Word of mouth (January/February 2014)

Discover Trinidad’s marathon fete season, Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico, and the Mustique Blues Festival

Illustration by Darren CheewahIllustration by Darren CheewahIllustration by Darren Cheewah

We ent going home

Franka Philip’s guide to making it through 2014’s longer-than-usual pre-Carnival fete season

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. That’s the way I’m looking at the long fete season for Carnival 2014. With Carnival in March this year, January and February are going to be consumed by people rationing money for fete tickets, mixing and matching outfits, and sobering up every Monday morning.

Fetes are the lifeblood of Carnival. They’re the conduit for the hype that leads to the explosion of revelry that takes place on the streets on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. There are day fetes, night fetes, boat cruise fetes, and even breakfast parties. If this is your first Carnival, and you’re doing it the truly Trini way, be warned: you will barely sleep in the days leading up to Carnival week.

So let’s say you arrive in Trinidad on the Wednesday before Carnival. It’s likely you’ll be whisked from the airport to a fete at a swanky location — like a country estate, or somewhere poolside, where everyone will be decked out in their finery. Ladies, please note that you’ve got to make an effort, as the days of going to parties in shorts and comfy sneakers are long gone. There’ll even be women who are dressed up like circus horses in ridiculous heels, but they’re the posers — they don’t jump and wine down like us normal folk.

Once that fete is over, you might want to go home and take a rest (resting is for wimps, by the way), or change and head straight to another party. If you’re looking for a cheapish option, choose a cooler fete. Tickets are usually priced at about US$50, and you and your crew can put up and buy your own alcohol, ice, and chasers. There aren’t many food options at cooler fetes — the typical fare is local street delicacies like doubles, corn soup, and gyros.

If someone hasn’t inveigled you to go on a boat cruise on the Thursday morning, you might be heading to one of several mega all-inclusive parties. Priced between US$110 and US$150, these parties promise a “premium” experience with an unending supply of top-of-the-line drinks, chef-catered food, beautiful people, and excellent music. If it’s your first time, please don’t try to drink your money’s worth — because you really can’t, and the result will be a nasty hangover the next morning.

You might just manage to steal a few hours’ sleep, go to the beach, or visit friends and family in between fetes on Friday and Saturday. If you’re tired on Sunday, don’t worry — the adrenaline will kick in, and you’ll be ready for a breakfast party. Starting at around 4 am, breakfast parties are the “last fling” for many before the Carnival parade.

Imagine having tequila shots and ice lollies made with puncheon (overproof) rum to go with your omelettes. There’s something about the cool morning temperature, the glow of sunrise, and a slightly debauched atmosphere that makes a good breakfast party the icing on the cake after hectic weeks of partying.

Even if you don’t play mas, the manic excitement and unforgettable memories of pre-Carnival feting are enough to make you want to do it all over again — right away. It’s half the reason that lots of Trinis and non-Trinis alike suffer from the post-festival depression commonly known as Carnival tabanca on Ash Wednesday.


 

Cookies for the Kings

Marleen Gonzalez explains how Three Kings Day is a reason for Puerto Ricans to keep the party going after Christmas and into the new year

Día de Reyes: many things come to mind for Puerto Ricans when they think about Three Kings Day, celebrated on 6 January. An excuse to keep the party going after Christmas. More alcohol — such as coquito, an eggnog-like beverage, or pitorro, moonshine rum — and food — pasteles, arroz con dulce, and tembleque, a coconut pudding. And lots of gifts, at least for the children — while parents get to be a little more in debt. Almost everyone in the island engages in this tradition, regardless of religious background; it’s an intrinsic part of Puerto Rican culture.

