Trinidad Carnival — the perfect itinerary | Roundtable

The depth and breadth of Trinidad’s Carnival activities can overwhelm anyone wanting to immerse themselves in the culture and the festivities. Our roundtable discussion with Maria Nunes, Nigel Campbell, Penelope Spencer, Franka Philip, and Ardene Sirjoo will help you develop your perfect itinerary

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.

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 practice 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. I’d recommend going to the stickfighting preliminaries which takes place in locations like Moruga.

Tracey Sankar Erzulie La Diablesse. Photo by Maria Nunes

Tracey Sankar portrays Erzulie the La Diablesse. Photo by Maria Nunes

The week before Carnival:

  • The Old Yard: UWI Creative Arts, St Augustine (Sunday before Carnival Sunday)
  • Traditional Mas Competition (Woodbrook, Wednesday)
  • Stickfighting Finals: TBD
  • Kambule (or Canboulay): Piccadilly Greens, Carnival Friday
  • Dragon Festival: Prince Street, Carnival Friday
  • Junior Carnival Parade: Downtown POS, Carnival Saturday
  • Blue Devil Competition: Paramin, Carnival Monday.

NIGEL CAMPBELL: “Trinidad Carnival is not a spectator sport but a participatory event, or a series of participatory events.” That dictum posited elsewhere is the first lesson to ingrain if one is to be a Carnival explorer. It is also a series of competitions, but that is another story altogether. Carnival is fun, and that is what matters most, learning fun and living fun. For starters, get here early, at least a week before the two big days of Monday and Tuesday. The first thing to dip into is the rite of passage of the panyard crawl. These practice spaces are alive with a moving audience sampling the sessions of performance and rote learning towards the Panorama Final competition. Drink in hand, and maybe a maxi taxi to travel with friends, gives one the taste of that steelband sound.

Invaders Steel Orchestra performs at Panorama. Photo by Edison Boodoosingh

Invaders Steel Orchestra performs at Panorama. Photo by Edison Boodoosingh

To discover the elements that went into the evolution of Carnival in Trinidad, trekking on the other side of the jam would be a wiser choice. Grab a bunch of friends and a local too, and make sure you have a car and designated driver. In between the parties, a quiet reflection on tradition is necessary to get a fuller understanding of why we do this thing called mas. These traditions are kept up by patriotic souls who carry on traditions handed down anecdotally. These traditions, as noted before, are the responses, musically and theatrically, by the African-Caribbean population in the islands to slavery, freedom and colonialism. Caribbean Beat magazine has many articles that offer a wide perspective on Carnival and how to go native. The January/February 2017 issue in particular has a series of stories called “Carnival is Mine” that offers a great first impression for first-timers.

The Old Yard. Photo by Jason Audain

The Old Yard. Photo by Jason Audain

A calendar of events to guide your discovery:

  • Stickfighting finals typically happen on the Wednesday before Carnival in the southern town of Point Fortin. This combative display also showcases the precursor to steelband music, the tamboo bamboo bands, and the chantuelles chanting in the gayelle. On that same night, the traditional individual Carnival characters compete in Port of Spain. This is what mas was before the invasion of bikinis, beads, and feathers. These events are miles apart, so choose wisely!
  • The re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots is a historical street theatre production early on the Friday before Carnival that approximates a critical incident that was the catalyst for the recognition by the society that Carnival was here to stay. The emancipated masses were cementing their stamp on the tradition of Carnival.
  • On Carnival Monday morning, the ritual of J’Ouvert is performed. Mud, oil, and a pair of throw-away sneakers are necessary. And plenty water. Chipping to music until sunrise is not for the weak of heart, but a necessary elixir to understand the Carnival.
  • On Carnival Monday evening, in the remote hills of Paramin above the environs of Maraval, the blue devils of the jab molassie mas have their parade. Walk with some dollars and prepared to get painted — or scared.
  • Carnival Monday, one could opt to move away from Port of Spain and discover more traditional Carnival and their rituals in the more than 50 masquerades throughout the island that maintain traditions more than a century old.
Blue devils in Paramin. Photo by Chris Anderson

Blue devils in Paramin. Photo by Chris Anderson

PENELOPE SPENCER: It should look something like this: visits to pan yards and mas tents (Phase II pan yard is a must); the Old Yard (an event held at UWI where you get to experience and interact with Trinbago ole time mas characters); a 3canal show; Panorama semis; Ladies Night Out; at least one all-inclusive party; J’Ouvert with 3canal; and Tuesday mas with Exodus steelband and Peter Minshall, or with K2K (a medium band), or lost Tribe or Fantasy (large bands).

