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Carnival arts demand to be taken seriously

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Respect for the Carnival arts was at the heart of a stimulating two-day conference at The Tabernacle over the weekend of 2 and 3 October.

The 8th Biennial conference in Carnival Arts – Steelpan, Calypso and Mas was bravely subtitled ‘The Transformative Power of Carnival Arts Rebounding from the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Covid nevertheless threw some spanners into the works, as travel restrictions kept all but one of the overseas speakers away. However, the globe-spanning power of Zoom plus livestreaming allowed us all to hear the presentations wherever we were.

The success of the conference demonstrated Carnival’s ability to overcome daunting obstacles – not the least of which was an incomprehensible lack of support from funding bodies. They really need to wake up and recognise both the serious academic content and the practical value of these events.


Steelpan’s struggle for status

Recognition and education were recurring themes in successive speakers’ presentations. In the Q&A for her presentation on Sound System Culture and Carnival, Linett Kamala asked: “Where is Carnival on the curriculum?” Mahogany’s Clary Salandy asked: “How can we make pan a GCSE subject?” Marlon Hibbert of Endurance Steel Orchestra – the first steelpan player in the UK to study at a conservatoire with steelpan as his main instrument – also emphasised the need to pass on skills to the next generation. That’s being done quite successfully in Antigua, explained Prof Andrew Martin. The instrument was introduced to the island in 1945 and it continues to thrive in ‘legacy’ steelbands such as Halcyon, Brute Force and Hell’s Gate, as well as in church bands and schools. Harmonites is one that holds steelband practice after the school day finishes at 2pm. Some 25-30 steelbands, each with about 25 players, take part in the Schools Panorama.

International Confrence on Carnival Arts – Delphina James

Delphina James has taken a practical approach to pan education by authoring a series of four self-tuition books for beginner players. It was a response to a lack of good teaching material and, in schools, a lack of teachers. “Schools all over the country have pans – they’re in cupboards,” Clary complained. Patrick McKay, leader of St Michael and All Angels SO, agreed that the situation has deteriorated since Gerald Forsyth introduced the instrument into schools: “A lot of schools don’t have money for teaching pan and sold off their pans.” Today, in many cases it’s steelbands that provide the tutors and run the classes in schools.

Even when school-age youngsters are able to find a steelband or a teacher they risk losing touch with the instrument. An estimated 70% of young pannists give up the instrument when they go away to university, Haroun Shah told us. Several speakers said that it was difficult to find out where they could play when they are at uni. Some who had tried to set up a steelband in college met resistance or disinterest from the music department and even the African Caribbean societies. In Laila Shah’s view, “Universities don’t seem to take the instrument seriously.”


Steelpan continues to be a victim of musical snobbery and prejudice. The picture of the skip into which St Michal and All Angels’ pans had been thrown was a shocking illustration of how deep and damaging that prejudice can be.

Delphina said that one of her aims is to “get respect for the instrument”, which “will help pan players be recognised as musicians.” Too often, steelpan is considered suitable for only one type of music, a delegate pointed out: “We need to show that steelpan is just an instrument, and you can play anything on it – not just Caribbean music.”

“We need the big picture across the UK,” said Clary and asked; “Where is the UK National Steel Orchestra? Where is the Best Pannist of the Year?” Despite the obstructions and disregard from some sections of the music establishment, “the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is in awe of us that we can play without reading music,” she said, adding: “I have a dream that one day the Young Musician of the Year is going to be a pannist.”

International Confrence on Carnival Arts – Toussaint Clarke, Patrick McKay, Debi Gardner & Pepe Francis

Panorama – where next and at what cost?

The future of Panorama was the focus of a lively and constructive debate. Allyson Williams felt that the competition “was good this year; having bands playing on a stage was so much better.” Nevertheless, steelpan deserved better – “We should be able to remunerate the players. No one acknowledges the expense of getting a band [people and pans] to and from Panorama.” Ebony’s Pepe Francis laid out the core problem: “It costs bands £20,000 each to take part in Panorama, but they don’t get anything back. Even since we started charging, bands have only received £2,000-5,000 each. It’s one reason that many bands don’t take part.”

Debi Gardner (BAS) favours Hyde Park as a venue, but again the problem is cost. Copy Caribana and Trinidad and charge more, Alexander Loewenthal challenged – even £60. Not everyone can afford that sort of price, Aisha Goodman pointed out. Yes, we need a bigger space for Panorama, agreed Robbie Joseph of Pan Podium, “but the product has to be spot-on”. Patrick McKay agreed: “The venue is secondary to the ideal product, the management of that, the marketing of that. It’s not about musical excellence, it’s not about passion – we have those already.”

It’s no use just relying on grants and sponsorship, cautioned Eversley Mills of Metronomes: “Funding is great, but it never lasts. We should try to do things for ourselves.” For that we need a clear strategy, argued Patrick: “We need a strategic financial plan and various funding streams – ticket price, sponsorship, grants.” You have to ask yourself, “What is your vision for pan? What is your strategic plan for a successful outcome of your vision?”