Valentina is seven years old. She already knows that if she wants to get gifts from the Magic Three Kings, on the eve of Día de Reyes she must get some grass and put it into shoe boxes, underneath her bed — it is for the Kings’ camels. According to her parents (and grandparents, and the uncles and aunts, the elder cousins, the neighbour, the man who crosses the street: everyone), the camels need to get fed, or they will pass by without leaving any presents. Also, she has to leave some sort of treat for the Kings themselves. The list is endless: you can put on the table anything from polvorones (Puerto Rican cookies) to Medallas (local beer). The Kings have to get something, because they’ll be awake all night long (wrapping gifts and hiding them from the children), going from house to house around the world.

Valentina’s cousin Christopher is nine years old. He lives in the United States, but this year he’s visiting relatives in Puerto Rico. This is the first time he will spend Día de Reyes in the island. He’s confused to see his cousins engaged in this grass collecting. For him, the person in charge of bringing gifts around Christmas time is Santa Claus. “He comes here too,” Valentina tells him. “We get presents from Santa and the Magic Three Kings.”

For Chris, this is an amazing thing: it means he could get an iPad in December and a smartphone in January. Now he wants to move to Puerto Rico with the rest of the family. Obviously, Chris is puzzled; he can’t understand how the Kings come from the Middle East to Puerto Rico and then move all over the world in just one night. “They are magical,” says another cousin. “They have time enough, because when they are giving away gifts on the other side of the world, here we sleep — and vice versa. That is how they do it,” says Uncle Pedro. In Puerto Rico the Kings come on their camels, or in helicopters, on motorcycles, riding on donkeys or horses, even in taxis. The important thing is to deliver the gifts.

When the day itself arrives, the place to be is Jayuya, a rural town in the south. On Día de Reyes, Jayuya becomes the city of Bethlehem in Puerto Rico. Everyone dresses up like the Virgin Mary, Joseph, or the Three Kings. Mothers are delighted to lend their newborns to play baby Jesus in every manger in the town. It’s a tradition that was inherited from Spain, and now celebrated in a very Puerto Rican way: with a huge national party.


 

Blues on the bay

Dianne Wilson remembers how the Mustique Blues Festival, a small musical event for a big cause, got its start

Why would an island bar famous for its star-studded clientele, a moon-lit dance floor suspended over the sighing sea, and killer cocktails, ever decide to host a two-week-long blues festival? If you have to ask, then you don’t know Basil Charles, owner of Basil’s Bar in Mustique. Basil loves music, he loves a party, and when his old girlfriend and well-known blues singer Dana Gillespie visited Mustique — well, at the time it just seemed the right thing to do.

One night, at Basil’s urging, Dana took to the stage as a soca band tried to play along. Those soca sounds did not slip easily into the blues beat, but the songs, Basil decided, needed to be sung. If only there were a blues band in Mustique . . . Which is why Basil headed to New York, bought a piano, and invited Dana with her band back to Mustique. Voila! The blues were finally heard live all across Britannia Bay. In 1997, Basil hosted the first Mustique Blues Festival, and has done so every year since.

In the official line-up for the 2014 Mustique Blues Festival, which runs from 22 January to 5 February, you’ll find Dana Gillespie and the London Blues Band, Dino Baptiste, Matt Gest, Shemekia Copeland, and Zac Harmon. But part of the fun of the festival is that you never really know who might drop in for a set or a song. Over the years, artists of note who were just passing through Mustique during Blues Festival time have joined the fun on stage. Classical, rock, folk, and even Bollywood musicians have found harmony on Basil’s stage and moved with the blues — to the delight of unexpecting audiences.

What’s especially unique about the Mustique Blues Festival is its underlying purpose. It is not just a great party — it’s for the good of less fortunate children. None of the musicians are paid for their performances. They all do it to help send children in St Vincent and the Grenadines to school. The Basil Charles Education Foundation funds secondary school students, school breakfasts, and parenting and post-secondary school programmes benefiting many families in SVG. Hundreds have been helped by the work of the foundation — and the primary source of funding is the Mustique Blues Festival. Attend if you can, or support the festival with the purchase of a CD from Basil’s website, www.basilsbar.com.