CARIFESTA XIV nudged into being the season of T&T self-focus, annually advertised by the flag-and-bunting displays between August and September.
For otherwise distracted citizens, the first dressings of red, white and black, fluttering on the facades of public buildings, always signal a wake-up call. It’s that time of year.
Images emblazoned in memory of uniformed marchers in the spit-and-polish of parade wear, bearing rifles and swords, flash back. The all-purpose Queen’s Park Savannah, over hours on the morning of Independence Day, serves as the setting for a national show of military and other “service” representations. Inside aircraft, helicopters, armoured cars, trucks, trailers, jeeps and jitneys, and on that pavement hallowed in the recall of an imperial “Queen”, T&T puts its best foot forward. Independence Square, on the shoreline of the city, counts as a relatively latter-day creation. It is the Savannah that has ever qualified as the capital site of T&T, the singular, landmarking identification with Port of Spain.
In bad-talking jealousy after Carnival 2019 competition judging, brand loyalists rejected the second-place finish awarded to Kes and the Band for its soca road march offering called “Savannah Grass”. Something else, submitted by more predictable crowd pleasers, came first.
Weeks later, “Savannah Grass” would claim iconic recognition from the Antonio Aichee film of its performance, on a grand piano with classically raised lid, by Johanna Chuckaree, apparently in a scarlet evening gown. The setting was literally grounded in the dry-season Savannah grass, the St Ann’s mountains and the Carnival tent-city awnings in the backgrounds.
By August 2019, the Savannah had become foreground and centre-stage of Carifesta. It was that stage which inspired and proffered images bidding for such poetic significance as “the spirit of wild oceans” and the “cradle that reignites”.
Watching from the Savannah, or on TV or YouTube, the T&T republic was being educated and entertained. The francophone/kweyol presence was represented by Kassav. The ageless Guadeloupean formation of musicians, singers and dancers confirmed their reputation gained over four decades as a treasured regional ensemble.
On Carifesta final night, however, when occasion arose for the T&T national anthem, something happened. President Paula-Mae Weekes was watching, and was moved to review. “A discordant note was struck,” she said, “when an unacceptable rendition of our national anthem was performed.”
The head of state was in place to lay down the law: “The national anthem must be sung in its original music; no introduction or coda can be added, or other artistic licence taken in its rendition.” Here was the relevant reigning authority, calling out loud an unforgivable instance, of disrespect to T&T. “The offence is compounded when it occurs at an official function,” the ruling went, citing the Carifesta closing act as one such.
An instance of role fulfillment: the President donned the mantle. President’s House had assumed sovereignty over what was taking place in the Savannah, and how that national privilege was being discharged: “Our national anthem, like our national flag and coat of arms, identifies us as a nation, and must at all times be accorded the utmost respect.”
By this rare, unscripted, intervention, President Weekes worked the effect of shaking things up. In her March 2018 inaugural address, the lady had actually written her own script. She had articulated a perspective scold she proved willing and able to uphold: “I am always amazed at the way many of us behave as if the national anthem is for our entertainment, rather than an opportunity to express afresh our national identity.”
The head of state had thus signalled her own less-than-tolerant attitude toward casual behaviour associated with the anthem.
“We don’t sing, and then at the end we applaud,” she said.
She called for reverence to the lyrical content of the anthem and other national songs: “Don’t underestimate the value of knowing and regularly repeating those inspirational and aspirational words.”
At the dawning of the 2019 Independence anniversary, President Weekes thereby emerged in a leadership role. She was prescribing and proscribing attitude toward what are national symbols, viewed as more than distantly relevant in the background, even parallel to advertising decals.
Nor is this President less than sensitive to the prospect of overreach affecting her office and her projection of it. She declined any meeting that might convey suggestions of willingness to entertain marijuana legalisation arguments. That’s for the Parliament, she well-advisedly judges.
Yes, the lady President continues to make style of her own and set a standard for her performance of her role.
“I well understand,” she noted last year, “that your reservoir of patience with holders of high office has all but run dry.” So she forbears trying to push her luck.
Let T&T be assured, however, that she will not stay silent as any act or statement or song operates to do less than uphold a suitable level of national self-esteem. She is being heard. Carifesta producer and artistic director, the all-purpose Davlin Thomas responded positively to “the wisdom of the President”. He vowed to “take appropriate actions in the future”.