Sunday 24th February, 2008

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All that Jamoo

Now that Carnival done, is there time and space to review the cultural situation? Briefly on the subject of the Merry Monarch (and how did this figure find a way into the twin-island Republic), having perused the commentaries and analyses of some of my fellow columnists and found a thread of prevailing criticism (commercialism, State hijackery), I’d like to add this for the record.

Beyond the booge, bikini and bling ting, anyone who claims creativity is alive in the shape of MacFarlane’s band obviously wasn’t born or sighted when Peter Minshall did all of this (and a whole lot more) in the 1990s. A mere change of colour scheme cannot camouflage direct conceptual imitation or derivation.

The cultural and socio-historical impulses that conceived T&T’s 19th-century Canboulay and Jamet Carnival(s) have been soucouyanted, sucked out by the usual gwo mangers (sic)—an excellent Haitian Kreyol term for the big shots or big eaters—who are not content with stuffing pocket and belly but want to turn everything in and out of sight into product and profit.

Tony Fraser’s pre-Carnival column was only one of a growing chorus of voices decrying what is essentially the misappropriation and desecration of an historically rooted, authentic people’s festival.

A propos of the true cultural gatekeepers, I want to refer to a Trinidadian work of fiction, written by Earl Lovelace, who remains unique in Creole writing as one of the very few Caribbean-based practitioners.

His is not the comfortable or angst-ridden nostalgia, fantasy, diatribe or exotic outing of the diasporic writer. The issues Lovelace has embraced from his earliest work are all located right here (where he continues to live), whether in history or cultural memory.

So, to turn to The Wine of Astonishment, which deals with the long-excluded and banned Shouter Baptist community but also examines loss of cultural identity, language and authentic creative expression, Lovelace traces how the “spirit,” the driving spiritual creative energy that animated Baptist worship and belief before the British colonial authorities clamped a ban on the drum and the “shouting” (atavistic and barbaric expressions to be extirpated at all costs to bring the colony into line with the Manichean, joyless and utterly hypocritical social mores of Queen Victoria’s Great Britain) is suppressed and then lost.

Even after the ban is eventually lifted, the spirit is no longer in the religion but has shifted or transferred to the pan as a medium of indigenous expression.

Just as The Dragon Can’t Dance is an imaginative engagement with the role of Carnival in this ethnic and cultural goldfish bowl, so, too, Wine is the kind of self-questioning, exploratory text that cultural theorists in the Anglophone Caribbean seem incapable of producing.

Every Carifesta rolls out the same-old, same-old symposium on the Caribbean aesthetic—a discussion now long set in the stone carving of the 1970s.

In the award-winning Salt, we find Lovelace continues his discussion of Creole culture and where it’s going or not.

I think by now even the blindest, most obtuse or intransigent among us cannot fail but notice that the spirit of creativity has passed on from Carnival. The point is, with a multi-million white elephant of a Performing Arts Centre now under construction, where is the culture and, if we can locate it in its various contemporary manifestations, where is it headed or should it be headed?

These are serious questions for which I doubt there will be many constructive or illuminating answers.

I’d be very interested to see what the new centre will be called. That, in itself, would be an indication of which way the breeze is blowing. What about the Beryl McBurnie Centre? Or would that rake over old guilts about the callous indifference, which equates with a total lack of respect, with which this grand dame of Creole culture was left to end her days in drifting obscurity and increasing poverty?

For all of T&T’s undeniable and apparently bottomless wellspring of creativity, some thing or things are just not right. Excellence in the arts, like other social spheres, is greeted here with a mix of envy, scorn and, the grimmest reaper of all, indifference. When yuh too too good yuh better ride out.

This embrace of mediocrity is nothing less than an acceptance of failure, a corrosive self-doubt left by the British colonists, whose mental slavery flourishes at the expense of healthy, sustainable development.

Why is it that geniuses in their fields like Eric Roach the poet and Devindra Dookie the actor killed themselves? Surely there was more to it than unstable artistic temperament.

As another sidelined great, 85-year old jazz guitarist Fitzroy Coleman, put it, “to arse with everything. They doh care.”

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