Trinidad Carnival — come turn yourself on

Your complete guide to Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival. Here's all you need to know on where to go, what to do, how to join in, and what you can expect this year with costumes, mas bands, steelbands, Panorama and calypso tents

  • Grandmaster Kitch. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • The rhythm section of Exodus. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • The late Rudolph Charles. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Bringing Desperadoes on stage. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Photograph by B De Peaza
  • Brian Honoré as the Midnight Robber. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Photograph by Brian Weltman
  • Photograph by Brian Weltman
  • Map
  • Hosay celebrants. Photograph by David Wears
  • Dragging the mud bucket on South Quay. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • The late Kitchener with friends on the Savannah stage. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Atlantik performing at last year's Brass Festival. Photograph by B De Peaza
  • Bunji Garlin. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • D Rough Rider from Barbarossa. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Minshall releases balloons in the Savannah. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Alison Hinds. Photograph by B De Peaza
  • Sugar Aloes. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Harts crosses the Savannah stage. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

So you’ve come to Trinidad Carnival because you heard it is the world’s biggest street party? It has been touted as that and more: the most colourful festival, the mother of all carnivals. From here flowed the carnivals of Labour Day in New York, London’s Notting Hill, Toronto’s Caribana, Miami, Jamaica, Washington DC, Boston, Melbourne, and most other West Indian islands.

But the rich texture and tapestry that is Trinidad’s national festival is not to be glossed over by tourist tag lines. If you listen instead to the soca poems composed and sung each year, you will get a sense of the social, emotional and transcendental role that carnival plays in the life of Trinidad and Tobago.

Last year, for instance, amid the clamour of the new millennium — Carnival 2000 became C2K — one of the enduring echoes was an almost spiritual concept: “all ah we is one.” Alison Hinds and Square One sang it in Togetherness. After Carnival, the soca-chutney Real Unity was just beginning to get airplay; it was a collaboration that counterpointed soca and a Hindi love song.

Everybody looking at we
How we wining in unity
Is Mr Machel with Drupatee
And we moving like a big family
And that is real unity . . .

Machel’s banal lyrics and Drupatee’s other-worldly aria succeeded — at last — in bringing two main streams of Trinidad culture into the festival.

In the fetes, in the mas camps, in the panyards, and finally on the streets, let yourself be part of the river of culture that flowed from ancient Africa, Europe, India and the Far East: the Ganges and the Nile, the Danube and the Yellow River too.

Yes, there is confluence, as well as many streams to follow. You will find roots, side by side with on-going experimentation and innovation. Look for the tiny pockets of traditional mas — devils, midnight robbers, dragons, bats and sailors — amid the uniform throngs of modern mas, accompanied by deejays and live singers on huge trucks. This tremendous diversity sustains the old-time mas-players like Narrie Approo, encourages youngsters like Brian Honoré to explore the traditional forms, and fosters the creativity, and the commercial instincts, of bandleaders like “Big Mike” and Friends.

In the Carnival, we hope that you’ll arrive at a real personal experience, what Tony Hall calls “the awakening”, which comes to each participant through the mas or the music.

Come turn yourself on
over and over
Come let your feet do the talking tonight!

Ayana, Big Beat: Andre Tanker

Beyond the oil drum

In the last century, Trinidad and Tobago invented the steelband. Pan music reached the concert capitals of the world, and the tones of pan can be heard in world beat and pop music recordings. Last year, Pan Europe held its first music festival in Paris, attracting participants from 11 European nations.

But to experience pan in the place of its origin, and where experimentation still takes place, is to witness the progress and potential of the instrument in relation to the music it was born to play.

To the untrained ear, it can be sheer cacophony. But soon,  you’ll distinguish the mellifluous from the strident, the strumming “guitar” pans from the tenors, the throbbing basses and the iron in the “engine room”. Pan was called forth by the need for an instrument to replace the drum, which had been banned by the colonial authorities. It was later elevated from biscuit tins and dustbins to oildrums, and refined through the latter half of the last century into the musical creature that has charmed communities from China to Maine, from Brazil to Norway.

The annual Panorama competition is the premier pan festival in the world. Though it is structured as a series of competitive play-offs, eliminating all but the very best by the final night, this is really the Olympics of pan. Every band’s a winner, the pride of communities across the two islands.

In traditional pansides, the pans are supported around the necks of the players. They are able, like the first steelbands, to play on the move. All the big steelbands, however — like Desperadoes, Tokyo, All Stars, Renegades, Exodus, Fonclaire, Invaders — create impressive musical arrangements for 100 players and masses of pans, in situ. High tension and interaction with the audience produce magical performances and exciting competition.

In the weeks leading up to the competitions, all steelbands are at practice in their panyards. You’ll find one in almost every part of the country, including Tobago. They welcome visitors who will honour them simply by listening while the players graduate from the first bars to complete awe-inspiring performances. Join the all-day fete in the Savannah for the marathon preliminaries that start around noon and end next morning.

One of the most sublime experiences is to follow a steelband into J’Ouvert, and then to watch the sun come up with the sound of steel ringing you around. Close to it, but emotionally different, is the “last lap”, with the steelband winding down to the end of Carnival at midnight on Tuesday. The silence then is deafening.

Mightier than the sword

Most of the music arranged for the pans is composed by calypsonians. You’ll hear many of the new recordings on the radio stations. But to truly appreciate the broad spectrum of calypso topics, the clever lyrics and innuendo, double entendre and satire, you must seek out the calypso tent for an entertaining education.

Here, you are brought up to date with the issues of the day, presented with distinctive personal perspectives and in highly entertaining language. The Prime Minister or politician sitting in the front row may be subjected to subtle or unsubtle tongue-lashing, with a spontaneous new verse for the occasion.

Many calypsonians whose work is never recorded perform nightly in the tents. Satire and laughter bubble to the surface in the songs of Cardinal, Pink Panther, Trinidad Rio, Cro Cro, and calypso guests from the other Caribbean islands. Listen to the streams of soca, chutney, ragga, blending with true-true kaiso. New lyrics and arguments are presented in perennially fresh or ageless traditional styles.

On occasion, the casts of two tents will stage a “clash”. Calypsonians from one tent will be pitted against the other by energeticMCs, building up to a climax that never answers the question “which is better?”

New soca stars leading bands, like Machel Montano with Xtatik, Wayne Rodriguez and Horyzon, Sanell Dempster and Blue Ventures or Alison Hinds and Square One are likely performers in the calypso tent. But for many of these musicians and their bands, their arena is the fete, their own concerts, or the Brass Festival. Soca (the name is derived from “soul calypso”) is faster, with more beats per minute, and usually involves some catchy phrase — Jump! Wave! Throw your hand in the air! — that can be sung by the crowd.

Calypso is built on a vigorous and rich oral tradition that expresses itself in other ways, such as the “speech” of the midnight robber, the chant of the Black Indian, the pseudo-American twang of the minstrels.

