A brief history of Carnival
The history of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago can be read as a history of banned things. When the French arrived in the 1780s, they brought a tradition of pre-Lenten celebration, most visibly represented by masquerade balls.
The island’s economy and society was supported by slave labour, and those slaves were prohibited from joining such festivities, but developed their own parallel tradition of celebration. This was called “Canboulay” – a contraction of “cannes brulées”, meaning burnt cane – and was a manifestation of culture within the slave population that was discomfiting to the authorities.
The effort to ban or control past events is responsible for a great deal of modern Carnival. Various prohibitions on noise-making implements provided the spur for the innovation which is the steel pan. A ban on Sunday celebrations gave rise to the start-the-party-at-the-stroke-of-midnight tradition of J’Ouvert.
Hardwired into Carnival is an anti-authoritarian tradition of satire which persists to this day. Calypso lyrics often mock politicians and celebrities; every year, there are bands and costumes which parody or caricature current events or fashions.
In its modern incarnation, discussions of what public roads Carnival bands are allowed to use, and for how long, are perhaps the most obvious continuation of a long tradition of the festival not quite obliging the government instinct for social order.
A Pre-Carnival calendar
As Carnival approaches, each night is increasingly crowded with parties. Some will be free celebrations of current music, most will carry a cover charge, many appeal to a specific audience. The primary purpose of a fete is to have fun: the best will attract the most popular singers and bands of the moment who move between the various parties with near-unvarying enthusiasm.
If you want to get acquainted with the songs that will be played during Carnival itself, and the preferred dance moves of the moment, there is no better way than to attend a fete.
There are two main types of fete:
- Cooler Fete: so called because the crowd is encouraged to bring its own supplies. Cooler fetes will usually have lower ticket prices than all-inclusive affairs, and the lines outside will be punctuated by plastic coolers. LARGE coolers. If a fete starts at 9 pm, the headliners may not take the stage until the early hours of the morning. Dancing is thirsty work. This type of fete attracts food vendors of all kinds, providing fuel for the dancing and a balance to the drink.
- All-Inclusive Fete: your ticket price should include an unlimited supply of certain drinks (beer, rum, sodas and juices), and will often stretch to food as well.
Pan yards and Panorama
The steelpan is Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument, and its history is closely tied to that of Carnival. Panorama is the instrument’s annual national competition. It comprises several categories, from individual pan players to large bands, arguably the most spectacular exponents of the steelpan’s range.
Most steelbands have their own pan yards. These are rehearsal spaces, usually open-air. If you are in Trinidad or Tobago, at a time in proximity to Carnival, and you hear steelpan music – you are most likely hearing a steelband practicing in a pan yard. Pan yards are generally open for passers-by to watch and listen. The bands won’t take requests, but applause at the end of a well-rendered session is appropriate and appreciated.
Throughout the season, Panorama judges visit the pan yards and determine which bands are performing best in each category. This culminates in the Panorama final, at the Savannah in Port of Spain, usually staged over a couple of evenings close to the advent of Carnival. The biggest bands will typically be heard on the Saturday before Carnival. Some spectators opt for tickets to sit in the stands and hear the bands as the judges do, and others choose “the track”, where the bands wait to go on stage, and perform their final warm-ups and rehearsals.
A couple of weekends before the finals, the Savannah is taken over by a larger grouping of steelbands for the semi-finals. This is a bigger social event on the Carnival calendar than the finals. There are more bands present, and it takes more time for the judging to be completed. Counter-intuitively, this makes the semi-finals more conducive to an afternoon lime than the finals which typically start, and finish, after dark.
Buy tickets for the stands or head for the track, watch the bands setting up, listen to a rehearsal or two, enjoy food and drink provided by the vendors lining the area where the bands wait for their turn to be judged. The Panorama semi-finals see arguably the world’s largest concentration of steelbands, playing to the highest conceivable standard – and on the track, their music can be enjoyed for free.
Stick fighting finals
Stick fighting, sometimes called Kalinda, is one of the oldest traditions of Carnival dating back to the first descriptions of Canboulay. As with many of the older practices associated with the festival, it was once prohibited.
It is still illegal to simply beat another person with a stick, but the art of stick fighting has been revived and is celebrated in an annual competition. The preliminary rounds can be hard to find, but the final is usually a week or two prior to Carnival and promoted in the local press.
Re-enactment of Canboulay riots
At 5 o’clock in the morning on the Friday before Carnival, a theatrical re-enactment of the 1881 Canboulay Riots takes place in Port of Spain. The original play depicted the squaring off between the gangs of stick fighters of the area and the police. It now includes a pageant of traditional characters with an excellent script that explains important historic and cultural underpinnings of Carnival.
Arrive early to be assured a vantage point. The street quickly becomes crowded once the performance is underway.
Traditional Mas parades and competitions
There are many ways to play mas for Carnival. Some of the costumes and characters seen on the road can be traced back to the earliest accounts of the event, and have their roots in teasing the local gentry of the day.
This is traditional mas – the living history of Carnival – and it is rarely represented in thousand-strong bands at the main event. The best opportunity to see the fullest range of traditional mas is perhaps at the small parades and competitions dedicated to one or more of the various types of character, and usually staged in the week preceding Carnival.
Junior parade of bands
At “Kiddies’ Carnival”, the nation’s children get their own event. Children’s bands are an important part of the overall festival, not just to acquaint the next generation with the traditions of their elders, but it also often functions as a proving ground for the creative talents – the band designers – who develop the costumes which define the celebration.
There are children’s Carnival parades on both days of the weekend preceding Carnival, as well as the prior week.
