Trinidad Carnival (3)
The panyards and the Panorama Finals
It may not seem physically possible to attend a fete every night of the week, but in the last few days before Carnival, many Trinis pride themselves on doing exactly this and still turning up for work the next day. So, it’s a good idea to intersperse your feting by touring around Port of Spain’s panyards, where the steelbands practice for the annual Panorama Finals, a giant tournament in which T&T’s greatest bands do battle. It’s best to reserve a whole night for panyard visiting, so that you can compare how different bands sound, and it’s a good idea to visit more than once, so you can hear the tunes getting sweeter and crisper, as the heats and the final draw near. Panyards expect visitors, so there’s usually chairs or bleachers to sit on while you listen, and a bar. Renegades on Charlotte Street is one of the most central yards, while Phase II Pan Groove, housed in a large, open compound in Woodbrook, a neighbourhood just west of downtown, is always good for a lime as you take in the music. High in the hills of Laventille, where the steel pan was invented, Desperadoes panyard is probably the most atmospheric, with fanatical “Despers” supporters ensuring that things are kept lively.
By far the sweetest place to hear pan, though, is at the Panorama Finals, staged on the Saturday before the main Carnival parades. Head down to the Savannah at dusk, by which time the grass around the main stage is packed with practicing bands, as well as stalls selling drinks and snacks to the crowd. You have three choices in terms of where to be. The more grass-roots crowd stick to the area around the approaches of the stage, where bands queue up before performing; variously known as the “tracks” or the “drag”, this is the place to watch practice sessions and help push the trolleys of pans and players onto the stage. If you fancy a seat, there’s the rowdy North Stand, where coolers packed with rum and Carib fuel the party atmosphere, or the more genteel Grand Stand – both of these have a minimal entrance fee. (Tickets for both stands sell fast, so it’s best to buy in advance). Wherever you watch from, it’s essential to catch at least one of the big bands crossing the stage: most number around 150 pannists. Stand within fifty feet of the players and the music vibrates through every sinew of your body.
Though they’ve little to do with canvas these days, calypso tents are one of the original components of Trini Carnival, and catching at least one performance of traditional kaiso (the purists’ name for calypso) provides an essential introduction to – and analysis of – whatever’s making the news or the gossip columns in T&T. Each year, the country’s established calypsonians write two or three compositions to perform in the tents, with subject matter ranging from the price of World Cup football tickets or satirical character assassinations of politicians and public figures to serious political comment on the state of the nation. The tents provide a public platform for the favorite Trini pastime of picong-. employing verbal dexterity so as to take the mickey, and do so very wittily. Sex – by way of none-too-subtle but inevitably hilarious allegory and double entendre – is also a hugely popular topic. However, what with the liberal use of local slang and constant allusions to recent scandals, it pays to visit a tent with someone local who has the patience to explain the more parochial jokes and references.
The main tents are now established annual institutions, attracting similar lineups each year. Most tents are open every night in the last month or so before Carnival (as well as for a couple of weeks after Carnival weekend), and some switch venues – to the Savannah Grandstand, or the Trinidad Country Club in Maraval, for example – just before Carnival in order to accommodate a bigger crowd. Most stick to pretty much the same formula: an MC marshals events, usually taking every possible oral swipe at the competitors he or she introduces, and one by one the performers take to the stage.
If the first verses of their tune are greeted with applause, the calypsonian sings on; stony silences can be rectified by dextrous vocal retorts, but it’s more likely that anyone that doesn’t get a positive crowd response will not finish their song. Those that prove popular get to the end of their tune, and often come back with another as well.
Like everything concerned with Carnival, the tents are all about showmanship, and though traditional singers stick to a mike and some killer lyrics, performances are becoming increasingly more theatrical, with impressive costumes themed to fit the tune, and back-up from dancers, moko jumbies or a series of props. Newer “humorous” tents have completely changed the formula, too, creating a seamless comedy cabaret in which calypsonians’ tunes are intermingled with skits – perhaps a more accessible style if you’re attending for the first time. For more serious calypso, head to Kaiso House (City Hall, Knox Street), where stalwarts such as the marvellous Singing Sandra, Brother Resistance and Shadow are heckled by the brilliant local comedian Rachel Price; the tent of the late great Lord Kitchener, Calypso Revue (SWWTU Hall, Wrightson Road), draws an equally prestigious line-up and has a more traditional feel.