How To Enjoy Trinidad Carnival
While the majority of us here in the US grapple with the weather, the economy and gun violence, in one lesser known corner of the world, throngs of people are already celebrating what is known as The Greatest Show On Earth.
This celebration, popularly known as Carnival, takes place in Trinidad & Tobago during the same pre-Lenten period as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Rio de Janiero. This year it falls on February 11 and 12. Although the true origin of Trinidad Carnival remains obscure, the festivities are believed to have Roman, European and even African links as do the ones in New Orleans and Rio. However, unlike those festivities, Trinidad Carnival was brought to the island by the French plantocracy in the eighteenth century. While the plantation masters enjoyed masked balls in great houses, the emancipated slaves took to the streets in lavish costumes, mimicking their former masters. These street parades were always accompanied by African drumming, which years later, gave way to the steel drums.
There were many clashes between police and masqueraders who used their disguises to settle old scores with the police. Also, there was always a fear among the white population that the Carnival celebrations would be used as a cover to murder them, especially since at that time the celebrations had been shifted to August 1, to coincide with the ending of chattel slavery. It was only at the close of the 19th century that Carnival was brought back to the pre-Lenten period.The whites also frowned on the songs and dances which were deemed sexually provocative and many harsh restrictions were imposed as a result. Despite this, many newspaper editors were astounded at the creativity and ingenuity of the Carnival costumes and paid glowing tribute to their creators in their editorials. During World Wars 1 and 2 Carnival was suspended.
If you decide to go
Today, Carnival has evolved into a festival that brings together people of diverse backgrounds and from every corner of the globe. While the uninhibited revelry continues, Carnival is no longer seen as a threat to anyone, and hundreds of police are deployed to keep order. Since people usually begin preparing for Carnival a year in advance, it's not too late to learn a little about Carnival. If you decide to go (next year) there are some activities you may want to participate in:
1. A vsit to a panyard. Steelbands, while no longer actively involved in the street parades, stage their own competitions in the weeks preceding Carnival, and no respectable tourist would leave Trinidad without a visit to a panyard where you can try your hand at playing this amazing instrument.
2. A visit to a calypso tent. You will not sit under a tarpaulin covering or anything like that. Tent is just the name given to the building where the calypsonians perform to the public. From these performances, a handful of artistes will be selected to participate in the Calypso Monarch competition.
3. Dimanche Gras. This concert takes place on the Sunday night before Carnival. It encapsulates the major highlights of Carnival - Calypso Monarch competition and King and Queen of the Bands competition.
4. Jour Ouvert - This is a French term that means Monday morning. Following Dimanche Gras, you may go to your hotel for a few minutes' sleep - if you can- before joining the crowds for Jour Ouvert. This is a parade of small bands depicting parodies of famous people, situations and current events. Don't be surprised if you see a caricature of Barack Obama or Beyonce. There are also the usual appearances of devils and muddy characters.
5. Parade of the Bands - This is what you are really there for. This is the culmination of maybe a year's work by band leaders, designers, manufacturers, wire benders, musicians, dressmakers and an army of creatives associated with this extraordinary festival. Over 50,000 masqueraders cross the stage of the Queen's Park Savannah on Carnival Tuesday in an explosion of color, splendor and creativity unsyrpased anywhere in the world. Thousands more line the streets waiting to join the 'jump-up' with their favorite band.
How to prepare:
1. Get your passport and make your airline and hotel booking as early as possible as these fill up fast and get more expensive as the date approaches.
2. Prepare your body. Carnival is not for the faint-hearted or feeble-bodied. Trinidadians begin exercising months before Carnival in order to be ready for the rigorous demands on their bodies. Get enough sleep as you won't have much time for it while you're there.
3. Remember the sunscreen. Temperatures average 90 degrees Farenheit, so use your sunscreen and drink lots of water.
4. Wear comfortable shoes. This goes without saying if you are going to be 'jumping-up' or walking for extended periods.
5. Be careful. While Carnival celebrations are largely incident-free, you still need to exercise caution. Avoid lonely places, especially at nights, and don't go anywhere with people you don't know.
So, there you have a miniature introduction to an experience of a lifetime. Enjoy!