Looking back at the (Trinidad) Carnival…

It’s been a week since the reign of the Merry Monarch came to an end.

I grew up just outside Port of Spain, to a Carnival-avoiding papa and a pan-loving, mas-playing, culture-crazy mama, with access to the home of an adopted grandmother who lived right on Ariapita Avenue (opposite where the popular Corner Bar now is).

In other words, I’ve always been a Carnival baby, and apart from last year where I did the 3canal show up to Carnival Saturday and then slept through J’Ouvert and Carnival, I have never been in the country and not in costume or at least crashing any band that I passed.

I’m not a big partier, but I do love soca and calypso and mas-making and all the artforms that come to the forefront of the national consciousness during these remarkable few weeks that we call the Carnival season. It’s also my favourite time of year where (normally, anyway) there’s bright sunshine and a cool, vigorous breeze that makes it impossible not to realise that you are on a remarkable island.

So I can’t give much of a post-mortem on the all-inclusive fetes (the only one I went to was for The Arts Support Alliance, or TASA) or whether their presentation or attendance was in any way marred by the global economic downturn. But I can comment on the big soca and calypso competitions, and some of the countless other competitions that took place during the season. (By the way, check out Mark Lyndersay’s take on this year’s Carnival.)

Limbo Break

First of all, a pet peeve of mine was that there was no limbo competition. Sad but true, limbo is a cliche stereotype of the Caribbean that we often get a chance to rehabilitate when visitors (and locals!) get to see what the thing really looks like. Reigning limbo queen Kimmy Stoute-Robinson – who is known for working in the Willy Bounce and other contemporary popular dances while ascending from under the lowest flaming bar – apparently could not defend her title due to lack of funds. (Anybody remember the parang competition fiasco of 2008?)

Smorgasbord of Entertainment

There’s a lot that goes on during the season, though I stop short of saying it’s too much. On any given night, you can go to a musical show (say, Under the Trees or D Nu Pub – or even a languishing calypso tent), take in a play (say at Queen’s Hall), go to a big fete at an exotic or not-so-exotic location, go to a mega-concert, listen to a band play at a sports bar (say, Woodford Cafe), or go to a competition (Kings and Queens, calypso or soca competitions, stickfighting, extempo, etc etc).

And interestingly, there are usually big audiences at all. The market is tremendously diverse – in age, location, entertainment preferences, and more – and apparently can make all these different offerings (except, perhaps, the tents) commercially viable. And that is, by and large, good. On the flip side, God knows I would love to be able to go to everything, but with several different kinds of events scheduled every night, it’s almost impossible.

Radica

One of the stories that grabbed the public’s attention was the story of Kenneth Salick and his victory at the Chutney Soca Monarch competition with his piece “Radica”. A humble man of modest means, his original composition was based on the departure of his ex, and the mother of his children. Salick has shot to stardom with the song, and the public has followed the evolving relationship between him and the subject of his song, as the two remain in contact and Salick has said he will share his winnings with her. Remarkably, the song also received a fair amount of play during J’Ouvert and on the road Carnival Monday and Tuesday. I’m not sure if I’m aware of any other Chutney Soca Monarch-winning song receiving that much road play before (though I could be totally wrong).

High on de Music

But to the big news. The soca for 2009 was oustanding, and along with quite a bit of the music that emerged in the 2000s, makes up for the musical wasteland that was Trini soca music in the 90s (with exceptions, of course! What would we have done with out Xtatic and Atlantik?). And that perhaps made the soca competitions all the more contested (though some of the top performers like Destra and Machel do not compete).

So let’s talk about Soca Monarch. For months the hype was building that it was “going international”, with international broadcasts on international TV stations, a panel of celebrity commentators from the US (Danny Glover and Chris Tucker, to be precise) in addition to local “celebs” like Ato Boldon, Ronnie McIntosh and Wendy Fitzwilliam, and that it would generally be “bigger and better”. So when it started an hour late, all I could do was roll my eyes and steups. The show then dragged on until circa 4am, ie, too long. Do we really think international audiences of non-Trinis are going to stay tuned that long?

