Trinidad & Tobago Carnival – The Greatest Show on Earth!
On the 27th -28th February, 2017 my home country, Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), celebrated Carnival – our most spectacular annual national festival. Second only to Brazil in terms of sheer size, the Carnival season in T&T begins the day after Christmas and culminates in a wild 2-day street parade that takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in February or March, just before Lent. T&T Carnival is not only a celebration of costumes and revelry but also the creativity, culture and history of our diverse nation. A Newbie’s Guide to Trinidad & Tobago Carnival, will help all first-timers learn about how we celebrate this fantastic festival every year!
Carnival was brought to T&T in the 18th century by the ruling French elite who settled in the country after the exit of the Spanish. The French brought with them their cultural traditions, language, and dress. One annual tradition included masquerade balls and parties – called fetes, at the plantation owners’ houses. These balls required guests to dress in elaborate costumes and disguises. The African slaves who were forbidden from participating in these events, celebrated in their own quarters – mocking their masters’ behaviour and dress, which led to the creation of some of the earliest traditional forms of masquerade or ‘mas’ for short. Let’s take a look at some popular ones below!
The Dame Lorraine
This character imitates the 18th-century French planters who would dress in the styles of the French aristocracy. The slaves re-created these costumes using available materials, exaggerating the dress and proportions of the French ladies.
Jab Jabs & Jab Molassie
The word Jab is French patois for Diable (Devil), and Molassie is derived from Mélasse (Molasses). These are 2 forms of devil ‘mas’ played at Carnival time. The costume consists of cut-off shorts, horns, chains with locks and keys and a pitchfork. Bodies are covered in mud, black grease, or red and blue dyes. The devils dance to rhythms beat on tin pans by imps. An imp holds the chain and tries to restrain the Jab Jab as he intimidates and terrorizes spectators with his screams and fierceness!
Wild and Fancy Indians
This mas is based on the native tribes of North America. The Wild Indians dress in leather and animal skins.
The Fancy Indians dress in costumes with brightly coloured feathers.
My favourite traditional form, the moko jumbie is a West African creation portrayed by masqueraders mounted on stilts up to 12 ft. high. The word Moko is derived from an African god and Jumbie means ghost. Image Source: Maria Nunes 2017 Photography.
As I mentioned, the Carnival season begins right after Christmas, up to the parade days on Monday and Tuesday. During this time, you can participate in a range of activities. Music lovers can enjoy visits to various steelpan yards around the capital city, Port-of-Spain, and attend the Panorama competition – a battle of the top steelpan bands in the country. There are also competitions for local music art forms such as calypso, chutney and soca.
History buffs can attend the re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots of 1881, at Piccadilly on the Greens, Port of Spain on the Friday before Carnival Monday. This event showcases the origins of the Carnival street parade. Canboulay (Cannes Brulees), signifies the period of burning sugarcane during slavery. Visitors can view a skit depicting the clashes between colonial security forces and the parade participants. Stick fighting, jab jabs and African dance and drumming are also shown.
Major costume competitions before the Carnival Monday and Tuesday parades include the Kings and Queens of Carnival and Kiddies Carnival. See below for shots of the Carnival Queens and Kings Competition by talented local photographer and my friend, Damian Luk Pat !
Party animals can choose from a wide range of Carnival parties called fetes to attend. These fetes range from all-inclusives – where you have premium food and drinks for a set price or fun cooler parties where you walk with your own drinks in a cooler, no glass bottles allowed. Trinidad Carnival Diary provides a comprehensive guide to help you choose the fetes of your choice, including tips on how to dress!
Learn to dance! Practice “wining”i.e. gyrating your hips and bum to soca music. You’ll feel sexy and your significant other will thank you as well. For a fun demo click here!
Come Join the Fun!
J’ouvert , from the French (jour-day, ouvert-open) meaning daybreak, marks the official start of the 2-day Carnival street parade that starts at 2am and ends after sunrise. Revelers smear their bodies in mud, clay, chocolate and coloured paints and dance to the soca and calypso music. Your package would include a band tee-shirt that you can customize anyway you want. See the video below from the band Clay J’ouvert for a taste of the action! A list of popular bands can be found here. If you think you have what it takes to play J’ouvert, clean up, then head out to the Monday parade at 10am, power to you!
Do I wear my entire costume on Carnival Monday?
Traditionally no. The full kit is worn on Carnival Tuesday. Many bands issue what is called “Monday wear” to their masqueraders in addition to the full costume. If your band does not give you any, ladies can always wear parts of the main costume with a pair of sequinned/metallic hot shorts. Guys can wear the costume shorts and vest. Alternatively, you can purchase designer Monday wear to rock on the day! Check out Trinidad Carnival Diary for ideas.
Tuesday is THE big day! Everyone is in full costume and looking fabulous. Bands gather their masqueraders from as early as 6am at selected meeting points and make their way to the main stages at the Queens Park Savannah and Socadrome to parade in front of the world. The costume presentations are judged by panels at various locations around the city to determine which company will win the Band of the Year title. If you are driving, I recommend parking at the Movietowne cineplex, then making your way to the Socadrome and Ariapita Avenue to view the bands passing by!
If you can’t make it for the entire Carnival season, do try to make it in time for Carnival Monday and Tuesday!
- Book your flight up to 6-7 months in advance! Fly directly to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad from major hubs such as JFK New York, Miami, Orlando, Houston, Toronto and London Gatwick airports.
- Book your accommodation at major hotels in Port-of-Spain such as the Hyatt Regency, Trinidad Hilton, Kapok Hotel, Courtyard Marriot, Radisson OR use Air B&B and Tripadvisor to scout for inns and bed ‘n’ breakfasts around Port-of-Spain, close to the action! Note: accommodation tends to be booked solid from as early as April of the previous year!
- Familiarize yourself with soca music! Popular DJs such as Private Ryan, provide mixes on Youtube. Also, look up music from artists such as Machel Montano, Destra, Fay Ann Lyons, Bunji Garlin and Kes
- Choose a Carnival band and your costume! Bands launch their presentations according to a particular theme, from July for the next year. Top bands include Bliss, Harts, Tribe, Yuma, Fantasy and Passion. Bands usually make collection arrangements for foreign masqueraders so have no fear!
- Get your diet and fitness in gear! You will need stamina to keep up with the parties, dancing, “chipping”(shuffling in time to the music) on the road from early morning to late evening.
- Make hair and makeup appointments as far in advance as possible OR practice doing it yourselves to save $$$
- Get durable sneakers or matching boots for your costume. Break them in beforehand!
- Ladies, get flesh-coloured stockings/tights to give a polished look to your costume. These can be bought at a store called Micles at all major malls
- Home-made costumes are a definite NO. Wristbands are issued to all masqueraders to show that they belong to a particular band. No wristband = no play. Avoid the embarrassment of being ejected by security!
- Sunblock is a must as this festival takes place in the dry season
- Spectators, be discreet and walk with the bare essentials – some cash, your smartphone and/ or camera, photo ID. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry