Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Chaotic stage set for chutney, soca ‘sans’ policy

The Ravi B incident at Skinner’s Park on Sunday night only highlights a deeper malaise in Trinidad and Tobago of what is wrong with the promotion of culture of this country and the need for an Independent Commission for Culture and sound directions for cultural policy and actions.
On the one hand, there is the yet unanswered questions of where were the police while a contestant was calling on the crowd to ‘pelt something’, and why did they not react instantly? (The answer may be that their culture of lethargy is so deeply entrenched it was definitely on display that night). On the other hand, the entire framework of the show points to the kind of lawlessness that seems to be pervading the society. In the broader contexts, which are likely to move into oblivion in the now-ensuing ‘bacchanal over B’ in which all and sundry is currently finding delight, it all points to the futility of trying to advance a sector just by throwing money at it, especially in the absence of informed vision and directions.
The intemperate behaviour of the fans who responded to the call instantly proves that judging of a competition of this nature ought not to be left solely in the hands of injudicious groupies.
How could a competition purported to be an international one be conducted in a kind of ‘no rules’ framework that would choose the winner through instant messaging – the same format proposed for the upcoming International Soca Monarch competition? Have those who devised that scheme taken a look at the statistics of technological savvy individuals in this country?
All data reflects that most citizens own at least two cell phones – the numbers of cellphone users in all reports point to above 120 percent which would effectively give those cell phone owners who are interested at least two votes. That is aside from the nagging question of what kind of tracking system was in place to ensure that no one voted more than once.
Additionally, the vote-by-text system also immediately eliminates many citizens, and certainly many chutney soca fans not too familiar with the technology - clearly very, very large numbers if anyone were paying attention to the startling recent revelations about high levels of information technology illiteracy in the country discovered by the Caribbean Telecommunication ICT Roadshow. And that is compounded by the fact of reported technical difficulties with the online streams done for the benefit of the ‘diaapora’ who were also invited to key in to text in their votes, again on the assumption that they are all cell phone whizzes.
Besides the high potential for technological lapses, any competition - international or not - ought to be adjudicated by professional judges guided by clear ground rules; who understand the genre they are called on to referee. If that was the case, the knowledgeable judges would recognise that a substantial number of the presentations at the show were directly replicating music from Bollywood which should have instantly eliminated them from qualifying for the finals of a competition which much-touted two million dollar prize was meant to advance the artform. Whatever rationale for that system that gives precedence to over-exuberant ready-to-pelt groupies, and deprives genuine artistes from making the competition and winners’ row, may deserve being pelted.
How that potentially infringes on the copyright of the musicians, is but one issue, to other equally important matters that includethe implicit insult of such copycats to local musical talent, and the resulting denial of true expression of creative development of the unique amalgam of musical influences that are at the heart of our multicultural milieu. Indeed, chutney soca evolved out of the music of India – the Bhojpuri peasant songs of north India, not the tinselled tones of Bollywood, mind you – and judges who understood the genre would have immediately recognised how the wholesale replication of Bollywood music was incongruent with the succinct chutney-soca genre that we have evolved.
Within this context, the issue of a two million dollar prize becomes mute, because the broader concerns detailed above show that no amount of money thrown at culture would fix the festering malaise in the continued lack of sound, well-thought out strategic directions, planning, policy and actions for local culture.
That conclusion is no different to what surfaced at a UNESCO meeting of Caribbean cultural practitioners I facilitated in Grenada last year – that approaches that are piecemeal, lack vision, and a holistic framework are doing more harm than good to our cultural sector. That has been behind the continued criticism of various plans and actions towards the past - shorn of insight and appreciation for the tremendously unique cultural situation we find ourselves in that can become trendsetting to the rest of the world in their newly evolving diversity.
And that will persist for as long as we fail to clearly define on our own terms the roles for the state, the private sector, individual artistes, promoters and others in the mix. We have been hearing that a cultural policy – in the making for the last 47 years, is still in the making. Who is making it and what is their expertise in understanding the ramification of cultural policy, remain a mystery. Whoever they may be, a word of advice that they frame our cultural direction so that it can leverage the international environment and not the other way around of being led by metropoles (foreign experts) – who like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron are pulling hairs to come to terms with their newfound multiculturalism.
We may happily allow ourselves to be drawn into the bacchanalia of the moment in inebriated oblivion to the broader picture, or take time to shed a tear for culture, until the next controversy breaks out – perhaps as we trigger our instant messages for the next International Soca Monarch?
Dr Kris Rampersad is a UNESCO Culture Consultant and a Director of the International Culture University (www.icu-edu.org).