Carnival 2001 CDs are hot off the press in the first weeks of the year, and great buys for souvenirs or gifts.

Soca like water

Soca fuels the fetes. Soca bands are the pied pipers of the parties. A fete features non-stop loud and pumping music from live bands and deejays, and a heaving collective, thousands of participants “wining” and dancing. It is the place to have the popular music pumped like so much adrenaline from the soles of your feet to the tingle at the top of your scalp. Look out for live bands like Horyzon, Machel Montano and Xtatik, Blue Ventures, Square One, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires from Jamaica, or Surface. You’ll find fetes in clubs and tennis courts, school yards and sports grounds. Top of the line are the “all-inclusives” which provide music, food and drink for the flat price of a ticket. It’s easy to lose yourself in the massive press of people at fetes, so line up your posse and hold on to each other in the dance.

Royalty and the road

Whoever the Carnival throws up as its leading lights in one year are challenged for the crown in the next. Nothing lasts forever. The king must die! Long live the king! Dust to dust. This is the essence of Carnival, “society’s great leveller,” a force for equality and liberation.

Carnival is an emancipation exercise in the face of the norms and strictures of “civilised society”. The early participants parodied their masters and rulers, kings and potentates. They went further and invoked, through masks, power that was not theirs. These are the rituals of psychic liberation, enacted from year to year. Carnival is the fount. The road is the arena.

There are kings and queens in every aspect of Carnival. The calypsonians compete to be Calypso Monarch, Soca Monarch, Chutney Soca Monarch, and Road March King. Prizes include large purses or cars. The competition is serious and fierce. Participants will even take the judges to court if they feel cheated.

The Kings and Queens of the mas bands are elaborate and expensive contraptions, now with smoke and mirrors, intended to overpower a Carnival kingdom and bring it into submission. In recent years, it is a case of “bigger is better,” or “more is more”. This was not always so, and long-memoried mas-players will point back to some kings who impressed with their performance. For example, Peter Samuel’s king costumes designed by Peter Minshall, among them The Serpent, The Midnight Robber, The Sacred and the Profane.

This year’s kings and queens are more likely to send up fireworks and rockets, and to flash laser lights that will dazzle the Dimanche Gras night. You may not even see them on the road after that.

Send in de ground troops

From Carnival Monday at 4 am to midnight on Tuesday, all the action takes place on the streets.

If you intend to play mas, book your Carnival costume as early as possible. Many mas camps now have sites on the Internet from which you can choose. Even at the last minute, it is sometimes possible to find a friend of a friend to get a costume in their band.

The choice of what to play extends to when and where. There’s J’Ouvert, with bands offering rudimentary accessories (tail and pitchfork, a couple handfuls of mud) and music for a nominal fee. There are the bands that play Monday and Tuesday in the Parade of Bands. There is Monday Night Mas. There are bands in Port of Spain, Arima, San Fernando.

There’s also a wide range of big, medium and small “pretty mas” and traditional bands concentrated around the city and main towns. Routes are generally pre-determined in a big circuit around the city, past the main judging points. On Monday, bands appear late, lightly costumed. Serious accessories are saved for Tuesday, when masqueraders gather from as early as 8 a.m. on the parks and green spaces near their mas camps.

You’ll notice a change in the atmosphere from as early as Friday afternoon as the working city slowly shuts down. The glass windows of commercial buildings are shuttered. Banners and bits of costumes stream out of cars. There is purposeful bustle and heightened energy. Huts and sidewalk shops sprout along the main Carnival routes in the city, around the Savannah and on Cipriani Boulevard and Ariapita Avenue. Life comes into sharp focus.

It’s almost curtain time. The streets are the main stage (though many consider the main stage the Savannah). As David Rudder put it last year, it’s time to

Send in de ground troops
High heels and gym boots
Send in de ground troops
Petty bourgeois and grass roots . . .

2001 Bands

Band            Presenter     Portrayal     Address
Barbarossa     Richard Affong     The Arena     26 Taylor St., Woodbrook
Poison     Michael Headley     Culture Shock     1 Harroden Place, Petit Valley
Harts Ltd.     Thais Hart-Robinson    The Unknown     5 Alcazar St., St Clair
Funtasia     Ernest Turpin     Now and Beyond     36A Maraval Road., Newtown
Legends     Mike Antoine/Ian Mckenzie    2001     88 Roberts St., Woodbrook
Masquerade     Earl Patterson    A Tribute     49-51 Cipriani B’lvd, Port of Spain
‘D’ Midas Associates    Stephen Derek     Dynasty in the Desert    177 Kitchener Street, Woodbrook
Trini Revellers    Dave Cameron    Dave Cameron     16 Queen’s Park East, Port of Spain
Showcase Associates     Showcase Committee    Through the eyes of Tomorrow    124 Oxford St., Port of Spain
Rampage     Wrenwrick Brown    Mythical Legends     127 Charlotte Street, Port of Spain
Mervyn Castle
De B.O.S.S.   Churchill George    Faces and Places     107B Belmont Circular Road,Belmont
Mt Hope Connection     Keith Carrington    I Trini Music     3 Berbera Avenue, Macoya
Berlin Inc     Charles Mendoza     A Journey Far East     L’Anse Mitan, Carenage
Ivan Kalicharan     Ivan Kalicharan     In Our Space    17 Harris St., San Fernando
Miguel Marchan     Miguel Marchan     High Mas     65 Rushworth St., San

What’s with the music?

For many, the driving, pulsating rhythm, with its heavy reliance on bass, Jamaican dub and American hip-hop, isn’t even music (gasp), far more soca. But for Mark Lyndersay, a new generation is simply staking its claim

The music of Trinidad’s Carnival is usually riotous and exuberant, but last year even the soberest of calypso elders seemed ready to revolt. The reason? A radical twist to the calypso beat, one heavily influenced by Jamaican dub music, European techno and American hip-hop.

For want of a better name, it became known as raggasoca, but that only describes it as an offshoot of the market-dominating soca sound.

Leading into Carnival 2000, raggasoca and its brethren — party soca, conscious soca, chutney soca and dub soca — dominated the radio stations which cater to the young generation. The rhythm was fierce and everyone was ready to ride it. New artists like Maga Dan and Bunji Garlin worked the dub beat, while rapso performers like Brother Resistance and 3 Canal found a wider audience. It wasn’t so much new music as the expression of changes that had been brewing for years in calypso music. At once, it seemed, fevered youthmen were abandoning a musical heritage more than 100 years old.

The music is a mad mélange of influences. There are classic brass brand bridges, kaiso refrains and whining synthesiser riffs ripped from the pop charts. The eerie techno hum anchoring Jay Dee’s spirited Ay Yo is lifted from British techno band Prodigy’s Breathe. The harmonica refrain trailing out of the chorus of Precious’s Riding It comes straight from Paul Simon.

