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Funding culture vultures

by Raffique Shah

Published with expressed permission of the author
(Originally published in the Trinidad Express)

..Except for the steelband component which is rising in spite of Carnival, every other aspect what was once the people’s festival has been hijacked by the vultures, the mafia, call them what you will...

Raffique Shah

The Government missed a good opportunity to impress upon the population the gravity of the country’s economic circumstances, and consequently the dire need for all segments of society to make sacrifices on the expenditure side of the equation, when it capitulated by doling out millions of taxpayers’ dollars to fund private promoters whose sole interest in Carnival is to profit off it.

The same Prime Minister and Finance Minister who lament how they have to struggle every month to accumulate the billion dollars required to meet public sector wages and salaries’ bill, and pensions and social benefits cheques, announce, almost apologetically, that they have allocated millions to the Chutney Soca Monarch and International Soca Monarch organisers.

 In fact, Minister Colm Imbert, addressing the ministerial “mix up” that resulted in someone senior at the National Lotteries Control Board telling Southex Promotions boss George Singh that the NLCB will no longer fund the Chutney show, and later “backed back” by offering a petty $300,000, set the numbers right by crowing that funding will be to the melodious tune of $1 million.

That seven-digit number was music to Singh’s ears, so much so that he did not even withdraw his earlier accusation of “racial discrimination” in Carnival-related allocations as he grabbed it and said the Chutney show was back on track. We have yet to hear exactly what sum is being given to the ISM organisers, but if I am to judge by previous experiences, the public will be told it’s way short of what they need, that they will lose money for the umpteenth year, but as patriots and promoters of our culture, they will absorb their losses and carry on. Few people question why Government should have pumped public funds into private ventures of this kind in the first instance, far less continue doling out largesse in lean times. Indeed, while subventions to these two ventures are among the bigger sins of successive governments, they are not the only ones, Annually, government allocates approximately $250 million to the National Carnival Commission, which, in turn, disburses varying sums to steelbands (through the representative organisation Pan Trinbago), calypso (via TUCO), and masquerade bands (via NCBA).

Like so many other facets of what are loosely described as “we cultyah”, Carnival, which has shrunk over the years in direct participation, paying patrons and street spectators, has enjoyed an almost sacrosanct status when it comes to government funding. Minister Imbert boasts of having removed subsidies from the prices of fuels several times since returning to power in 2015 (“and they ‘ent riot”), added hundreds of goods and services to the VAT-able list, imposed or increased a host of other personal, corporate and consumer taxes, eliminated the names of thousands of recipients of social welfare benefits, among other cut-backs in expenditure or increases in revenue.

But he has not touched the “high mass” of debauchery, the altar of the most wasteful expenditure that this country has institutionalised, if not deified, more than likely because he and his Government fear the backlash from the very vociferous culture-vultures who make tonnes of money off Carnival, and the tens of thousands who cannot afford it, but who will borrow, beg or steal to enjoy the four-weeks-or-so gratification that is today’s Carnival.

Except for the steelband component which is rising in spite of Carnival, every other aspect what was once the people’s festival has been hijacked by the vultures, the mafia, call them what you will. A slick cabal of promoters controls the fete venues and the bands-in-demand. Mas’ costumes, if they can be so described, consist of bikinis-and-beads made in China. The jarring excuse for music is mostly determined by a sounds-systems mafia. And the near-naked, whiter-shades-of-pale players are roped off from what is left of spectators by muscled slaves, sights, sounds and scenes reminiscent of worst excesses of decadent ancient and medieval empires.

And Government is using my tax dollars to fund this madness, this insult to my dignity? No! I protest! Up until around 2005, I was very much a carnival person. I made the rounds of calypso tents…until the art form declined and other than vintage fare, there was little to listen to. My lime attended a few fetes until noise displaced music. And we were veteran street spectators, savouring the artistry of the great craftsmen, until they were booted out by strips of fabric that left nothing to exercise even one’s imagination.

Only the steelband stood apart and aloof of this decay, and while Panorama and competition are important to pan players, the din of the DJs and general noise levels at Carnival time have all but chased the national instrument from the streets. I prefer panyard limes and concerts where bands perform their full repertoires, and where pan prodigies and virtuosos are at their best.

Because I am partial towards pan does not mean I am blind to the failures of the fraternity, especially Pan Trinbago. With hundreds of millions of State-dollars pumped into pan over the past 50 years, nothing can explain why the organisation does not own its headquarters and the biggest, most profitable pan factory in the world.

Still, I strongly object to Government funding culture vultures who make millions off their (not our) all-exclusive Carnival.

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