Trinidad Carnival (2)
Mas bands and costume hunting
As mops and buckets are employed to contend with the last of the summer rains, Trinidad’s most dedicated carnivalists are already hard at work. Mas-makers – creative, hardworking souls who dedicate months of free time to making the costumes worn in the mas bands – are hunched over chicken wire, fibreglass and innumerable glittery substances producing prototypes of the final designs.
From October onwards, the various bands present their designs to the public by way of a launch – basically, a huge party, with free-flowing rum and blaring soca music only just taking second place to the designs on display. The largest bands have a variety of “sections” as each design is known. Everyone wants to “play mas” with their friends – and for US$100-150 you can buy a costume and play mas, too – so there’s much deliberation over which section of which band to choose. Wearability is a key element, along the lines of “Will these beads become trapped in my groin while I dance?” and, “Can I really get away with a thong, a bikini top and some feathers?” – but unless you choose to play with a more creative band such as MacFarlane or Minshall’s Callaloo (with whom you’ll get some thought behind the theme, and considerably more fabric over your body), you’ll be faced with much of a muchness. These days, what’s known as pretty mas rules the streets, and though the colours and themes may differ, the bands are fairly indistinguishable from each other – basically, embellished bikinis for women, fancy shorts and a waistcoat or chestpiece for men, both topped by an elaborate headdress and garnished with bits to attach to the legs and arms. Flags and standards come with most costumes, and you’ll usually get a small bag to hold your rum and your “rag” (an essential anti-sweat tool, also used to wave in the air in appreciation of the tunes you like). Bands vary in terms of the facilities they supply for revellers; all bands will have music trucks, while some offer everything from moving bars, breakfast and lunch, to “wee-wee trucks” (flatbeds topped with a row of portaloos), security guards, or misting stations, where overdanced players get a cooling spray of water. If you’re a soca aficionado, it’s also worth checking out who’s DJing on the music trucks, and which local acts will be performing live during the course of the parades. Getting each and every costume complete and ready for collection before Carnival weekend is a serious business – all around the city, the camps become a whirl of activity, as mas-makers work through the night to meet the deadline. These places are more like factories than workshops (imagine being the person responsible for ensuring that the thousand-odd costumes in a section all have exactly seven strings of beads attached to them, or just the right amount of sequins on a bra-top), and it’s difficult not to get excited by the buzz of industry that suffuses the air as fingers deftly sew, glue, nail and prod the costumes into shape.
Costume choice out of the way, mas-playing Trinis set about getting their bodies into good enough shape to parade through the streets and dance for hours on end. Gyms are packed and the three-mile perimeter around the city’s biggest open space, the Queen’s Park Savannah, becomes a glorified jogging track in the cool early morning or twilight hours. Those with a slightly more frivolous bent, however, tone their muscles by dedicating themselves to attending each and every one of the pre-Carnival fetes that start once Christmas is over.
Hugely varied in atmosphere and character, Carnival fetes are staged by practically every institution in Trinidad: during one week, you can take your pick from the National Flour Mills, Blood Bank or Police fetes (the last is a surprisingly raucous affair) or more chi-chi, all-inclusive events, where tickets cover food and unlimited drink, and the more well-heeled come out to shake a leg. All the fetes, though, are a means for carnivalists to get into the party spirit. Usually held outdoors, with a stage for soca artists to showcase their Carnival tunes, they’re hugely good-natured affairs, fuelled by copious amounts of rum and an unbelievably energetic party madness that’s uniquely Trinidadian. Attend one and you’ll inevitably be pulled into the throng and taught to “wine” (as the local elastic-waisted dancing style is known) until you stagger home at daybreak. Look out, too, for so-called “wet fetes”, where power hoses are liberally employed to cool down the dancing hordes.
While some fetes are one-offs, most return each year, and the mother of them all is Brass Fete, held at the Queen’s Park Oval cricket ground a couple of weeks before the Carnival. With several stages and a predominantly young crowd, it’s also regarded as one of the rougher events, and is best attended in a group. You’ll see plenty of young guys wearing bedraggled women’s wigs and sock-stuffed bras, some of the dirtiest dancing on the planet, and loads of impossibly huge flags that revellers wave to demonstrate appreciation of the acts. By the end of the night, you’ll have a good idea of who’s who in the soca world – and very tired hips.