The year 2000 was a delicate time in the shaping of calypso music: even as eager young men chanting the lyrics of the street stormed the stages of Carnival, two of the island’s most revered calypsonians died. Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman) had, as Lord Shorty almost 20 years before, created an equally controversial and catchy hybrid from the soul music of the 1970s and the lyrics of calypso to create what he called sokah, a revolutionary advancement on the calypso beat. Sokah, or soca as it came to be called, merged the syncopated snap of high hat and an earthy bass line that anchored the soul music of Philadelphia and Detroit with the soaring brass of calypso. The music, and its first major hit, Endless Vibrations, was as universally embraced by the youth of the day as it was reviled by the calypso elders of that time.

Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), who had long ruled the road march arena, took the time to denounce the fledgling soca, but later went on not only embrace the music but also to write one of its classics, Sugar Bum Bum, a heartfelt paean to a lush posterior. By mid-year, both men were dead, a passing of the guard in a year in which the new troops were eager for action.

The postures were all too familiar, echoes of two decades earlier. Elderly, sage masters of the form frowned and predicted a dire future as sweating young men and women with energy to burn whipped crowds into a frenzy. The raggasoca invasion was led by Machel Montano, a child of soca, who made his debut 19 years ago singing Too young to soca. Over the years, the precocious boy became a curious teen, eager to take control of his music. When his peers drifted in the direction of Ice-T and Buju Banton, he was ready to respond. Montano didn’t just record the most thoroughly hit-laden new soca album of 2000 with Here comes the Band: he collaborated with everyone, from Grenada’s Tallpree to Trinidad’s well-known bandleader Peter Minshall, who took a star turn on I Was Afraid.

At the Caribbean Sound Basin in the final weeks of Carnival, mixing down Real Unity, his late-out-the-gate blockbuster duet with chutney star Drupatee, Montano was sanguine about the most outraged reactions to the new music. “Them fellas worrying about this thing, but we filling stadiums,” he said, his voice an overworked whisper. “They ketching they tail to get people to come to a club.”

Riding the controversial heart of Jamaican dub influence was Bunji Garlin, who recorded The Chronicles, a stunningly mature work from an artist in only his second year of performing. Garlin’s casual confidence was to take him straight to the top in 2000, as he swept away his competition in the RaggaSoca competition finals. In a startling demonstration of absolute artistic confidence, Garlin broke away from his recorded lyrics during his performance there of Gimme the Brass, his rhapsody to soca’s horn jams, rapping fluently about his difficulties trying to get to the stage. In another age, calypsonians might have called that a moment of inspired extempo.

In 2001, Trinidad and Tobago will continue trying to figure out what all these diverse influences will finally create. Trinidad’s youths have staked out their space in the music of their carnival. Young people command bands like Poison and Legends which demand taut, sensuous flesh for their sleek, minimal costuming, and these hard-won forms demand tough, commanding music, a blend of hard, funky backbeats, driving bass chords and horns that blast away at a madcap pace. Their concert audiences are the largest ever gathered to listen to local music, and they number in the tens of thousands, jammed together, pushing and shoving for a space to raise a rag, wave a flag, swing a hip and scream ecstatic pleasure to the heavens.

It isn’t kaiso, nor is it really soca, but it is the raw enthusiasm and expression of a new generation exploding into the fete with lyrical candour, a heated rhythmic pulse and an exuberantly youthful lack of respect for everything that has gone before.

Trinidad & Tobago Calypso Monarchs 1980–2000


2000    Shadow    What’s Wrong With Me, Scratch Meh Back
1999    Singing Sandra    Voices from the Ghetto, Song for Healing
1998    Mystic Prowler    Vision of T&T in the Year 2010, Look Beneath the Surface
1997    Gypsy     Rhythm of a People, Little Black Boy
1996    Cro Cro    All yuh Look for Dat, Dey Cyah Stop Social Commentary
1995    Black Stalin    In Time, Tribute to Sundar Popo
1994    De Lamo(tie)    31 Years Old, Trinity is my Name
Luta(tie)    Good Driving, Licensed Firearm
1993    Chalkdust    Misconception, Kaiso in the Hospital
1992    Mighty Sparrow    Both of Them, Survival
1991    Black Stalin     Black Man Feeling to Party, Look on the Bright Side
1990    Cro Cro     Political Dictionary, Party
1989    Chalkdust    Chauffeur Wanted, Carnival is the Answer
1988    Cro Cro    Three Bo-rats, Corruption in Common Entrance
1987    Black Stalin    Mr Pan Maker, Burn Them
1986    David Rudder    The Hammer, Bahia Girl
1985    Black Stalin    Ism Schism, Wait Dorothy Wait
1984    Penguin    We Living in Jail, Sorf Man
1983    Tobago Crusoe    Don’t Cry Now, South Africa
1982    Scrunter    The Will, Lee Kee Ting
1981    Chalkdust    Things that Worry Me, I Can’t Make
1980    Relator    Food Prices, Take ah Rest Mr Prime Minister

The rite of jouvay

J’Ouvert, or jouvay: literally, jour ouvert, the “opening of the day” that launches Carnival on the streets. It is usually announced at 4 a.m. on Carnival Monday. Many revellers go straight from the fetes to the street, gathering at appointed places around steelbands, music trucks or hand-carts with barrels of mud or paint. Tony Hall tells us where it came from and what the process means


Carefully put on old clothes, the sacred costume. Plan to get nasty, “dutty.” Listen for the whispers and rumours of getting to the meeting place: where oh where will we meet? I see them, I see them. They forming up already.

Mud, mud and more mud

Bring your bucket, tin cup, plastic bottle. Walk with your mask, a fork and a tail. Reach for the mud, molasses, ashes, soot, grease, paint, chocolate. Put mud on each other. Slap it on. Daub it all over. Ooh! Cold and dripping. It soaks through the hair making the scalp tingle, through the T-shirt to skin and bone. No mirrors here. Your community makes you how they want you, looking like them. You do not see your self. But fingers, fingers, their fingers make you in their image. Let the hands of the community reshape you, remake you. Hands all over your body make you theirs, take you over.


DJ Steel-skin, who was drumming in the distance of your imagination, music in your head, in the yard — in the insomniac fete — becomes a moving reality. The road make to walk at last, moving forward, back and forth. The champion chantwell, a tragi-comic bad behaviour sailor in striped pyjamas, is grinning in a drain as he sings this refrain, again and again: “They say ah ain’t ready, that ah coming too early; but . . .” and back and forth and back. SIREN! SIREN! In the band boy, look, look something resembling the colonial police in this day and age, trying to break this band — what, ambi-valence? — and back and forth and back — what is that? in this city? — birth certificate of insurance? For the road? We fight for this, boy, we fight for this space! For all that is evil, pay the devil, pay the devil. Oh, oh, so much unnecessary pain again and again. Your own people fight for this boy! Look, speak to the respectable chinee gentleman in the back, this band going so, go so, go so.