Then the audio and video feed from the celebrity panel was unreliable, essentially defeating the purpose of the panel altogether. I won’t say anything on the quality of the commentary that I was able to piece together.

And in the Soca Monarch context, I remain unconvinced that performers need to spend more time talking to the crowd and coaxing them to follow jumping, wining, waving and singing instructions than actually performing in order to fill out their alotted time and score points for crowd participation. And while Queen Faye-Ann was the clear Power Soca Monarch, I couldn’t understand how Nadia Batson didn’t even place in the top four when I had her pegged to win. Soca Monarch – like the Dimanche Gras and Panorama competitions – really need to be tightened to make them worth the cost of admission. I must say, though, that Destra’s performance was a show-stopper – almost better than most of the contestants put together.

Check out Queen Faye-Ann’s performance below, and many other performances for the night are also (somewhat illegally?!) on YouTube. Don’t forget: Ms. Lyons-Alvarez (hyphen? no hyphen?) swept all the awards at the Soca Monarch competition, copping the Groovy Soca Monarch, Power Soca Monarch, and People’s Choice titles before running away with the Road March. But more in that in a jiff.

Sweet Pan

The Panorama competition this year underwent several changes, for the better I think, first with having regionally oriented preliminary rounds and then excluding both the round-the-neck, small and medium bands from the finals night in Port of Spain (which does not imply that they are any less important, but just that the show historically has been entirely too long). On finals night, just the top eight large bands took the stage – and that still ran for five full hours.

Like Soca Monarch, this too got off to a late start, and ran just an hour over the intended end time of 12am. It should and could have been tighter, but at least it’s on its way. A lot has been argued over the judging and the rules since the competition. Three bands emerged with scintillating arrangements and performances – Exodus, Silver Stars and favourites Phase II Pan Groove. Any could have won that night, but first-timers Silver Stars edged ahead of the competition thanks to an extremely disciplined and effective arrangement and performance. What may well have been Phase II’s downfall (by just one point – which I continue to think is ridiculous in a competition where the total score is 500) is the ending, though improved from the semifinal round. Legend and musical genius that he is, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe is also known for being hit or miss with his endings. And Exodus… Though Pan Trinbago has denied it, many still believe their surprise 6th place finish resulted from being penalised for taking the stage with over the maximum number of players. Hopefully soon the real story will come out, because I can’t think of what else could have landed them in third-to-last place. Dr. Jeannine Remy gives her analysis on WhenSteelTalks.com.

Nevertheless, check out this video of Silver Stars’ winning performance:

Deemanchee Grass

And then there’s Dimanche Gras. And before I say more, let me repeat – Dimanche Gras. With an “i”. I was horrified to see in our new FLOW digital cable lineup that CNC3 was supposed to broadcasting “Demanche Gras”. Who? What? And it’s ironic, because just the same weekend I’d read an article by Lennox Grant talking about same. So I don’t know if the mistake originated with CNC3 or with FLOW, but whomever is responsible should feel well ashamed.

So to the competition. First of all, it started pretty much on time! Kudos. But 16 calypso finalists, I think, is too many. Ten or 12 would suffice, and the presentations often seem superfluous. And of course more controversy: was Chalkdust‘s song a good composition? He’s a man notorious for changing his tune between the semifinal and final performances. And while his song “Don’t Touch My Hart” tickled the average patron and listener with its concept and cameo appearance by Ray Funk, stalwart writers and singers have taken issue with the results saying that they were emotionally and improperly rendered, and that it is actually among Chalkdust’s worst. I even had to take a minute and think over my initial glee as he performed it on Carnival Sunday. I haven’t since listened to it again, so remain undecided on that one.

Chalkie also equalled The Mighty Sparrow‘s record of eight Calypso Monarch titles, inviting speculation as to whether Chalkie would keep his word and retire from competition, or return next year to try and break Sparrow’s record. Some say he should, others say he can continue to contribute meaningfully to the calypso arena through non-competitive performances and in policy making. We shall see.