Pan – African progress

Dr Bowei Sonny Bowei, speaking from Nigeria, took us through a history of steelpan in Africa from its introduction in South Africa in 1950 to Nigeria in 1977 and its current status. Pan’s take-up has been disappointingly patchy. There are over 150 steelbands in South Africa, mostly in Cape Town and the surrounding area (Johannesburg, by contrast, is a “marimba town”), 30+ bands in Nigeria (many of them started by Dr Bowei himself), two in Botswana and one in Tanzania. Nigeria – a country that’s passionate about music – has a population of over 200 million, so why hasn’t steelpan taken off as you’d expect?

“The Nigerian government doesn’t even know what steelpan is,” asserted Dr Bowei. New pans are made or purchased but just kept in cupboards. There’s a lack of knowledge about the benefits of steelpan in education, for example in music, history, technology, maths, culture and economy.

Part of the problem, Dr Bowei suggested, is that the Trinidad government keeps presenting steelpan as something belonging only to Trinidad. This lack of cultural sensitivity means that Nigerians feel disconnected from the instrument. If steelpan is promoted within Nigeria as a culture that developed from skills brought from Africa, “It can then become part of our history and be taught in schools, as it’s of direct relevance to Nigerians.” He urged Trinidadians, “Let it belong to us, and not just to you. That will give us a stake in pan.”


Mas online and on the street

The conference covered far more than steelpan, of course. Ros Alexander revealed UKON’s approach to mas in Barking and Dagenham. There’s a strong focus on practical workshops and seminars – mask-making, steelpan tuition, soca dance classes etc – to encourage social cohesion, improve mental health and also help participants who want to pursue careers in the arts sector. Covid has forced UKON itself to climb a steep learning curve to deliver a ‘virtual’ Carnival ‑ “we did not have these skills and we had to learn them pretty quickly”, Ros admitted. In the longer term, UKON wants to develop a Carnival Arts Academy and to get traditional costumes back out on the road.

National Children’s Carnival (NCC) Week (12-18 July) was a response to schools pulling out of carnivals because of Covid restrictions, Clary Salandy explained. There was an umbrella theme of Once Upon a Time and an NCC song; Alex Loewenthal also created beats from which schools could build their own song. Most schools opted for live workshop sessions. Designs for costumes – which could all be made from paper – were freely available for download.

Schools responded well to this practical and accessible approach, with 40 taking part in the NCC in London and 19 in the Isle of Wight. Collaborators included the UK Centre for the Carnival Arts in Luton, Mahogany Carnival Club (north London), New Carnival Company (Isle of Wight), St Paul’s (Bristol) and Norwich Carnival.

NCC 2022 runs from 10 to 17 July, themed Our World Our Future. It opens with a parade in the Isle of Wight on Saturday 9 July, followed by Leighton Buzzard Carnival on 10 July and Derby Carnival on 17 July. One school in Luton has already started work on its NCC projects.


Carnival of the senses

Online activity is all very well, but it misses so much of the essence of Carnival, argued Maica Gugolati in ‘Carnival and its Digitalscapes’. Carnival is a sensory experience, which is impossible to replicate through a screen. Wearing a costume is itself a transformative experience, both individual and shared – and when you are merely watching other people on TV you miss the heat, the smells, the surround-sounds and the sociability. However, some respondents did say that in the Zoom fetes they felt safe, and of course the digital sphere can spread vital education about Carnival’s history. But no one Maica has interviewed would willingly return to the ‘digitalscape’ once real Carnival is back on the road.

But how do you ensure that everyone is included in Carnival? The well-known New Carnival Company double act of Chris Slann and Frankie Goldspink gave us some valuable pointers about the right and wrong ways of making your carnival or mas band accessible to all. If you imagine that putting in a wheelchair ramp and providing a couple of accessible toilets along the route will do it then you probably need to seek professional help! NCC has worked extensively with Brazilian school of samba Ambaixadores da Alegria. Keep in mind, Chris said, that “what makes someone disabled is not their medical condition but society’s attitude to it” (in contrast to the old ‘medical model’ in which the person is seen as the problem), and that there is an important difference between equality and equity.


International Confrence on Carnival Arts – Emily Zobel Marshall

Reinventing the Baby Doll

Baby Doll mas also represents a fight for inclusion. It is a challenging mas, explained Emily Zobel Marshall with some enthusiasm: the female masquerader in a short, frilly dress stands in the street stridently calling for the ‘father’ to support his child. She then picks on a male onlooker, presents him with the doll ‘baby’ and demands he pay her.

It’s more than just a ‘penny for the guy’ type of begging mas, Emily argued, as it reflected the realities of a colonial society in which white men had black mistresses – hence the ‘baby’ has traditionally been a white doll. One carnival-goer wrote in 1885 that he had had six ‘babies’ “pinned on him”, which he clearly found deeply discomforting.

So is a Baby Doll a symbol of desperation or of empowerment? These days it’s almost certainly the latter. In New Orleans, Baby Doll has made a subversive return, thanks to feminist activists, who have claimed the character as a “political female-centred mas”. There’s even a lesbian version, while another group distributes condoms from a pram crammed with babies. Emily’s project, ‘Women in Carnival’ will be gathering material from carnivals in Leeds, Trinidad and California next year.

