Death Knell for Trinidad and Tobago Carnival?

The moon is rising over the hills and the air is alive with the sound of sweet pan music.

Tillah Willah‘s account of Trinidad and Tobago's 2013 Panorama semi-finals certainly starts off idyllically. But it soon degenerates:

Police are stalking the perimeter of the stage like a flock of belligerent cobo. Guarding the stage like a La Basse carcass. I start to wonder if this stage is where our culture comes to die.

Her post goes on to provide examples of her belief that “pan and other people-centred elements of the Carnival have continued to die slow painful deaths”; helping the musicians push their steel pans onto the stage, she gets the feeling that the police officers are oblivious to the “community effort” that goes into the making of Panorama. It feels like an us against them situation:

Earlier in the evening, my neck craning over a barricade looking for a friend, a police officer told me I couldn’t stand where I was, although I was causing no obstruction. I ignored him and continued to look. The officer’s voice gets more insistent and as he makes as if to physically remove me, I walk away, feeling the mad blood rising. Not wishing to end up in an unnecessary altercation.

‘Family,’ the man on the track addressed me. ‘Family, he doh know who is you or what?’ Who is me? A Trinidadian. A Carnival lover. A panatic. It’s hard to keep a sense of humour. It’s hard not to want to pelt a bottle just to see what they will do. Start a riot just out of curiousity to find if they would really use those assault rifles in a crowd.

You shout stupidness at the officers. You know the arrangement your band is playing so you sing it back, you pam pam pa da the song into the officers’ faces. Officer Screw Face is properly scowling at us. Looking damn vex that we were still having a good time. He stretches his arms out to his sides to meet the batons of his fellow Corporal Stupidees.

He pushes us back more. We resist. We do a Hafizool on them. Except that we have more moral authority to stay on the stage. We are qualified to be here.

"Panorama", image by adpowers, used under a Creative Commons license.

“Panorama”, image by adpowers, used under a Creative Commons license.

In short, Attillah Springer's Panorama experience leads her to the conclusion that “Carnival is a battle that the people are losing more and more every year.” She may not be the only blogger who fels this way. Mark Lyndersay, a photographer who has filmed various aspects of the festival over the years, blogs about the exorbitant fees that are being charged for documenting the country's annual festival:

I’ve been advised, by a source with no reason to lie about such things, that some quite draconian fees have been instituted for the coverage of Carnival in 2013.

These fees break out as follows in T&T cash money as the unsuited thugs say…
NCC Fees: Personal use – $600.00, Commercial use – $800.00
Additional National Carnival Bandleader’s Association (NCBA) fees for coverage of costumed bands and individuals: personal use – $5,900.00, commercial use – $10,000.00 (permits two years of local usage). For international commercial usage for U.K. and Europe add $3,500.00. for international commercial usage for the US, add $3,000.00.

He continues:

It’s unclear what rights ‘commercial usage’ covers. That’s very specific terminology in photographic licensing and these terms would, if the NCBA understands what they are talking about here, allow a photographer to cover Carnival and sell it to, say, Prada for an advertising campaign in the US and Europe.
If that’s the case, $16,500 is a steal of a deal.

I suspect, however, that this isn’t what this Axis of Copyright has in mind.The NCC/NCBA/TUCO/Pan Trinbago coalition of shortsightedness has tended to see ‘commercial usage’ as magazines offered for sale and prints sold in a photographic outlet, neither of which is particularly commercial or profitable and those fees applied to magazines could stand some testing in court.

"Blue Devil 2" by nicholaslaughlin, used under a Creative Commons license.

“Blue Devil 2″ by nicholaslaughlin, used under a Creative Commons license.

