The Carribean 17 – Trinidad Carnival

Trinidad Carnival (1)


Port of Spain and smaller towns, Trinidad and Tobago


February or March

How long?

2 days

A huge, joyful, rum-soaked celebration, Trinidad’s carnival – by far the biggest in the Caribbean – consumes almost the entire country. The two days of Carnival itself are not a national holiday, but shops and offices islandwide close their doors, and general business comes to a respectful halt in favour of partying. In the days – indeed months – leading up to the event, almost every aspect of Trini life has some connection with pre-Carnival activities, from corporate calypso competitions to fundraising fetes (fete being the usual term for a huge outdoor party). Carnival is nothing short of a national obsession, a fixation that stems from the fact that in Trinidad, perhaps more than anywhere else, it is an overwhelmingly participatory event. It’s not something you watch, but something you’re part of – a festival that belongs to everybody.


Originallly a three-day splurge before Ash Wednesday, the Trinidad Carnival was first celebrated in the late eighteenth century py white French planters, who paraded in costumes that parodied their slaves. Men played negres jardines (field labourers), and women mulattresses as a means of escaping the so-called responsibilities of power and respectability. Following emancipation in 1834, freed Africans took to the streets as well, satirizing their former masters’ affectations and idiosyncrasies with Carnival characters such as the Dame Lorraine, a salacious, huge-bottomed planter woman, or drawing on West African cultural traditions to create characters such as the stilt-walking, ten-foot tall moko jumby, and mischievous devils known as jab jabs.

Music came courtesy of makeshift percussion instruments, while atmosphere was added by canboulay – flaming flambeaux that symbolized the Africans’ freedom from the dangerous task of putting out burning cane fields.

All this exuberance was viewed with displeasure by the white ruling class, who took exception to what they saw as desecration of the Sabbath on the first day of Carnival. In 1843, it was decreed that Carnival could not begin until Monday, but as no specific time was given, carnivalgoers began to celebrate on the stroke of midnight, and Jouvert (a corruption of the French jourouvert, or “the beginning of the day”), the no-holds-barred early-hours opener to Carnival that still takes place today, was born. Carnival continued to act as an outlet for irreverence and satire, with new characters such as jamettes (prostitutes), cross-dressing pissenlits (literally, bed-wetters) and sailors (outrageous parodies of the British naval officers stationed in Trinidad), while revellers moved to the beat of drumming bands and entertained themselves with kaienda, or stickfighting, competitions. Again, the British administration (Trinidad had by now been ceded to England) saw Carnival as a threat to its authority, and took steps to subdue the event. Riots ensued when a group of masqueraders were apprehended in 1881, but the Brits went on to prohibit jamettes and pissenlits on the grounds of lewdness, and ban African-style drumming, canboulay and kaienda.

Carnival wasn’t about to go quietly, though, and while the celebration was subsequently toned down, it never disappeared completely. Masqueraders continued to parade the streets, and received a boost in the 1890s by the introduction of a competition for the best costume band. During the early twentieth century, practically every aspect of Carnival was turned into a competitive event, and in 1921, calypsonian Chieftain Douglas established Trinidad’s first calypso tent, where performers showcased their compositions for the forthcoming Carnival in front of audiences, who were (and remain) as generous with their booing and heckling as with their applause. Many more tents sprung up around the city, and the tradition became firmly established, the canvas giving way to today’s permanent structures. After a break during World War II, Carnival returned with a vengeance, this time swinging to the sweet tones of the newly invented steel pan. The event’s growing cultural significance was officially recognized in the late 1950s with the establishment of the National Carnival Commission. The masquerade (usually shortened to “mas”) bands became ever larger, with trucks pumping out live music alongside the steelbands marching the streets, and traditional costumes giving way to more contemporary and sometimes political themes. Costumes also became more brief and, these days, it’s bikinis rather than traditional mas that rule the road. There are some who bemoan the fact that Carnival traditions are being swept away, but the changes in tone of the bands’ presentations have at least kept people on the streets – particularly women, who make up the majority of the masqueraders – and you can still see all the traditional characters on parade at Victoria Square on Carnival Sunday.

Trinidad’s obsession with Carnival doesn’t only take over the nation for the two days of the party itself – preparations for Carnival start in autumn of the previous year, when mas bands start to hold launches of their chosen theme, and potential players are invited to sign up. The carnival calendar is determined by whenever Lent is, but things always move up a gear by late January, with the atmosphere building at the opening of the calypso tents, where the steelbands rehearse their pan performances in anticipation of the Panorama Finals.

By the time Jouvert, the official start to Carnival, arrives you might feel like you’ve done it all already – it pays to pace yourself and save your best for last.

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