Trinidad and Tobago’s 2021 Carnival — the physical festival, as managed by various official authorities, manifested in concerts, performances, competitions, and the Monday and Tuesday street parade — is yet another casualty of COVID-19. Social distancing can’t realistically happen in a fete, a calypso tent, a mas camp, or a panyard, where proximity to others, whether friends or strangers, is the whole point. But even if there’s no Road March or Carnival King or Queen or Band of the Year, that indefinable thing people call the spirit of Carnival — a mix-up of tradition and originality, ritual and rebellion, the sacred and the profane, and a powerful emotion that can only be called love — can’t be suppressed. It’s as urgent and willful as ever in our hopes for the future, and our memories of Carnivals past. Carnival is a million love stories. Here are three of them.
What love sounds like
A love letter to pan, by Attillah Springer
The first time I got lost was one Sunday at Panorama, just after my second birthday. My mother says it took me longer than normal to learn to walk. But that Sunday in the Savannah, walking finally seemed to make sense. Who knows how I got away. Who knows how I managed to match my unsure footing to that purposeful shuffle. They eventually found me. I was happily crossing the stage in the middle of a steelband.
I did not know how much I loved pan until I lived in other places. In the sleepless times, my ears would strain to hear a tenor pan floating dreamlike on the wind.
Pan is what calls you to a safe place. Pan is what follows you into your sleep, the careful repetition growing more sure as the night progresses, the song emerging from the discordant notes just as you fall asleep. And by morning, when the azan calls to you to chase away the djinns that gather just before dawn, there is a song in your head and your heart.
Carnival is frequently a cause for disillusionment, a deep despair as we watch the greatest show on earth become this absurd and substandard spectacle. Aside from J’Ouvert, pan is the other thing that saves Carnival. Where you can still see love, where you can still see a fanatical devotion to a way of being in the world and making sense of all the mundane ridiculousness of everyday life.
Pan is the moment when the plane dips over the Gulf of Paria to land in Piarco, and you look down just in time to see a flock of scarlet ibises flying in formation into the mangrove.
Pan is coming home and finding it still loves you.
We made pan. People who look like me. People who walk and laugh and grieve like me. Ogun took possession of us and gave us this technology.
Pan is the place behind your heart that hurts so sweet. Pan is the people raucous and joyous in the face of their power.
I never had the urge to learn to play. I only ever just want to seek out pan’s many tones and flavours. I want to leave town and find a random village steelband made up of children who can barely see over the rims of their instruments. Their parents in the corners bursting with pride. Their parents who met in this same panyard. The arrangement is not the greatest, the tone is shrill, but there is a shining in the eyes of these children who arrive at this panyard having not ever held two pan sticks before, and by the end of the night they are playing a verse and chorus of a song.
I want to be going home from a long day and a longer night and pass and hear that Phase 2 is still practicing, and arrive just in time to see Boogsie in the midst of changing the whole arrangement and the eyes of the players struggling to keep open, but their hands and bodies keep the rhythm of the notes he is singing into the cool night air.
I want another victory pilgrimage up Laventille Hill to take Desperadoes home where they belong.
I want to find myself in the middle of that crowd again, in absolute awe that this thing called pan exists, and I get to be born here where it was made.
We made pan. We made a home for ourselves where we could be sacred and joyful. We made a place to remind ourselves that there is nothing normal or ordinary about us. We made pan to know what love sounds like.
A road is a path
A love letter to J’Ouvert, by Amanda Choo Quan
I stood, cold and damp and faintly anxious, on the corner of Colville Street and Ariapita Avenue. Already, you could feel the stirring of the great beast, the thick-wheeled music trucks and the smaller trolleys of steel pans traversing Port of Spain’s grid-like veins. I spotted my friend walking towards me from the other end of Colville Street, his shadow seeming to dance by lamplight against the dull grey of Lapeyrouse Cemetery wall. I realised that I myself had also been moving, but not to soca. I’d been bouncing on the balls of my feet, lightly off-rhythm, to an internal hum that had become increasingly discordant.
I’d had a fraught relationship with Carnival always, and an even tenser one with Trinidad and Tobago at large when I returned from living overseas. My mother, an immigrant from Jamaica, had always drilled respectability into me. These days, she will not hesitate to make fun of the way I dance, berating me for my lack of Trinidadianness, as though it is not directly related to her insistence that I refrain from wining. I suppose my soul comfort remains the fact that she can’t wine, either. That had slowly changed when I moved to Jamaica and then to Los Angeles, seeking every party reminiscent of home that I could.
And once I came back, I’d tried to reconnect, but it had been difficult. With a job that involved working with refugees, and deciphering the cruel and complicated feelings Trinidadians held towards them, I became exhausted and reclusive. But someone, gently, had told me that 3Canal’s J’Ouvert band was a divine experience. And in the way that a road is a path, and a curb is an edge, when my friend approached, I stepped off one into the other, and joined him.
