African heritage fundamental to Carnival, Caribana


Caribana, both because of its vast impact on culture, and beyond that into our community’s hopes and expectations, possibly has more people holding passionate opinions about it, wise or otherwise, than about any other cultural phenomenon in Canada. And, by extension, about those who represent it. Unfortunately, most opinions are negative. Thus, any effort to regain the festival and community trust must consider, and where needed address, the reasoning behind these opinions.

These opinions affected the former Caribbean Cultural Committee (the “CCC”) of which I was a board member. The CCC – which later morphed into the Caribana Arts Group (the “CAG”) – was plagued by a combination of unresolved challenges, some internal, some external.

One of these, that of rumour and misperception, was never effectively addressed. This led to difficulties in attracting and keeping more people with needed capabilities to work with the corporation; and in attracting and keeping private and public-sector sponsors, for to be associated with the CCC and Caribana was to irreparably endanger one’s name and credibility.

Among the most widespread of rumours was that of corruption among Board and other members. Yes, the CCC and Caribana attracted its fair share of charlatans and schemers. Yes, there were times when Directors and others with responsibilities abused their positions. Yes, there were too many instances in which rumours were more than mere rumour. And every such instance a betrayal of community trust.

However, for the most part by far, Directors and members worked hard, for long hours, year after year, and received at best an occasional small stipend, sometimes a hotel room, official t-shirt, family pass etc., and mauvais langue! The widespread perception of Directors enriching themselves through the CCC and Caribana is generally false and, not surprisingly, mostly spread in the absence of those maligned.

This I say unequivocally, and without fear of any contradiction from any quarter, whatsoever!

In addition, the annual inability of the Board to create for community and corporation the kind of wealth the festival generated for beneficiaries outside the ambit of community, led to disregard and derision; to a further priming of the rumour mill and, along with other significant shortcomings, to where we are today.

More internal, and an even more significant challenge left unmet, was the inability of representatives of the corporation and festival to close the gap between the concept of control on one hand, and of ownership on the other. Annually, Board members were faced with the burdens of ownership; in essence, the burdens of expenditures and liabilities. Control, however, carries the fewest liabilities and the most benefits.

Today, the ability to harness the festival’s benefits without legal ownership is an anomaly unheard of elsewhere in North America, except for the dastardly seizure of lands belonging to Native Peoples. Those who effectively run the festival do so with an “ownership” that is not legal. They also exercise greater control. This anomaly has led to the present spirited debate about who has ownership: of the festival, the corporation, the trademark, the future and the benefits which accrue?

The loss of ownership – without assuming corresponding responsibilities and liabilities – is seen in several areas. One of these is loss over legitimate uses of the trademark, CARIBANA. Another gross manifestation of loss of ownership is in who determines how the festival will be staged: its themes, quality standards of presentation, who is and isn’t allowed to participate.

Among the themes fundamental to the origins of Caribana and to the carnival culture is its African heritage. The debate here is oft unresolved. However, what is not debatable is that everywhere in this hemisphere where this culture exists, be it Spanish Cuba, Portuguese Brazil or French New Orleans, it has the same elemental origins: a Catholicized culture and emancipated slaves.

Also, to claim for example, that because the French brought burlesque to Trinidad they created our carnival is as absurd as claiming that the Americans invented the steelpan because they brought the oil drums used by the first pannists.

Emphasizing such heritage themes will ensure several things. One is re-establishing for all time who has unequivocal ownership and control over the festival. Another theme is the festival’s right to creativity; the right to separate the artistes from the artisans. The discipline and dynamism inherent in creativity will further ensure two things. One is that the festival will be attractive; not boring and banal. Banality, itself, demeans the festival into becoming a form of public pornography; with the almost naked bodies of women, mostly Black, being the main draw. With all due respect, and as wondrously moving as they are, after holding and beholding one hundred of these, one hundred and one becomes unbelievably predictable.

Ownership also dictates who will play and who will not. Today, this is no longer the purview of the CCC/CAG board. If ownership is restored, unless it is unequivocal, it will continue to be ineffectual if it is others, and not the corporation’s representatives, who decide.

Eventually, among other urgent needs required for both effective ownership and control is having a membership that is representative of community; a constitution faithfully adhered to; an elected board responsible and astute; and properly salaried staff capable and accountable. Getting there can, for sure, either begin or be further lost at the upcoming community accountability meeting this weekend.

It is overdue. It is timely. However, will the participants be concomitantly mature and decisive and show respect for a corporation the annual revenues of which match those of Burger King worldwide?


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