Dr Pat Bishop, looking both serious and festive, speaking to MATT members. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
In earlier, less medically savvy times, it was possible to die of a condition called “consumption.” People who died of this condition actually were victims of tuberculosis, but nobody understood at the time that an invisible organism, acting in its own best interests, was creating the illusion that a human body was being consumed from within.
I thought about that while listening to Pat Bishop speaking to Matt at last week’s luncheon talk on Carnival, an intriguing hour’s worth of a distinguished mind teasing through the history and modern imperatives of a festival that’s been with us so long that we now take it for granted.
In considering a work of art, the painter and musical director noted, she asks herself, among other things, to whom it is addressed and to what extent the artis is expressed in the work.
Bishop was quick to acknowledge that her own perceptions of Carnival might well seem antiquated to modern tastes, but bemoaned a quite justifiable loss of “our sense of local capacity to do and be” while “looking abroad for validation.”
These observations parallell my own thoughts about this festival, which will find me today immersed in a joyous madness of blaring music set to an electronic metronome and feathers and beads imported from China and India, trying to make sense, at least through the frame of a lens, of this annual outpouring of creativity.
And let there be no mistake, Carnival is still a hotbed of creativity, even if its expression is often expressed in a troubling homogeneity of beats and designs at this stage of its evolution.
It is telling that the most sophisticated, evolved aspects of modern Carnival are those related to manufacturing, cost control, efficiences of repetition and lubrication of delivery systems. The pursuit of customer satisfaction is draining the mystique and opportunity for participation out of a festival that was born in the quirky fires of individual expression.
Carnival has come too far, assimilated too much and done too many intriguing wheels and turns to be dismissed as being in a terminal state of decay in 2010.
Which is not to say that, as a nation, that we should not be concerned about readily observed signs of lethargy and weakness in its collective corpus.
It’s now obvious that Carnival has become a festival driven by perceived and readily satisfied impulses in its highest profile consumers. Bandleaders freely acknowledge that any attempt to drift away from now decades old formulae of colourful underwear decorated with beads and feathers are vocally rejected by their customers.
The season’s composers can choose to write and sing clever turns of phrase set to mellifluous melodies in sparsely attended calypso tents or engage the services of a good producer and arranger to amplify beats and hook phrases into the music that is now the engine of Carnival.
Failure to please has always meant a failure to earn in any business transaction, but the immediacy of that disconnect in today’s Carnival is so sharp and unforgiving that it all but militates against any kind of serious experimentation.
Carnival has always been driven most successfully by the kind of innovation that enthusiastic reception encourages, but the rush to the future is so complicated by powerful influences that it’s important to evaluate and preserve the uniqueness that more than 15 decades of Carnival has bequeathed to us.
While there has been no concerted effort to preserve the details of Carnivals past, there is still room to analyse the processes, imperatives and influences that led to its most remarkable productions and talents.
Some of that work has begun at the UTT, but prior initiatives like the Carnival Institute have delivered little of the kind of understanding that’s needed to incorporate the valuable learnings of our history into modern Carnival.
Today, there will be pockets of resistance to what has become Carnival’s status quo, but they largely exist in pointed defiance and contrast to the larger will, or lack of it, that drives the most popular aspects of Carnival.
Dr Bishop spoke to journalists last Monday about “a multicultural heritage that makes us such a remarkable people.” Until we take the pulse of what’s happening today, codify, comprehend and build on a heritage that hovers on the edge of being permanently lost, everything that is new will continue to reflect a history that only spans our most casual, recent memory.