by Larry Smith
You might not know it, but there is a fire burning among artists and intellectuals who believe we are in grave danger of losing our cultural heritage - all the things that make us Bahamian.
They say that the products of Bahamian culture - our music, theatre, literature, art, buildings and folkways - are under-rated, under-supported and under threat.
More to the point, they argue that the disintegration of our cultural attractions over the years has led to a tourism product so barren and boring that one trip up a deteriorating Bay street completes a visit.
According to architect Pat Rahming, the services that deliver a unique experience are what makes a destination successful. And in our case, those services - defined as tours, attractions and entertainment - have been allowed "to crumble, rot, or go out of business."
In other words, there is no Bahamian brand, a term which refers to how we package and market the Bahamian way of life - the things that distinguish us from other countries, and that are expressed through the cultural products mentioned above.
Sun, sand and sea do not distinguish the Bahamas from similar destinations, the argument goes. So rather than spending millions every year on foreign advertising, we should be investing more in business and brand development locally.
"We must commit resources to create an environment rich with opportunities to share the uniqueness of the Bahamas through the development of attractions," Rahming says. "Cultural activity must be acknowledged as the primary product in the business that drives (or should drive) our economy."
Or, to put it in the appropriate intellectual context, as stated by the African writer Léopold Sédar Senghor, "culture is at the beginning and the end of development."
This context can be monetarized too. In most developed economies cultural industries account for 2-5% of GDP and have generated consistent and stable growth. In some major destinations, cultural tourism is estimated to be as high as 40% of annual visitor arrivals.
A recent study commissioned by Canada's Heritage Department, for example, reckoned that arts and culture contributed $46 billion directly to the Canadian economy in 2007, but the overall impact of the sector was a much broader $84.6 billion. That study attributed more than a million jobs to arts and culture or to spinoff industries, such as tourism.
Currently, our Ministry of Tourism spends most of its $91 million budget overseas. The Ministry of Culture has a $2 million allocation - less than Bahamas Information Services - and most of that goes to fund the annual Junkanoo parades. The remainder is used to finance festivals throughout The Bahamas, maintain a “national theatre”, and run the National Arts Festival.
To demonstrate their anger over this state of affairs, cultural activists staged a 'Day of Absence' this past February. It was based on a play by Douglas Turner Ward, which told the story of a small town in the American South in which the white inhabitants discover on a particular day that all the black people have disappeared.
What would happen, our activists asked, if Bahamians woke up one day and found that all the artists and cultural workers had suddenly vanished? Wouldn't our world be a poorer and sadder place?
According to former cultural affairs director Nicolette Bethel (now a lecturer at the College of The Bahamas), the Day of Absence attempted to make the point that Bahamian artists, musicians, writers, actors, directors, dancers, designers, craftworkers, you name it — are marginalized, disrespected, and taken for granted.
"They are unable to find work in the areas in which God has gifted them. There are virtually no avenues in The Bahamas to enable creative people to develop and hone their talents, or to enable them to make use of them when they are developed. Our greatest brain drain is arguably in the area of the arts, and culture has absolutely no respect in the national discourse."
Fred Ferguson is a legendary musician and producer, who was for years a member of BahaMen - the iconic Bahamian band that made a big splash with their hit "Who Let the Dogs Out". In 2003 Ferguson started his own band - Tingum Dem - and plays weekly at the Tamarind Club on Harrold Road, a venue that he opened with partner Ronald Simms.
"The Bahamas is tough market for all entertainers," Ferguson told me. "Bahamians have very short memories and there is a deep-rooted lack of national pride, which our leaders are not making any effort to correct. They are only interested in Bahamian music at election time."
According to Ferguson, "there's no programme to develop music in the Bahamas. Teachers train kids in the schools and they come back to be music teachers who train more kids to be music teachers. There's no way for musicians to practice their craft."
By most accounts, this is a complex and multi-dimensional issue. Even Ferguson admits that entertainers often price themselves out of work and are notoriously temperamental from a business standpoint.
