Island Hopper – Janurary/February 2006

What’s happening in the Caribbean in January and February, and where

Illustration by James Hackett

Across the Caribbean, as around the world, people welcome the new year at the stroke of midnight on 1 January with fireworks, music, kisses and embraces, toasts, and life-changing resolutions — or else with church services and quiet family celebrations.

• 6 January is the traditional Christian Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated in Puerto Rico as El Dia de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, when children receive their Christmas presents. It also happens to be the day of the Accompong Maroon Festival, when the Maroon communities of Jamaica’s Cockpit Country honour Cudjoe, their hero of the 18th-century First Maroon War, which ended with a treaty with the British authorities recognising the Maroons’ independence.

There’s no time of year when the islands aren’t full of music, and January and February offer a selection of world-class events. Start with the 13th annual Barbados Jazz Festival (9 to 15 January), promising “cool jazz on warm Caribbean shores”. This year, Lionel Richie and Jill Scott, among other international acts, will perform at venues across the island — including open-air concerts at Farley Hill National Park (see page 32).

• A few days later, the Mustique Blues Festival (18 January to 1 February), hosted by famous Basil’s Bar, opens on the tiny Grenadine island, featuring, as always, Dana Gillespie and the London Blues Band. This year there’s also a show on neighbouring Bequia, on 20 January. Then on 3 and 4 February the action shifts to the “mainland” for the St Vincent Blues Fest.

In the Dutch Caribbean, the end of January means it’s time for the Curaçao Regatta (23 to 29 January) — catamaran sailing by day, hot entertainment by night, at Zanzibar beach. In nearby Aruba, Carnival season is just getting started, climaxing on 27 and 28 February.

• In Trinidad, the Shiite Muslim holiday of the 10th of Muharram is celebrated with the traditions of Hosay (9 February), especially in the west Port of Spain district of St James. While some devotees “dance the moon”, troupes of tassa drummers accompany the procession of tadjahs (decorated floats in the form of temples) through the streets and to the sea, where the elaborate constructions are ritually drowned.

• And in Guyana, Mashramani (23 February) is both the celebration of Republic Day and an opportunity to have a good time at fetes and in a costumed masquerade through Georgetown — Guyana’s version of Carnival.

But the festival of all festivals in the Caribbean, “the greatest show on earth”, is, undoubtedly, Trinidad Carnival (27 and 28 February). The Carnival countdown really begins as soon as Christmas is over. As the season progresses, the music gets louder, the fetes get more crowded, work at the panyards and mas camps gets more frenzied, and excitement builds to the climax of Carnival weekend. Major milestones include the Calypso Queen Finals on 6 February, the Chutney Soca Monarch Finals on the 11th, and the Young Kings Calypso Monarch Finals two days later, on the 13th. Carnival weekend opens on Friday 24 February with the International Soca Monarch Finals. On Saturday 25th, attention shifts to Carnival ground zero, the Queen’s Park Savannah, for the Panorama Finals, when the country’s best steelbands compete for the year’s title.

On Sunday night (26 February), the Calypso Monarch and the King and Queen of Carnival are crowned at the Dimanche Gras show on the Savannah stage. A few hours later, Carnival proper begins when the mayor of Port of Spain declares the start of J’Ouvert. Through the city’s pre-dawn streets, revellers covered in mud, paint, and engine grease celebrate the ritual birth of the festival. On Carnival Monday (27 February), bands come out part-costumed for a day of jumping up. Carnival Tuesday (28 February) is the day for full masquerade: sequins, satin, feathers, bikinis, wings, crowns; devils, sailors, midnight robbers, moko jumbies, and tens of thousands of people having the time of their lives.

At midnight it ends — sort of. Ash Wednesday (1 March) marks the start of the season of Lent, when Christians traditionally attend church services and express repentance for past sins. But more and more people use the day as a chance to get one more taste of Carnival, at post-festival “cool-downs” at Maracas on Trinidad’s north coast and at beaches around the island.