Many years ago, calypso legend âBlack Stalinâ, sang a song entitled âWey my bandâ, raising issues emanating from growing sponsorship in Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. It provided foresight into what was an unstoppable trend in Carnival, indeed in all festivals of such a popular nature, but was misunderstood in some quarters, some interpreting it to be anti-sponsorship.
That was far from what Stalin intended, for what he raised was the fact that in the quest for much-needed sponsorship in Carnival, it was important not to lose the identity of the bands which were being sponsored. Thus he was able to spot the trend where it was the sponsorâs name and brand which were being given prominence â âDey put de sponsor name in front and leave my band behindâ. In other words, please try not to forget the essence of the Carnival.
Stalin was as prophetic in this as he was in many of his other classic presentations. More and more, Carnival attracted greater levels of sponsorship and, as is only natural, sponsors seek to maximize their involvement and to get as much publicity as they can for their investment. There is nothing wrong with this; what is at stake is how to ensure that the artistes and artists get their deserved exposure too.
Trinidad and Tobago has provided much experience in this experiment. As the major steelbands attracted sponsorship, and more and more people began to be exposed to their works, it was the name of the sponsor which took the limelight and virtually stole the identity. Thus, long-standing bands like All Stars, Desperadoes and Renegades, became known as âCATELLIâ (All Stars), âWITCOâ (Desperadoes) and âAMOCOâ (Renegades), with the emphasis on the sponsor, thereby sparking Stalinâs rhetorical question.
Yet, corporate sponsorship in Carnival and other cultural festivals has become essential. The cost factor in producing a calypso, a steelband or mas band, and the limited returns gained make sponsorship critical to the survival, much more development, of the various art forms. Whether they like it or not, sponsorship and commercialization are roads one has to tread to gain maximum exposure.
It is not just maximum exposure, but, as indicated above, survival itself. The prize money offered in Carnival is far from sufficient to guarantee sustainability and continuity. Many are the valuable treasures which have been lost on the wayside for this reason. Some make the narrow argument that the prize money paid is in direct proportion to revenue earned by the respective shows or categories, but one cannot use such short-sighted approaches.
Take our Carnival, for instance. There is no way, under current circumstances, that, say the Steel and Glitter show, will bring in the returns of the massively popular Soca Monarch, and we have witnessed the end of the road for Mardi Gras as a revenue-earner, at least officially. Does that mean that steelbands and mas bands should be denied returns commensurate with their value to the festival?
There are deep, serious issues related to the evolution of the festival which ought to be taken into consideration when we do the usual post-mortem examination after Carnival. As the sponsorship flows, we not only welcome it, we seek more and more of it. Too many corporate citizens profit, directly or indirectly, from the Carnival season without making appropriate contributions. But in the process, a balance must be struck to preserve the integrity and identity of the festival.
Increasingly, it has become harder and harder for small enterprises, for community-based initiatives, to find a niche in Carnival. Even JâOuvert and Monday Mas have become battlegrounds for the âbigger ones,â including corporate giants, and small private entertainers are finding it difficult to compete with those with deep pockets. Just how we address these will provide answers to the future of the festival.
Black Stalin knew why he asked, âWEY MY BAND?â
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.