Competition vs. Collaboration: Rethinking the Carnival Arts Industry

By Roger Gibbs

Terri Lyons

After watching some of the recent media coverage of the Calypso, Steelpan and Mas band competitions held during Carnival in Trinidad, and subsequently reflecting on the annual Calypso competitions in Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica, and Antigua, I ask the question: Is competition really the best way to develop and support the Carnival Arts?

As a lifelong Calypso musician and cultural activist, I have watched the trajectory of Calypso competitions in Barbados and in Trinidad over the last 50 plus years.

It is clear to me that the competition model, along with the seasonal nature of Carnival / Cropover, has not served Calypso well.

I can hear the howls of outrage for daring to suggest competitions are not essential to making artists pursue excellence. There are benefits to competition in some cases, but when competition is used as THE centerpiece in national music development policy, consuming the vast majority of available money and resources, the long-term impact is negative. Competition does stir up temporary public interest (ah, we love a fight!) and the possibility of fame and fortune may indeed inspire some artists to try harder.

The drawbacks are significant. Over time, competition instills distrust in creative communities, discourages collaborations and sharing of ideas, and generally pits members of the community of artists against each other. Annual competitions lock artists into short-term, seasonal thinking, unable or unwilling to create music that does not fit into the box defined by competition judges.

Dominican Calypso Monarch

One must first be willing to view the arts differently from sports, which challenge physical prowess and mental ability. Sports have a set of physical measures that are easily verified by which all can judge. The arts explore the imagination. When you confine art development to competition, you shackle artists’ imaginations – a concept that may have suited society in colonial times, but does not serve the needs of free, independent nations struggling to retain their cultural identity. A competition-driven national arts development policy is a gross disrespect to the arts’ power to raise peoples’ consciousness, self-awareness and dignity.

How many great Calypso songs can you think of that were created because of a Government-funded competition? Would the few examples have been composed anyway? Inspiration for great music comes from the heart, from deep within. Look at the Lennon & McCartney or Stevie Wonder’s catalog or any of the other great composers of the 20th century and tell me which of their most memorable work was produced thanks to a national competition. I would guess none. Did Miles Davis need to compete in a competition every year to be a genius? Not one of Bob Marley’s great songs was written for a competition. If Calypso artists have produced great work in a competition, it was in spite of the competition not because of it.

Caribbean governments need to step back from producing and presenting the arts and find better ways to nurture healthy arts communities. Government efforts inevitably becomes politically charged and partisan in its curatorial choices. A wiser approach would be to take the same funding and create a package of supports for the ‘live’ Calypso and Caribbean music sector. Invest in smaller ongoing programs, e.g. regular ‘live’ concerts in all parts of the country; tax incentives for club/restaurants/music venues to program ‘live’ calypso year round; dedicated social media and radio destinations to give emerging calypso artists and their work airtime and visibility; weekly pages in newspapers devoted to promoting what’s going on in Calypso.

A well-crafted package of publicly funded supports for the Calypso music sector will rejuvenate the art form and attract new practitioners. Artists would still have to compete for the newly created markets. I think we need to grow up and move away from the competition model with all its colonial monarchist trappings as a way to develop the Calypso art form.