Jamette consciousness: introducing Trinidad Carnival
You’ll hear it in virtually every soca song: “Carnival is bacchanal” — which it is, on many levels. It’s also called “the greatest show on earth” — though a more accurate description might be “the world’s greatest street party”, or the “Mother of all West Indian style Carnivals”.
But the Carnival has always had a subversive streak. Jamette (from the French diametre, or “line of respectability”) was a term used by the French and British in colonial times to describe the “under-class” and the perceived violence, lewdness and dirtiness of their Carnival activities. These days, it is still used to describe “bad behaviour” of all kinds, and to describe women who assert the freedom to cross the line of “respectability”. (Learn more about Carnival’s origins here)
A large part of Trinidad Carnival is about abandon and confrontation, an anti-authoritarian movement subverting all that inhibits and represses. So what you’ll find is a strange, testy negotiation between organisation and mayhem, rules and anarchy. And that hot and sweaty, drunk and disorderly, loud and wassy space in the middle is bliss for some, purgatory for others!
Love it or hate it, it is a uniquely Trinidadian experience you are unlikely to forget. Are you ready for the road? You cyah play mas and ‘fraid powder!
The wining season
Carnival fetes: doing it like a boss
Several fetes (parties) are on each weekend until Carnival — especially after New Year — with different vibes, styles, production values and target audiences. “Cooler fetes” are more affordable, and require you bring (or buy) your own supplies. Swankier all-inclusives offer food and drink in the (higher) ticket price. The most in-demand fetes attract the biggest soca acts, who perform live. A staple for feters is also the Soca Monarch finals (Friday before Carnival), a combination of party and competition, where some of the top local and regional soca stars compete for the International Soca Monarch crown.
Shows & concerts
Plenty of events crop up around Carnival, from the last vestiges of calypso tents, to intimate concert events (like Under the Trees) featuring local stars and legends; to huge concerts produced by some of soca’s biggest names (like Machel Montano, KES, Iwer George, and Destra Garcia) and party promoters (like Battle of the Sexes and Ladies Night Out); and more theatrical events like 3canal’s annual Carnival show.
Pan yards & Panorama
Lovers of the steelpan will do the pan yard crawl in the weeks before Carnival, to hear their favourite bands practising for Panorama. The bigger bands are adjudicated on site first, with the successful groups moving on to the pan semis (two weekends before Carnival), and then to the Panorama finals (Saturday before Carnival; single-pan and small bands compete in the days before). Both events are typically at the Queen’s Park Savannah, offering several experiences: the seats of the Grand Stand (facing the bands) and North Stand (looking at the back of the bands); the drag or track along which bands make their way to the Savannah stage, practising and fine-tuning as they go; and, for the semis, the controversial “Greens”, which is more a party than a pan-oriented experience. Pan Trinbago: pantrinbago.co.tt.
More competitions & mini-festivals
There are countless competitions for Carnival’s myriad artforms (National Carnival Commission: ncctt.org):
- calypso in various styles, including the entirely improvised extempo, and culminating in the Dimanche Gras event the Sunday before Carnival. Junior crowns are also up for grabs
- king and queen of the bands (spectacular individual costumes, junior and senior)
- Kiddies Carnival (with some of the best designs of the season)
- events with traditional and historical emphases, including the Canboulay Riots Re-enactment (Friday before Carnival), and mini-festivals where traditional Carnival mas characters take centre stage
- Champs in Concert (a post-Carnival event featuring all the season’s winners).
The reign of the Merry Monarch begins. From 4am on Carnival Monday morning, the streets swell with people playing “dutty mas”, covered in oil, grease, paint, mud, cocoa, clay … Traditional bands feature characters like jab jabs, blue devils, and bats, or create “ole mas” costumes with stinging socio-political messages. Less traditional bands offer revellers T-shirts that they can mix and match as they please.
Carnival Monday & Tuesday
Monday doesn’t really get going till about midday, as the J’ouvert revellers recover. Many bands now have “Monday wear”, so few are in full costume, and may be more lenient around security and “crashers”. On Tuesday, things start as early as 7am, as bands head for the big stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah or the Socadrome (Jean Pierre Complex). They are now in full costume: the streets are colour in motion. Though the biggest celebrations are in Port of Spain, they also happen on the streets of major towns and villages nationwide.
A Monday alternative: Paramin
Up in the hills of Paramin, just outside Port of Spain, an immersive Carnival tradition offers an alternative — or a complement — to mainstream Monday mas activities. As the sun gets ready to set (after 5pm), the blue devil competition sees bands of hard-core devils swarm onto Fatima Junction, beating biscuit tins, breathing fire, and demanding payment from the crowd (“pay de devil” is the chant).
Play a mas: how to join in
Want to play mas? Unless it’s one of the bands with restricted access and you don’t have a direct contact (yes, there are those), you can simply search for a band online, choose the one you want (sites like trinidadcarnivaldiary.com are useful for info), and often purchase your costume right on their website. The same goes for many J’ouvert bands, and some Carnival fete and event tickets. There is a wide range of prices and options. And if you really love mas, visit the mas camps of bands with kings and queens in competition — it’s an unforgettable experience to see these epic creations being constructed.
Carnival in context
The roots of Trinidad Carnival stretch back to the 1780s and 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, which have evolved and been recreated on Trinidadian soil for over 200 years. Here’s a Carnival glossary.
- Band: a costumed band parading for Carnival, or a steelband
- Calypso: indigenous Trinidadian music, with roots in West African songs of praise and mockery. Traditionally associated with satire, humour, comedy, attack and defiance
- Canboulay Riots: 1881 Carnival-time uprising against British colonial authorities
- Dimanche Gras: production on Carnival Sunday night, including the Calypso Monarch competition
- Limbo: sacred folk dance indigenous to Trinidad, once performed at wakes in African communities; the lower the dancer could go, the higher the spirit of the dead could ascend
- Mas: short form of masquerade
- Mas camp: home and workshop of a masquerade band
- Road march: the song played most often at judging points on Monday and Tuesday
- Traditional/Ol’ mas characters: well-known Carnival costumed “characters” such as the Dame Lorraine (a man in a dress with stuffed bosom and bottom, satirising bulky colonial matrons), the ominous Midnight Robber with his grandiloquent speeches, and the talkative Pierrot Grenade.