We made our way through a thickening crowd that seemed always to spit forth someone I recognised — a noted poet with a penchant for partying, a designer disguised by a costume made of palm fronds, a friend I hadn’t seen in forever in a long, swishing black coat, almost too elegant for the entire affair. Then the drums started, played by the Natural Culture Drummers alongside the Laventille Rhythm Section on a big truck, whose pounding insistence cut to the core of me. I scrambled to keep up with it as though we were wedded, or it the gown and I the train, bobbing and weaving and laughing and avoiding the strangers who ran up to me like family in an attempt to dump cold paint on my head. Somehow, shuffled by the crowd, I found myself at the front of the band, drinking in the sheer freedom of the paint-smeared, headwrapped woman at the very top who commandeered and commanded her space by swinging a broad flag, a wide berth between her and the rest of us.
When the sun came up and the truck hit the Savannah, the little group of friends I had formed contentedly, tiredly went their separate ways. But I was determined to stick with the band to the very end of its journey, and so I did. And somewhere, halfway up the avenue I had walked so trepidatiously only a few hours before, it happened. In this moment, the band thinning, the sun beginning to scorch, I realised how badly I had been using other people’s feelings as cues for my own. I realised that my own companionship was enough, and had been enough all along. And in the middle of the J’Ouvert, paint flaking off my body, I stretched my hands to the heavens, and cried.
A love letter to mas in downtown Port of Spain, by Georgia Popplewell
I was offered up to the jumbie spirits of Carnival one J’Ouvert morning several decades ago, when my brother and I were bundled into the car by my parents and grandmother, driven into downtown Port of Spain, and installed in the ramshackle wooden stands on South Quay.
Taking small children out of their beds in the early hours of the morning to watch a parade of costumed characters from society’s underbelly is probably the equivalent of the tradition, in certain countries, of allowing kids small doses of wine or coffee: considered irresponsible by some, but seen by others as necessary acculturation.
J’Ouvert, the early-morning celebration that inaugurates the two official days of Carnival, started those days at 2 am, and even if we had fallen back to sleep in the darkness, we would have been startled awake by the mayor of Port of Spain’s declaration, over the loudspeaker, of the official start of Carnival; then enraptured — and perhaps slightly traumatised — by the antics of the procession of characters that trooped past along the weakly lit section of road designated as the stage. Terrifying Jab Molassie devils beating biscuit tins, Midnight Robbers and Pierrot Grenades speechifying, various types of Indian, minstrels in whiteface crooning and strumming guitars, people in random old garments carrying placards with slogans both topical and obscene. For years, I remained convinced that some of these characters might not be human, and the sound of a rhythmic tattoo rapped on a biscuit tin still fills me with a sort of delicious dread.
When I became old enough to go to J’Ouvert with friends, the moment I most looked forward to was when the steelband we were following turned down St Vincent Street at Green Corner and started heading south into the heart of downtown, just as the dawn sky was lightening over Laventille Hill, the air a bit chilly (by tropical standards), the band starting to shed some of its revellers and acquire new ones, and things beginning to get a little edgy, as by that hour anyone in the crowd who was prone to chemically induced misbehaviour was starting to get just a bit out of hand.
Over the years, the once fairly unified Carnival parade route has splintered, and the nature of Carnival misbehaviour and the locations it takes place in have changed. The outfit I follow for J’Ouvert these days goes not south towards downtown but north towards the Queen’s Park Savannah, which, as the location with the largest arena, is often considered the epicentre of Carnival activity.
The largest bands in the daytime parade on Carnival Monday and Tuesday now avoid downtown altogether, and for those of us who still go there, the journey from Woodbrook to South Quay is punctuated by stretches where we’re the only band in sight for blocks. There’s still a stage at South Quay and the stands now have sturdy steel frames, but as portions of the parade have left downtown, so have many of the spectators.
But my love for parading through downtown Port of Spain remains, and there is one place there where the jumbie magic I first experienced that J’Ouvert morning decades ago can still be felt — Piccadilly Greens.
This roughly triangular portion of Piccadilly Street that sits sandwiched between the bottom of Laventille Hill and the East Dry River is the final stage on the downtown parade route, and it’s the only of the Carnival arenas — if its modest scale would allow it to be called that — where, when I parade across the stage with my fellow masqueraders, I feel like our costumes and our performance matter to the people watching from the stands.
This is largely due to the attention paid to the proceedings by the Uptown Carnival Committee and their long-standing MC Thora Best, who ensures that bands are properly announced and described, placards are read out loud, and masqueraders are allowed ample time to show off on stage for the benefit of the spectators. Also, perhaps, for the spirits of the people from the surrounding streets and communities of east Port of Spain, where the culture and ethos of Carnival were born.