Trinidad Carnival for Beginners

Is Trinidad and Tobago's carnival as good as everyone says? Can visitors join in easily? How do you wine? Garry Steckles guides you through the crowd

Illustrations by Gregory St. BernardNothing much short of frenzy will do for a good Panorama tune, celebrated of course by a suitable flag-bearer. Photograph by Noel NortonPhotograph by Abigail HadeedThe kings and queens of the masquerade bands are triumphs of complex engineering, vast structures that encase the masquerader within. Photograph by Noel NortonThe masquerade can mean beauty, colour and grace – or, in J’Ouvert’s “old mas”, can be set out to be as scandalous as possibleThe masquerade can mean beauty, colour and grace. Photograph by Abigail HadeedThe masquerade: the best thing to do is shed all the inhibitions and throw yourself into the crowdWill the Mighty Sparrow come out and trash the opposition again in 1993? Photograph by Cyan Studios

So you’re going to Carnival in Trinidad. You’ve been hearing about it for years, perhaps decades. You’re looking forward to taking part in the greatest street party in the Caribbean, maybe the world – though Cariocas, the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro, would put up a spirited argument on that point.

You’re excited. And you’re a little apprehensive.

Will this orgy of soca and calypso, rum and sun and heaven knows what else, be everything you’ve expected? Have your Trinidadian friends been exaggerating all these years with their wild tales of 24-hours-a-day, no-holds-barred bacchanal? Are Trinidadians really the ultimate party animals, prepared to drink, dance and carouse from dusk till dawn, and on again until dusk, day after day? Are you really going to have the time of your life?

Yes, no, yes and yes.

These were exactly the questions I was asking myself in February of last year. After perhaps half a dozen false starts, when something had always conspired to thwart my plans to attend Carnival in Trinidad, I was finally on a BWIA approaching Piarco airport.

I was excited, naturally. And a little nervous, too. After all, my wife and I were about to descend on a family of total strangers, in the heart of the English-speaking Caribbean’s second largest city, and throw ourselves into a party on a scale we could only imagine.

We weren’t totally unprepared, mind you. We were veterans of Caribana in Toronto and Carifete in Montreal. We’d survived Reggae Sunplashes in Jamaica and countless West Indian shows and dances in more places than we cared to remember.

But this was The Big One. This was Carnival with a capital C. Carnival in Trinidad.

And, looking back, I have to say it was everything we’d expected and much, much more.

As an experience, Carnival is almost beyond description. The sights, the sounds, the music, the atmosphere, are something that really do have to be seen and heard to be believed.

One of these days, when I’ve been to a few more Carnivals, I’ll feel qualified to write a little more about the actual event. Meanwhile, as a Carnival neophyte, I have lots of advice for BWee Caribbean Beat readers who might, like me, be gearing up for their first experience of bacchanal in Trinidad.

First things first. You’re going to have to sleep somewhere. Even if you haven’t booked early, it’s usually possible to find a hotel or guesthouse room. And many Trinidadian families open their homes to visitors during Carnival; Trinidadians are among the friendliest, most outgoing people in the Caribbean, intensely proud of their Carnival, and determined to help visitors – particularly first-time visitors – enjoy it as much as they do. We got lucky. A Trinidadian friend fixed us up with bed and breakfast with a family on Cipriani Boulevard, just round the comer from Queen’s Park Savannah, the fabled “Big Yard” which is the heart and soul of Carnival action. It was the first time this particular family had ever taken in guests, and we were all a little nervous and uncomfortable for about two minutes.

Then a couple of Carib beers appeared out of nowhere, the rum started flowing, and when we left five days later we felt as though we were part of the family.

The accommodation itself was simple; a son was turned out of his bedroom for five days and it was turned over to us. The hospitality was typically Trinidadian. We were invited to join the family on their Carnival outings, we ate with them whenever it was mutually convenient, we came and went as we pleased. It was, in a word, perfect, and I wouldn’t dream of staying anywhere else for this year’s Carnival (which is why I won’t be naming this particular family; they’ve got only one spare room, and we fully intend to be occupying it).

