We tend to agree that “the greatest show on earth” is a cliché that doesn’t really describe Trinidad’s Carnival at its core… A more accurate term capturing the revellery of Carnival Monday and Tuesday might be “the world’s greatest street party!”
But if you’re new to Trinidad Carnival, know that most everything else you’ve heard about it is true. Yes, people dance and party in the streets for two days straight. People let loose for weeks before the dancing and partying in the streets on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Yes, it’s the mother of West Indian-style carnivals throughout the Americas and beyond. You can get a taste of the experience in New York, Toronto, London and other Caribbean strongholds the world over, but you won’t know true Trini Carnival experience until you return to the source. And yes, love it or hate it, it is a uniquely Trinidadian experience you are unlikely to forget.
The origins of Trinidad Carnival date back to the 1780s and lie in a unique interaction between Africa and Europe. The descendants of West African slaves and French planters both brought their traditions of masking and street processions across the Atlantic, and have evolved and been recreated on Trinidadian soil for over 200 years. From intimate masked balls and sugar cane harvest processions during the colonial era, it has evolved in to a world-class festival with more events during the course of the Carnival season than anyone could even hope to attend. Click here for more on the birth and evolution of the festival.
De winin’ season
They call it the soca switch. It used to be from Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) that radio stations across the islands would switch from Christmas music (or whatever they were playing) to Carnival music. But these days, with Carnival band launchings starting as early as July, and soca artists unveiling their big Carnival tunes months before at carnivals in the diaspora, it seems that Carnival is ever-present. It’s no wonder, then, Trinidadians are accused of having a “Carnival mentality”.
Nevertheless, it’s after Christmas that Carnival fêtes featuring the biggest soca stars begin in earnest. The radio and television airwaves are dominated by the latest soca, calypso and pan tunes, while would-be masqueraders embark on gruelling fitness regimens to build up their stamina and physiques for the wining season.
This is also when the competitions begin for steelbands, calypsonians, soca singers, limbo dancers, stickfighters, costume designers, traditional Carnival characters, and Carnival Kings and Queens. These showcase the best practitioners of our Carnival arts.
Warming up: the week before
The excitement builds the week before Carnival, with wall-to-wall fêtes, events and competitions. Early on “Fantastic Friday” morning, stickfighters, moko jumbies and a cast of actors and dancers descend on east Port of Spain to re-enact the Canboulay Riots. In the early afternoon, traditional Carnival characters take the spotlight in Port of Spain. And as 9pm hits, some of the biggest soca stars begin to vie for the Soca Monarch crowns.
The streets belong to the children on Carnival Saturday for Kiddies Carnival at the Savannah; some of the finest costume designs are seen right there. Once night falls, steelbands clash at Panorama, the greatest showcase for the instrument anywhere in the world.
Sunday – Dimanche Gras – is reserved for two of the hallmarks of Carnival: the breathtaking costumes of would-be Kings and Queens of Carnival, and the race for the Calypso Monarch crown.
The climax: Carnival Monday & Tuesday
From 4am Monday morning, scores of people chip and slither through the streets of the country’s cities, covered in paint, grease and mud. This is J’ouvert, with traditional Carnival characters like jab jabs, blue devils, and bats, alongside those in outrageous costumes – or just old clothes. Once the sun comes up, most stagger into bed to sleep off the high (natural or induced). This is J’ouvert:
Around 11am the action picks up again as thousands flock into Port of Spain to meet their band (or the one they intend to crash). Almost no one is in full costume, though – the joy is in just being in the streets, with music and merriment continuing well after dark.
Tuesday starts early, and bands typically dance along specific routes between judging posts, where adjudicators choose the next Band of the Year.
Some with less energy crash at sundown, but others keep following the huge music trucks until Last Lap. It is only then, or perhaps on the beach the next day (a post-Carnival tradition), that you can finally permit sleep to come.