Soca Monarch Finals
Soca has taken over from calypso as the dominant musical form of Carnival season. There are more technical distinctions, but for the most part the way to tell the difference between soca and calypso is simple: if it’s a hit, it’s soca.
The most popular songs of the season, and their performers, generally appear at a climactic event on the Friday before Carnival: the Soca Monarch Finals. Several dozen songs will be performed live – and the event is also televised – with a winner (or two – there are currently two categories) crowned by the early hours of the morning.
The competition is as much about the performance as the music, so expect to see the favourites jostling to outdo each other with stage presentations that occasionally channel the energy and spectacle of an entire concert into just one song.
The Sunday before Carnival features a formal presentation of two of the central elements of the festival – calypso and costumes.
Not to be confused with the Soca Monarch finals, the Dimanche Gras show includes a competition for the best calypsos of the year. These songs are usually more lyrically-driven than their soca counterparts, though a thorough knowledge of Trinidadian history and politics is required to judge the calibre of mockery, set-downs and humour.
Carnival – revels without rest
Carnival itself comprises three parts: Monday, Tuesday, and Las’ Lap. Here is a short guide to navigating the festivities:
A contraction of the French “jour ouvert” – usually taken to mean day-break in this context – J’ouvert is the official kick-off to Carnival.
It used to begin at midnight on Carnival Monday, the first legally allowed expression of street celebration during a time in Trinidad’s history which barred Carnival antics from impinging on the Sabbath. More recently, J’ouvert’s start time has been pushed back to around 3am or 4am, allowing for two or three hours of revelry in the dark, and another few hours of dancing through dawn into daylight.
As a spectacle, J’ouvert bands tend to organise around one theme: messiness. Mud, paint, a paste made of cocoa powder: there are many ways to achieve the authentic look of a J’ouvert band. Whatever it is, it should be abundantly available for throwing, splashing and rubbing on oneself and one’s fellow revellers.
Ostensibly, J’ouvert is Carnival at its simplest: having fun. It doesn’t matter what you wear, you will look much like everyone around you very shortly after the music starts.
Dance until daylight, and then go home to shower and prepare for the next phase of the day.
The first day of parades is often treated as an (un)dress rehearsal by the larger bands. Costumes can take a beating during a full day of dancing and drinking in the sun, so the fanciest dress is often held back for Tuesday. Revellers on Monday often hit the streets with just part of their Carnival outfit, opting for t-shirts (usually band-issued, so uniformity of appearance is at least preserved) or refraining from unveiling the most delicate flourishes (feathers, headpieces) until the following day.
Conversely, for smaller bands, often those opting to play traditional mas, Monday can be the time to shine. The party bands are less visible, allowing more space for the other types of mas to make their statement.
All the bands participating come out in full costume. J’ouvert hangovers are yesterday’s news. There are Carnival celebrations all over Trinidad and Tobago, but many of the smaller towns will have their big parade on Monday, freeing up Tuesday for people to head to Port of Spain to join or watch the festivities in the capital.
Not an official part of the calendar. Officially, everyone is back to work on Ash Wednesday. But many people need, and deserve, a day off after two days of relentless frolicking.
The “last lap”, the final chance to stretch out the season for as long as possible, can take many forms: picnics, fetes, relaxed concerts. And such events aren’t restricted to Wednesday. Local papers will carry details of the places you can go to get that your final serving of Carnival.
How to get involved
Many people come to Carnival simply to watch. If, however, you want to join a band, it is a simple process. Many of the bigger bands will have websites dedicated to describing their theme and costumes for the festival. If you are in Trinidad a week or two before Carnival, consider stopping by a mas camp: a Carnival band’s headquarters. There you will find members of the band at work creating costumes, but also able to describe what the band is doing and how you can get involved.
J’ouvert bands and Carnival bands tend to operate as separate entities – but there are bands offering all-encompassing experiences.
Regardless of the band’s size or style, you can join most for a fee. The fee may be for little more than a simple costume and the privilege of belonging to that group, or it can include food, drink, transport, security, access to pre- and post-Carnival parties. Don’t be afraid to shop around.
FYI: Types of Mas
The costumes based on traditions often stretching back to Carnival’s beginnings.
The Dame Lorraine, for example, is a caricature. She will usually be elegantly dressed in a neck-to-toe gown, eyes and nose masked, often carrying a parasol. But the most noticeable parts of the costume are the exaggerated bosom and posterior, vigorously oscillating to the music of the moment. This is a parody of the ladies attending the high-society balls typical of the season back in colonial days, although it can equally serve as the basis for more current satirical commentary.
Traditional mas is increasingly being re-recognised as an artform in its own right, with parades and competitions for specific types of costume held throughout the week preceding Carnival, to ensure the masqueraders appropriate respect for their work. There’s a recent trend of younger designers and participants who are re-interpreting some of the old costumes and the statements they made and putting them back on show.
The term is both complimentary (the costumes are visually pleasing) and occasionally derisive (“pretty” as a euphemism for vacuous). The party bands are the usual standard-bearers of pretty mas: bikinis, beads, feathers, sequins, glitter – often as sparingly applied as standards of public decency will allow. The human form is the centrepiece of pretty mas, and your tolerance for near-nudity will generally define your appreciation of the aesthetic.
There are, however, nearly as many varieties of this more modern approach to the festival as there are traditional mas characters. Several bands have emerged in recent years offering high-fashion inspired takes on the genre, with a standard of tailoring and design usually assumed to be absent from the bikini-and-beads bands.
Written by Anu Lakhan and Austin Fido