Cranston Browne (left) chatting with noted Barbadian photographer Ronnie Carrington. (Picture by Sandy PItt.)
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CRANSTON BROWNE’S perspective on culture is strongly influenced by his growing up in a traditional Barbadian village as well as his involvement in the cultural life of his alma mater, Christ Church Boys’ Foundation School.
He attributes the way he approaches his job as chief executive officer of the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) to the exposure both areas afforded.
Stressing that he was into culture, Browne recalled his schooldays when he was a member of a school band, performed as an actor in drama productions and always found a way to demonstrate his love for the arts.
Without knowing it then, he was preparing himself for times like this period when he goes into full throttle directing the activities of the multimillion-dollar Crop Over Festival. He is not flustered by the pressure and responsibility of having to oversee a packed programme with so many players involved.
Past experience of playing mas, designing costumes, putting out his own band and organising fetes in those years following the revival of Crop Over in 1974 has put him in a good position now that he is at the helm of Barbados’ leading institution for executing cultural policy.
In his office last week, surrounded by colourful masks and other trappings that scream Crop Over, Browne shared his thoughts on the festival and the wider mission of the NCF.
“I got involved first as a sponsor,” he said, adding: “I actually sponsored one of the queens of a band and got involved in the masquerade aspect in that I helped to design the costume.”
He also managed to learn the intricacies of masquerade first as a regular player of mas with former top bandleader Marcia Chandler’s winning bands and later as leader of his own band, which twice won him the Band Of The Year title.
All this therefore puts him in a position where he is able to vividly paint a picture of Crop Over masquerade and music of yesterday when all the bands were produced in Barbados and “designers placed a lot more importance on designing, on themes and on indigenous costuming and real costuming”.
But he noted “a major change” in the type of masquerade being presented nowadays. He said: “There are not that many bands now that are producing Barbados. You get similar costuming; you go to the (National) Stadium and you see the same designs over and over. Some bands recycle costumes, which I think has taken away a lot from the masquerade aspect of it.”
It is something the CEO says the NCF must examine “to see how we are going to preserve the heritage bands”.
But he warns of winds of change blowing over Crop Over, something he advised Barbadians to be aware of, to understand and accept as inevitable. There was, for example, a pattern of evolution of the music, with a trend that was seeing a move away from social commentary and a decline in the market for that kind of music, which he said, posed a challenge for the NCF.
“Just as we need to preserve the heritage bands, we need to find ways to keep the social commentary alive” he said.
He associated the change with the advent of young composers and arrangers who are now contributing to the music of the festival and he is comfortable making accommodation for them. While he thought something should be done to get them involved in addressing the decline in social commentary, he was quick to concede: “You have got to accept that the young arrangers and composers will see things differently.
“What we have to accept is that the young people will not tell the stories as we told them” Browne pointed out. “They are going to use their own language and they are going to use their own jargon. I think if we try to force our ideas on them, we might very well end up losing it.”
The disappearance of the once popular plantation fairs and donkey carts from the cart parade that used to attract thousands, as well the threat to the original concept of Crop Over with a sugar industry from which a king and queen of the Crop was selected, are other aspects of the festival that Browne says should make Barbadians realise Crop Over is changing.
He went so far as to suggest that in a few years from now there may very well not be a King and Queen of the Crop. This year Grantley Hurley and Judy Cumberbatch, who have being winning the King and Queen prizes repeatedly for several years, were again selected in honour of Barbados’ 50th anniversary of independence. But with mechanisation of the sugar industry, manual cane-cutting is fast disappearing and Browne cautioned: “This is something that we have to face and understand that change is coming.”
“We have to keep the history of Crop Over and we will have to find a different way to recognise sugar and to recognise agriculture in our heritage.”
Browne suggested the NCF would in the future have to look at “preservation versus evolution.”
“We must allow the festival to evolve but we need to preserve our heritage and our cultural activity. That is critical. We don’t ever want to lose the true identity of Crop Over and we must guard against that. We must always preserve the Barbadian identity in the mas and the music.”
He was a driving force behind the early private Crop Over fetes, staging the popular backyard parties at the Paling, his family home on Tweedside Road. Demand for that kind of Crop Over activity grew over the years.
Now private parties are holding a prominent place in the festival calendar, a feature Browne welcomes. He does not worry about the often-heard complaint that Crop Over is being influenced too much by Trinidad’s Carnival. Instead, he is confident the Barbadian cultural events which the NCF plans to ensure remain an integral part of the festival will help to preserve its Barbadian identity. He said though carnival “has definitely influenced the mas, I think our music can definitely compete with Trinidad’s music”.
Browne is one CEO of the NCF who appears to have managed to avoid much of the controversy that has dogged the festival year after year and he says it is because “I talk to people.” The culture executive who says he does not possess “an arrogant bone” believes he has succeeded in maintaining a good relationship with Crop Over players through his “open door” policy which makes him easily accessible.
That, together with his friendliness and spirit of camaraderie fostered through growing up in Carrington Village, play a role in his relationship with anyone who walks through his office door.
Browne shared glimpses of life in a village where the extended family concept existed; where youngsters got together to play games in the gap and big families such as the Caddles, the Gills and the Brewsters shared in many ways – all of which have left an indelible mark on him.
It has definitely influenced who he is: “A pretty regular guy; the average Barbadian who is very passionate about my work.”
He said: “I see myself as a creative, a businessman, event planner, promoter, but very passionate about the arts and the development of the arts.”
Beside Crop Over, he devotes his time to one of the critical areas of the NCFs operation. The foundation’s developmental work in dance, music, theatre and literary arts in the island’s schools and communities has been showing results, inspiring Browne’s vision for the future.
He wants to see the creation of a Barbadian performing arts company with a national steel orchestra, a national dance theatre, providing an outlet for the wealth of artistic talent coming out of the island’s schools and tertiary institutions.
His plate is full, but the father of two daughters is not daunted by the task. As far as he is concerned, it is all about working for the enrichment of Barbados’ cultural life.