On the Move

Rock the boat, rock the boat, rock your ship, and back and forth and forward. Look skin drums with a black bareback trombone in a green wig with two quaily orange for breasts — ambi-valence — rocking into the dance. Not enough steel — rocking into the dance . . . More steel, more steel . . . ambi-valence . . . yet in spite of . . . We getting more and more certain. Young boys with flying buckets of mud. Rush to this side for cover, and rush so and rush so, but why? So we go so, back and forth and back and forth again, and back and forth and back and forth again, chipping chipping feet until you become one, chip one, one chip. Chip one-we-one chip. Chipping chipping feet, holding us together. Chipping chipping feet, holding us together, tighter than a chain.


You start to feel and become aware of your unique self in the reflective darkness only when you become one with everybody else. The percussion of one-ness fills your head. The percussion of one-ness gyrates inside out, back to back and belly to belly, back to belly, belly to body, and body to body . . . beating one. One beat.


You feel and see the community in the new light of the opening day, opening eyes, eyes open wide, eyes wide open, eyes open shut, eyes shut open. Eye and eye spirits walk the land and disappear as this new light peeps through. Daybreak, inner souls greet you and struggle to stand by you as never before. You hug them, they hug you, rub up on them, they rub you, hug up on them, rub for rub . . . a ritualistic, rhythmic orgasm. An ahhhhh! Bacchanal! Fertile, fertile, fertile earth. Hold on forever. Hold on. You can’t. Hold on. You can’t. Hold on. No one can. Ever.

The Light

The sun? The sun! Wash off the weary mud quietly at the font. A standpipe sings a delicate drizzle to your feet. Hurry up, the others waiting. Change the costume. Go in, to come out later in the day.

The Canboulay Riots (1881-1884)

Were a clear message from the people that the street was their gayelle. The street constituted a space for which people were prepared to fight, a space which they insisted should be reserved for them to explore their humanity (however they wished) and thereby to come to terms with who they were, where they had come from and what they could become. And so the sugar cane workers, covered in soot from the burning canes (cannes brulées), claimed their right to the road. A ritual space of celebration and festivity. A space for reflection. A space in which they would affirm their presence again).

The Hosay Riots (1888)

They were not only uprisings fuelled by a desire for freedom of religious practice and processioneering. These riots brought into the street the same Canboulay people to continue the tradition of defiance they had begun. They therefore joined in a ritual of solidarity with the Hosay devotees, calinda meeting gatkha, to fashion together what are now annual emancipation ritual dances through the street. These dances must continually be fought for in every successive era because the national brown protectorate turns away from its own traditions, and gets its moral authority from imperial and colonial pretensions. “The features will change, but the fight is still on.”

Similar historic events of resistance and affirmation, which have been within the new-world emancipation tradition over the years, make up a Canboulay/Hosay system. The Canboulay/Hosay system in the emancipation tradition gave us the street, the venue of the Jouvay. The Canboulay/Hosay Riots of the late 19th century were a clarion call to all who could hear, or would listen, that a new-world synthesis was beginning. This was going to be something all-inclusive, not exclusive. It would include everyone and exclude no one.


Jouvay began in these events of emancipation and solidarity. It gathered strength and sustained itself as re-enactment: the theatre in the yard overflowing onto this emancipated street, in the darkness before the dawn. We transformed ourselves into the folk characters of our imagination, crossing over through burlesque. We paraded and parodied those who attempted to hold sway over us for the rest of the year. Jouvay is a uniquely Trinidadian process of awakening, by which we are able to awaken others.

In the full experience of the stages of Jouvay, you at once realise the gift of the universe to you, your unique singularity. Now every Jouvay you return to renew your knowledge, to re-anoint your faith in life. And in that renewal, you stand up for everyone around you. To live up to this communion with others, and through it for the rest of the year, is our gift to the universe.

Tony Hall is a Professor in the English and Drama departments at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. His Jouvay Popular Theatre Process is an approach by which various principles of J’Ouvert are used to unlock fundamental truths about the nature of creativity and learning. This process was used to create his award winning stage plays, Jean & Dinah . . .  Speak Their Minds Publicly (1994) and Red House (Fire! Fire!) (1999), as well as in educational and personal development workshops with artists, students, teachers and community leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

The way it was

Pat Ganase on traditional Black Indian and Dragon Mas

He collects cobo feathers, chip-chip shells, discarded wrapping for lumber from the docks. He buys bridal satin, sequins and braid. Friends bring him strands of river beads, lengths of crushed velvet. He puts them all together in an original costume as he works out his chant and choreographs appropriate movement. On Carnival Monday and Tuesday, the transformation is complete. The streets are his stage.

Pay attention to the legend of the Black Indian as he weaves his way through the throngs of pretty mas. Listen for the scout or flying adjutant who calls out:“Dah-ke nanga na troop tagee-bah radoo hey me-wan looka-now!” (A troop of Indians is coming this way, so prepare yourself for battle.)

It is late October and Narrie Approo declines to “put on a mas for the camera.” He is bare-backed in the heat. His smooth, mahogany-dark skin sets off neatly-trimmed white hair combed back. In the photographs around his living room, he sports a white moustache and goatee. But there are other pictures of Approo, carefully stored and dated in plastic albums, photographs that he would be loath to let out of his sight for even a day.

They tell the other story of Narrie Approo, Black Indian, King Imp, carnival artist and mas-maker. They are snapshots of a process of transformation far removed from the small concrete house and quiet lifestyle of a 70-something widower retired to the suburbs of Arima.

Here is Narrie the imp, an over-size devil mask covering his head, wire wings quivering upon his back, and in his hand the scales of justice. There are Black Indian costumes, basic black highlighted by gold or green or fuchsia. He made all his costumes. A small series of black and white photos, taken in the early fifties, shows an elegant skeleton: this one was painstakingly painted for a dance combat with arch-rival Clarence Young that never took place.

Narrie Approo grew up in the mas and pan heart of Port of Spain — John John, Laventille. His first mas, he remembers, was in 1934. Not yet seven, he played a Jab Molassi. Short pants, and lamp-black applied with oil, an old biscuit pan to beat, maybe a cowhorn and chain, and the “molasses devil” acquired an aggressor’s heart and scared the living daylights out of people on the street.

His father, Rupert “Skidoo” Phillip, was the founder and leader of the Red Dragon band, and Narrie played in it with his brothers and sisters. Skidoo was one of the best moulders of devil masks in Trinidad, passing on traditions from Patrick Jones, leader of the “khaki and slate” dragon band of the early 1900s. Skidoo’s brother George Phillip used to play minstrels, and later clowns.

In 1937, Narrie played a sailor in the band USS Oregon. Ten or 12 players made a good-sized band; 30 or 40 was a big band. Setting the pace was a chantuelle, “making bassa bassa” with the rest of the band providing an answering chorus.
In the same era, Narrie was initiated into the band of Black Indians in which his godmother, Theodora Thompson, was queen. Heroes of the Dark Continent was led by Claudius Pierre of St Ann’s. Their colours were black and gold.

