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Our Time — Trinidad Carnival in the New Millennium

Trinidad Carnival Couture. Photo: Gary Jordan Photography courtesy K2K Carnival

The road is a runway: Alexander McQueen meets Peter Minshall in the carnival couture designs of K2K Alliance, the brainchild of twin sisters Karen and Kathy Norman, investment bankers who launched their first band. This costume is called “Finding Venus” from their 2015 presentation, M3: The Long Walk From Home. Photo: Gary Jordan Photography courtesy K2K Carnival

Where We All Come Together As One

It’s like carnival in Rio, but in English. Tens of thousands of costumed revellers take to the streets of the capital every year, a conquering army of marauding dancers that rolls through downtown Port of Spain on a wave of music. Diaspora Trinis fly in from freezing corners of the globe to ‘jump and wave and misbehave for two glorious days. This is the mother of if not all, certainly most of the (West Indian style) carnivals around the world – Notting Hill, Labor Day, Caribana, Miami, and many others across the US. The intoxicating mix of high-energy music and street performed by masqueraders, some in costumes 50ft tall, make the massive parade an unforgettable experience of a lifetime.

French Celebration, African Rhythms

Back in the late 18th century, Trinidad was still a forgotten outpost of the Spanish Empire. The island remained almost totally under forest cover. It was, literally, a jungle out here. Spain issued an invitation to French planters and investors in the neighbouring Caribbean islands to cultivate the land. These French Creoles brought with them their own African slaves, as well as the Catholic tradition of preparing for the austerity of Lent with a carnival (a literal farewell to the ‘flesh’). This took the form of grand masquerade balls, where the planters and their wives danced the nights away to the sound of music. The slaves watched it all from their quarters – and decided to have their own version, based on their own West African dances, songs and festivals.

When the British snatched Trinidad from Spain in 1797, the slaves continued the annual carnival rituals – including stick-fighting (an African tradition). But when slavery ended in the 1830s, carnival took on an increasingly rowdy and defiant tone. The British attempted to ban drumming, which motivated the former slaves to search for new ways to make music. This led, with so many discarded oil drums from the burgeoning energy industry, to the invention of the steel pan.

The colonial authorities became worried and concerned members of the elite wrote angry letters to the editors of newspapers demanding that the ex-slaves’ celebrations be banned. A big showdown in Port of Spain in 1881 between bands of stick-fighters and the colonial police left many dead, and others badly wounded. A re-enactment of these Canboulay Riots takes place every Carnival Friday at five in the morning at the corner of Duke and George Streets in downtown Port of Spain.

Here you can see traditional characters, like the jab jab and imp, the pierrot grenade and the midnight robber, and discover the intriguing stories behind them.

Nothing can stop the Carnival

Efforts to ban or control the Carnival in the 19th century have influenced the modern incarnation of the festival – and some say, the society. To this day an anti-authoritarian tradition of satire and defiance is hardwired into Carnival; the public awaits, with glee, the loaded lyrics of those master calypsonians who can deliver ‘licks’ to those involved in the latest scandal. Calypsonians are seen as griots and chantuelles, according to West African traditions. The early 20th-century calypso maestros who toured Europe included Atillah, Invader, Lion, The Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Chalkdust, Black Stalin and The Mighty Shadow. Their successors, SuperBlue and David Rudder, held on to the storytelling aspect of the art, but the tradition began giving way to soca in the ’90s, with lyrics losing ground to driving rhythm and much faster tempo.

The two early traditions of Carnival – one African and subversive, the other French and celebratory – are still very much alive in the 21st century. However, the main thrust these days seems to be wining.

The science of the wining – it’s all in the spine

Wining is everything to Trinis. It is the alpha and the omega of our being, our interpretation of yin and yang. It’s not just sexy dancing. This is sexual healing – and there’s a science to it. The reason it feels so damn good to ‘wuk up your waist’ is that it gives the spine, which is part of the central nervous system, a good shake-up and awakens all kinds of senses. Like high-impact yoga and pilates – at 180rpm – it often includes gravity-defying positions and contortions. It will definitely raise your kundalini and chakras. This is why the virgin winer may find himself trembling and tingling after being ‘wound’ upon for the first time. Wining is our therapy. If a Trini is happy they will put on some soca and start to wine. If they’re sad or angry, and they hear soca and start to wine, they feel better. To test this theory, play ‘Possessed’ (Machel Montano, Kerwin DuBois and Ladysmith Black Mambazo) or ‘Wotless’ (Kes the Band).

The wine in action

Fetes

This is where you can see – and feel – for yourself what all the fuss is about. The central aim of the fete is to wine and have a good time. Another French blessing, the fete (and feteing) is a key component of carnival, and some say, the Trini psyche. Massive parties, with tens of thousands of people, are held almost every weekend from early November until carnival weekend. Many are now all-inclusive, an all-you-can-eat-and-drink extravaganza, headlined by the most popular bands who take the business of wining seriously.

