“He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him. So it is in travelling. A man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.”
– attributed to essayist Samuel Johnson quoting a Spanish proverb; 18th Century.
We applaud the government and people of Trinidad and Tobago on the eve of their independence – not for the 57th anniversary of the breaking of colonial ties but for the forging of fresh cultural ties with the sovereign peoples of the English, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean
The latest edition of the biennial Caribbean Festival of Arts – Carifesta XIV – was, by our own observation, media reports and reviews, and the comments of delegates and patrons alike, an unqualified success.
Surely they were logistical issues – which event of this mammoth scale put on by Caribbean governments and businesses is not so afflicted? A number of delegations, including our own struggled to retrieve cultural artefacts and goods for sale from Customs in Port of Spain during an agonising first weekend.
Attendance was less than satisfactory in the southern city of San Fernando – the second regional hub beside Tobago for a week-long celebration of music, dance, drama, literature, fine art, film, handicraft, fashion, food and festivity.
Nonetheless, Trinidad and Tobago’s deeply rich tapestry of walkways, woven by the intercourse of African, European and Asian races proved as fine a background for the cultural jewels of the Caribbean as if It were the finest silk cushioning precious gems.
We should have expected nothing less from our gracious hosts. Trinidad and Tobago has been more serious about the creative industries, the arts and culture for a very long time.
More than being the birthplace of steelband, the crucible of calypso and soca,and the mother country of Caribbean carnivals, at the very moment Barbadians argued over whether there was such a thing as Barbadian culture, successive Trinidadian administrations were pouring the abundant returns of an oil-rich nation into providing some of the most splendid performing spaces to be found in this part of the world.
Whether it is the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA), Trinidad and Tobago’s answer to the architectural wonder of the iconic Sydney Opera House, the Southern Academy – SAPA – in San Fernando, or Queen’s Hall in St Ann’s, across the grand Queen’s Park Savannah, gems of art, film, music, theatre and spoken word performance, there were readily accessible, convenient venues for the masses.
There is something to be said for the centralisation of cultural goodies in a festival. For who grumbles about going to Queen’s Park Savannah for Dimance Gras and Panorama, or jumping through the streets of Port of Spain on J’Ouvert morning?
This, then, is the hard truth facing Carifesta planners in national governments and the cultural desk of the CARICOM Secretariat: decentralization, while a noble sentiment is not a practical aspect of the festival’s programming.
The staging of unfamiliar cultural and artistic events from ‘distant lands’ continues to prove to be a hard sell to audiences hardened on a diet filled with soca, dancehall and Hollywood film.
If the people of the Caribbean want to find the pearls of these Indies, then, with apologies to Dr Johnson, they must travel to the Indies in search of those pearls. Carifesta cannot offer consciousness of a Caribbean identity to Caribbean people in convenient, easy-to-digest doses. Our people must actively seek to take the journey to self, to borrow from the Carifesta symposia’s title.
We are reluctant to dwell on Barbados’ delegation as jingoism and parochial interest are the last things we should extract from a regional cultural olympics. It would be as self-defeating as seeking to learn only of Barbadian exploits on the West Indies cricket team.
Be that as it may, we are pleased to see the offering of the Barbados delegation, which gave a good account of itself as the nation to handover the reigns of an unruly festival to Trinidad and Tobago.
We offer high praise to the officials of the National Cultural Foundation who worked tirelessly before, during and after the festival. Theirs is a thankless job of curating, preserving, shipping artefacts and managing egos in straitened circumstances in this era of BERT.
There is much that Barbados can learn from the staging of a major event like Carifesta XIV, including how to go about arts administration. But for the most part, it should merely leave the business of creating to the creatives, opening up more resources and sources for the public to take in Barbadian arts and culture.
A final word of gratitude to the people of Trinidad and Tobago for extended a warm and profoundly hospitable hand of friendship to the people of 21 Caribbean nations and special guests, Canada.
The genteel, old-world charm, irrepressible humour and genuine warmth of the people was not a Carifesta ‘show’ – it was a country that, despite its deep struggle with crime, violence and racially polarised politics – feels sufficiently comfortable in its own skin that it can be a beacon of hospitality in the Southern Caribbean.
Onward, then, to Antigua and Barbuda, who have huge shoes to fill, occupied this year by the nation of Kitchener and Sparrow, Naipaul and Minshall, ‘Boogsie’ and Lovelace.