Maybe we saw the handwriting on the wall when the Commissioner of Culture declared in 2006 that there is no money in Culture.
I knew what he was trying to say, but he was mistaken. The Department doesn’t play its proper role, but it really does support quite a few cultural groups and events every year. So it already generates revenue–just for other folks. Nothing wrong with that.
But you can’t say the same thing when April comes, and it’s bacchanal time. That’s when the vultures and opportunists come out of the woodwork. They milk whatever profits they can get out of the department, the business community, and directly out of your pockets. Its a sad thing by itself. But it’s a tragedy when you consider what the true purpose of Carnival should be, and what it can mean for the island’s development.
That’s right. Carnival, and all things having to do with popular culture, should have a direct bearing on YOUR quality of life, but you’d never know it the way we’re handling it in St. Maarten.
So let’s have a look. It’s YOUR business. It’s your entire family’s business, and you can only demand higher standards when you know what it looks like.
Inspiring a country
A well-functioning department of culture, playing its proper role, should see serious cash-flow. The Minister, the Heads of Departments, and society in general must first appreciate the potential power of cultural icons in cultivating a country’s belief in itself, and its energy and enthusiasm for nation-building. Let’ s call all that our “development ethos” for short.
They must also understand the dynamic relationship between our development ethos, on one hand, and the strength and resiliency of our economy, on the other. It is that ethos that gives us the fortitude and motivation to push forward as one.
I remember that day back in 2006. If my recollection is correct, I had a lot of work that day, and almost forgot the invitation to the Cultural Center for the formal unveiling of our new “Youth Policy.” I shook my head in disbelief, then again in shock, then once again in denial. No way I could have heard what I just heard coming from a son of the soil we all regard as a true champion of culture and the Arts. Maybe someone flinched when he made that statement, but I didn’t see it.
It’s time for a serious discussion of this issue out in the public space. Its just too important a topic to be dismissed so easily–way too important. To be fair to the ex-Commissioners and all their successors, the way things work in St. Maarten today was set up long ago, and its really hard to break out of it.
But break out of it we should. When you speak of one God, one aim, one destiny, it should actually mean something.
It’s true that “bacchanal” has become part of carnival. Since Carnival is almost upon us, this is as good a time as any to lay the issue of culture, money, politics, and nationhood bare.
Resources are still lacking for The Forum to do the kind of scientific study this requires on a local level. So allow me a fast summary based on a widely accepted body of social science research.
The Role of Culture in Development
There is a premise that the ex-commissioner, and a whole bunch of other folks, need to learn, and learn well. So as not to make it a long, theoretical piece, I will keep it short and sweet. Whatever we miss here, feel free to add them in your comments.
- To be successful, a country has to compete in the global economy. It has to produce a certain volume of goods and/or services (quantity) that the rest of the world likes and values (quality).
- To produce quantity, the higher the percentage of people who are working to produce those goods and services, the better.
- To produce quality, the higher the percentage of the people who place high value on those goods and services themselves, the better.
- It is therefore easy to see that anything that motivates a higher percentage of the population to be productive, and to produce with passion and pride, also makes the country more successful. At the other end, anything that discourages parts of your population from producing, is hurting your economy, and killing your chances to be prosperous as a nation.
- A strong sense of national identity gives the people a sense of uniqueness among the community of nations. That uniqueness gives them pride; brings them together. At times, the natural course of historical events help to either cultivate or discourage that unity. At other times, inspired leadership set out to produce it on purpose. Sometimes both work together, but it doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen automatically. One thing is certain. When there is unity, the people produce more, and produce better quality as well.
- To have a national identity, the people need to have a shared sense of the kind of life they want to live, as well as a shared sense of how to get there.
- It is a nation’s cultural uniquness that gives its people this sense of identity.
- Celebration of this culture at heightened levels gives its people the pride and passion necessary to forge a single national identity.
- To celebrate culture at heightened levels, you put it on spectacular display as “popular culture.” Popular culture symbolizes the people’s chosen way of life, champions it, and holds it up in a spectacular and entertaining way for the people to behold, feed their senses, and rally behind.
- A small segment of your population is always specially gifted and creative to produce popular culture for the people’s consumption. Highly successful societies hold those who produce popular culture artifacts and manifestations in the highest esteem, and reward them accordingly.
And there you have it. That’s the premise. Only the simplified language is mine. What is left now is for us to bring this down to our local St. Maarten level. Let’s see how we are doing.
Nation-Building & Cultural Policy In St. Maarten
Let’s start with this: Carnival presents the perfect opportunity for rewarding the most creative among the people with its spoils. The Mighty Dow should be honing his craft 365 days a year until he gets so good, to hear his magic is to feel, at a gut level, pride and passion from being associated with the same island he is from.
There is nothing wrong with pounding the streets in uniform, or delivering a meal with pride to a hungry customer in a restaurant. If that is your gift, you can and should make your living that way, and be proud of it. But would you not rather have King Bobo or Fish the Boss raise their art to even higher levels?
Personally I’d rather Fish just write the songs and have someone else sings them, but that’s just me. At any rate, don’t doubt for a minute that they have what it takes to produce some the best that the entire world has to offer. We know they have the talent. Many others in the Church and some of our business-places producing pop-culture also have talent.
But we have to get the money out of the hands of the middle-men, and put it where it belongs.
