Trinidad Carnival: The People’s Party

Pat Ganase on Trinidad's Carnival (and why you should be there)

  • Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • David Rudder. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Carnival is not just about beautiful costumes and beautiful people. It's also about devils and dragons, mud and masks and music. Photograph by Bertrand de Plaza
  • A young pannist. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • It's the transformation from the everyday into the Carnival creature. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Women masqueraders outnumber men in Carnival five to one. Photograph by Sean Drakes

The real thing

Trinidad Carnival is first and foremost for Trinidadians. That’s the beauty of it. It’s hard to turn the Carnival experience into a conventional “export package” or a “promotional tool”. It resists all attempts to organize it as a mass-tourism event, a commercial bonanza, a cultural showpiece.

Many of its offshoots, in cities around the world, work well as a business and a tourist attraction, and Trinidadians seed and energise them: but back in Trinidad, where Caribbean Carnival was born, the event refuses to be tamed. Anybody and everybody is welcome to join in.

But Carnival is a festival for people, not for attracting the crowds or making money. Many of Carnival’s big events actually lose money; but nobody would dare to stop them for such a trivial reason as cash.


By dressing as their masters in those early days, Trinidadians achieved more than grandeur and high parody. With the mask, the powerless achieved power and the faceless fame.

Many of the traditional masquerades have virtually disappeared now, though some are being deliberately revived – “Old Time Carnival Characters” are being reintroduced to the mainstream Monday and Tuesday parades. The Moko Jumbies will certainly be there on their still stilts. But you will be lucky to see a Wild Indian, whose incomprehensible tirade was as much a part of his act as his body-painted costume, feathered and beaded.

And where is the authentic Midnight Robber, with his “speech” in impeccable but incomprehensible English to confuffle the bystander Pierrot Grenade? Where is the Jamette berating the dignified middle-class citizen for “child maintenance?” And where are the Dames Lorraine, hairy-calved men dressed as women; the Police and Thief; the African Witch Doctor; the sailors and fire stokers? Where is the dragon with his tail of scales, afraid to “cross water” and sentenced to balance perilously for eternity over the merest trickle at the edge of the sidewalk?

Women in mas’

Traditional masquerades have been replaced, for better or worse, by legions of women masqueraders jumping to the ever-faster soca beat, their costumes designed to expose the body, to celebrate femaleness in an age where the gender issue is supposed to be passé. These bands, thousands strong, include Poison, Big Mike and Friends, and the Young Harts. Keep an eye out too, for Savage, and for those veterans of the streets Wayne Berkeley (who holds the all-time record for winning the Band of the Year title) and Raoul Garib.

So the “masks” are different now. But their purpose is still the same: freedom, a brief freedom from the taboos that society holds closest to its heart. On Ash Wednesday morning, a man might walk into the bank — this most conservative and upright of Trinidadian institutions — and loudly and crudely address the counter tellers, young women smartly dressed in their bank uniforms, to their deep embarrassment: “Is you, I see you yesterday in the band, nothing left to imagine, winin’ up and winin’ down, yuh bumsee in front the TV camera. Now butter cyar melt in yuh mout’!”

Women today dominate the Carnival. Not as organisers, nor even as creators, but as the force upon whose backs the events are carried. They are the engine of the mas: babe or bacchante, women masqueraders outnumber men in Carnival five to one. Housewife, mother, lawyer, banker, teacher or drudge, she comes out to revel in her hours of freedom upon the stage, to bare her stuff for the television and the cameras, to lose herself in an annual outing of empowerment that leaves her content to be masked the rest of the year.


The music of Carnival rises fresh and vigorous every year. Calypso, the motor that carries the masqueraders along, acquires new nuances each season: and now the African drum and the Trinidadian steelpan are joined by Indian tabla and dholak, by tassa and harmonium (more than two-fifths of Trinidad and Tobago’s people are descended from India). Chutney rising — chutney, the music with one foot in traditional Hindu culture and the other in the frantic creole beat of contemporary soca — and it’s pushing calypso to higher heights.

This year, the crossover that was spurred last year by Hindi-singing Sonny Mann’s sweet paean Lootay La!, by Brother Marvin’s placatory Jahaaji Bhai (Brotherhood of the Boat) and Chris Garcia’s nonsense rhyme Chutney Bacchanal, will produce a chutney tent somewhere in Port of Spain.

For the calypso tents where the nightly entertainment includes hundreds of new songs by dozens of calypsonians, the season is a short one; tents open in the first week of January, and run until the climax of this year’s festival on February 10 and 11.

Kaiso House, the tent run by the organising National Carnival Commission (NCC), features the enigmatic Shadow with Calypso Monarch finalists like Kerwin DuBois, Tigress, Protector and Delamo. One of the undisputed kings of calypso, and a genius in composing music for the steelband, Lord Kitchener, celebrates his 75th birthday this year and continues to attract star billing at the Calypso Revue.

Carnival is also the panman’s parade. Pan — steelband, the music and the instrument that evolved in Trinidad more than 50 years ago and have since spread around the world — reaches its annual climax in the Panorama competitions of the Carnival season. Steel orchestras of 100 players — not many of whom read music — assemble every night, for weeks before the first competitions, to perfect the season’s tunes on this most innovative of instruments.

On Friday January 24, the traditional steelbands perform on the streets in downtown Port of Spain: the players walk with pans hung on straps around their necks, as the first performers did, and play on the move. On Sunday January 26, the first and biggest Panorama all-day fete takes place in the Savannah, featuring all the bands from north and east Trinidad. A second Sunday event, the national semi-finals, is carded for February 2.


“Jou ouvay?” Is it day yet? “Jou paka ouvay!” Not yet!