Soca stars

Soca music’s driving rhythm is popular in gyms, especially aerobics classes. Its fast tempo is perfect for workouts. This is feel-good music that makes your muscles move – starting in the pelvis. The stars of the techno generation of soca are Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, his wife FayAnn Lyons, Kees Dieffenthaller, Destra Garcia, Kerwin Du Bois, Iwer George and Denise Belfon. They have taken the music to new levels and in different directions. International club DJs Major Lazer remixed songs by Machel and Bunji (‘The Fog’ and ‘Differentology’), which have become hits on the European club scene.

Major Lazer’s Jillionaire

The Jillionaire, as he is known to millions of electronic music fans, was born Christopher Leacock in Chaguanas, Trinidad. As part of the massively successful DJ group Major Lazer, he regularly plays in clubs in the UK, the US, and Europe regularly and tours with superstar DJ Diplo.

Jillionaire stole the show at Notting Hill Carnival in London in 2009 with a blend of soca, dancehall and onstage antics.

In 2013 he and DJ Diplo did a remix of Bunji Garlin’s ‘Differentology’ and have been playing it at their live shows where it always sends the crowd wild.

Major Lazer plans to stage a show in Trinidad, and projects in the pipeline with local artistes include a collaboration between Machel Montano and US producer Pharrell Williams; a ‘power soca’ tune; a remix for US rapper and musician Macklemore with T&T producer 1st Klase and Swappi; a song with Shurwayne Winchester, and plans to work with Kes the Band. Jillionaire also produces other Trinidadian and Jamaican artists on his label, Feel Up Recordings.

Soca Monarch finals

This has become one of the most anticipated shows of the season. With millions in prize money at stake, this competition is keenly contested – with veterans of the soca arena, including SuperBlue and Machel Montano, going up against young Turks from at home as well as Barbados, St Vincent and Grenada. In 2014, a dark horse, Mr Killa (from Grenada), almost stole the show from Montano with his massive hit, ‘Rolly Polly’.

A core of steel

If you had to name a sound that captures the essence of Trinidad and Tobago, it would be pan. It is the republic’s gift to the world, the only new acoustic instrument invented in the last century. One of the joys of the carnival season is listening to the dozens of steel orchestras – great and small – practising in pan yards across the country. Every major town has a pan side, supported warmly by diehard fans, many of them walking archives of steelpan lore. The older ones can recall precisely how their band played on the night they became Panorama champ in 19whenever. In the weeks before the finals, the pan yard becomes the engine room of the community. Judges visit the pan yards and choose who will take part in the Panorama semi-finals, a massive weekend event where the older aficionados take to the Grand Stand to listen in reverence, while those who come more for the lime than the pan converge on the notorious North Stand opposite (scene of much drunken debauchery over the decades). The best place to hear the band though, some will tell you, is ‘the track’, the paved concourse to the Big Stage, where the bands do their final warm-ups and run-throughs before their big moment in the spotlight.

How to get involved in Carnival

Make ‘mas’

Just watching the parade of the bands on Carnival Monday and Tuesday is exhilarating (and exhausting) enough for most people. If, however, you want to join a band, it’s the easiest thing in the world: just go online and book one. Big bands launch as early as July these days.

If you are in Trinidad a week or two before Carnival, you should pop into a ‘mas’ camp, the band’s headquarters. There you will find band members hard at work bending wire, glueing (lots of glueing!) headpieces, adding sequins and feathers, adjusting bras and panties, and, if you’re lucky, putting the finishing touches on the king and queen’s costumes.

The Kings and Queens of Carnival are wonders to behold up close. The details in the designs of these behemoths, some as tall as 50ft, are exquisite. You can see them in all their glory on the Big Stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah during the lead-up to carnival, and on the road.

J’ouvert bands and Carnival bands tend to operate as separate entities, but there are some bands that play both. You can choose to be in a small, medium or big band. Most big bands are all-inclusive, which is pricey but so easy and convenient – you can register online; all your food and drinks are provided on the road; as well as a portable loo; and, if you feel hot and tired, you can chill out in a Mobile Cool Zone, which emits a mist of water. If you just want a costume, that’s also an option.

J’ouvert

The 48 hours of Carnival begins in the early hours of Monday morning with J’ouvert (French for daybreak). Under the cover of cool darkness, covered from head to foot in mud, paint, oil and/or cocoa paste, the liberating power of this disguise transforms everyone. And then the music truck starts up, feet start to chip, and the shadows begin to move – as one.

On Carnival Monday afternoon Paramin hosts blue devil competitions. To see these terrifying characters in action, breathing fire and making a ruckus with biscuit tins, is carnival at its most dramatic and sublime.

By 

A team of of writers discovering Trinidad & Tobago for 25 years and counting!

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