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An SOS for Caribbean Culture


A When Steel Talks Special




While addressing an audience in New York, a Grenadian tourism official commented that there was something cultural happening in Grenada every weekend. If by definition culture is our way of life then the individual was unfortunately suggesting that we are ourselves only on weekends.

This comment is indicative of the thinking of most of our Caribbean leaders or those charged with the responsibilities of extending the economic and social scope of the region. Our authoritative figures do not know what culture is and by extension the value of Caribbean Culture.  

The misuse of Calypso and Calypsonians is one glaring example. The trend in recent years in the region has been to add an element of entertainment to political campaigns and rallies. Unfortunately that trend has permeated Carnivals and the Calypso competitions. It has meant therefore, the near extinction of the artform as patrons are now staying away from the tents and other Calypso shows in droves. Social commentary has evolved into political commentary eliminating the cleverness and creativity of the artform relegating it to nothing more than sophomoric diatribe which in most cases insults the intelligence of the audience it is intended to entertain.

Interestingly, the use of the Artistes in the campaigns and rallies does not guarantee much politically. The ruling party in Grenada intensified its use of Calypsonians during the 2003 election campaigns and went from a 15-0 majority to an 8-7 majority. The Kennedy Anthony-led Government in St. Lucia lost the December 2006 elections although it provided more free entertainment than St. Lucians could have ever dreamt of.

The time has come and the call is been clearly made here for Caribbean Governments to secure the interests, the future and the very existence of Caribbean people. The ICC was able to convince us of all that was needed to be done to accommodate Cricket World Cup, why can’t we convince ourselves to do all that must be done to ensure our people can benefit from their never-ending cache of God-given talent.

Most of our territories don’t have effective copyright and intellectual property rights legislation to protect the great thinkers and creators among us. Most of the Caribbean islands don’t have facilities that can cater to the proper hosting of cultural and entertainment events. In its manifesto prior to the recently held elections in Jamaica, the JLP promised, among other things; to construct a state-of-the-art concert hall for the performing arts and amend existing copyright legislation to provide greater protection and compliance. With the international success of Bob Marley and in recent times, Shaggy and Sean Paul, it is rather surprising that promises of that nature are still being made in Jamaica. So one can just imagine how much further back the other Caribbean states, without Jamaica’s track record of success, must be.

At the beginning of this century, rap music usurped country music to become the leading selling genre in the US. With the negativity and controversy that rap has and continue to evoke one might be surprised to learn of the extreme commercial success of the genre. What made the music successful was an environment that was conducive to the proper execution of business principles. Notwithstanding the issues surrounding the particular brand of music, the proper mechanisms existed for rap to enjoy immense commercial success for the record companies and the Artistes themselves. That kind of environment is sadly absent here in the Caribbean, while the talent abundantly exists. The recent accomplishments of Rihanna, Sean Paul, Shaggy and Kevin Little are testimony to the fact that our music, our talent and our brand of entertainment is not only marketable but in high demand when made available to a wider audience. However, favorable conditions must exist here in the Region that would allow for a barrage, if you will, of similar talents enjoying comparable worldwide, commercial success.

Our leaders no longer have excuses. Cost of living across the region continues to rise, the crime rate in even once peaceful havens, is increasing at an alarming rate, the attention span of our young people is almost non-existent, while their energy levels and sense of curiosity is on the upswing.

Even before we busy ourselves with the CCJ and CSME we must first redefine who we are as a people, our place in this new Global Village and our prospects for survival as a region. To do those things we must place heavy emphasis on Carifesta, our Carnivals, our musical genres (and we only have two – Reggae and Calypso), our foods, our musical instruments (steel pan and drums) and most importantly our legislation.

Noted Caribbean Academic and Artist Rex Nettleford once said, “Preserving our Culture is critical because that is the only way you can retain your sense of place and purpose in a world threatening to harmonize everybody.”   That critical statement can be further backed by Philosopher Victor Hugo who once observed that, “There is no such thing as a little country. The greatness of a people is no more determined by their numbers than the greatness of a man is determined by his height.”

Preserving our rich cultural heritages and enabling the existence of an environment conducive to international acclaim for our Artistes simply requires the political will and fortitude of our leaders. It is amazing what politicians will do to secure their own narrow-minded interests. One recalls the banning of Anthony B’s ‘Fire Pon Rome’ in Jamaica because the song dared to mention some names and speak of contentious social ills. During the 2007 Carnival season in Grenada history was created, when for the first time regional and international judges adjudicated the local Calypso competitions because the authorities were attempting to secure the “right” results. By the way the financial, social and moral cost of that venture will reverberate for many years to come. One cringes when thought is given to the cultural benefits that could have been derived if the money spent on the ‘foreign judges’ was otherwise invested.

For the leaders who continue to wield political clout to muzzle creativity and expression just a brief reminder of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states:  Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

A strong national culture or identity and strength in artistic endeavors can be a source of economic strength and higher material standards of living. And therein lies the basis of every political campaign in the region, to make the economy better and improve the standard of living.

Angeline S. Kamba, addressing the Third Annual Conference of the International Network for Cultural Diversity in 2002, said it best, “Government has of course got the biggest role and challenge in that it has to provide the enabling environment and the guidelines for things to happen through the policies it formulates. Culture generally is a difficult area for policy-makers in that it is difficult to measure and to assess the impact of the policies. There is a school of thought which calls for more integration between cultural policies and other areas of development, the socio-economic and political policies.”

Dexter Mitchell ©

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