Carnival spreads her wings in Seychelles

Alain St Ange & Claire Holder

Carnival spreads her wings in Seychelles

By Stephen Spark
Photographer Stephen Spark

Seychelles | Wednesday 8 June 2016: 19:19 BST

No one quite knew what to expect when Carnival erupted in Seychelles in 2011. The country’s only previous experience of a street festival had been back in the 1970s. Would it prove to be an expensive flop or just a flash in the pan? How would the traditionally rather reserved and conservative Seychellois react to the rudeness and revelry?

In fact, Seychelles took to Carnival like a duck to water, and participants soon proved they could create imaginative costumes and spectacular floats. Local carnivalists’ enthusiasm and energy impresses everyone who visits. The Carnaval International de Victoria proves you can successfully mix overseas carnival delegations with local groups to promote tourism and culture in front of the world’s media.

But what comes next? “They need to come up with something new,” my taxi driver insisted. “Perhaps they should hold it every other year,” another suggested. At the press conference, a local journalist queried whether the carnival represented good value for money.

On the last point, tourism and culture minister Alain St Ange pointed out that tourist arrivals have doubled in the past seven years and that the carnival brings tiny Seychelles unrivalled publicity around the world – publicity that far bigger and older carnivals can only dream about. St Ange also dismissed the alternate years suggestion, saying this would cause the carnival, and tourism, to lose momentum.

There were new elements this year, including the revised route and much-improved staging of the opening show. However, the biggest innovation was taking Carnival to Seychelles’ second-largest island, Praslin, on Sunday 24 April. Along with St Ange and tourism board staff, members of the UK’s Notting Hill Carnival Roadshow, Momo Kings from São Paulo, and the German carnivals of Cologne and Düsseldorf took the Cat Cocos high-speed ferry to pretty Praslin and assembled at La Pirogue restaurant in Côte D’Or.

The innovation proved a big hit with the locals, and soon the minister was dancing to CSI Steelband’s music. Whether this will develop into a fully fledged event remains to be seen. With a population of just 7,500 people, Praslin might seem too small to sustain a carnival of its own, but local businesses – almost all dependent on tourism are reportedly keen to develop a festival on the island.

Sustainability, though, is a concern. Claire Holder, Ray Mahabir, Clary Salandy and others from Notting Hill held a costume-making workshop in Victoria on Thursday 21 April. The aim was to spread mas-making techniques among local groups, rather as Trinidadian singer Lima Calbio inspired schools to participate in the Children’s Carnival. Holder told Seychelles News Agency (SNA) that Seychellois designers need to be motivated to showcase their talents if the carnival is to stand on its own feet in future.

This may be a challenge. Several groups were notable for their absence this year, including the University of Seychelles, Seychelles Institute of Teacher Education, bus company Seychelles Public Transport Corporation, Indian Ocean Tuna and Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority. On the Monday after carnival a member of one local group confessed, “I’m exhausted; it was really hard work. And it cost us a lot of money.”

Cost was one reason travel boss Alan Mason gave for his company dropping out of carnival a couple of years ago, despite winning the local competition in fine style, although he hinted that Masons Travel might return next year.

In a small country with limited resources, it’s easy to see how a sponsor or carnival group can simply to run out of road.

There’s a strong appetite for Carnival in Seychelles, but the challenge will be to ensure it is self-sustaining and maintains momentum – particularly in the absence, eventually and inevitably, of Minister St Ange, who has invested so much in the event, personally, politically and professionally.

These are issues facing every carnival or mas band. It’s apparent in Notting Hill, where there’s an urgent need for younger designers, band-leaders, steelpan arrangers and players, and organisers to take over the reins from the old guard. Carnival needs new blood if it is to survive beyond its golden anniversary year.

For Seychelles, the answer may lie in creating some form of national carnival commission, which can guide the Carnaval International de Victoria through the years ahead. It would, of course, need to be non-political and non-partisan, representing the widest range of stakeholders and charged, above all, with championing Carnival’s interests. But only the Seychellois themselves can decide how long they want to play mas on the streets of Victoria.

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Soca News
April 2017

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