We are a couple of months away from the start of the Crop Over Festival – the “Sweetest Summer Festival” – and the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) has announced radical changes to the event as we know it.
We are told that some events are no longer financially viable owing to a considerable reduction in attendance over the years.
The primary change is to the Pic-O-De-Crop competition, long considered calypso’s flagship event. Since the early 1990s fewer and few audiences have been attending the semifinals, which in those days were held at the National Stadium.
A number of initiatives were tried, including a move to the East Coast Road in 1995 where it was combined with the all-new Party Monarch Finals, but when the latter eclipsed the Pic-O-De-Crop semis in popularity, the semis headed for the Sir Garfield Sobers Gymnasium, where other formats were tried in the early 2000s.
In 2001 and 2002 the 18 semifinalists performed their songs back to back; then, in 2003, the number of participants was increased from 18 to 25, with each performer singing just one song. That experiment failed, and in 2004 the event reverted to 18 performers doing two songs.
This year, the organisers are doing away with the semifinals entirely and having 18 finalists perform only one song. But this is not new; this was first mooted just over two years ago under the then-Democratic Labour Party administration, the argument being that since Party Monarch and Sweet Soca Monarch contestants win a car by only singing one song there is no reason the same can’t apply to the Pic-O-De-Crop.
Back then, the calypsonians disagreed with that proposal. We are curious; is it possible that it has now found favour now since Trinidad used a similar format this year?
But the mere fact that previous changes have been less than successful suggests a deeper issue. Social commentary has long ceased to capture the imagination of younger generations, namely the current 18-30 age group, and those who were in that age range in the mid-1990s when Edwin Yearwood, Alison Hinds, Lil Rick and other performers revolutionised the art form with a heavy accent on party music, which the organisers and other stakeholders then pushed extensively because it offered greater financial returns.
Prior to the introduction of the Party Monarch contest, Pic-O-De-Crop was the only game in town in a festival music competition, so most calypsonians performed songs with serious themes, even the uptempo ones.
And back then, there were more calypso tents, and tent recordings on radio and television that served to create a fan base for some calypsonians, notable examples being Observer with his Cat Attack in 1991 and Bongo with his Like it or Lump It in 1992. Both songs were uptempo social commentaries that also placed in the Road March contests.
Since then the number of tents has plummeted, social commentaries enjoy even less radio airplay than before, and since 1996, we have had Pic-O-De-Crop Calypso Monarchs usually pulled from the same basic group of nine competitors. In fact, between 1996 and 2010, the crown rotated between just four kaisomen – Kid Site, Red Plastic Bag, Gabby and Adrian Clarke. Not a sign of growth, whereas there have been several Party Monarch and Sweet Soca winners since those contests came on stream.
On the subject of Party Monarch, we are concerned that the move to just one competition may not be in the best interest of those who have specialised in ragga soca since the Sweet Soca contest started a decade ago. Prior to that event, ragga soca performers traditionally did not fare well at Party Monarch, as the judges and audiences seemed to favour the faster material. But since the genre has become so popular that ideally a special prize should be given to the best ragga soca song in the new competition.
As for prizes, calypsonians have complained about having a car as the first prize for many years, claiming that it does not help them meet the expenses they incur in preparing for the festival. Surely, it is not the role of the organisers to pay a performer’s bills by giving them a reward commensurate with their expenses. What of those who do not win? Won’t they have to find the money to pay their creditors on their own?
Pan Pun De Sand has become one of the more popular events, and while the new Bay Street location at Pirate’s Cove is used frequently for shows and fetes, parking in that area is always a major challenge, unlike Brandons with a huge playing field just opposite the beach. People may also express reservations about paying for an event that was previously free of charge. We also ask what environmental impact assessment been done at the National Botanical Gardens – a virtually unknown spot for visitors – to see whether there will be any fallout from holding a major calypso event there?
Nevertheless, since the sponsors and performers are on board with the changes, we will just have to wait and see how the new formats go. The true measure of success will be how many people actually turn out to these events and if the quality of the product improves.
Perhaps now, it would be a good idea to actually seek feedback from patrons and participants alike before making any further amendments instead of just looking at the bottom line.