Here’s the 411 on our signature annual festival, which has spawned similar Trini-style Carnivals the world over, from New York to London and further afield!
What’s all the fuss about?
What it is: the annual street festival on the two days before Ash Wednesday that takes over the capital, and all major towns. Indeed the whole country shuts down to party hearty.
How to survive it
Drink lots of water (and very measured doses of alcohol, if you are playing mas and want to keep up with the music and the locals), wear earplugs, trainers for walking long distances, and a mobile to call for a pick-up just in case of emergency (ie you get tired, drunk, or both). Of course, many ignore this advice and, for example, wear high-heel shoes on the road…
Playing a mas
The highlight for most visitors is actually getting down and dirty in the carnival. Literally. This means playing J’Ouvert, from the wee hours of Carnival Monday morning, covered in mud, oil, chocolate or body paint, dancing through the streets of Port of Spain to the sound of soca.
It’s all about the costumes, the pageantry, and the fetes… this is an all-out explosion of the senses, beginning with the all-inclusive band launches where the limitless food and drinks recall the hedonistic French masquerade balls in the 19th century that, in part, gave birth to this festival.
Among the maestros of the costume whose name goes down in the annals of carnival history is Peter Minshall, who invented the dancing mobile, which featured prominently at the opening ceremonies for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta, as well as the 1994 World Cup. He took France by storm when he collaborated with composer and record producer Jean-Michel Jarre who is known for his outdoor performances featuring lights, laser displays and fireworks. Minshall’s dancing mobiles and other characters appeared at Bastille Day celebrations in 1990 before an audience of two million, and at the 1995 UNESCO Concert for Tolerance at the Eiffel Tower, where 1.5 million attended.
From as early as July and August when the big costume bands have their launches, you will hear the latest soca hits being played on the radio and in the fetes. On Carnival Friday, the artistes compete for huge cash prizes by performing at the International Soca Monarch, which is broadcast live on national TV and streamed on the internet. Calypso, meanwhile — soca’s more serious parent — is best heard at calypso tents, numerous competitions through the season, and at Dimanche Gras on Carnival Sunday.
This is the home of the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century, the steelpan. After the British colonial authorities banned the beating of African drums, the working class turned to the drums in which oil was stored. A highlight of the Carnival is Panorama, the battle of the steel orchestras for huge cash prizes and bragging rights. In the weeks before the finals, panyards across the country are filled with spectators and supporters listening to the players perfect their performance. The Queen’s Park Savanah’s Big Stage is the arena where the battle is fought.
More cherished festivals
Divali and Ramleela
This Hindu festival that signifies the triumph of good over evil is celebrated by the whole country, and everyone is welcome at the nightly lighting of deyas (clay pots with coconut oil and a wick), on often intricate bamboo designs in parks and East Indian communities. Some families and neighbourhoods go all out and the sight of thousands of deyas and coloured lights decorating homes is something to behold. Preparations and rituals typically last five days, but the main festival night coincides with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu calendar, usually between mid-October and mid-November. You will see families dressed in fabulous saris and shalwar kurtas on Divali night to light deyas and perform puja (prayers) to Lakshmi, the goddess of fertility and prosperity. Afterwards, fireworks often follow (especially at main sites like at the Divali Nagar in Chagauanas), then a feast with lots of curried vegetables and roti, with Indian sweets as dessert and takeaway. Ramleela is a nine-day, outdoor festival dramatising the life of Rama, with colourful costumes … and an explosive finale! The best-known productions are held in Couva and Felicity in the days leading up to Divali.
The exquisitely beautiful tadjahs that represent the tomb of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, make this festival a hit every year. Five tadjahs (made of bamboo, wood, paper and tinsel) are paraded through the streets of St James — and other sites around the country like Cedros, Couva, Curepe, and Tunapuna — in commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain in the year 680 AD. These miniature temples range in height from 3–6m/10–30ft. The procession is accompanied by the beating of tassa drums and two standards in the shape of half-moons — one red symbolising the blood of Hussain that was shed at Karbala, and one green for the poisoning of his brother Hassan. Observances takes place over three nights (Flag Night, Small Hosay, Big Hosay).