Masqueraders from K2K Alliance & Partners, Medium Band of the Year cross the Savannah stage on Carnival Tuesday. Photo by Rapso Imaging

Masqueraders from K2K Alliance & Partners, Medium Band of the Year cross the Savannah stage on Carnival Tuesday. Photo by Rapso Imaging

FRANKA PHILIP & ARDENE SIRJOO: Stickfighting; 3canal show; calypso category competitions (extempo, social commentary, most humorous etc); traditional characters competitions and parades; Carnival Kings & Queens competition; pan yards (every night leading up to finals); and Panorama finals.

3 Canal J'Ouvert. Photo by Elliot Francois

3 Canal J’Ouvert. Photo by Elliot Francois

Spotight: J’Ouvert

J’Ouvert. J’ouvert. Jouvay. However you choose to spell it, this is a unique, foundational tradition in the Trinidad Carnival space. Our rountable shares their tips on how to experience it!

MARIA: 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. 

FRANKA & ARDENE: Options are endless, but it depends on the experience you’re after. If you’re looking for an all-inclusive road party in the dark with paint, check out Dirty Dozens (a younger crowd); Cocoa Devils (more mature crown); Friends for the Road (mixed ages). For something a little more raw, traditional, dutty, with a mix of live music and DJ plus riddim truck, AND if you care to cross the big Savannah stage in all your painted glory, definitely try 3canal. Walk with cash to patronise road-side vendors!

PENNIE: Definitely, 3canal J’Ouvert is the best — safe and very creative. The band takes off from their location in Woodbrook with live music, along with a rhythm section and DJ music. This band doesn’t venture into the city, which I love… if you’re into pan music, Phase II steelband has a wonderful J’Ouvert experience with a mature crowd and mellow vibes while chipping to pan.

J'Ouvert morning in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo: Chris Anderson

J’Ouvert morning in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo: Chris Anderson

About our Roundtable 

Photo courtesy Nigel Campbell

Photo courtesy Nigel Campbell

Nigel Campbell

Nigel is a music businessman who writes for newspapers and magazines,  including Caribbean Beat (, doing music reviews and covering the music business. He is a producer and promoter of Jazz Artists on the Greens (, publishes Jazz in the Islands magazine (, and co-hosts the Music Matters podcast (, which looks at the music industry in the Caribbean.

Photo courtesy Maria Nunes

Photo courtesy Maria Nunes

Maria Nunes

Maria is a photographer who specialises in the documentation of cultural heritage. She’s deeply interested in our history, and uses her camera to have conversations about history — to meet people she might ordinarily not get to know, and to explore the diversity and complexity of who we are in T&T. Her book In a world of their own is available at bookshops, and at

Photo courtesy Frank Phillip and Ardene Sirjoo

Photo courtesy Frank Phillip and Ardene Sirjoo

Franka Philip and Ardene Sirjoo

Franka and Ardene both enjoy developing and executing interesting creative projects. Their backgrounds in media and general curiosity led them to co-found Trini Good Media, including the podcast Talk ‘Bout Us and OpedTT, which curates opinion writing. Franka is an experienced journalist who’s worked at the BBC World Service and Guardian Media, and writes the Cookup column for Caribbean Beat. Ardene co-hosts the popular radio programme The Mandate on i95.5FM, is a frequent event host and moderator, and works with the Bocas Literary Festival as the media and marketing coordinator.

Photo courtesy Penelope Spencer

Photo courtesy Penelope Spencer

Penelope Spencer

Pennie has worked in the entertainment industry for over 30 years as an actor, writer, director, teacher, producer, television host, and casting agent. She co-hosts OMG Live on Facebook and The Sisterhood on TV6; and is the artistic director of Necessary Arts School/Productions. She recently completed her first children’s book with Lylah Persad, Tales from the forest.

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