Trinidad Carnival is…

BC Pires picks some of his favourite things about Trinidad Carnival

The camera on you. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue Mango–Bacchanal Women. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoBlow yuh whistle. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoDestra trembles it. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoIwer George . . . hand, hand, hand, hand, hand. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoPan in harmony. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoPhotograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoPhotograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoPhotograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoPhotograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoPhotograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoPut your hand in the air! Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoReigning calypso monarch Denise Plummer nah leavin’ the stage. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoShadow, The Bassman From Hell. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoWoman is boss. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoYou can’t play J’Ouvert and fraid mud, oil or body paint. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoYuh looking for horn. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue Mango

The tidal wave of carnival, almost at full crest now, will crash upon Trinidad’s shores on Monday 11 and Tuesday 12 February. Astute festival watchers, though, saw the first warnings of carnival last November, when hordes of women descended on the pitch walk of the Queen’s Park Savannah and swamped the gyms and fitness clubs.

 

BACCHANAL WOMEN

Even if the (largely male) television camera operators didn’t focus exclusively on them wining their waists on the Savannah stage, their sheer numbers — and sheer tights  — would make it impossible not to notice the female domination of Trinidad Carnival.

Women outnumber men in most costumed bands, the larger ones often having several female-only sections. No live soca band wanting gigs can afford not to have a lead singer in tiny, super-low, satin shorts and skimpy, sequined top (though, to be fair to the other gender, most soca bands also now require a brace of barebacked and buffed guy singers).

The domination of Trinidad Carnival by women requires no special explanation: it is just one more arena in which women have men whipped. A glance at the courts, hospitals, schools and universities reveals more women lawyers, doctors, teachers and students at tertiary level than ever before.

Carnival women will give up playing mas only if they are in the last stages of pregnancy or actual childbirth. From Ash Wednesday, they begin salting away money towards next carnival’s expenses, which include a staggering amount for a tiny costume (they could generally achieve the same effect with a box of Christmas tinsel and a handful of glitter) and expensive gym memberships to make sure they look their best.

One of the most heart-warming aspects of the female takeover of carnival, though, is that not all carnival women are hard-bodied. They are a joy to look at, lost in the music on the Savannah stage. They may spill out of their costumes in rolls, but they know the only roll that matters is that of their bum-bu-lums.

 

SOCA V CALYPSO

The Dimanche Gras show on carnival Sunday night, at which the Calypso Monarch is crowned, is dominated by exponents of Trinidad’s traditional calypso music. It would have to be. Only exceptional lyrics and melodies could create intimacy with an audience of thousands on a bare wooden stage the size of three tennis courts. (The stage is designed for the parade of the costumed bands on Monday and Tuesday, not for a lone singer clutching a mike.) Performers like reigning monarch Denise Plummer and (her mentor) Black Stalin, tramping up and down the entire stage area, make it look easy, but it isn’t. Without huge lyrics towering above them, singers would simply disappear.

On the road on carnival Tuesday though, the accent is on dancing, not listening, and lyrics don’t matter, just choruses. The audience prefers cliché. Every “dance” must rhyme with “prance”, every “carnival” with “bacchanal”, and every few seconds the audience must be exhorted to jump and wave and jump and wave and jump and wave.

Last year’s Road March (the song played most often on the road) winner, Shadow, reconciles both conflicting approaches, a reflection of his genius. In 1974, his mighty début, Bassman, introduced the looping, rumbling lead bass-lines that changed calypso music. His conversion to soca, Trinidadian dance music, came with  “(Ah doh want to sink that) Soca Boat”, in which he declared that, if he tackled the soca, the boat might turn over. Shadow’s 1988 album If I Coulda I Woulda I Shoulda, on which Soca Boat appears, is the best calypso album ever recorded, bar none. Like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Shadow’s magnum opus ought to be available in a digitally re-mastered CD version featuring the original LP cover artwork and detailed liner notes explaining its importance, but it isn’t.

 

FETE IS NOT FETE

Last year, soca star Bunji Garlin sang Fete is fete, but he was wrong. Notwithstanding that they all sell out long in advance, the least appealing of all carnival fetes are the “all-inclusive” ones, which serve free food and drink for a single entrance fee which is stiff enough to keep out the common folk.

