Trinidad Mas: Carnival of the World

More than a hundred cities and countries around the world now stage Trinidad-style Carnivals

A young masquerader in Toronto’s Caribana. Photograph by Robert D Watkins Jr.Carnival in Notting Hill, London. Photograph by Rohith JayawardeneCarnival in Notting Hill, London. Photograph by Rohith JayawardeneFood stall at London’s Notting Hill carnival. Photograph at Rohith JayawardeneToronto’s Caribana. Photograph by Robert D Watkins Jr.Trinidad Carnival at Toronto’s Caribana. Photograph by Robert D Watkins Jr.Trinidad Carnival. Photograph by Brian WeltmanTrinidad Carnival. Photograph by Brian WeltmanTrinidad Carnival. Photograph by Brian WeltmanTrinidad Carnival. Photograph by Brian WeltmanTrinidad Carnival. Photograph by Brian WeltmanTrinidad choreographer and dancer Charlene Harris enjoys Trinidad Carnival. Photograph by Brian Weltman

In Toronto, a vulture in a paratrooper’s jumpsuit, with wings of black cotton hung like washing on a bamboo pole, wearing a Gulf War gas mask and flying flags of first world countries, intones a diatribe on the virtues of plunder. Inside is Trinidadian John Stollmeyer. This is his performance for the annual Caribana, held at the end of July every year.

In London, barely disguised impish brown-skin girls rub their rears against a hapless and stoic bobby (many of his colleagues were reputedly trained in crowd control in Trinidad’s Carnival). In Westchester, where there is a large gaol called Strangeways, Trinidadian actor and TV host Tony Hall leads a band of masqueraders in some very strange ways indeed.

On the Brooklyn Parkway in New York, massive wire-crafted tribal masks by Stephen Derek gleam slyly in the September sun as his masquerader battles against the prevailing breeze, somehow contriving to keep the rhythm set by the truck-borne music band, Charlie’s Roots from Trinidad.

Back in Port of Spain on any Carnival day, birds, bats, butterflies, massive puppets, kings and queens entrapped in splendour, tacky tinsel stars, wild Indians, dragons, sailors with panties and powder, not to mention hordes of scantily clad women liberated from everyday cares and cover-ups, cavort on the streets; wildness is the unifying factor.

Playing mas has as much to do with putting on as taking off the mask. Who would have thought that empty oil barrels would eventually play the Hallelujah Chorus?

Trinidad Carnival, says Peter Minshall – who should know, being one of Trinidad’s leading designers – is an idea that exists in the hearts of little posses of Trinidadians everywhere from Toronto to London, and now even in Australia – the first Trinidad-style Carnival there will take place in Melbourne on March 11, a mere two weeks after Trinidad and Tobago’s own festival, scheduled for February 27-28.

Trinidad and Tobago is barely 32 years independent of Britain, and before the British came other Europeans who colonised these islands at the southern end of the Caribbean chain, bringing Africans, East Indians, Asians and others together. Among them were the French, who were much given to fancy-dress balls before the rigours of Lent descended. Trinidad and Tobago, concedes Minshall, has learned colonialism well. It is now infiltrating its version of Carnival all over the world, even back to France.

So popular has Trinidad-style carnival become that it has spread across the globe to more than a hundred different cities and countries. The Caribbean has taken to the revelry with enthusiasm: Barbados and Jamaica, Antigua and Grenada and many of the other islands all have their own Carnival festivities now. The festival has spread across North America and Britain: New York’s Labour Day Carnival in Brooklyn now involves 2.5 million people; London’s late-August Carnival in Notting Hill is Europe’s biggest street festival, 30 years old in 1995, with a procession more than three miles long drawing a crowd of 1.5 million. Toronto’s summer Carnival, involving 2 million people, earns the city 25 million Canadian dollars. Miami has two carnivals, one downtown and one in Miami Beach, involving a million people.

The Swedes are doing it, the Irish are doing it, the Swiss are doing it, the Finns are doing it; dark northern English cities like Leeds and Manchester, North American cities like Westchester and Galveston, are doing it. Winnipeg started a Carnival only six years ago that now involves 300,000 people. And the people who inspire and run these events are expatriate Trinidadians, Minshall’s posses with a deep-rooted idea in their blood.

Serious masqueraders can now spend most of the year in Carnival action, racing from one event to the next like jet- set executives. Trinidad musicians and calypsonians find plenty of extra work as new festivals spring up. And Trinidad, where it all started, has been so busy enjoying itself that it hasn’t taken too much notice of what was happening elsewhere, beyond the fact that lots more people were having a good time. Its Carnival King and Queen of the World competition, launched in September, is one move to reassert Trinidad’s primacy as the home and heart of international Carnival.

What exactly does this thriving re-export business consist of?

For Jamaica, according to Jamaican big-band musician Byron Lee, it is the music that is the essence of the festival. Since 1974, Lee has been a part of Carnival in Trinidad, working the pre-Carnival fetes, playing on the road with a big mas band and recording an annual album of calypso tunes. In the last decade, he has been instrumental in organising a Trinidad-style bacchanal that takes place in Kingston in April.

