CAROLINE TAYLOR: Carnival is in many ways the island’s most important festival. For someone who’s never experienced it before, how would you sum it up?
MARIA NUNES: Carnival is so multi-faceted and experienced by people in so many different ways. Many people limit their experience to just the party element, but there’s so much more to Carnival. It’s very difficult to sum it up because it means different things to different people. For me, Carnival is about an indescribable energy, a spirit that’s somehow in our DNA. The heart and soul of Carnival come to their fullest expression in the street on the actual days of Carnival. Taking over the street is an essential part of the Carnival experience. You get to release so much through the music, through the rituals. If you’re willing to really let go, it’s truly cathartic.
CT: There are so many traditions to explore within the Carnival season, from pan to traditional mas to stickfighting. How would you recommend someone compose their Carnival itinerary?
MN: There is so much to experience in such a short amount of time. I’d say the intensity really ramps up two weeks before Carnival with Panorama semis. The atmosphere on what we call the drag or the track where the bands practise and play their final warm up before they go on stage is such a wonderful way to get close to the pans and the players. It’s special. The Wednesday after pan semis head to the St James Amphitheatre for the Traditional Mas competition organised by the St James Cultural Committee. It’s free and it’s is a great event for children.
Just before Carnival:
- The Old Yard: UWI Creative Arts Centre, St Augustine (two Sundays before Carnival)
- Traditional Mas Competition (Woodbrook, Wednesday)
- Stickfighting (preliminaries in locations like Moruga, and finals TBD)
- Kambule (or Canboulay): Piccadilly Greens, Carnival Friday
- Dragon Festival: Prince Street, Carnival Friday
- Junior Carnival Parade: Downtown Port of Spain, Carnival Saturday
- Blue Devil Competition: Paramin, Carnival Monday.
CT: J’Ouvert is a profound experience. For the uninitiated, how would you describe it to them?
MN: There’s something indescribable about the J’Ouvert tradition of covering your entire body in mud and heading out into the street with a steelband or a rhythm section at 4am. Everyone should experience it at least once in that traditional form. It’s truly a ritual of renewal.
CT: Of course, there are many other festivals year-round. Which ones are the most special for you, and why? Which ones would you recommend people experience at least once in their lifetimes?
MN: I’d say that everyone should attend the First Peoples Heritage Week activities at least once in their lifetime — the water and smoke ceremonies in Arima, along with the procession around the Red House where the remains of First Peoples ancestors were discovered in 2013. Experiencing parang in Paramin is really special. It’s a place everyone should go at least once.
In addition to that:
- Obatala Festival — January (Ita Oosa, Woodbrook)
- Annual Ancestral (Egungun) Festival — February (Ile Isokan, Febeau Village, San Juan)
- Phagwa — February/March (Hindu Prachaar Kendra, Longdenville, and also around the island)
- Emancipation Day parade — 1 August (Independence Square, Port of Spain)
- Annual Emancipation Steelband Street Parade — first Saturday in August (Laventille Steelband Festival Foundation, Eastern Main Road, Laventille)
- Pan on d’ Avenue — August (Ariapita Avenue, Woodbrook)
- First Peoples Heritage Week — October (Santa Rosa, Arima)
- Divali — November (Felicity, Chaguanas, and around the island)
- Parang festival — December (Paramin).
CT: What for you are the island’s finest heritage sites, that you’d recommend locals and visitors absolutely take in?
MN: The Temple in the Sea at Waterloo… Take the time to walk through and around Woodford Square (Port of Spain), and make sure to go to see Carlisle Chang’s masterpiece Conquerabia at City Hall. It’s one of our overlooked public art treasures. Take a guided tour through Paramin. Visit Lopinot House (the former estate house), and get a guided tour through the area. I’d like to recommend going to Banwari Trace…but it’s not yet set up properly…
About Maria Nunes
I’m a photographer who specialises in the documentation of cultural heritage. I’m deeply interested in our history and in using photography as a way of learning what you can’t find in books. I see my camera as a way of having conversations about history. Photography is the means through which I meet people I might ordinarily not get the opportunity to know. It’s how I educate myself and explore the diversity and complexity of who we are in T&T.
Maria’s book In a world of their own is available at bookshops, and at robertandchristopher.com.