Narrie says the Black Indian tradition honours the slaves who ran away from the southern plantations in the USA to live with North American Indian tribes. The presence of an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Laventille gave them a language, which the king and queen used in their speeches. The costumes featured headpieces similar to those of the North American Plains Indians, but colour and language made the difference.

“We always made mas with we mouth,” says Narrie. “And if you played Robber or Indian, you had to practise your speeches. You had to pass a test by running off certain passages for the king. And you had to answer any challenges on the street.”
One year that stands out in his memory was 1959. He played dragon that year. Desperadoes, the steelband from the top of Laventille, played Noah’s Ark. Another steelband from San Juan played Battle Cry. Cito Velasquez had an exquisitely decorated fancy sailor band called Fruits and Flowers.

“We were coming down the road with Noah’s Ark in front of our dragon band, and [the steelband] Tokyo behind us,” remembers Narrie. Cito’s Fruits and Flowers was in front of Noah’s Ark. “When the San Juan band met Desperadoes, it was war! Everybody mas get mash up. ”

The tradition of combat didn’t only apply to steelbands. Mas was competitive too. If two sailors met on the street, they would compete in dance. Robbers, devils and Black Indians would try to outdo each other in speech. “You had to be prepared to defend yourself, with sticks if necessary. Buss head and bloodshed were real.” Narrie says, “You couldn’t put on a costume, and when you are challenged on the street, back away saying ‘Ah only playing a mas’ . . . You had to do battle.” That would usually mean a dance display, or a verbal exchange. But on rare occasions, the spears or sticks would be used.

In 1962, Narrie brought out his own dragon band, Hell’s Dragnet. Nobody paid to be part of it, but they made their own costumes. The colours were red and gold. Narrie played the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Renowned mas-player and dancer Clarence Young played King Beast. The music on the road cost $350. There were competition centres all over town in addition to the Savannah and Downtown Port of Spain. There was a judging point for Black Indians at La Cou Harpe in Belmont. La India Club was the only point for judging dragon mas. Coombs Drugstore, Besson Street and Woodford Square were other competition points where the prizes — a tea cup and saucer, a torchlight — mattered less than winning.

In the late 50s, the Black Indian tribe passed to Claudius Pierre’s son Manuel. Today, The Warriors of the Black Tribe are now called The Last of the Black Tribe and Narrie is the leader. The traditions of the Black Tribe were steeped in the Shango tent, where Narrie studied the rhythm and learned to beat the drum.

Black Indians, like the bands of “US armed forces,” sailors and dragons, were organised in a hierarchical or military fashion under the king. There would be subalterns and flying adjutants in charge of the warriors. The queen was to be protected. The flying adjutant was like a chief scout, running back and forth to control the band. He would go forward to challenge other bands to stop and talk, or declare war.

Narrie maintains the traditions of the Black Indian, and has started recording some of the speeches, a rolling guttural thunder of syllables which may be without literal meaning but are full of menace.

The costumes and headpieces of the Black Indians incorporate expensive imported fabrics alongside found materials. They are constructed with wire-work, moulds, papier-maché or painstaking beadwork. Narrie has on occasion hunted cobo (corbeaux, carrion crows) in the La Basse with a slingshot, for their feathers. “Cobo feathers better than chicken, or even turkey.” Another year, he pierced and sewed chip chip (a small mussel found on the east coast) shells, one by one, onto a bodice.

He turns back to the early 50s when he made the skeleton costume that he never danced. “Two fellas were mamaguying me. They say Clarence Young — then the best dragon dancer — was looking to challenge me. I started practising all kinds of steps, ballet, Indian, Shango. I was looking forward to a clash with Clarence. I took an axe handle and made a blade, and danced with that weapon, through my legs, over my shoulder. That year, Clarence didn’t play.

“Next year, we played together. We never competed. Clarence was a most graceful mas dancer. He could dance every character in the dragon band. And I loved a dancing mas, especially Imp who dances up on his toes, bending and swaying. We used to run round the Savannah to get in form.”

In the dragon tradition, the dance evolved around reluctance to cross water — holy water — which even a dry streetside canal suggested. “You start dancing, and you could hold a crowd for 20 minutes, half an hour, giving money. We would have ‘pretty mas’ (from the big bands) watching us in the crowd. Mas watching mas!” Narrie chuckles at the memory of his favourite dancing mas, King Imp. But it became too hard for him to continue dancing on his toes.

In the 80s, when he was working on the wharf, he decided to play Robber. Andrew “Puggy” Joseph, Agent from Death Valley and Master Midnight Robber, offered to write speeches for him. Narrie declined. He had already selected his identity, Horang the Devil, a derivative of his favourite King Imp, Holorang from Hell. He used the plastic paper in which lumber arrived on the wharf. Black on one side, white on the other, it was a new material which he shredded to decorate trousers, sleeves and the skeleton mask. In 2000, Horang de Cocaine was garbed in bridal satin, black and white accented with royal purple.

Narrie’s mas for 2001 has not been completely decided yet. He is still responsible for The Last of the Black Tribe. Hamilton Thompson from Carenage will be the king. Narrie is planning to play Black Indian on Monday. But he’s savouring the thought of playing a Fireman with Jason Griffith on Tuesday. He’s making the costume for a “nice Chinese lady” who wants to play sailor. With a twinkle in his eye, he says he would not want her to play by herself in the sailor band. There’s only one small problem. Boysie, who comes from New Jersey — “He is a very good talker, playing since he was 16” — wants to play Black Indian with Narrie on Tuesday. Perhaps he can be persuaded to play on the Monday, and join the sailor band on Tuesday?

“People like to play mas with me,” says Narrie.

If you want to see Narrie’s 2001 costume and performance, look out for The Last of the Black Tribe crossing the Savannah stage early. On the streets, they’ll be stalking the unwary, to remind us of when mas made us afraid. Listen for the voice like rolling thunder. Hold still for that moment of terror when your path is crossed by a band of Black Indians.

“Thrappo! Thrappo! Bah-you me bam-bay heereeboo boyou wham neeboo keecha kahooree hooree washa-wil cut-up ah tau-lay indee kan na di ghee nareeboo!” (Stop! Who are you? Where do you come from? What tribe do you belong to? And what is your grade?)

Strong men and rude girls rule

Will Legends make it a hat-trick this year? Pat Ganase meets the men who count

All the big bands — Masquerade, Minshall, Young Harts, Funtasia, Poison, Barbarossa — must pay attention to what masqueraders want, in order to attract the thousands to play mas in their costumes. More and more bandleaders attract their following based on efficient security, a high level of organisation (websites, marketing and reliable costume delivery) and costumes that are flattering and revealing rather than concealing. This is the trend that has put large bands like Legends in the limelight.

Just five years old, the Legends team has won the Band of the Year trophy and most of the prizes in the Queen’s Park Savannah for the last two years. They want to make the hat-trick in 2001.

