March 9, 2011
Carnival’s Louder Commercial Beat Adds Dissonance
By JOHN ELIGON
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — To some people here, Dean Ackin, 38, with his boyish face, is an inspiration of entrepreneurship, a bearer of this country’s evolving culture. To others, he is a threat to this nation’s most beloved social and cultural treasure: Carnival.
Mr. Ackin runs one of the country’s most popular Carnival bands, the groups of people who don costumes and masquerade — or play Mas, as locals call it — in the raucous annual two-day street parade. The roughly 5,000 spots available in Mr. Ackin’s band, Tribe, sell out every year almost as fast as they go on sale. Demand has been so high since he started Tribe in 2005 that Mr. Ackin just started a second band.
But some say Mr. Ackin and others like him, who have in recent years spun profitable, year-round businesses out of organizing these bands, threaten the existence of Carnival as Trinidadians know it.
By shunning the conservative, traditional costumes for cheaper, skimpier outfits that are sometimes produced outside of Trinidad, these new bands, critics say, are distorting their forebears’ creation and sending work elsewhere at a time when the government and others are trying to turn Trinidadian-style Carnival into a more profitable and exportable industry.
“We call it two-piece and fries, the bikini and the bras,” said Stephen Derek, a traditional costume maker, referring to the skimpy costumes that have become a staple of the new bands. “The costume comes like a fast food. To them, the bottom line is profit. It has nothing to do about country or culture anymore.”
The entrepreneurial bandleaders counter that they are part of a natural evolution, merely offering what people want.
“If you really look at those people who play Mas with the younger bands, or if you talk to a visitor abroad and say: ‘Hey, have you ever heard of Trinidad Carnival? What band would you play with?’ they would call Tribe or they would call one of the younger bands,” Mr. Ackin said. “That says we are reaching out further than the traditional bands. We are reaching out to the international market.”
With few exceptions, the 1.3 million people living on these twin West Indian islands believe that they do Carnival better than anyone in the world. But the generational clash has raised questions over how today’s Carnival is shaping the country.
Is the reliance on mass-produced bikinis — a far cry from the elaborate, hand-crafted costumes Trinidadians had grown accustomed to — stifling the creative works that have been the hallmark of traditional Carnival, which the government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has been pressing to revive since she took office last year?
Or does it reflect the country’s new energy, representative of a push beyond Trinidad’s reputation for complacency in developing revenue streams beyond oil production?
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