Lyndersay makes the point that “the absurdity of charging for the documentation of a national festival isn’t something that photographers have been railing out only recently”. He recounts the experience of the late photographer Noel Norton, who “lament[ed] the fees charged more than 20 years ago which he paid every year in order to continue his work recording the national festival”:

I witnessed begging expeditions by these same Carnival stakeholders to Norton’s studio to get access to images for one project or another, requests that the normally stern Mary Norton would always try to accommodate. Both of the Nortons photographed Carnival because they really loved this country and wanted to do their part to participate in its development.

In 2005, when they really began to struggle with the yearly trek to the Savannah, I wrote this letter to the NCC. A good friend of mine was present when it was read to the leadership of the NCC and it earned a single response: “What did Noel Norton ever do for Carnival?”

Not a single person spoke up for his years of service and the access they had offered to their archives. If anyone has ever wondered why I have been so biliously venal in my contempt for the NCC and everything it stands for, this is one outstanding reason why.

Now Carnival's Axis of copyright seems to want to limit or at the very least, severely tax the recording of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival. This is such a stunningly myopic notion that I cannot speak to it at all…

This post does it pretty well, though. Lyndersay ends on a defiant note:

I’m very tempted to walk away from this mountain of crap. But here’s the truth. Carnival is bigger and more important than the stupidity of the people who are appointed to run it. There will come a day when we look back on these decisions and lament the chilling effect they had on serious coverage and documentation, but that won’t bring those lost events and personalities back.

Hundreds of hours of Carnival coverage have been either lost or are steadily deteriorating in what remains of TTT’s video archives. This year’s Panorama Semi-Finals went unrecorded while negotiations over rights dithered on. The Norton Archive of Carnival, captured through love and preserved with dedication, remains our most complete record of the last fifty years of Carnival and it is now, justifiably, the inheritance of Mary and Noel’s family.

Instead of acknowledging that there is a small but important tradition of documenting Carnival in this country and finding ways to seek mutual reward in the recording for posterity and future leverage of our country’s creative patrimony, the Axis of copyright has chosen taxation as its only tactic of negotiation and discussion.

Pay us or go away, they say to us. They don’t see what commercialising Carnival coverage has done to this country’s understanding of the festival. How decades of jam and wine photos have redefined the event using its most common and vulgar visual language.

He adds:

Art doesn’t sell like hotcakes, but hotties do, so instead of a Carnival of creativity, documented and analysed, we get page after page of abs and boobs draped in feathers and spattered with glitter.
If Carnival is a golden goose, being paraded for the pleasure of the punters, this Axis of copyright is four fat fingers that are pressing steadily into its throat.

"ARI_2232" by ariane_hunter, used under a Creative Commons license.

“ARI_2232″ by ariane_hunter, used under a Creative Commons license.

Plain Talk agrees:

Easily the most brazen lie ever told to the people of this country stripped down and devoid of any statistics to support it is that our Carnival is the greatest show on earth. Far from being unique, first, biggest, most watched, or any of the other superlative adjectives that have been attached to that untruth over the years, the cold reality is that our Carnival is dying, slowly, collapsing on itself in a writhing orgy of drunken stupor while others around the world and in our hemisphere (contradicting our Tourism Minister) have been experiencing exponential and explosive growth in visitor arrivals and tourism dollars.

The blogger, Phillip Edward Alexander, cites a few examples – Brazil and New Orleans, to name a couple. He continues:

Cultural activists, mas men and patriotic others have been ringing the alarm bells and publicly lamenting the death of carnival for years to no avail simply because we have never elected to Office men and women of sufficient vision to understand both the qualitative and quantitative value of our culture. Think those arrival and revenue statements are startling? What about the impact on the society of cohesion and community, the unifying, crime defeating value of the culture itself?

I have compared what our Carnival has become in the past to a wedding reception without the wedding, a celebration of ‘nothing’ where everyone shows up for the drinks and dancing. Surely there is something more of us, something rooted ‘deep within our Caribbean belly’ that wants to cry against this, isn't there? When it finally dawns on those busily gyrating their wares for all to see that no one is watching anymore, the absurdity of what our carnival has become might dawn on us all.

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