Calypso fans in London will be disappointed to learn that the promised two days of calypso this month will not take place. This is despite an announcement in August that the Calypso Monarch Finals – which normally are the climax of a month-long London Calypso Tent season – would be taking place in Black History Month. However, ACASA has not yet formally cancelled the 2021 event, holding out a remote hope that it may take place before the end of the year.
Soca News understands that a long-running and increasingly bitter dispute between Carnival Village Trust (CVT) and calypsonians’ organisation ACASA is at the root of the problems.
The calypso events are funded in a roundabout way by Arts Council England (ACE) under a partnership agreement brokered by Shabaka Thompson with the late Ashton Moore (calypsonian Mighty Tiger, president of ACASA’s predecessor organisation ABC). Carnival Village receives block funding from ACE and then distributes funds to ACASA, two steelbands (Ebony and Mangrove) and its community/arts centres in west London, The Tabernacle in Powis Square and the Yaa Centre in Chippenham Mews.
On 2 April, CVT chief executive Matthew Phillip announced in a statement:
“Carnival Village Trust is delighted to announce that we have been selected to receive Arts Council England funding as part of the government’s second round of Culture Recovery Fund awards. This will enable us to reopen The Tabernacle and The Yaa… and to re-energise Carnival Arts with all the enthusiasm and passion we had to put on hold due to Coronavirus. We have so many exciting plans in place for Steelpan, Calypso & Soca, children’s and adults’ Mas, and Sound Systems. We cannot wait to work with the community and begin rebuilding our ‘scene’.”
Unfortunately, the optimism failed to produce results for calypso beyond performances by four calypsonians in Holland Park and two shows out of the planned five at The Tabernacle.
In a letter to its members, the ACASA Executive accuses CVT of not releasing Arts Council funds rightfully owed to it and has “unilaterally changed the terms of the ‘Partnership’, which will result in only Steelband organisations benefiting from future ACE funding administered by CVT”.
For its part, CVT maintains that it is “not obliged to transfer any funds to ACASA” because it is not a registered charity and audiences for calypso are too small. ACASA counters that the funding holdup left it with only nine days to organise and promote the two shows and in August many people were still reluctant to attend indoor events because of Covid fears. ACE confirmed that a properly constituted organisation does not need to be a charity to be eligible for funding.
Without any independent funds of its own, the calypsonians are unable to pay for a venue, a band or indeed anything necessary to put on a show.
The atmosphere has been poisoned by personal animosities and old grievances. The two parties appear to be in deadlock. Calypso-lovers fear that the longer the dispute festers, the more the music’s future in the capital is put at risk as audiences dwindle and supporters’ trust erodes.
Without calypso, CVT offshoot Notting Hill Carnival Ltd (NHCL) can hardly claim to represent all the carnival arts. Critics complain that with only four bands at Panorama this year and a paucity of true mas bands (ie those that design and make all their own costumes in a traditional mas camp), Notting Hill Carnival is losing credibility as a celebration of artistry and creativity. Without that artistic ‘fig-leaf’, Carnival is vulnerable to those who want the whole event to be moved to a park as a pay-for-entry commercial music festival. This would be the antithesis of an authentic, free-to-access, grassroots, street-based carnival.
As calypso music in Britain – which has a history stretching back more than a century – faces one of its most severe challenges, the Executive has pledged to “preserve ACASA’s position as the membership organisation for Calypsonians and Groovy Soca artistes in the UK”.