Then there are people like this (and I don’t care what side of the island he is from):
That’s right, Ras. Artists may not be the best business-men. In a young nation with visioned leadership, they don’t have to be.
But let’s take a look at what’s wrong, what needs to be corrected.
The formalizing of all Departmental Policy across the board is a topic all by itself that we hope to cover at a later time. It is an essential issue to keep in mind, because it dictates the day-to-day activities of the personnel working in those departments. The Department of culture is not immune. Suffice to say that at this time, what I see is a continuation of what was happening before 10.10.10.
Short version: Historical precedence has led to a glaring disconnect between what political parties say they are going to do, what they set out doing once they form coalitions, what the relevant laws and regulations allow them to do, and lastly, what their own creativity, budgets and political dynamics limit them to doing once they start trying to implement Government accords.
Part of the problem is lack of a policy mandate that formalizes how campaign promises move from political party aspirations, all the way to delivery of that promise to the electorate.
Politicians haven’t been too vocal about how few Departmental policies supported by a budget have been formally approved over the years. You can count the amount of Departments who have done this over the years on one hand. Even in the most heated debates over the years however, you don’t hear our political parties pointing fingers at each other where lack of approved Departmental policy is concerned. Everyone is guilty of the same thing. But that’s another story.
You see, an approved policy can cause incumbent politicians to lose votes.
That’s a snapshot of the political climate. Regardless to which party is in power, those who are trying to function in Government Departments as professionals, have their work truly cut out for them. The system interacts with historical precedence to make party politics the number-one concern over such things as Good Governance and authentic national development.
No wonder Carnival is only bacchanal.
The Department of Culture, SCDF, & Festival Promoters
This is the backdrop against which the Department of Culture operates. I will leave you to notice for yourself where it has led to the deplorable situation we have now. Carnival is supposed to be a celebration of the St. Maarten way of life. It should have been the time when our local artisans, artistes, and makers of pop culture should have been reigning supreme, and making money to boot.
What we have instead is a raping of the idea of Carnival by various Foundation officials, by little-known companies who provide services at exorbitant prices, but know how to bypass the Department and secure contracts. There’s no policy in place to prevent it. Last but not least, ruthless promoters, who don’t care one fig-leaf about developing our local talent, also make Carnival far less than what it should be.
In the meantime, would-be pop culture celebrities have to earn their living elsewhere, robbing the people of the countless sweet songs and artistic productions that is the true calling of our talented artistes.
Wouldn’t it be nice to hear those songs; to create beautiful memories we can be proud of all the days of our lives; , with things and people from right here?
If the proper role of culture and the arts is built into our plans for national development, all things Carnival would take on a whole new meaning. If we can just send a little signal to our would-be representatives who are already gearing up for next year’s elections, here are some of the things that you, the people could tell them you want done, in order to secure your votes.
Yes. Carnival can be THIS important if we allow it to play it’s full role:
- Give the SCDF clear ownership of the Carnival village–no other people with no faces, or groups in-between with no annual audited reports
- Give the SCDF a subsidy and a clear mandate along with that subsidy: Promote and produce local pop culture manifestations and artifacts during the Carnival season in order to help forge a stronger national identity
- The SCDF should have one expense only: prizes and rewards for those who win the calypso competitions, the “battle of the bands,” the various float and road-march prizes, etc., etc. There should be a lot more categories, and prizes should be substantial… so substantial in fact, that an artiste with great talent can actually live in comfort and style if he spends his entire day honing his craft and producing his art. You know those special people who were just born with a gift?
- Clean-up and other such expenses should be done by Public Works and other Government bodies. That’s a lot better use of our tax-dollars than Tempo.
- Not a single artist from abroad should be promoted during Carnival season. Their purpose, and the purpose of their promoters, is NOT to enhance St. Maarten’s development!
- Promoters have to work FOR the SCDF during the people’s Carnival season… for free! And they have to get the job done. Doing so is the ONLY way they can secure the right to promote other shows and foreign artistes IN-BETWEEN our Carnival seasons.
- Local bands, solo musicians, and other artistes have to submit their songs to the SCDF by January. By then, their creators had spent an entire year perfecting them, and doing nothing else. Only the highest quality make it through to pre-carnival time. The SCDF, with the assistance of the island’s promoters, will ensure that these works get so much airplay, the best ones whip the people’s emotions into a frenzy. By March, you the people are already singing all the words in your cars on the way to work. Tell me that won’t get the village packed for the finals on the night before Jouvert. People WILL pay to see, hear and experience the kind of quality our talented artistes are really capable of if they could just dedicate their time to it. I’m sure of it. It would take less than 3 years to raise the standard so high, we forget what it was like to go to the village to bend our ears around hip-hop.
- Lighting, show equipment and all that stuff should be owned by the SCDF. Again, no in-between folks who have to be paid out of what truly belongs to our artistes.
- The SCDF has to satisfy other requirements as well to secure the subsidy. This includes proper execution of their constitution, and proper accountability via the publication of annual audited reports.
I’ve brought up this model to the folks who have provided leadership for the SCDF over the last 20 years. They all agreed, but shook their heads, saying, “I wish it was that way, but its never going to happen in St. Maarten.”
You mean it’s too big a favor to ask? Is that too hard to do for the people of St. Maarten?
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