The lion’s share of the all-inclusive fete budget goes toward the “free” bar, leaving the mouse’s for entertainment. Often the only live music is a karaoke-style performance from a calypsonian passing through just long enough to voiceover his hit song, or a small, unamplified steelband that can’t provide the volume of music required to transform so many people into a unified crowd. The all-inclusives are rather more like huge cocktail parties than carnival fetes.

The real excitement lies at the opposite end of the social spectrum in the massive, ten-live-band, 30,000-in-the-crowd, at-least-one-fight public fetes. You don’t go to those without a rag to wave and the smallest amount of cash necessary to keep you intoxicated for your stay. You will be jostled and the wrong response may lead to trouble. But you will have a great time if you relax and go with the flow. You can eat and drink pure elation and fly home under the power of your own enzymes.

The biggest and by far the best of the big public fetes is the Caribbean Brass Festival at the PSA football ground, which is like an extra day of carnival. Others, like WASA’s Soca Flowing Like Water and Calypso Fiesta (really a fete masquerading as the Soca Monarch Semi-final) are less exciting.

In the last decade the middle classes have been actively reclaiming big parties and there are now several very good “bourge” fetes. (The term, initially a disparaging contraction of bourgeois, has been adopted by the bourge as their own label.) The leading bourge fetes are Insomnia, which takes the pan faithful right through carnival Saturday night — after the national Panorama steelband competition final — sending them home only after serving them breakfast, and Glow, which features the very clever marketing tie-in of a compilation CD of the music played by the artists performing at the party. The fetes are built on themes. This year’s versions may have different names, but will be recognisable if only for being held at MOBS2 in Chaguaramas.

The preliminary round of the Panorama competition, known widely and affectionately as Prelims, is now also controlled by the middle classes in daylight. The admission price keeps out the so-called riff-raff, and the élite prefer the competing all-inclusives. The big shots and the sufferers now occupy only small pockets of North Stand territory for limited times. At Glow, Insomnia and Prelims, you can find very large crowds in which it is possible to lose yourself entirely.

 

STEELBAND TIMES

Though they are fading fast from the actual carnival on Monday and Tuesday, steelbands play a crucial part in the buildup to and ambience of the festival. Some of the best carnival moments have pan as their soundtrack.

It is perfectly safe to visit all panyards, even those in poor and working-class communities, as well as the bourge panyards like Phase II Pan Groove. By and large, outsiders are welcomed by residents. Even if they bring no pecuniary advantage through the purchase of corn soup, cold beers or band T-shirts, visitors are potentially part of the support for the local panside and respected as such. Even the wildest aficionados of a band that chose to name itself “Renegades” are almost unfailingly polite.

You can visit the panyard anytime after dark, but most of the early part of the night is spent in rote practice of particular phrases of the band’s Panorama song, often with different pannists on the same rack playing different parts, each working to improve his bit. Curb your enthusiasm until after 9 p.m., when the players usually begin to rehearse as a band.

Last year, local entertainment writer and carnival lover, Terry Joseph, organised panyard concerts at specific times during practice sessions when pan lovers were guaranteed complete performances. They were immensely popular and are scheduled to be repeated this year. Keep an eye out for announcements in the press. Panyards are the best places to listen to pan music  unamplified (i.e., un-tampered with), in the night air, under open skies, in much the same physical spaces pans first declared the freedom of their makers to the gods. The next best place to listen to pan is probably the Track, the paved roadway approaching the Savannah stage.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of supporting a panside is helping to push the pans on and off the Savannah stage, jumping into the little area between stage and spectators.

If your panside plays or is eliminated early, buy tickets to listen to the music in the North or Grand Stands. The North Stand is the party stand, where the bourge gather to fete at Prelims despite the occasional interruption of the pan. After Prelims, there is little difference acoustically between North and Grand Stands, though it is the conventional wisdom that you go to the Grand Stand if you really want to hear the pan. There are admittedly fewer distractions from the Grand Stand crowd, but the North Stand is cooler and, apart from Final night, can be less crowded.

