Some say winning is everything. And it does feel good. Especially for those few ecstatic minutes when the unbelievable news is officially confirmed. Then, an awesome reality sets in. Winning everything is definitely not everything. Sweeping success has setbacks.
First, there are sceptics who will shout foul, eroding your elation and putting you needlessly on the defensive. All manner of unfair advantage will be concocted: money, power, influence, as opposed to creativity, hard work, dedication, passion.
Then, there is your own empathy for fellow competitors. These are your peers, old friends and foes of long standing. They deserve your respect and a fair shot at the prize. Without them, there is no fraternity, no field to fight on. You did your best and they hopefully did theirs, but a sense of honour keeps you from saying: victor take the spoils, devil take the hindmost.
There is also the temptation to justify outcomes; to explain the validity of a judging process which is entirely beyond your control, and from which you maintain a deliberate and dogged distance.
Unfortunately, when that system rewards you with every possible accolade, mirth mixes with misery; as if your father died, willed everything to you and nothing to your siblings. It may be legal, fair, even just; but it is not natural. That unnaturalness is what I wish to address.
Truth be told, this bizarre outcome – TWEL TAKES ALL – was long predicted and brought to the attention of all relevant authorities. The point was properly made, verbally and in writing, that when a single band repeatedly wins, especially with widening margins, something is deeply wrong; not with the winner, but within the competitive environment where all should thrive and be viable. That is not where we are now, nor where we are heading.
Let it also be said that the Carnival Bands Association has consistently proposed solutions and provided leadership. CBA designed the Stakeholder Committee structure and provided institutional support in a period of deep crisis. Inside its own house, a peace was brokered among competing members, rules of engagement were agreed, constitutions updated, and a transparent system of sanctions, rewards and incentives implemented. Quality controls became the norm, alongside high standards of accountability for public funds.
For a short while, this combination of institutional and financial support generated remarkable results, enhancing the quantum and quality of the carnival band product. Alas, after three years, the system was summarily abandoned, quite possibly at the peak of its success. CBA has since consistently presented facts and figures, arguing passionately for a resumption of support in the interest of equity.
Little surprise then, that some energies have moved conspicuously ahead of the pack, not just among bands, but elsewhere in the carnival kingdom. Witness: with the cleanest lyrics in the competition, Arthur wins Groovy Soca for the fifth year running. Ricky-T adds yet another accolade to his twenty-odd titles. Babonneau Steel takes Panorama again, miles ahead of the competition.
So, judging is not the problem. It is the fact that excellence is hard work. Production costs have soared. Quality has faltered, and skills and material resources are increasingly scarce.
Moreover, we have not studied our successes, nor trained successors. And worse, we have not incentivized newcomers, but left them to forage on the forest floor. Survival of the fittest may be fine in the jungle, but if we learn anything from nature, it is the need for balance. No system long endures if it is permanently lopsided.
In the same way that our economic system concentrates benefits at the top, burdens at the bottom, and less and less of anything in the middle, our creative talent has become concentrated in a few conspicuous places. TWEL is not so different from the unbeatable combination of Teddyson John and Ricky-T, or Allison Marquis and Babonneau Steel.
In culture as in commerce, there must be enlightened intervention. If not, a few winners will continue to soar while others stagnate or regress. This is not good, for carnival or country.
Novices will not be inspired. Worthy contenders will become jaded. Everyone becomes doomed by disenchantment. If nothing is done, the gaps will widen, the middle will weaken, and the bottom will remain deeply endangered. Then, when old masters withdraw, mediocrity will continue on its merry way down to hell.
It was not good for democracy when the SLP won 16 to 1. The numbers eventually rebalanced, but the underlying malady festers, in a dangerous psychosis of mood swings and regime changes which retards national development. The BLP’s one-sided election victory speaks of a similar malaise in the Barbados body politic. Many of our systems are broken, but instead of fixing them, we become deaf and intolerant. In that scenario everybody reaps the whirlwind.
If TWEL is some unbeatable combination of creativity, skill, and dedication, it must also be a valuable model. For the sake of the artform and the festival, its success deserves to be studied and reproduced; not just because it’s lonely at the top, but because TWEL is an aging demographic and will eventually be gone, burying the old formulas of its success.
For now, TWEL is certainly doing its part: offering workshops, internships and an open-door mas’ camp. Its governance structure is deliberately flat, with a strong democratic core. The band operates by consensus, like a non-profit co-operative, distributing annual dividends back to revellers after bills are paid. TWEL routinely helps resource-strapped community bands with raw materials and finished goods. These are important features of a formula that clearly works.
With hundreds of years of collective wisdom within its ranks, TWEL clearly understands the need to be part of a dynamic carnival community where success is widely shared. From that perspective, TWEL is not only concerned with what shines above, but what lurks below. All healthy ecosystems must maintain balance, and a passion for self-renewal. We dream of a carnival kingdom where winner-take-all is not an inevitable strategy.
Sustainability requires critical mass: a viable core of carnival bands, designers, builders, and producers who endure, and from whom excellence emerges, not by aberration or accident, but as a matter of course.
It is not often that those at the top call so loudly for a revision of the status quo. Fortunately, TWEL boasts a fine tradition of leadership and fair play. Like the carnival results, the evidence is clear, the judgement, incontrovertible. We remain able and eager for change. All we need now is for the appointed authorities to listen, and allow us to be part of a sensible solution.
Adrian Augier is a development economist and Saint Lucia’s 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year. He is a Caribbean Laureate of Arts and Letters, and an award-winning poet, producer and mas’ man. He recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies for his contribution to regional development and culture. For more information visit adrianaugier.blogspot.com