Word of mouth (January/February 2016)

T&T’s Carnival Kings and Queens cross the stage, while regional Carnival celebrations across the two islands have all the energy without Port of Spain’s crowds and chaos

  • Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Stephanie Kanhai as The Sweet Waters of Africa, Queen of Carnival 2015. Photo by Maria Nunes

Out of town

It’s easy to think Carnival happens only in Port of Spain, where the TV cameras focus. But you’d be very wrong. Laura Dowrich reports on the regional Carnivals that keep tradition alive across T&T

It’s Carnival Tuesday. While almost everyone I know is jamming with unbridled abandon in the Socadrome in Port of Spain, I am settled into the back seat of a friend’s car, for the long trek to Cedros.

With Waze guiding us, we drive away from the noise and chaos of town to the sleepy coastal community on the south-western tip of Trinidad. We are on a mission: to participate in the Cedros community’s Carnival, the biggest spectacle of which, we’ve been told, are the Venezuelans who take pirogues across the Gulf of Paria to play mas, in addition to picking up vital supplies.

In the end, we don’t see any Venezuelans, but after three hours liming in a bar, we see two bands of masqueraders. They’re smaller than anything we expect, and the costumes are more circa 1988 than 2015. Nevertheless, crowds of spectators are out in their numbers. That true Carnival feeling is in the air.

From the glossy magazine articles to the TV coverage, you might easily be fooled into thinking that T&T’s annual festival is confined to the capital. But Carnival in T&T is a truly national event, with festivities taking place all over the twin islands. While Port of Spain is undoubtedly party central, home to the mega bands famous for their tiny costumes, feathers, and perfect bodies, it’s not the only place to view mas — and for purists looking for more traditional elements, taking a trip outside the capital may be the best bet.

In recent years, the National Carnival Commission (NCC), the official body that overseas the festivities, has been focusing on regional Carnival celebrations. As a result, Carnival outside Port of Spain is thriving, with more and more people actually opting to stay in their communities to support their hometown mas.

Regional Carnivals are where traditional mas lives. Pierrot Grenades, Blue Devils, and Dame Lorraines are among the traditional masquerade characters you can find in villages across the country. In 2015, there were over fifty communities producing their own Carnival festivities, and each of them is known for specialising in a different character, or just having a unique aspect.

Carapichaima, for instance, in the island’s central plain, is famous for its whip-wielding Jab Jabs, dressed in colourful satin stripes. Paramin, the farming village in the hills of the Northern Range, is perhaps the best known of all the regional Carnivals, thanks to its Blue Devils. Groups of youngsters cover themselves in blue paint and head out to the village junction, where they compete for the title of best band. It’s become a staple event of Carnival Monday evening: crowds drive up from Port of Spain and tourists are bussed in for the spectacle.

Perhaps the biggest revival has been in stickfighting. Squaring off in a dance-like motion, duellers trade blows in the gayelle, to the accompaniment of drumming and singing. Nowadays the national stickfighting competition draws hundreds of people, with the grand finals held at Skinner Park in San Fernando.

Luckily, the NCC understands that T&T’s regional Carnivals carry the baton of cultural heritage. This year, to truly experience the festival’s tapestry of traditions, you might want to take a drive out of town. Who knows, it could become your own Carnival custom.


Their majesties

T&T’s King and Queen of Carnival competition may have lost some of the lustre of its heyday — but, Philip Sander discovers, among the elaborate costumes, moments of Carnival magic still happen

It is the Friday before Carnival, and across Port of Spain the air feels electric. After weeks of building anticipation — not to mention dozens of fetes, concerts, and competitions — the Carnival season is nearing its climax.

Masqueraders are making last-minute alterations to their costumes for the Monday and Tuesday parade. Others are desperately trying to buy tickets to the hottest all-inclusive fetes of the weekend. In their panyards, steelbands are relentlessly rehearsing for Saturday night’s Panorama finals. And all manner of special effects and pyrotechnics are being set up for tonight’s International Soca Monarch finals, where the competition is fiercer than any Olympic 100-metre race.

Meanwhile, at the historic stage in the Queen’s Park Savannah, another of Carnival’s traditional spectacles is about to unfold. In years past, the King and Queen of Carnival competition was one of the festival’s headline events, sharing the programme at the Sunday-night Dimanche Gras show. In its heyday — until perhaps a decade ago — Dimanche Gras, televised live, was practically required watching for tens of thousands of viewers, keen to see and hear the contenders for the Carnival King, Queen, and Calypso Monarch titles. In recent years, faced with a declining audience for the many-hours-long event, Carnival organisers shifted the Kings and Queens to Friday night — meaning a significantly smaller audience for a competition that sometimes seems to have lost its spark.

Tonight at the Savannah, the paying audience in the Grandstand is outnumbered by the crowds lining the barriers along the “track,” the paved approach to the stage. Just outside the glow of the stage lights, dozens of kings and queens — both the large, complicated costumes and the seasoned masqueraders who will wear them — wait to join the queue.

Kings and queens started out as respected masqueraders given the responsibility to lead each band in the Monday and Tuesday parade, in elaborate and specially tailored costumes. By the 1970s, king and queen costumes had grown both in sheer scale — at their largest, they may span twenty or thirty feet — and in decorative extravagance. In their prime in the 1970s and 80s, designers like Peter Minshall and Wayne Berkeley created kings and queens for which “costume” is an inadequate word: they were kinetic sculptures, or massive theatrical floats. Caribbean art historians discuss Minshall’s Mancrab, king of Minshall’s 1983 band River, like their colleagues elsewhere discuss Picasso’s first Cubist paintings.

Perhaps the shortage of that kind of creative audacity in today’s mas contributes to a dwindling interest in Kings and Queens. But tonight, wandering among the costumes on the track, watching them inch up the ramp and onto the stage, I’m struck by the effort and energy and — sometimes — the sheer unbridled weirdness of these confections of feathers and fabric, sequins and gauze, with their swirling skirts or soaring wings, depicting everything from Greek gods to exotic fauna, UFOs to historical fantasia.

And sometimes, from inside the chaos of synthetic colour, a moment of true magic emerges. Like the 2015 Queen, The Sweet Waters of Africa, portrayed by Stephanie Kanhai of the tiny band Touch D Sky. She’s a moko jumbie queen, dancing on stilts, with a shimmering cape of translucent turquoise floating about her in defiance of gravity. The design is almost restrained, but Kanhai’s joyful performance brings the stage, and the audience, to life. And for a few minutes, the wonder of Carnival — the transformation of ordinary women and men into extraordinary beings — is happening before our eyes.

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