Letters & Opinion

Carnival and the sum of its parts

By Joe Public

Every year, post carnival, the carnival gurus, assessors, purists and purveyors of morality gather to offer the usual criticisms of carnival. These criticisms usually center around the lack of creativity, loss of culture and of course the hyper sexualization of the festival.

The dialogue surrounding carnival is often parsed out – there is the music, critiqued by some as ‘koshonee’; the fetes, the word most associated with carnival fetes is ‘expensive’; and then of course, there is the parade, the two days on the road, to the more righteous among us, nothing short of a public display of debauchery. These parts come together to form the sum of what is carnival, our carnival, Saint Lucia Carnival. What is Saint Lucia Carnival by the way? We will return to this question at a later date.

This article is not intended to present a counter argument to these typical criticisms, but rather to broaden the conversation around the festival and hopefully arrive at a more workable middle ground. It may be useful to examine briefly, some of the common talking points of the more vocal carnival assessors:

Carnival as an art form has disappeared.

“The art form has disappeared.” How is this objectively measured? Who defines what carnival is as an art form? The Oxford dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” By this very definition we can argue, although we won’t, that the work put into the costumes of the much-loathed party bands, is art, it may certainly not be the particular brand of ‘art’ of the carnival purist, but it is art all the same. Art, and by extension carnival is not, and should not be limited to only one type of artistic expression, the very essence and root of carnival is that of rebelling against the status quo. Based on this premise, why then is the argument to keep revelers conformed to mas of old, the nostalgic days of standards and shiny long pants.

We have lost the culture of our carnival

Have we really lost the culture? It appears when it comes to the conversation of carnival, more specifically the parade of the bands, we sometimes conflate, or perhaps confuse tradition and culture. “The main difference between culture and tradition is that traditions describe a group’s beliefs and behaviors that are passed down from one generation to another. Culture describes the shared characteristics of the entire group, which has been amassed throughout its history .” While nuanced, tradition and culture are not the same, at the risk of oversimplifying the two, tradition is static, while culture is fluid, culture builds on the traditions of old, reinvigorates, rethinks, reinvents in keeping with the current times. It is not the intent of the ‘neo-carnivalist’ to entirely abandon the traditions of carnival or the foundation set by our carnival icons; all these new carnival enthusiasts wish to do is to take the tradition and make it more theirs, with the music, the fetes, and yes, confidently displaying their bodies.

Carnival is no longer for the locals.

What is the qualifier for that statement and whose responsibility is it to ensure that the carnival product is indigenously inclusive? 2022 was somewhat of an unusual year for carnival year, it is not often that a carnival is hosted while navigating a pandemic, a war, and the resulting global increases in the cost of goods and services. Event promoters and carnival band owners were not immune to these increases, increases (as would be expected) which are passed on to the customers. Does an increase in the cost to attend an event or purchase a costume mean that carnival is no longer for locals? Is it even the responsibility of an event owner to ensure that events are priced at a point that all and sundry can afford? Notwithstanding, every event for the year was well attended and certainly, were not overrun by foreigners. We tout carnival as our biggest cultural event, we say it is a major economic driver – then the responsibility to grow the carnival product cannot solely fall on the shoulders of private individuals. Food for thought.

The focus is on the foreigners.

This talking point seems somewhat at odds with the main economic driver of Saint Lucia. Are we not a tourist destination, do we not want, need foreigners to visit our shores? That talking point tip toes around xenophobia or is just blatantly ignorant. We want people visiting our shores for carnival and spending money at our hotels, Airbnbs, bars, restaurants, shops, supermarket, car rentals, Gros Islet Friday etc. The 2013 report titled “Economic Impact of Carnival in Saint Lucia – Results of a study to assess the economic impact of carnival activities for the purpose of informing policy on the production of carnival.” stated: “The visitor exit survey indicates that there were 2,497 arrivals that came to Saint Lucia specifically for carnival, with an average length of stay of 8.3 days…the result of the exit survey suggest that the persons who came specifically for Carnival 2013 from outside of Saint Lucia spent, on average, XCD 3,602.20 while here, for a total expenditure of XCD 8,994,693.40.” I will hazard a guess that in 2019 and 2022 we far surpassed these figures. Saint Lucia is not exactly replete with economic drivers at the moment, it would be advisable to explore ways to build industry around this sort of economic activity. If these figures are not enough to convince you that we need to give more thought to the carnival industry, in the article “Carnivals: A Celebration for Development” by Daniela Pena Lazaro written for the Inter-American Development Bank states: “ …carnivals are an expression of enormous potential of creative industries an ecosystem that produces revenue of over US$124 billion a year… ” Have we maximized our collective abilities to carve out a greater share of that billion dollar pie?

Carnival is simply ‘sex on the road’

Who are they seeing having sex on the road? Perhaps we may argue that revelers dance in sexually suggestive ways. However, we can also argue that sexually suggestive is a matter of perception – the reveler(s) may consider their dancing as nothing more than “pelting waist”, waistline exercise, with not the slightest thought of anything remotely sexual. The spectator at the side of the road, or the person viewing on their television or computer will perceive the actions of the reveler(s) as lewd, disrespectful, and unbecoming. Both views are true to both groups, because it is framed by their lens and their beliefs and perceptions, neither of their truths needs to be foisted on the other. Carnival at its core is the expression of self, once this is done without the infringement of the law and generally acceptable behaviour within the context of the festival, we should make a greater effort to respect people’s right to enjoy their well-earned carnival.

If we continue like this there will be no carnival for the next generation

As our carnival has evolved over the generations, how many times has that statement been made? In the article “Carnivals: A Celebration for Development” the author states: “Although they represent traditions and heritage, they are characterized by their ability to evolve with the times…As times evolve, carnivals – as any other tradition – need to keep up the pace, not only to secure their existence, but to find more ways to benefit the communities they serve and engage greater audiences.”

There will be carnivals for this generation and the next, what is more important to this conversation is how do we define Saint Lucia Carnival in a way that is balanced between what came before and where we want to go.

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