J’ouvert (or jou ouvay, from that old patois phrase) is the anarchic start of Carnival proper. In the pre-dawn dark of Carnival Monday fo’day morning, the streets are alive with creatures of the night, awaiting the proclamation of the reign of the Lord of Misrule. Carnival never comes early enough, it seems. “I never yet slept on a Carnival Sunday night,” claims NCC chairman (a primary school principal by day), Roy Augustus. The spirit of jou ouvay, he claims, is the transformation from the everyday into the Carnival creature. Jou ouvay too is changing, though it remains one of the most “spiritual” aspects of the Carnival for many participants.

Not necessarily in the way you would expect. My uncle would always dress as a woman for jou ouvay: woman’s panties and a huge bra generously padded with toilet paper. His hard hairy hockey-player’s calves would be emphasised by the highest high heels he could fit into. A hat, a fan, his coarse lips smeared in red lipstick, and he was ready for jou ouvay.

Today, one of the most popular jou ouvay portrayals involves mud or grease. The band gathers at a Woodbrook corner, where a large vat, containing the offending liquid of choice, stands on a handcart. One by one, the revellers dip and anoint themselves and each other, hair to toes, with slippery ochre mud. On another corner, Blue Devils. Red. T-shirted and tank-topped. The horned devils of Jocks-tuh-pose are begrimed with coal dust, horns on their head, their loins, their hands.

We are all present in jou ouvay, as at some Judgement Morning, the descendants of the jamette and sailor man, the inheritors of this kingdom of the street. Just follow a steelband, roll with a drum rhythm, fall in line behind a deejay truck. Until day break.

The mother of all Carnivals

This is Carnival time in Trinidad. That means great music, great partying, all the excitement of the warm-up period and the big masquerade on February 10 and 11. If you’re planning a trip, here’s what’s happening:

Traditional Carnival

January 11: Stickfighting, Basketball Court, Sangre Grande, 8 p.m.
January 18: Stickfighting, Fishnet Pub, Mayaro, 8 p.m.
January 25: Stickfighting, King’s Wharf, San Fernando, 8 p.m.
January 29: Stickfighting, Simplex Cultural Complex, New Grant, Princes Town, 7 p.m.
January 31: Traditional Carnival Character Festival, Harris Promenade, San Fernando, 12:30 p.m.; opposite Point Fortin Market, 3 p.m.
February 2: Viey La Cou, Queen’s Hall, Port-of-Spain, 1 p.m.; Traditional Carnival Character Festival, Old Railway Yard, Carapichaima, 4 p.m.
February 5: Carnival Individuals, conventional and traditional, Queen’s Park Savannah, 8.30 p.m.
February 6: Traditional Carnival Character Night
February 7: Traditional Carnival Character Festival, downtown Port of Spain, 2 p.m.
February 10: Traditional Carnival Character Festival, Main Street, Arima, 2 p.m.


January 24: Traditional Panorama, Frederick Street, Port of Spain, 7 p.m.
January 25: South/Central Panorama, Skinner Park, San Fernando, 4 p.m.
January 26: North/East Panorama, Queen’s Park Savannah, 11 a.m.
January 28: Tobago Panorama, Shaw Park, Tobago, 8 p.m.
January 29: Junior Panorama, Queen’s Park Savannah, 9 a.m.
January 31: Traditional Panorama finals, Arima Velodrome, 8 p.m.
February 2: National semi-finals, Queen’s Park Savannah, 11 a.m.
February 3: Arima Panorama, Arima Velodrome, 7 p.m.
February 6: Tobago finals, Shaw Park, Tobago, 8 p.m.
February 8: National Panorama finals, Queen’s Park Savannah, 8 p.m.
February 10: Neville Jules J’Ouvert Bomb Competition, 75 Edward Street, Port of Spain, 4 a.m.; Steelband Explosion, Woodbrook and St James, 8 p.m.; Bomb competition, Port of Spain, 8 p.m.
February 11: Las Lap, Harvard Roundabout, St James, 8 p.m.
February 15: Champs in Concert, Queen’s Park Savannah, 8 p.m.


January 17: Junior Calypso, Tobago, 9 a.m.
January 18: Junior Calypso, City Hall, Port of Spain, 9 a.m.
January 19: Junior Calypso, City Hall Port-of-Spain, 9 a.m.
January 25: Junior Calypso semi-finals, Mucurapo Senior Secondary School, 9 a.m.
January 31: Junior Calypso, Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, 9 a.m.
February 1: Carib Calypso Monarch Competition semi-finals, Skinner Park, San Fernando, 1 p.m.
February 5: Extempo Calypso, Soca Boat, Cruise Ship Complex, Port of Spain, 8 p.m.
February 7: Extempo finals (with Kings & Queens semi-finals), Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, 8 p.m.
Soca Monarch, Young King, Soca Chutney competitions to be announced. Calypso tent schedules: see the daily newspapers.


February 4: Kings and Queens of Carnival, Queen’s Park Savannah, 7.30 p.m.
February 6: Pre Dimanche Gras, Skinner Park San Fernando, 7.30 p.m.
February 7: Kings and Queens semi-finals, Queen’s Park Savannah, 8 p.m.
February 8: Junior Parade of Bands and Kings, Queens, Individuals, Queen’s Park Savannah and Port of Spain, from 8 a.m.
February 9: Dimanche Gras, Queen’s Park Savannah, 7 p.m.
February 10: Parade of Bands, streets of Port of Spain, San Fernando, Arima, Tobago, from 1 p.m.
February 11: Parade of Bands, from 9 a.m.

 For further information: National Carnival Commission, tel. (809) 627-1350/1, 1353/4, 1357/8, 1360; fax (809) 623-1391