“Mas is woman!” declares Ian McKenzie. “Mas is the big stress reliever for women. We honour them by giving them the kind of mas they want. Eventually all bands will follow suit. Women are the ones demanding this kind of costume. I would say that 80 per cent of our band are women.”

Ian McKenzie and “Big Mike” Antoine are owners of the Legends mas business. Their partnership started when, as bodybuilders in the same gym, they produced a section in Edmund and Lil Hart’s bands. In the 80s, when the trend was towards form-fitting, body-revealing costumes, men in mas were already on the decline — ten women to one man, it was said.Bringing back men in mas was one of the objectives of these bodybuilders.

Mike is a champion Mr Trinidad and Tobago and a gym instructor. Ian, employed by First Citizens Bank, used to work out with him. Their section of “strong men” in the Harts’ productions was a sexy answer to the large numbers of nubile and near-naked nymphs who flooded into the masquerade bands every year. Mike and Ian succeeded in bringing more men onto the streets, and brought with them a new focus on fit and shapely bodies.

As the Harts’ band got bigger, some section leaders split off to form their own bands. Mike and Ian were part of one of these splinters, which became Savage before splitting again into Barbarossa and Poison.

In the mid-1990s, Big Mike and Ian left Barbarossa to produce their own band. Today, their Legends costumes are minimalist and formulaic: sexily-cut two-piece swimsuits in strong solid colours. Sequins, feathers, beads, paillettes and embossed fabric adorn the basic suit. Capes and flags to wave or swing add movement.

Legends was born in Carnival 1996, after a J’Ouvert band and practice sorties for Barbados Crop Over and Miami Carnival in 1993. “We started overseas before we did anything in Trinidad,” says Ian. With just over 800 players, the first band, designed by Joanna Fereira and Nicole Cobham, was the winner of the Medium Band of the Year, Downtown, that year, and placed second in the Savannah.

The second Legends band in 1997, designed by Nicole Cobham, was called Time. In 1998, the band graduated into the Large Bands category with 2,000 players. Since then, the costume designs have been by Roger Myers.

Success came early. In 1999, the coveted Large Band of the Year trophy and most of the Savannah awards came to their Dynasty. Streets of Fire, last year, was the second winning big band for Legends. For 2001, costumed members are expected to reach 3,500.

Because the band has been marketed extensively outside Trinidad and Tobago, members now come from New York, Washington DC and Atlanta, other Caribbean islands, and from London, Italy, Austria and Sweden in Europe. The Legends team has produced bands or assisted mas-makers in Barbados, St Lucia, Grenada, New York, Miami, Texas and Boston. In 1999, they worked for ten other Carnivals, including New York and Boston where their collaborative efforts produced winners. No external band, except Barbados, usually involves more than about 250 costumes — Barbados goes to about 1,500.

Ian says that 2001 (the band is the year) is futuristic and positive. If the hallmark of Legends’ bands has been a strong accent on youthful, well-toned handsome bodies, the 2001 band takes this even further and, says Ian, “projects wealth and riches.”

The feature musical act is Square One with Alison Hinds, the Barbados group which Legends has promoted since ‘95.

“We manufacture all costumes in Trinidad,” says Ian, “and for that reason some of the other Caribbean islands consider our costumes imports.” This has not deterred anyone. “Carnival is our culture, and for that reason Trinidadians don’t think twice about taking night to make day in order to meet the deadlines for mas. There is not this same approach in other places. I believe that wherever Carnivals are successful, it is because there are Trinis behind them.”

The core of the security force comes from 350 volunteers — bodybuilders, soldiers and employees from security companies — who have the responsibility of marshalling and monitoring the sections of the band. They conduct seminars to deal with street control and organisation. Full post-mortems on every aspect of the production are held each year: Mike and Ian are constantly seeking constructive criticism and new ideas. Most of all, they are always on the lookout for ways of improving efficiency and cost-effectiveness. “This is where a lot of the work outside adds up to help us refinance and inject money into the Trinidad band.”

Finances were tight in the first four years, but, with two successful big band winners, Ian feels they are now breaking through. Legends will be doing everything possible to bring home that third title this year. Not only would it be a tribute to one of the fastest-growing bands in Trinidad, but to a successful business. l

Midnight Robber, Dragon and Bat

Brian Honoré is a school librarian and actor. He has appeared in calypso tents under the sobriquet Commentor, producing calypsos of social commentary and protest. He uses the idiom of the traditional mas character, the Midnight Robber, as his vehicle for political commentary. Here, Honoré talks about what playing mas means to him.

Viva Zapata

I must have been five or six. This was in the early 1960s. I was going to Tunapuna RC primary school. My mother was away in England, because I wrote her a letter to ask her to send a big hat and belts with bullets for this side and the next. I was playing a Mexican revolutionary. It is possible that I’d seen the character in a movie, or in a steelband mas. But that was the first mas I played.

Around the same time, I was accosted by a midnight robber. I never forgot the experience. It was a Carnival Monday morning, quite early. Suddenly the robber appeared in front of me blowing a whistle and brandishing what to me was a “real” gun. In no time at all I was behind my mother’s skirt as I heard the robber declare his intention to eat me for lunch or dinner if I did not surrender my “treasure.” The terror of the experience was one thing. But to become the source of such terror — that would be something else!


Before 1981, I was more involved in calypso, first in Sparrow’s Original Young Brigade, then the Kingdom of the Wizards. Later on, I appeared in Calypso Theatre.

In 1991, I got hooked on Rawle Gibbon’s theatrical re-creations of some of the great eras of calypso. In Sing de Chorus, I played King Radio, who I consider the Dancehall King of the 1930s. His music was light, danceable. But he also produced some sharp political commentary: a calypso on the sedition law under which Butler was charged in 1937. In that sense, the 1970s was again like the 1930s: full of protest and political commentary. And maybe it was also creeping over to the mas.

In 1980, Peter Minshall designed Danse Macabre. Its king was the Midnight Robber, played by Peter Samuel. I recall Minshall’s Robber; striding the Carnival stage like the Phantom at the crossroads of Trinidadian folklore. This was the robber I had encountered as a child in Tunapuna! As Samuel paraded the Dimanche Gras stage, I realised, “But dis robber can’t talk!” I vowed then to give back to the robber his power — his most deadly weapon, his speech, his robber talk.

Reincarnation of O’Cangaceiro

The next year, 1981, for my calypso performance in the tent, I decided to challenge Minshall’s robber as the Brazilian bandit O’Cangaceiro. He was a Robin Hood kind of character. The calypso was called Duel of the Midnight Robbers, and it was addressed to Minshall’s voiceless robber in the robber idiom:

Stop! Stop! Stop! You mocking pretender,
Get down from your throne.
Peter Minshall, your midnight robber
was only a mas of bone.
When he come out to kill or slay,
He have to point a revolver at me.
When my robber come to plunder,
All he need is a ball-point pen . . .

