Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago Full of Controversy Caused By New Fees


Few areas take Carnival more seriously then the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago where it is the single most important event of the year and a huge tourist draw. As a result, changes to the traditional routine take on an extreme importance, affecting the economic reality of significant numbers of bandleaders, musicians, and other artisans. Despite its celebratory feel. This is a BIG business.

This year the run-up to Carnival has been characterized by divergent interests and conflict between the various parties involved. Although Carnival is officially overseen by the National Carnival Commission (NCC), the actual organization and running of the parades and competitions that form its centerpiece is handled by the National Carnival Bands Association (NCBA), which receives annual funding from the government. Lead by its longtime president David Lopez, the NCBA has recently taken several controversial positions that seem to have put it in direct conflict with many of the bandleaders that it officially represents, particularly those running the largest of the Mas groups. Of these positions, the one that has received the most criticism is the imposition of new (and previously unheard of) registration fees on all performers and bandleaders.

Lopez claims that the new fees are necessary because, while the costs of organizing Carnival continue to rise, the amount of money that the NCBA receives from the government has remained fixed. Furthermore, he argues that the funds collected would also be used to help develop the “creative skills” of those from whom it is collected. Lopez has previously claimed that many of the skills and cultural creativity that make Carnival unique are increasingly threatened; in particular, he has singled out the growing trend of importing the material used in Mas costumes from China and India as a particularly damaging development. Speaking last year, he claimed that the tradition of costume making in Trinidad was “rapidly dying if not already dead…The industry is not where it was some ten years ago. Soon people will no longer need skilled labor like wire benders, metal beaters and hundreds of people who are employed in accessorizing the costumes.”

The reaction to the fees and this argument for their necessity (the latter backed up by the seemingly unlikely threat of 2000% percent tariff on the importation of all pre-made costumes by the Minister of Arts and Culture) has been met with negative reactions from the major bandleaders who are decrying it as economically unreasonable and,given the disorganized way that they were introduced, both illegitimate and unprofessional. According to Mahindra Satram-Mahara, chairman of the National Carnival Development Foundation, the organizers of Carnival have made an “annual habit of poor planning and last-minute consultations with stakeholders." Satram-Mahara continues his critique stating, "The Government is putting emphasis on globally branding Carnival but how can we brand it if we cannot get our house in order?”

While these arguments are often formulated in the terms of carnival culture, with claims made that the fees are an assault on the “freedom of expression” that is the beating heart of carnival, it is difficult not see their roots in the light of the marketplace. As bands have expanded to provide an increasingly immersive experience, promising their members food, drink, and security in addition to the traditional costumes, costs and organizational difficulties have increased as well. According to the bandleader Ronnie McIntosh, “Everyone thinks that bandleaders are making big money. They only see the launch of the bands, the costumes and the prizes….
There is a heavy cost attached to safety and security of the bands; a heavy cost attached to renting trucks, trailers, and generators; and the production costs of costumes are very high. We have to pay for production at every level - be it local or overseas. That is why we have to treat Carnival as a business and not bacchanal.”

According to this viewpoint, developments such as the importation of costumes from China and India should be understood as a necessary part of the decidedly realistic process of running a modern carnival group. If feather prices are too high in Trinidad, the next step is, just like in any other business, to buy them from China where they are cheaper. In direct opposition to this is the understanding of Carnival espoused by the NCBA, which views the effort “to export the ingenuity and creativity of Carnival through its locally produced final products” as its main aim. This clear opposition means that the friction between the two camps is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, as Trinidad and Tobago continues to negotiate the complex process of making a viable industry out of its cultural heritage.


-Sam Backer
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