The first call for him is the music: reggae is wholly Jamaican, but it was the soca that captivated him in the seventies, starting with legendary calypsonian Kitchener’s hit Sugar Bum Bum. “Soca,” he says, “is an off-beat of calypso, but it is still calypso. It’s sweeter; it is an improvised modern calypso beat that will catch the international market.”

Trinidad’s big music bands can only agree: groups like Massive Chandelier, Charlie’s Roots or Machel Montano’s X-tatik, for instance, are rooted in Trinidad and Tobago with a Caribbean sound that includes zouk and reggae, but is mainly soca. After their Carnival season in Port of Spain, they move out on tours that include New York, Washington, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Houston, Montreal and the other Caribbean islands.

The calypsonians are also zealous exporters. Every calypsonian who wishes to be acknowledged in the calypso kingdom, Trinidadian or not, comes “home” for the season; thousands of new songs are offered, many of which will never be heard outside the “tents” where they are performed nightly. Right after Ash Wednesday, if they are lucky, the singers scatter to spread Carnival and calypso through the Caribbean and to other parts of the world.

Steelbands too come home to Trinidad’s Carnival, in which they were born. “If you want to learn about pan,” says Rabbai, a panman from the St Thomas band Rising Stars which regularly sends panmen on study leave to Trinidad, “you have to come here.”

But beyond the music, what Trinidad exports is the ritual of the mask, which comes to us from cultures as disparate as Greece and West Africa, in which a mask may represent an ancestor, the underworld, or the spirit of an animal or plant.

“Europeans brought Carnival here; they paraded in pomp and festivity conquering the West,” said the poet and painter LeRoy Clarke. “The African brought his masks; through them he stole away in search of a door he knew he could find in this labyrinth.”

There is something deeper, something to do with the spirit of the mas, with being a Trinidadian, which is also part of the export process, and is most likely to get lost in it.

When he opened the Royal Museum of Scotland’s exhibition The Power of the Mask, Peter Minshall told this story. “Let me tell you about a Little boy in the island of Trinidad in the 1950s. He is only 14, but it is j’ouvay, the opening of the day, the very start of the carnival, when the earth seems to open up … and thousands of people stream into the streets, dancing to music in the pre-dawn…

“The little boy straps a pillow here, and another there. Over his arms and legs, he draws thick opaque stockings, over his head a hood with only two holes to see, and over that a wire mesh mask painted with bow lips and eyes that stare like a doll’s.

“He pulls on his sister’s dress that falls nearly to his ankles and ties it with string. On his head, he fixes a hairnet stuffed with coconut fibre and a large broad-brimmed hat. A pair of old bedroom slippers for his feet, a fan in his hand, and he is ready.

“This brave little Dame Lorraine goes out into the dark … He loses himself among the people. He is no longer the little boy. He is completely masked. He is without age. He is without race. He is without gender. He is outside of himself.”

Minshall went on to describe the verbal revenge the boy exacts on his math teacher who unwittingly stands on the curbside with his family to look at the mas. The mask is about empowerment: it is not enough to put a costume on a person, concludes Minshall, it must magnify his energy a hundred fold, so that we who are looking might “see the music, hear the dance.” It was this concept of mas that went to the Olympics in 1992 when Minshall was asked to be part of the design team that produced the opening Hola! for the watching world.

Calypsonian David Rudder, whose 1986 Bahia Girl married samba rhythms with calypso, says: “Carnival is the best vehicle to spread a message.” His own messages have helped shape attitudes about South Africa, Haiti, calypso itself and other issues of deep significance to the Caribbean.

Music, mas, message: there’s still more to Carnival. By and large, mas-makers feel that Carnival gives people a chance to escape their everyday pressures and problems, and their major responsibility is to facilitate this.

Mas-makers today provide a complete service. They conceptualise, design and make costumes, commission music bands at thousands of dollars a day, and have developed the organisational skills to manage up to 5,000 unruly revellers on the streets for two days. It is a business that turns over hundreds of thousands of dollars — in some cases over a million — in a few months.

Trinidad-Style Carnivals

Caribbean and Latin American countries with a strong Roman Catholic tradition – e.g. Brazil, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago – and cities like New Orleans celebrate Carnival on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In 1995, those days are February 27 and 28.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the season begins at the start of the year, and includes nightly performances at calypso tents, rehearsals at panyards (there are at least 50 pansides in the country whose camps ring with the sound of steel as they practise for the big Panorama contest that starts three weeks before Dimanche Gras), and the mas camps where costumes are booked, bought and made and displayed in mini studios.

The week before Dimanche Gras features previews of character costumes, kings and queens, pan and calypso semi-finals and big children’s parades. J’ouvay, the bacchanalian eye-opener which starts at two o’clock on Monday morning, launches the biggest two-day street party. No other Carnival comes close in diversity.