Bocas Lit Fest
With headliners like Jamaican Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) and our own Earl Lovelace (his Salt won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1997), the festival brings writers from around the region and further abroad for readings, performances, workshops, discussions and film screenings – all free and open to the public. Founded in 2011, and usually staged over the last week of April, the festival takes place at the National Library and the adjoining Old Fire Station in downtown Port of Spain. Booksellers’ stalls, space to eat plus open mic lunch hour sessions. Evening events at venues around the city. bocaslitfest.com
COCO Dance festival
Organised by the Contemporary Choreographers Collective, this annual festival (in October) brings together dancers and choreographers from around the region and North America to collaborate with the local dance communities, including students of the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Performances take place at venues around Port of Spain and on the streets, or the market…
T&T Film Festival
Local filmmakers get a chance to showcase their stuff at the annual T&T Film Festival, which usually takes place the third week in September and is the second largest film festival in the region. A packed schedule of shorts, features and documentaries from homegrown talent competes with regional filmmakers for the top prizes. Screenings at MovieTowne locations, UWI, and other venues during the festival, plus educational initiatives, development programmes, and community film screenings all year long. ttfilmfestival.com
The public holiday is celebrated on 1 August to commemorate the end of slavery in the British colonies (1838), but events take place before and after the big day. Enjoy art exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, performances (music, dance, and theatre), religious observances, trade shows, and a vibrant street procession. The Lidj Yasu Omowale Emancipation Village at the Queen’s Park Savannah is the centre of the activities. Emancipation Support Committee: 628-5008
Indian Arrival Day
This national public holiday (30 May) commemorates the arrival of the first indentured labourers from India on the Fatel Razack in 1845. More than 140,000 Indians were recruited over the next 70 years to work Trinidad’s plantations after Emancipation (1838). Communities re-enact the arrival of this first group on beaches around the country. There are also awards ceremonies; cultural shows and performances; religious services; and more. The Divali Nagar site just outside Chaguanas hosts many of the key celebrations. National Council of Indian Culture: 671-6242
La Divina Pastora & Siparee Mai
In a church of the same name in Siparia stands a dark-skinned statue of the Virgin Mary as La Divina Pastora (the Divine Shepherdess). Many miracles have been attributed to her by ardent devotees. For her feast day (the third Sunday after Easter), the “Miracle Mother” is decorated by Catholics with flowers, dressed in white, and processed through the streets, followed by celebrations open to all. On the Thursday night and Friday before Easter, Hindu pilgrims visit the church with acts of devotion — recognising her as Siparee Mai (mother of Siparia), Durga, and Lakshmi. Most of all, she is just “mother”. The church welcomes all wishing to pay their respects.
Each March, the Hindu community recognises the beginning of the Indian spring and the Hindu New Year in a joyful explosion of colour. Participants — Hindus and non-Hindus alike — spray each other with different shades of the vegetable dye abir. The Aranguez Savannah is a popular venue for this celebration of birth and renewal.
Best Village Competition
Culminating each September, this national competition keeps folk traditions alive in local communities as counties vie for various titles. Some of the nation’s finest performing arts professionals make their start here. The competition encompasses indigenous arts and crafts, Carnival traditions, cuisine, dance, drama, folklore and storytelling, music, sports, and the selection of a Best Village Queen, La Reine Rivé.
Santa Rosa Festival and First People’s Heritage Week
With origins in both Trinidad’s First Peoples and Catholic traditions, the Santa Rosa Festival in Arima commemorates the death of Santa Rosa de Lima, the Roman Catholic patron saint of the “New World”. It begins with the firing of a cannon on 1 August from Calvary Hill, and ends with a procession on the Sunday following the feast day of Santa Rosa (23 August). A statue of the saint is carried through the streets by members of the island’s Santa Rosa First Peoples Community (led by the Carib Queen), alongside Roman Catholics. Other observances include sharing traditional Amerindian foods, cultural and spiritual rituals and commemorations, as well as church services. In October, the Community celebrates First Peoples Heritage Week across the country, which includes academic conferences, ritual smoke and water ceremonies, street processions, and other events recognising and celebrating the island’s First Peoples. 664-1897
Written by Nazma Muller and Caroline Taylor