There were some exquisite King and Queen costumes this year, one in particular (though I can’t recall the name – I shall post it when I find it) of a design I’d never seen before, and of course some recycled ideas. The construction and design of Brian MacFarlane’s was indeed among the best, though of course who should have won can be debated ad infinitum. There was one thing someone said to me that rang quite true as we watched his king cross the stage: “dat look jes like Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright.”

J’Ouvert Morning

I have another pet peeve with Carnival, and this has to do with the constant changing of J’Ouvert’s start time. At one time 2am, at others 4am, and now the official start is at 5am.

My feeling is that part of the magic of J’Ouvert is that, unlike mas on Monday or Tuesday, it all takes place under cover of darkness. That to me is part of what makes J’Ouvert so charged – it is carnal, dutty, unbridled, and “dark”. And somehow its mystique and its power is reduced once the sun starts to come up. The spirits and creatures that walk the road shrink back into their holes or into their other realms with the first sign of light.

Or at least that’s how my imagination constructs J’Ouvert. The late 5am start time, just before sunrise, is pushed back even further when key personnel (like music trucks) get caught in the road blocks that the police service has set up the last few years in Cocorite on the eastbound lanes of the Audrey Jeffers Highway. So by the time the band starts moving after all players have arrived, it’s lights up already. Magic gone. (But don’t think for a minute that keeps me from playing J’Ouvert! I’m just saying, that’s all…)

On De Road

Mas now. Not much difference, really. Beads and feathers. MacFarlane. And some in between. Then of course there was the T’in Cow band weaving through and disrupting the big bands, to the delight of many. Dat is mas!

And then there’s the Road March competition, which people seem increasingly to be losing faith in. I’m not taking a thing away from Queen Faye-Ann. She came with two killer songs this year in “Heavy-T” and “Meet Super”. But my pick for the road was Destra’s “Bacchanal”, a song that – much like “Jumbie” a couple years ago – captured for me the spirit of playing mas. In fact, sassy Destra and the barrage of high-quality soca nearly made me reverse my “saving for school/house” resolution and find a band to play mas with (I should really have gone with T’in Cow, but hindsight is 20/20…). “Bacchanal”, and the infectious Razorshop road mix, was the road march for this year as far as I was concerned.

And like many, I remain suspicious of the DJs and so-called “soca mafia” who seem to pre-pick the results before masqueraders even hit the streets on Monday and Tuesday. And while I am not accusing anyone of anything, like many others, I can’t quite understand how “Bacchanal” could only have been played 76 times nationwide. To quote one gentlemen who spent Monday and Tuesday watching mas downtown, he would put money on having heard “Bacchanal” 76 times downtown alone over the two days. Who’s to say, but it serves no-one if a title as supposedly prestigious and career-making as the Road March is clouded in controversy.

Looking Ahead

Where will the Carnival and major competitions take place next year? Ahead of our World Cup qualifying match at home later this month, the Hasely Crawford Stadium’s turf seems to have suffered considerably from two mega events at the venue (namely Soca Monarch and Machel Monano’s AC7). After vowing not to hold non-sporting events at sports arenas, the Ministry of Sport made an about-face and made the venue available. Given the condition of the turf, and the fact that the national team now cannot practise on it as the field is prepared for the World Cup qualifying match, it seems the case has been made for returning to their original position.

And whither pan and Dimanche Gras? Will we spell it right? Will we have a limbo competition? Will the tents still open? Will we have a crop of soca as impressive as this year’s? Will they ever give Destra the Road March Crown she earned years ago but has never won to date? (Think “Bonnie & Clyde”, and “It’s Carnival”, let alone “Bacchanal”) Will Soca Monarch and all the competitions really tighten their presentations? And will we finally get over this idea of a “Soca Switch” come Boxing Day and Ash Wednesday, and let our music see the light of day year round?

And on that note, congratulations to local content TV and radio stations like WACK Radio 90.1FM, 91.9FM Soca Bashment, Radio Trinbago 94.7FM, and Gayelle the Channel for giving us ourselves year-round. Thanks to Synergy TV too for making all the most popular song videos available for viewing on their website. Very cool.

What was your impression of Carnival 2K9, aka, 2K-Wine or 2K-Mine?

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