The Carnival atmosphere will hit you as soon as you emerge from Piarco airport and look around for a taxi into town. You’ll be walking into a scene of considerable confusion: masses of people waiting to greet friends and relatives, the latest Carnival hits blaring out of huge speakers. Remember that cabs in Trinidad, like those in most of the Caribbean, aren’t metered, though there are set fares to most parts, and prices should always be clarified in advance.

After that, action seems to be everywhere. But there’s more of it in some places than others.

Carnival is a beguiling combination of superb organisation and total chaos. And while it is a monster play-it-by-ear street party, the key ingredients – music and costumes – don’t just happen by chance.

The sprawling Queen’s Park Savannah is where Carnival’s big events traditionally take place. This is where you’ll see the finals of the big competitions: Panorama (steelband), Calypso Monarch and King and Queen of the Bands. And this is where the dozens of spectacularly costumed bands, with their tens of thousands of revellers, will parade to the latest soca hits on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

The focal point of the action is a huge stage erected on the Savannah race track between two sprawling main stands. It’s simply a matter of deciding which stand you fancy–the North Stand is a little cheaper than the Grandstand, and it’s where you’ll find the most lively company – and finding a vacant seat.

The Savannah may be where the formal action takes place, but it’s really only the tip of the bacchanal iceberg. Port of Spain itself, particularly on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, is one giant party, with huge trucks trundling around the streets blasting out soca from speakers big enough to house a family of four.

Don’t even think about sleeping properly. Whether it’s four in the morning or four in the afternoon, the music’s going to be playing, and playing LOUD. Our room on Cipriani Boulevard was only a few feet from one of the most popular routes for these music monsters, and the only way we could even manage a nap was to get so exhausted we could sleep through almost anything. But the DJs, presumably realising that a couple of non-Trinidadians were actually sleeping during Carnival, devised a scheme of correction. The plan was simple. They’d shut the music off a few hundred yards away, so we couldn’t hear them coming, park smack outside our bedroom, then kick the sound system back in at maximum volume. We literally jumped out of our bed with shock when the first sound wave hit – and landed dancing.

In addition to the official Carnival action, there are hundreds of private parties all over Trinidad during the Carnival season. Some are huge, elaborate affairs with big-name performers and a stiff admission price. Others are family shindigs put on by people to whom partying is a way of life. If you get the chance to sample either, do so. You won’t regret it.

Carnival’s main street action starts, traditionally, with J’Ouvert. This is always a Monday morning, long before dawn, a long euphoric procession into town in the early-morning darkness as the all-night parties spill onto the streets. You can feel the excitement in the air on the Sunday night as the hours and minutes tick away.

And when the action does start, it’s hot and heavy.

You dress simply for comfort and convenience. There’s simply no point in men or women dressing any other way–no matter how cool or flashy your clothes are, you’re going to be upstaged by the Carnival creations of Peter Minshall, Wayne Berkeley, Raoul Garib, Edmond Hart and the other big band-leaders.

Clothes should be light and loose. Shoes should be comfortable and well-worn – don’t use Carnival to break in a new pair. Shorts are all very well, and so are short-sleeved shirts, but that Trinidadian sun is hot, hot, hot, and it’s all too easy to burn, burn, burn if you spend too much time in it, particularly if you’ve just arrived from a cold part of the world.

A hat is a must for visitors, for the same reason, and I’d recommend using plenty of sunscreen as further precaution against getting an overdose of that lovely sun. My wife tells me that makeup is not on the list of Carnival essentials for women, but that lipstick can be handy as the sun can easily dry the lips and make them chap. She also advises leaving purses at home, along with anything else that can be a hassle (or a temptation) to lug around during long Carnival days and nights.

As for money, only carry as much as you think you might need. Food and drink will probably be all you’re going to buy, and there are hundreds of stalls selling everything imaginable at eminently reasonable prices, so there’s no need to walk with a thick wad of notes.

Controversy is as much a part of Carnival as the music and the bacchanal. Carnival wouldn’t be Carnival without at least two full-blown brouhahas occupying column after column in the local papers for weeks before and after, and it’s all part of the fun.

Last year, for example, the one who (for my money) is the greatest calypsonian of them all, Sparrow, returned to competition for the Calypso Monarch crown after a 17-year absence. Trinidad was virtually divided into two camps, with most older people supporting Sparrow’s return and most younger ones feeling he should have stuck with his pledge not to compete again. As it turned out, he won; which provoked even more controversy, this time for the fans of the enormously popular Sugar Aloes, who many thought had put on the best performance in the finals.