 

J’OUVERT

Carnival officially begins with J’Ouvert (from the French “day opens”) but for many, carnival also ends with J’Ouvert. It is the first carnival street parade and takes place in the early hours of carnival Monday morning. The official start of J’Ouvert is 2 a.m., but many bands still take to the streets at the more traditional 4 a.m. Several opt for the in-between 3 a.m. It is largely over by sunrise; only the diehards push it past 9 a.m.

J’Ouvert is based on the immersion of Self in Other by the portrayal or representation of Other. A blue-collar worker will dress in the lawyer’s suit and tie; the lawyer will dress in baby diapers. The violently homophobic man will don a pretty dress. The beauty queen will — or ought to, anyway — make herself look ugly. All will add liberal quantities of mud, grease, oil and paint (or any permutation or combination of same). At J’Ouvert you understand the liberation of dirt.

There are many well-organised J’Ouvert bands with clear headquarters or mas camps who offer live (or DJ) music, costumes and rolling bars. In recent times, there has been a bourge and upmarket move away from the traditional J’Ouvert parade routes. If your band is not heading towards Independence Square in downtown Port of Spain, you’re not taking part in the real thing.

The fake thing does offer advantages, such as greater safety and colder drinks, but for J’Ouvert to work its magical spiritual renewal, the immersion of Self in Other is necessary; and there can be no such immersion if there is no Other. Basically, the more sanitised your J’Ouvert, the less satisfying it will be. There is even a yachtie J’Ouvert in Chaguaramas that is popular with the visiting cruiser community. It is completely safe and far from boring but, if all J’Ouvert is a banana split, the cruiser one would be a cherry on its own. Need that chocolate sauce.

You can play J’Ouvert with a deejay band or a live band, but purists won’t settle for anything other than a steelband. Without motor oil, cooking oil, axle grease, mud, greasepaint, real paint and a host of other dirty stuff to smear all over your body, J’Ouvert is incomplete. If you don’t want to get nasty, forget J’Ouvert, since the filthier you get, the better off you are.

 

KIDDIES MAS

In the same way the women’s final has upstaged the men’s in recent years at Wimbledon (last year being the exception proving the rule), you have to go to the children’s carnival competitions if you want to see real costumes.

Adult mas today is labelled a “Street Party”, but it is far closer to a beach party. Bathing suit mas. Outside of Peter Minshall’s band, only children can be sure of getting real costumes at carnival. The leading children’s costumed bands are genuinely designed, even if their themes are abstract. The bigger kiddies bands sincerely attempt to portray something and usually succeed. Children, as masqueraders, put their adult counterparts to shame. They don’t need to be drunk or high to tap into the joy of living. Their jump-ups are enthusiastic and contagious. Perhaps it is because it comes naturally to them to take delight in dressing up and to play, but they play their mas in a way their parents might envy. Whether as visual spectacle, mood-boosting delight or sociological day trip, children’s carnival shouldn’t be missed.

 

BEFORE & AFTER MAS

After carnival, the best thing to do is probably go to Tobago. For those who don’t, Pan Trinbago’s Champs in Concert gathers together the winners of all significant carnival titles for one big show on the first Saturday night after carnival. The Calypso Monarch, Soca Monarch, Young King or Queen, Junior Monarch, Panorama champs, Pan-around-the-neck champs, Extempore Champ and more, all perform. And there are guest appearances by the King and Queen of Carnival. The show can take several hours and the knowing punter takes pep pills or a pillow.

All of the eventual champs can be seen in the build-up to carnival. If you can make only one show, Dimanche Gras, at which the Calypso Monarch and King and Queen of Carnival appear, should be it; live television coverage is a poor cousin.

The most successful singers are attached to calypso tents or soca bands or both, but the tents are the best place to hear them. The acoustics are usually better as well. Many of the year’s best songs and most of the cleverest go unnoticed every year unless you go to the tents. There are always “clashes” between the leading tents, where the best singers from one go up against the best from another, but clash shows can easily run to five hours and are often held at larger, less pleasant venues. Better to go to each tent individually.

There is something on at the Savannah every night of carnival week and they are all worth going to, though the stands are usually nearly empty. Trinidadians save their energy for fetes, opting to miss some of the best entertainment in the Savannah. They console themselves with the one thought that invariably rises phoenix-like on Ash Wednesday: oh, well, there’s always next year.