Copyright Heritage: Preservation, Carnival and the State in Trinidad

Article excerpt


This essay addresses the place of Carnival in the creation of a national cultural narrative in Trinidad and Tobago and examines the role that such a narrative plays in the formation of a coherent national cultural identity. The paper is organized in two parts: The first section looks at the process of cultural heritage preservation in relation to the Trinidad Carnival. The second looks at the effects of preservation on middle class women who participate in Carnival. Positioning the Carnival as a central expressive form in a cultural identity that transcends ethnic, class or gender divisions has long been part of the nationalist agenda in Trinidad. Recently, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago has pursued the possibility of copyrighting certain aspects of the festival to prevent their theft, degradation or misappropriation by both locals and foreigners. This paper describes how a "sit-down" protest during the Carnival by one of Trinidad's most popular masquerade groups set off a discussion about the true spirit of Carnival. The ensuing debate highlighted the narrative about Carnival and its history that is most valued by the state and demonstrated the ways in which acts of preservation and protection of heritage serve to exclude significant portions of the population, most notably women. Finally, the paper shows how certain parties

control the formation of heritage and culture, and seek global endorsement for their brokerage of national cultural identity. [Trinidad, Carnival, nationalism, heritage, copyright, intellectual property, gender].

You hardly ever see a Bear in Port-of-Spain anymore. The Blue Devils have mostly left the streets. And the Guarahoons (Native American warriors) are in short supply too. You have to really search for Bats and Clowns and Midnight Robbers.' In Trinidad, at Carnival time, the old masquerade characters are played less and less often "on the road," and almost never by the young people who swell the ranks of what are known as pretty masquerade bands, dressed in ornamented bathing suits, parading the streets to the throb of bass-- heavy Soca music. The National Carnival Commission (NCC), the state sanctioned governing body that oversees Carnival in Trinidad, laments the disappearance of traditional mas' and over the years has made attempts at correction. Some of these attempts include an annual parade of old time masquerade characters on the Saturday before Carnival, a competition called Viey La Cou (The Old Yard, in patois) that features performances of old masquerade forms, old time Steel band competitions, expositions of old style calypso singing, special museum exhibits or temporary displays of historical Carnival materials, photographs, costumes or documents. Recently, the NCC formed a Carnival Institute, part of whose mandate is to record and preserve knowledge and materials related to the traditional Carnival arts. In 1998, in conjunction with Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut a World Conference on Carnival was held to bring together scholars, NCC administrators, government officials, artists and performers. Since then, the conference has been held annually. The first conference resulted in the publication of a special issue of The Drama Review dedicated wholly to Carnival in Trinidad (Riggio 1998). Every article in the journal was dedicated to some form of old time Carnival masquerade form, steelband or calypso.2 There was no sustained treatment of Soca, the music that now dominates Carnival, nor of any of the contemporary forms of masquerade, especially the "pretty mas'" bands that attract, by far, the greatest number of participants.3 The conference, the publication of the special issue of The Drama Review and the various strategies undertaken by the NCC are all part of "helping to preserve and transmit invaluable Carnival traditions which have been in danger of extinction" (Foreword: Riggio 1998), according to Carlos John, former chairman of the NCC. …


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