stonebwoy. Another, “Bad Rule”, was recorded with Jamaican dancehall artist Mavado.

The genre has actually opened doors on the African continent for soca, with one DJ dedicating thirty minutes on his radio show to the musical genre. The Vikings are also eyeing a possible African tour, in their continued push to spread soca all over the world.

“The only thing I am purposely doing is exploring my talent and seeing what I can do,” says Fay Ann in a discussion about her role in shaping soca music. “Nothing I do is done to shape the industry, but I understand what I do will shape the industry,” she explains.

She also understands that in an ever-expanding soca environment she is providing inspiration for those who dare to dream about being different. She may have taken blows on social media for her “Raze” video, shot in a stark winter setting, snow and all — but the video is characteristic of what Fay Ann believes in: being herself and jumping to the beat of her own drum.

It is evident in her lyrics. While soca is predominantly about the party, Fay Ann finds ways to sing about it that are different from the pack, in similar fashion to the way her father used his songwriting skills. She draws inspiration from everywhere. “Raze”, for example, she says, was inspired by a Hitler documentary.

Her approach to the music is the one major change she has made in her career. “Songs like ‘Catch Me’ and ‘Raze’ had nothing to do with Carnival . . . I have evolved from the regular jump-and-wave and incorporated influences from movies and books to show that it is possible to sing songs without jumping and waving for Carnival,” she explains.

Looking down the road, ten years into the future, Fay Ann says she has no clue where the music will be. What concerns her is the contribution of the artistes. “There is a trend of people not doing what is beneficial to the collective. We are allowing people who only contribute negativity to determine who’s hot and who’s not,” she says.

It that way, too, she’s determined to buck the trend.

 

“I want to be the link”

Last year, soca songwriter Jason “Shaft” Bishop followed a stellar Carnival season — including Destra’s hit song “Lucy” — with a slew of hits at Barbados Crop Over. Now firmly established as a crucial Carnival hitmaker, Bishop is optimistic about the future direction of soca — and his role in shaping it, as Laura Dowrich reports

 

Carnival 2015 was a watershed season for Jason “Shaft” Bishop. A well-known name in soca, Shaft has been penning hit songs since 2008, but last year he scored a major breakthrough with some of the season’s most popular hits: Destra’s “Lucy”, Nikki Crosby’s “Go Granny”, and Farmer Nappy’s “My House”.

He then topped his successful run at Barbados Crop Over, penning hits such as Hypasounds’ “Sugar Rush”, Kirk Brown’s “You’re My Number One”, Mikey’s “Hands on the Road”, Biggie Irie’s “Sweet Type of Way”, and Imani’s “Fire Meh”. “All ah We”, the song he wrote for Peter Ram, copped the Tune of de Road and Party Monarch titles. Shaft’s contribution to Crop Over was recognised with the festival’s prize for best songwriter. It’s a tough act to follow.

When I visit Shaft in late 2015 at his studio in Curepe, east Trinidad, he is already beginning to shift his focus to Crop Over 2016. He’s in the last stages of his work for Carnival 2016, having written a slew of new songs for Destra, Machel Montano, Olatunji, Chucky, Rikki Jai, Lil Bitts, Farmer Nappy and Lyrikal, Nikki Crosby, and Baron. Shaft’s success has unexpectedly brought opportunities to widen his scope of work, to say the least. “I had a plan to make sure my name reach a wider audience, and dig a lil’ deeper in the market,” he says, reflecting on his year past.

Shaft describes his writing as a fluid thing. “I keep working around the clock, so I don’t have issues worrying about beating back my hit. I try to be consistent — you could never do one thing twice, you might have a remedy to come close, but you could never do it,” he says.

Shaft started off as a singer in 2000, when he stumbled into the now defunct Rituals music label office. He mentored under some of the label’s artistes, but even then his songwriting skills were evident. Eight years later, he approached Destra with “Saddle It”. It was then he realised he had found his true niche. Since then, he’s been on a mission: to be the best in the soca hit-writing business.

Shaft doesn’t just write a song. He writes with specific artistes in mind, tailoring the lyrics and sound to fit like a glove. His intention, he says unabashedly, is to be considered one of the greats in soca music. “I see my role as a mediator,” he says. “I want to be the link between a lot of things. I see myself as a key person who can make a difference, not just writing but teaching songwriting, being a mentor,” he adds.

He’s also optimistic about soca’s future. The genre, he says, is heading in the right direction, but just needs the right people. “The music going international — whether we do it or someone does it for us, it doesn’t matter, we just need to be a part of it,” he says, drawing reference to Justin Bieber’s hit song “Sorry”, which many consider to be built on a soca beat.

Soca’s biggest challenge, he says, is the lack of unity. “We need to work together, each one need to help one. You have a whole set of tribes aiming at the same thing for the same reason, but no togetherness.” He believes the Carnival season, though it’s the vehicle helping to push the music and providing a living for many, also limits artistes. “Artistes just need to generate music year round.”

 

“Change always wins”

Music producer Carl “Beaver” Henderson on the clash between “global” and “traditional” interests in Carnival, the inevitable conflict of transition, and how the Carnival Sunday Dimanche Gras show needs to evolve — as told to Mark Lyndersay

 

I’ve never been a follower, I’m not made up that way.

In my career I’ve been a part, sometimes a prime mover, of game-changing movements — from calypso to soca to the creation of chutney soca, the big band music and massive PA systems of the 1980s, the production of the Trinidad Reggae Movement show, Mt Irvine Hotel Jazz on the Beach, and now Dimanche Gras. The surge in interest in electronic dance music (EDM) is something I’ve been doing since the early 1990s.