Tell Minshall give me back mih crown,
Give me back mih crown!
I am the king robber in town!

Encounter with the Agent of Death Valley
In those days, Burrokeets used to have a big Carnival Saturday event at Belle Eau Road in Belmont. They used to have a robber talk competition. It was there that I met Andrew “Puggy” Joseph who tricked me into playing robber on the road that year. He asked me to meet his band on Carnival Monday by the big samaan tree on Jerningham Avenue, at 12 noon. When I got there, he jumped out from behind the tree. He blew his whistle, a loud shrill stop-in-your-tracks whistle, and proceeded to give me talk:

I am the agent of Death Valley.
From the day my mother gave birth to me,
the sun refused to shine.
The earth started to tremble!
Terror hit the city streets!
At the age of one, my toys were cannons and machine guns . . .
At the age of two, I had met and slain all mockmen like you!

And O’Cangaceiro replied:

It was a grave mistake in nature’s plan
when your parents first pitched you forth upon this land.
For the day I was born . . .
Philosophers and scientists said the world had come to an end.
But no! It was I, O’Cangaceiro . . .

Plenty more talk. Whistles shrieking furiously. And then I asked him, “Where de band?” He said, “Me and you!”

Mystery Raiders Robber Band

Together with Puggy, we started a “band” called Mystery Raiders Robber Band, and recruited a few more robbers. We were about 10 for Carnival 2000, including Abideme Pollidore, a girl. There’s Dwayne Lewis, son of Pretty Boy Floyd, who started when he was 11. Anthony Collymore goes by the title Melancolly Maurauder; Narrie Approo is Horang the Gentleman Bandit. Midnight Robber from Mars is 16-year-old Fedon Honoré. At first he was reluctant, but when he realised that he could make money from it, he got into it.

You can write a midnight robber speech from almost anything. It’s a form of poetry, a literary art. If you don’t have a word, you make up something that conveys your meaning. You usually start with humour — not just hyperbole, but malapropisms, inventiveness. A robber without speech is worthless. Puggy, who played midnight robber for 40 years, used to emphasise the need for the robber’s speech to be contemporary, to be political commentary.

In 2000, my speech was Midnight Paver, a comment on the way in which part of the Savannah was paved in the dead of night. In 1991, the quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the new world, I critiqued the discovery myth with Christopher Son of Lucifer, beginning the speech in Spanish. Something to match the might of Brian Lara was delivered in The Prince of Batsmen. The Satellite Robber dealt with cultural imperialism. Puggy had an excellent one on Hurricane Hugo, which we intended to make into a geography lesson, from the mouth of the hurricane, so to speak. Puggy died in 1997, and it was never completed.

Your money or your life!

The Midnight Robber demands payment. He does not seek tribute. He does not try to convince you of his existence. It’s not about love. It’s about maintaining thousands of years of history, the griot of our African ancestry. If you don’t say and mean “Your money or your life?” what kind of Robber are you? This is the consummate Carnival avenger, for all the wrongs done to the race, the country, the nation. Puggy is the one who best let us know what it’s all about: “My great grandfather’s treasures were stolen. His life was taken. And it was from then I became a Midnight Robber!”

Dragon Beast

I played other mas. In 1990, I had a calypso called Dragon Slayer which was political commentary on the interventions of the International Monetary Fund in our economy. My costume was a dragon made from coconut branches. I was the Nightmare on Coconut Drive, and the next year, I used it in the Carnival.

The dragon movements are based on the concept of the beast in Revelation. He is a creature of fire, and basically a coward. His mime occurs in conflict with water, with its symbolism as Holy Water. So when the dragon/beast meets running water, how does he get over? His whole dance at the edge of the drain, or “canal” as sidewalk drains are called, is centred on crossing the water. He can dance as long as it takes to draw a crowd, and collect the money that’s thrown. I learned the devil steps from Desmond Sobers, well-known as Jim Bill, who started as an imp and worked his way up to Lucifer in a traditional devil band.


In some years I’ve played more than one character. In 1996, I was bat, dragon and midnight robber. The bat is a totemic representation of power from the animal kingdom. The bat dance always fascinated me. I used to see Edgar Whiley training young boys at Eastern Boys’.

When I set about creating my bat costume, I got help from Scipio Padilla, garment construction teacher, and Carlton Alexander, art and craft teacher, both at Malick Government School where I worked for 15 years.
The bat moves from side to side, making small steps and fluttery movements as he opens and closes his wings. All the traditional mas characters have characteristic movements.

— Interview by Pat Ganase

Where to see traditional mas

• Viey La Cou, Queen’s Hall, February 11

• Downtown, Carnival Monday

• Savannah, Carnival Tuesday

• Savannah, judging of traditional mas, February 21

• Arima, Carnival Monday

• Carapichaima, Carnival Monday.

Where The Panyards Are

Port of Spain

Belmont Fifth Dimension
14 Upper St Francois Valley Road, Belmont
Belmont Harmonic
131 Belmont Circular Road, Belmont
31 Belmont Circular Road, Belmont
3 Norfolk Street, Belmont
Crescendoes Musical
19 Laventille Road, Desperlie Crescent, Laventille
D Untouchables Pan Groove
205 Pioneer Drive, Sea Lots
WITCO Desperadoes
Laventille Road, East Dry River
Blue Diamonds
George Street
BP Renegades
138 Charlotte Street
BWIA Invaders
Tragarete Road
Crazy Golden Eagles
George Street Community Centre
Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars
46 Duke Street
Carib Tokyo
2A Plaisance Road, John John
Cocorite West Wind
Upper Harding Place, Waterhole, Cocorite
La Creole Pan Groove
La Puerta Avenue, Diego Martin
1 Bagatelle Road, Diego Martin
Maraval Blanca 47
Morne Coco Road, Maraval
Maraval Millennium
Morne Coco Road, Maraval
Panazz Players
14 Trinidad Crescent, Federation Park
Petrotrin Phase II Pan Groove
Hamilton Street, Woodbrook
Silver Stars
56 Tragarete Road, Newtown
Woodbrook Playboyz
24 Woodford Street, Newtown
T&T Police Steel Ensemble
Central Police Station, Wrightson Road
St James Tripolians
Fort George Road, St James
Scrunters Pan Groove
Jeffers Street. St James
T&TEC Powerstars
114 Western Main Road, St James
World Wide
Mt. Hololo Road, St Ann’s