Baby Doll is an edgy kind of humour, aimed at an onlooker in a very public way – akin to being singled out from an audience and made the subject of an embarrassing ex-tempo verse by a calypsonian!


International Confrence on Carnival Arts – Roger Gibbs

The language of calypso

While calypso can be barbed, it can also be a great source of comfort to those with dementia and memory loss. Alexander Loewenthal (calypsonian Alexander D Great) related his experiences of working with elders’ groups in London, Watford and Kent and explained his collaborative technique for creating calypsos with them. Together, the members decide a topic and, using a single refrain line, compose their song line by line: “Bit by bit, pairs of rhyming couplets are formed.” Club members are also encouraged to sing familiar songs like Day-O, which they do with enormous enjoyment. People who’ve experienced music for 10 years or more score better for mental health, Alex told us.

But what exactly is the music of calypso? Roger Gibbs – the sole speaker who successfully reached the conference from overseas – noted: “Calypso is mostly defined in literary terms rather than its rhythm… according to the popular definition of calypso as ‘storytelling in song’, the lyrical content and melody alone define calypso.” Yet, as he demonstrated by singing Jean and Dinah in 3/4 time, a different rhythm changes a familiar song into something that is definitely not calypso. He then played a rhythm that we all recognised as calypso even though he hadn’t sung a word.

After that, it was hard to disagree that “Rhythm gives calypso its essential character; it’s paramount.” Roger continued: “There’s a connectivity across the Caribbean – African rhythms are the ties that bind us.” Without the vocabulary to describe both the music’s essence and its components, the challenge is to define those rhythms. Giving names to the rhythms means they can be passed on to others in an orderly, easily understood way, rather as Delphina James aims to do in her ‘Learn Music On…’ book series.

Roger proceeded to do just that, demonstrating the eight basic rhythms of calypso as strums on his guitar. It was a fascinating exercise that opened the ears of many in the hall as we heard, in turn, the Banana, Postman (or Old Man), Temne, Kalenda, Conga, Latin Calypso, Cowbell and American (or Universal) strums. It was spine-tingling to have calypso opened up in this way, revealing the way that each rhythm affects the listener’s mood and movement in a different way.

The rhythms contain within them continuous musical threads that go back to Africa. Roger pointed out that. Preserved in our calypso music, they give us an insight into the music of two centuries ago; “These are survivors of the Middle Passage.”


Musical exchanges

The other passage was the one that brought indentured labourers from India to the Caribbean, which was the focus of Tina Ramnarain’s first-day plenary lecture. It covered a lot of ground – almost too much, perhaps – but there were plenty of fascinating takeaways that beg to be investigated in more detail, such as Bhojpuri’s musical legacy across the diaspora of indentured labour, from Fiji to Trinidad and Mauritius.

Diaries of sea captains show that Indians brought their tablas and other instruments with them. It helped that the nawab in Calcutta had set up a music school near the port. During the lengthy voyage on sailing ships bound for the Caribbean, the labourers heard sailors singing the call-and-response maritime work songs known as sea shanties. (Shanty was original spelled chantey, revealing a common root with chantwell, the old name for a calypsonian.)

While the Indians picked up shanties, some crew members learnt to play Indian instruments, even buying their own when the ship returned to Calcutta to collect more passengers. Hence the sailing ships became a platform for musical exchange before the indentured labourers even set foot on the islands.

Subsequently, musical traditions continued to mix in sometimes surprising ways, such as African American musicians touring India and teaching Indian musicians. Indian composer R D Burman toured the Caribbean and jammed with Mighty Sparrow, playing Indian film songs. Burman played calypso on dholak and in the 1980s Trinidadian steelbands played chutney and Indian film music.

Chutney music, meanwhile, has spread out from Trinidad and Guyana to New York, London (where Tina heard the music at shows organised by Suresh Rambaran) and back to India. Like an ocean current, the musical flow continues.


Concluding with a new beginning

The conference’s las lap was another musical fusion: opera and calypso. Trinidadian soprano Anne Fridal saw us out with an operatic take on Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place for Me, one of the songs from her new project, CalypsOpera. It was an appropriately upbeat conclusion to an inspiring and thought-provoking two days – not forgetting two evening concerts, which were, Soca News heard, also highly successful and memorable.

The funding bodies who failed to support this year’s conference ought to reconsider their dismissive approach to the Carnival arts. Calypso, mas, steelpan and Carnival dance fully deserve to be treated with more respect in future. There should be no place in arts administration, in education or in the media for outdated, colonial-style snobbery, ignorance and prejudice against music and other artforms of Caribbean origin. Happily, and with great credit to all concerned, this negativity was magnificently overcome by the commitment, dedication and enthusiasm of the participants and of Haroun Shah and his team.

Until now, the conferences have been held every two years, but they will now move to an annual schedule. Delegates and participants greeted with enthusiasm the announcement that the ninth conference is to take place at Oxford Brookes University on Friday 1 and Saturday 2 July 2022, preceding the city’s popular Cowley Road Carnival on Sunday 3 July. Mark the dates in your diary!


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