Carnival music will remain challenging, because it’s produced from the perspective of pleasing a panel of competition judges. Artistes see winning the competition and its prize money as the only success and reward for their work. Take away the big prize money and make mass appeal the reward, and you’ll see creativity blossom.

The biggest change in Carnival has to come in the relationship between the two major groups operating in Carnival. The Global Carnivalists seek to commercialise Carnival and all its attendant disciplines and are branded sellouts. The Traditionalists worry that commercial interests will dilute the indigenous nature and spirit of Carnival, but are regarded as old-fashioned and outdated. Both hold firm to their approach, but don’t realise the only sustainable way forward is to work together.

For 2016, I’m putting an emphasis on producing music for the festival that can be played all year long. Too much of our music dies on Carnival Tuesday night.

I also intend to bring change to any performance production I’m involved in. The big challenge in that for Carnival is holding people’s interest for a show that can run to more than five hours. Either the concept or the length has to change.

My biggest challenge is Dimanche Gras, which never has enough planning time, a technical setup time that’s a fifth of what’s needed, at ten hours, and no time for a single full dress rehearsal.

I’ve done two [Dimanche Gras shows], and Carnival being the animal that it is, the shows came off with some level of success, but it’s still something I’m not satisfied with.

Trinidad and Tobago is at a critical crossroads when it comes to its creative and Carnival arts. We have to find the right balance between tradition and commerce and set aside the conflict over change. Change was vehemently fought in the transition from calypso to soca, from chutney music to chutney soca, and now in soca as it finds strong influence from EDM-influenced soca.

You can fight change all you want, but change always wins.

Producer Carl “Beaver” Henderson has been major player in T&T’s music industry for decades. Beginning as a musician with the local rock band The Last Supper, followed by a long run in the band Fireflight, Henderson opened his own studio in 1991, running the record label Heat of the Tropics. In 2014, he took on the challenging assignment of producing the Dimanche Gras show on Carnival Sunday night, an unwieldy cultural variety performance that traditionally includes the Calypso Monarch competition finals. Henderson has also been at the forefront of the move to incorporate elements of EDM — electronic dance music — into what he calls “electronic calypso.”

 

“The meaning of calypso is to speak when nobody will”

Calypsonian Kurt Allen on holding onto kaiso’s original essence —  as told to Mark Lyndersay

 

In 2016, I’ll be putting my focus on encouraging youth involvement in Carnival by creating opportunities to be mentored by cultural icons. The Barrack Yard Tent Experience will open with the theme “Family and Community Matter Most — All Ah We Is One Family.” Family and community spawn creativity. Without strong families and communities, you get poor value.

I’ll be presenting the leading cultural and artistic expressions of Trinidad and Tobago on one stage at the height of the Carnival season, and I’m working with people I’ve admired for decades. I may be contracting them, but really I’m just a diehard fan, and to me, they are still larger than life.

I’ve also been working with a team of young creatives, some of whom are fresh out of university, and some are fresh into university. I believe in letting young people lead. They aren’t my assistants, I’m their assistant, helping them to get things done. They are given a real opportunity to lead.

There is a lack of commitment from stakeholders to reintroduce higher standards in our artistic expression, and the slow pace in the changing of the guard has stifled new insights and innovative work in the festival. Old ideas are recycled, polished, and repackaged for presentation, and young creators have few opportunities for involvement in the decision-making processes.

State funding doesn’t operate on the basis of sustainable development when treating with the arts and culture. An over-reliance on state support has led to a less than dynamic approach from practitioners of the arts in exercising greater financial discipline and control in their operations.

Things are going the way they are going because that’s where we are taking it, and that’s basically in circles. We need to work towards a collective national cultural vision which can bring clarity to the creative path. Until we engage young people in a way that cultivates appreciation of the cultural capital by our young people, we can expect everything to continue the way it has.

I was the Calypso Monarch of 2010, and established the Office of the Calypso Monarch to assist past monarchs in need of help, as well as youths looking for advice and opportunities to grow. The monarchs who came after me did not show any interest in continuing the programme. I invited TUCO [the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation] to adopt the programme, but that didn’t happen.

The biggest change I’ve seen in calypso during my career is the diminishing creative output of the calypsonian. Calypsonians have become silent in the face of raging social and political issues, and the governing body isn’t addressing the most important concerns of the artform. It seems to have lost its objectivity in the face of having to seek funding and subvention from the state.

The calypsonian’s true essence and the meaning of calypso — as handed down in the tradition of the griot — is to speak when nobody will say anything. The calypsonian must face and accept responsibility for flagging support of the music. Some seek to blame their audience, the lack of airplay, the lack of funding — but the problem is with the calypsonians themselves.

Calypso is part of our collective soul as a Caribbean people, and the soul is what connects us to the Creator. The soul lives forever, and I believe calypso lives forever.

The future? I don’t know where the music will be, but it will be wherever the people and the calypsonians take it.

“The Last Bardjohn of Calypso,” Kurt Allen is the only calypsonian to have won the three major titles of Calypso Monarch (2010), International Soca Monarch (1999), and Young King (1993). He is also a prolific songwriter, an outspoken defender and promoter of calypso as a unique musical form, and founder of the Barrack Yard Tent Experience, which debuted in 2015: an omnibus Carnival-season show combining music, theatre, and traditional masquerade performance, in an attempt to introduce a new generation to T&T’s “golden age” cultural heritage. His 2016 album is Griotism.