Others say the problems faced by cultural workers stem from feelings of entitlement. Some veterans have not produced creatively for years, critics argue, yet they expect to receive public support as a matter of right.
"Government can create a supportive environment but should not be financing private ventures," one tourism executive told me. "And what are the musicians doing to promote themselves? Are they willing to share the economic risk?" Why don't the musicians provide some leadership and vision of their own?
"Visual artists have done well over the years and are well supported by Bahamians, why not musicians? What are they doing collectively to come up with a plan or strategy to help themselves?"
Well, Ferguson's Tamarind Club was set up to do just that, playing Bahamian and old school music in a comfortable and controlled environment, but although he has been able to build something of an audience, money is a constant headache.
"The truth is, I'm struggling to keep my entertainment business afloat. I'm facing some of the same challenges that Freddie Munnings Sr. faced at the old Cat & Fiddle. My partner and I have been trying desperately to acquire financing to improve our business and to just basically stay in operation, but finance institutions have basically closed the door in offering any form of assistance."
That's true, according to one banker we surveyed: "The entertainment industry is financed largely by equity capital, venture capital, personal resources or love money (friends and family). The risks associated with this industry cannot be priced in the traditional prime plus markets serviced by commercial banks."
For another perspective on this issue we spoke to Devlynn Stubbs (who goes by the name of Jah Doctrine). He is a young Bahamian songwriter with a degree in philosophy who is tackling the industry from a different angle. He's been producing music professionally for the past five years, focusing on reggae, hip hop and dance hall (see www.myspace.com/jahdoctrine).
"I grew up in the church, which stimulated my interest in music, and I found I had an ability to write. But it takes years of planning and training to make a living off this so you really gotta do it for the love. Music is my career but I need to get a job to live. You gotta get up and get humping."
Stubbs says the local band circuit is very limited and even forming a band is a challenge, since musicians want to be paid for practice time. "But these days you have to go at things differently," he told me. "You don't form a band, get a venue, build an audience and then cut a cd. You can cut a cd yourself with a computer and create a marketing buzz on your own. But you still need to do shows and perform."
Aside from the economics, the larger issue is the loss of Bahamian culture: "We do little or nothing to maintain the things that make us culturally different," Ferguson says. "There is an underlying sense of embarrassment at being Bahamian. We have to take a stand. We need leadership and focus and a determination that our entertainment is important to us. We need to put some energy and funding into these matters and do things properly."
As former culture director Nico Bethel put it: "For a generation and a half — the entire time since Independence — our national policies have been shaped by a group of men and a handful of women whose actions and behaviour cumulatively suggest that they would rather erase Bahamian culture than invest in it. Our cultural industries are in effective decline."
Bethel (a sociologist whose late father, Clement Bethel, was the country's first and most eminent director of culture) argues that the government provides sporting facilities throughout the country, has legislation to promote hotels and govern education and health, but nothing - either in law or on the ground - to support, encourage or develop artistic activity.
"We can read the reports for ourselves, and accept the idea that culture is the economic sector in which to invest for nations that are still developing; or we can share the delusions of our politicians, which confuse the grandeur of the monstrosities that foreign investors build (and usually protect behind gates and bridges and visitor passes) with development of a nation and of a people."
Bethel says she quit as director because decision-makers won't take culture seriously: "My father died at 49 and I have no intention of wasting what could be the last years of my life trying to get results out of a non-responsive, uncaring, and uninterested public service, or waiting for the latest bright political spark to make good on promises they never intended to honour in the first place."
Others may point out that it is not the responsibility of government to make it easier for artists to make a living, or to take care of musicians, or subsidise straw vendors. In the final analysis we all have to be responsible for our own livelihoods.
But the real issue here is one of judgement. We already spend huge amounts of taxpayer dollars on packaging the Bahamas overseas, while very little thought or money is invested in the product we are selling. And it is an undeniable fact that the average Bahamian vacation is hollow, superficial, and not worth the money that tourists pay for it.