Then there was the third-place finish of the legendary Amoco Renegades steelband in the finals of the Panorama competition. Legions of fans were convinced that Renegades, playing Lord Kitchener’s exquisite Bees’ Melody, had romped home in the finals; they were outraged, to put it mildly, when their heroes finished two places behind Phase II Pan Groove.

Whatever this year’s controversies happen to be, they’re a great way to start a conversation. Pick up a paper, figure out what’s going on, and, whenever you’re feeling stuck for something to say at a party or in a bar, just throw in the line “What do you think of… ” It’s a guaranteed icebreaker.

It may be confusing at first, but bands and music bands are quite different things. Bands who play music are not be confused with bands of people who get together to “play mas” during Carnival.

A mas (masquerade) band can be small, perhaps a few dozen people, or huge, with numbers in the thousands. Playing mas involves, basically, paying to be a member of one of these bands and joining them as they parade in front of the judges at the Savannah and then wend their way through the streets of Port of Spain, passing other judging points along the way.

Joining a band is simple. You decide which one takes your fancy (many display their designs at their headquarters), pay for a costume, turn up at the Savannah around the time you’re told and party for as long as you can stay on your feet. If you have connections in Trinidad, they’ll almost certainly be willing to make arrangements for you in advance. If not, even late arrivals can visit the “mas camp” (headquarters) of one of the bigger bands, choose a costume, buy it and take it from there.

It’s something I haven’t tried – yet. But all the aficionados tell me that it really is the best way to experience Carnival.

For me, perhaps the biggest single attraction of Carnival is the opportunity to listen to dozens of the hottest new soca hits in the place where the music was born and where it still, without a doubt, sounds best.

Every year, literally hundreds of new songs flood the Trinidad market in the weeks leading up to Carnival. As the event itself nears, everyone has a favourite. Some of the guaranteed topics of discussion for 1993: will SuperBlue make it three Road March titles in a row, to follow Jab Jab and Get Something and Wave? Will Tambu, winner of the previous three Road Marches but absent from the Carnival scene in 92, storm back to reclaim his crown? Will Crazy, whose controversial Penelope was the only serious challenge to Jab Jab, end a frustrating string of Road March near-misses? What will Sparrow and Kitchener come up with? Will Sugar Aloes or Baron finally win the Calypso Monarch or Road March titles which have always eluded them?

Who knows? But for sure you’ll be hearing them all, and a whole lot more, from the moment you walk out of the Piarco arrivals area.

And whoever wins the big titles at Carnival ’93, one thing I can guarantee you. You’ll have a great time.

Making The Right Moves

Coming down J’Ouvert morning
Find yourself in a band
Watch the way how the natives movin’
Hug up tight with a man
Sing along with the tunes they playin
And now and again they shoutin’
Play mas, bacchanal, Miss Tourist,
That is Carnival!

sang Lord Kitchener many years ago. It’s still the best advice. But to get the most out of Carnival, you need to make the right moves. Listen for example to Colin Lucas’s Dollar Wine:

Cent–five cents–ten cents–dollar!
Cent-five cents–ten cents–dollar!

On cent, the whole pelvic region moves to one side; on five cents it moves to the other; on ten cents it moves backwards; and on dollar it thrusts forward. This is the essence of wining, the essential carnival action. It’s a pelvic movement, vigorous and sensuous all at once; side to side or round and round, slow or fast. To wine down is to go all the way down and touch your toe; to wine on someone is – well, you get the idea. I wanna wine on something, sang Road March King SuperBlue.

Carnival parties now love a seasonal gimmick: one year it was waving something in the air (SuperBlue’s Get something and wave), another year it was whistles, another it was pointing a finger in the air with Tambu. Jumping up is the other movement you’ll see most: at its wildest, it is just that–both feet off the ground, hands held high, as the brass screams a soca climax. Parties are also fetes or jump-ups. The gentlest Carnival movement is chipping, the sound of a weary band on the way home, a kind of easy drunken shuffle, which after a while should come very naturally.