LOW EARTH ORBIT – The Carnival Train

The Carnival TrainHere it comes, looming over the bluff, chugging down the track, a mere three-and-a-half months from arrival.

Yes … it’s the pride of Antigua & Barbuda – the greatest event on our country’s annual calendar: it’s the Caribbean’s Greatest Summer Festival 2013, edition.

Antigua & Barbuda Carnival 2013: the mere utterance of the name sends a shiver of pleasurable anticipation thrilling through the frame of every party-lover in our twin-island sub-tropical paradise. The Carnival Train (De Cyanaval Cheern) is tooting its horn and the spirit of “fete” is on the wind. You can smell it. You can taste it. Fete, fun, and spree unlimited for three glorious weeks from the middle of July to the first week of August: we can hardly wait.

We can hardly wait to do this year what we did last year, and the year before that, all the way back to 1957. Antigua Carnival is a tradition celebrated in a land where the only real tradition is a dogged dedication to the status quo. If there is one aspect of life on our islands that defines our cultural resistance to change, it is the way in which our carnival festival has remained undeveloped over 50 years. Once a unique, region-leading, cutting-edge event, Antigua Carnival is now beset by competition and losing ground; and the primary cause of this trend can be found in years of complacency that retarded the festival’s development, mired in a culture of sameness.

There are deep-seated reasons for what can only be termed a national dedication to the status quo: a pathology that has imposed immeasurable costs on a nation blind to its own loss. The causes of this pathology are socio-political in nature. They spring out of history, economics, and political need. In the instant case of Antigua Carnival, for example, it is significant that the festival is undergoing strain and encountering all kinds of change issues only now in times of severe fiscal restraint – despite having for years been the responsibility of a “Carnival Development Committee” … which has within this last decade been augmented by a “Festivals Committee”.

Clearly, throwing more warm political bodies at the challenge of growing our greatest national festival is not solving the problem: in fact, it has made the problem worse by diverting resources away from the actual festival simply to create another level of management – and jobs for supporters. The more things change the more they remain the same … so long as we continue to do what we have always done … in the same old way.

These meditations on our national worship of the status quo follow remarks made on the radio recently by Kayode O’Mard, only just reappointed chair of the CDC. That fact – of O’Mard’s recent reappointment – is in itself evidence of the complacent commitment to the status quo that retards forward movement in so many arenas besides carnival.

O’Mard was appointed for the first time in a last-minute rush, just in time to get the 2012 festival off successfully. In the few months available, the new chair ran a tight ship, actually ending the 2012 season with a budgetary surplus of $600,000 – out of a total government subvention of only $2.5 million! Absolutely amazing! Truly commendable! A feat perhaps never before achieved in the history of Antigua Carnival! Plaudits are in order … let’s roll out the public relations machinery … right?

Wrong. The new CDC chair may have turned in a stellar performance at the drop of a hat, and showed the world what can be done with a different perspective on running Carnival: but Kayode O’Mard’s feat of management has until now been kept a huge state secret. One would also have imagined that a grateful Minister of Carnival would hasten to secure such a talent for at least another year, with sufficient lead time to develop a new approach to staging the festival. Instead, what we are having this year is a repeat of what we had last year: the last-minute appointment of a CDC chair with only time to supervise a repeat of what we experienced in 2012.

The only difference this year is that Minister of Carnival Eleston Adams is now under close prime ministerial supervision – apparently on the principle that more cooks are necessary to improve the soup. The status quo, however, has been well served.

O’Mard wants to change Antigua Carnival, and he is correct in that desire. One of the signal failings of our greatest national festival is that it has changed over the years, but in its own way and only where change is permitted. The core of the festival itself, where the cultural values reside, has not developed in any significant manner mainly because the bureaucrats in charge, allied to the political directorate, simply will not allow it to. Change has come only in areas outside of the ambit of the CDC. Rather than developing the festival, the CDC has tended to prove the validity of its other, rather mocking title: the “Carnival Destruction Committee”.

The new CDC chair may have stumbled in certain quarters by inadvertently revealing just how wasteful the CDC has been in the past. Allegations of corruption and “bobol” have dogged the CDC forever, and when the committee ends, a Carnival season 20% under what would normally be considered a small budget – something clearly needs to be looked into.

O’Mard did strike one sour note during his radio appearance, as he appeared to dismiss the cultural aspects of the festival in favour of more “fete”. While the Carnival must change, this nation must never lose sight of the truth that the festival has always had a strong cultural component, and has done much to drive popular participation in cultural activities – an ingredient in nation-building. “Fete” is also a necessary part of Carnival, and should be fostered by all means … but Antigua Carnival has always been and must continue to be a driving force for developing kaiso, soca, benna, pan, mas’, music, beauty, teen talent, and all the rest.

That is the sort of “status quo” we all can deal with.

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Mr. Colin Sampson

 Mr. Colin Sampson is a Journalist and the host of "The Colin Sampson Show" on Caribantigua TV 



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