It is this organisational structure that overseas Trinidadians – or French or American or Canadian Carnival wannabes – tap into when they first come calling for a band to take to some other land. Mas-making maestros like Stephen and Elsie Lee Heung, Wayne Berkeley, Edmund Hart, Raoul Garib and perennial small-band winner Stephen Derek of D Midas have all been producing Carnival costumes for at least 20 years. Derek’s “Midas” touch lies partly in the fact that he provides or designs costumes for about 20 other Carnivals up the Caribbean chain and in North America.

There is no school of Carnival except in Carnival itself, and every mas camp spawns many others in the course of its life. Although Caribana was started by Trinidadian and West Indian societies, homesick for the heat of their Carnivals, it has been absorbed by Canadians to the point that a group like Shadowland would come to Trinidad to apprentice themselves to a camp like Minshall’s to learn the rudiments of mas-making.

They worked on some of his bands in the eighties.

All bandleaders, as mas-makers are called, would concede that mas-making is a lucrative and pleasurable business. At the end of each season, they like to say, “I done. No more mas for me. I’ve had it.” Take this merely as a measure of the toll that each season has on these flamboyant, unusual individuals. As Elsie Lee Heung, fiery fifty-year-old masquerader and the driving force in her husband’s camp, has often been heard to say, “Mas is in the blood. You can’t get away from it.”

Some may lament the passing of the era of the individual mas-maker, but to a large extent, the individual has been happy to lose herself – women outnumber men five to one in Carnival bands – in the communal mass.

As one female masquerader, Shereen Ali, writes of her choice to join a band of mud-covered people for j’ouvay: “Individual identities are indistinct: a mass of dark shapes flit bat-like from one rhythm to another … A bearded mudder guides me to the centre of the band, and with elaborate rites baptises me with generous portions of fresh slime.” By the time the sun comes up, the mud has hardened to a helmet on her head. J’ouvay is over, so she heads to a hydrant to wash off. She savours her own anonymity, her part in this danse macabre. Other women enjoy the notoriety of baring almost all in some Carnival bands and “bad behaviour”, banned from TV coverage, remains an indelible part of the festivity.

Some years ago, Trinidad and Tobago chose to date its Carnival from the year of the emancipation of slaves, 1834, rather than from the frolics of the French plantocracy half a century earlier, even though they might have started the custom of masked balls which were imitated and satirised by the Africans.

Mas, calypso and pan evolved on the underskirts of society, frequently driven into the dirt but constantly emerging with ritual and assertiveness. It is this assertiveness that sustains it today wherever Trinidadians have found themselves.

In London, the Notting Hill Carnival now includes a food festival offering every Caribbean specialty from souse and buljol to Jamaica patties and ackee. Street eating and drinking tend to be frowned on in many metropolitan centres: these are further concessions to the spirit of Carnival people who are able to affirm their identities by “taking over” sections of the metropoles for a time every year.

London now includes separate pan and children’s parades as part of the schedule of events. It was in London that Minshall was first commissioned to costume a band for the Commonwealth Institute in 1973. Before that, the street parade – which was sanctioned by the authorities in the sixties – was largely spontaneous, with costumes salvaged from Trinidad. He was assisted by Pat Bishop as musical director, Robert LasHeras and Horace James as king of the band. This was followed by two other bands in 74 and 75, the last of which, To Hell with You, prompted bandleader Stephen Lee Heung to sign Minshall to design his 1976 production based on Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. That band became a watershed for mas, a touchstone for the modern era.

So the flow works both ways. “I could only have found out here (in Trinidad) what I now know about mas,” Minshall muses. What he found out led to creations like Madame Hiroshima which was part of the parade in Washington to mark the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, or the giant puppets Tantan and Saga Boy which have performed everywhere from Japan to San Francisco and which inspired the Barcelona production.

Trinidad remains the spiritual source of all this activity. Its musicians and artists continue to feed the Carnivals which have sprung up across the globe in the last 30 years.

Whatever happens in Brooklyn, Toronto, London or Australia started with some homesick Trinidadian with Carnival in his heart, and will grow with the traditions of his new home, much as the Carnival in Trinidad has done. Until that happens, Trinidad remains the centre, the heart, the mecca of mas, attracting anthropologists, photographers, musicians and performance artists from all over the world.

For here in Carnival country, the bacchanal is real and on-going, the debate is alive, the messages topical and relevant. Here, the whole thing makes sense.

Caribbean Diaspora Carnival Dates

January/February
Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana (Mashramani), Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Brazil, Curaçao, Dominica, St Lucia, St Martin, Aruba/Bonaire

March
Melbourne

April
Virgin Gorda, Jamaica, St Thomas, Barbados (Congaline)

May
Bermuda, Atlanta (Peach Carnival), Los Angeles (Long Beach), Orlando, Oakland, San Francisco

June
Galveston, Washington, St John’s, Montreal (Carifete)

July
St Vincent, Huddersfield, Toronto (Caribana), Liverpool, Antigua, Grenada, St Barths

August
Barbados (Cropover), Stockholm, Leicester, Ottawa, Boston, Chicago, London, Jacksonville, Leeds, Ghana

September
New York (Brooklyn), Westchester, Houston, Baltimore

October
Miami

December
Puerto Rico, St Croix, St Kitts-Nevis, Montserrat, Bahamas