Fabulous Fiesta – The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
Every year on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the streets of Trinidad and Tobago are filled with a kaleidoscopic feast of sound and vision as the Carnival hits town with all the subtlety of a drag queen’s cosmetic bag. In 2011, mark March 7 and 8 in your diaries as 48 hours of non-stop party and be prepared for your eyes to be glorified by costumes unbounded by any dress convention and sounds that if listed individually would sound like a recipe for cacophony but somehow come together an a glorious Caribbean symphony.
No self respecting mardi gras would be without its elaborate costumes and in the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is typified by “bands” of befeathered and besequinned participants headed by Kings and Queens. These carnival royalty try and outdo each other with the size and complexity of their costumes, even going so far as to having to have them fitted to wheels to enable them to parade or to have them carried much like a gaudy bridal train by their loyal minions. These followers include locals and tourists alike who have dressed themselves in costumes designed by the bands, which are often made up to nine months previously. The king of kings and the queen of queens are crowned in a showy ceremony on Dimanche Gras (Carnival Sunday).
Music and dance
The fiesta of Trinidad and Tobago is a true Calypso Carnival with the musical mainstay being the traditional music created by drums, claves and steel pans but in recent history new flavours have been added and the music mix now includes the unique Soca, a mixture of American soul and calypso. Music is played at specific performances or from trucks to accompany the Mas, as the parade walks are known and wherever there’s music there’s the gyrating dancing known locally as wining.
As well as the costume, traditional limbo dancing and stick fighting competitions, prize laden titles are a major draw to the participant and onlookers alike. Some of these contests carry great prestige, with some ceremonies aired on television such as the scintillating performances for the honour to be crowned Calypso Monarch. Other titles are the International Soca Monarch, the Panorama (for steel pan) and the Carnival Road March. As much as this is a fest of great lightheartedness, the costumes mask a steely attitude to winning because the prizes are not to shake your tail feathers at. With cars and millions of $TTs at stake this is no lightweight talent contest. Some of the heats for the musical competitions take place in the months leading up to the carnival so if you can’t get o Trinidad for the main event you can still sample a taster. Check the official carnival website for dates and locations.
Carnivals don’t just happen. They evolve from a traditional religious celebration or a special event in local history or folklore and as the years pass, significances become part and parcel of the festivities and the ethnic mix of the two islands has led to the development of interesting characters without which the Trinidad and Tobago carnival now would seem less than complete. The characters are drawn from all cultures and it’s an eclectic mix of representations of the devil, minstrels, and French aristocrats. Enjoy the melodies of the white faced minstrels but avoid the grandiose braggart known as the Midnight Robber but smile at the mischievous antics of the mas of Jab Jab as they all weave in and out of the crowds of performers and party goers.
As you might expect, the carnival is centred on Port of Spain but the atmosphere pervades the whole island and there are regional events. If you want the full on experience, book early for the best seats in the house, or more correctly, spot on the parade ground?