East/West corridor

Pan Stereonetts
Cumana Village, Toco
Sangre Grande Cordettes
38 Foster Street, Sangre Grande
Arima All Stars
Malabar Road, Arima
Arima Angel Harps
Cor. Eastern Main Road & Olton Road, Arima
Nu Tones
6 Coryat Lane, Arima
Pan on the Move
Sorzano Street, Arima
Samaroo Jets
Surrey Village, Lopino Road, Arouca
Cor. Connel & Harris Streets, Tunapuna
Eastern Main Road, Tunapuna
Curepe Scherzando
Evans Street, Curepe
Carib Pan Jammers
Samboucard Road, Cantaro Village, San Juan
Chord Masters
Laventille Road, Febeau Village, San Juan
InnCogen Pamberi
Santa Cruz Old Road, San Juan
San Juan All Stars
20 Saddle Road, San Juan
Fascinators/Pan Symphony
1 Lammie Street, El Dorado
Potential Symphony
Upper Sixth Avenue, Malick
Churchill Roosevelt Highway, Morvant Junction, Barataria
San Juan East Side Symphony
Eastern Main Road, Barataria
Solo Pan Knights
157 Eastern Main Road, Barataria
Morvant Kentonic Pan Ensemble
10 Petunia Avenue


Longdenville Claytones
Depot Road Junction, Longdenville, Chaguanas
New Age Trendsetters
Francois Street, Enterprise, Chaguanas
Tropical Angel Harps
SMR Enterprise Village, Chaguanas
Couva Joylanders
Railway Road, Couva
Cosmic Music Makers
Dow Village, New Settlement, San Fernando
Dottin Street, San Fernando
Hydo Agri Skiffle Bunch
Coffee Street, San Fernando
Kalamo Kings
116 P’tville Avenue, San Fernando
Jadoo Trace, Via Navet Road, San Fernando
Lady Hailes Avenue, San Fernando
La Romaine Super Vibes
Southern Main Road, La Romain
La Brea Nightingales
9 Secondary Avenue, Pt D’Or, La Brea
346 Fanny Village, Point Fortin
Jah Roots
Ernest Gardens, Warden Road, Point Fortin
New Creation
Gonzales Village, Guapo, Point Fortin
20 Richardson Street, Point Fortin
Petrotrin Deltones
Railway Road, Siparia
Siparia Pan Patriots
Alexander Street, Siparia
Rio Claro Koskeros
Railway road, Rio Claro
Ortorie Village, Mayaro


Our Boys
Kirk and Fort Street, Scarborough
Pan Fanatics
Bacolet Street, Scarborough
Tobago All Stars
Wilson Road, Scarborough
New Edition
Buccoo Village
Tobago Buccooneers
Chance Street, Buccoo
Carib Dixieland
Mt Pleasant
Redemption Sound Setters
Montgomery Road, Bethel
Martineau’s Natural Mystic
Patience Hill
West Side Symphony
Patience Hill
Dem Boys
Mason Hall
Hope Pan Groovers
Hope Village
T&TEC East Side New Dimension
Zion Hill, Belle Gardens
Tobago East Stars
Tobago Pan-Thers
Golden Lane

Cruising the panyards

Explore some of the country’s panyards with Terry Joseph

A major part of the pre-Carnival excitement in Trinidad and Tobago is available at no cost to the panyard visitor who wishes to catch the steel orchestras as they prepare for the prestigious Panorama competition.

For the annual Panorama contest, which this year stretches over a two-week period from February 8th, each band must play a ten-minute version of a calypso. Some bands commission special calypsos, while others work with the more popular releases of the Carnival season. The bands practise nightly for weeks before the preliminary round begins; the work intensifies among the bands that get past the first hurdle of competition.

What is special about these rehearsals is the re-engineering of the band’s chosen calypso. In most cases, the musical arranger takes a calypso melody (the basic statement of which seldom extends beyond two minutes), adds drama, develops variations on the theme, introduces key-changes, cascades and crescendos, and turns the piece into a virtual suite.

In the larger bands, more than 100 players rehearse nightly, to tighten the work and give the orchestra its best shot at a cash-prize worth some US$15,000. The major incentive, however, is the prestige of being a member of the Best Steel Orchestra in a given year, a title that offers invaluable marketing possibilities for the winning band.

The bands come in two forms: conventional orchestras with instruments set up in clusters and mounted on racks; and single-pan bands, whose players carry their instruments by means of straps around the neck. Bands in both categories are assigned to geographic zones: north, east, south/central and Tobago.

Visitors who want to follow this activity from an early stage are presented with convenient choices. Former regional or national champions, and the stamp of quality performances, are available in every zone.

The reigning national and northern region champion is the Witco Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, which won the 2000 Panorama. This celebrated band is located on the Laventille Hill in east Port of Spain. In the 38 years of competition, Desperadoes has won ten times. Led over the years by some of pan’s legends, including Wilfred “Speaker” Harrisson and Rudolph “The General” Charles, Desperadoes embodies some of the richest moments in the history of the steelband movement.The orchestra has accompanied Luciano Pavarotti and played some of the world’s finest music halls.

Currently under the leadership of Curtis Edwards, with Clive Bradley as musical arranger, the band is going all out to secure a hat-trick at this year’s Panorama competition, and further stretch the slim lead it now holds over its arch-rivals, the BP Renegades.

Renegades are based in a sprawling panyard on Upper Charlotte Street in Port of Spain. Ranking close to Desperadoes (having secured nine national titles), they are one of Trinidad’s oldest bands, and feature some of the best players, under the musical direction of Jit Samaroo.

For those who get there early (around 8.30 p.m.) limited seating is available in the Renegades panyard and (as in most panyards at Carnival time) food and drink are on sale.

Just south of the Renegades panyard, at 46 Duke Street, is the Neal & Massy Trinidad All Stars. This band offers limited parking facilities at the panyard. Led by Beresford Hunte, All Stars is another repository of steelband lore, having crossed its 60th birthday and still going strong. The band has delivered some of Panorama’s finest memories and has taken home the top prize on four occasions. A highly disciplined outfit, All Stars can be counted on to present the visitor with fine entertainment, even if the band is simply going through a section of the tune, repeating the phrases to get it right.

Among the bands in west Port of Spain providing good ambience and viewing facilities is BWIA Invaders. Easy transport is available from the city centre — just ask for a taxi going to St James and let the driver know that you want to visit the BWIA Invaders.

Although Invaders have not been in winners’ row, they offer some of the finest music you will hear in any season. Their airy panyard is located on Tragarete Road, opposite another of the city’s landmarks, the Queen’s Park Oval. Early visitors may get spaces on the benches, but be warned that Carnival is not something you would wish to take sitting down.

The same taxi route that gets you to the BWIA Invaders will take you another four blocks further west to the PCS Starlift panyard, near a traffic interchange called the Roxy roundabout. Three-time winners of the national title, Starlift rehearses in a spacious setting, replete with the inevitable bar service.

When you leave Starlift, walk one block east, then turn south along Damian Street and follow your ear to the Petrotrin Phase II Pan Groove panyard. Indeed, during the pauses in Starlift’s rehearsal, you can hear Phase II (as the band is fondly called). Led by one of pan’s most celebrated virtuosi, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Phase II has become famous for presenting original music, a determination that took them to the top of the standings for two successive years in the 1980s. Since then, the band has remained in the top five at the national level, and has won the zonal playoffs on five occasions.

For those who will be staying east of the capital city, there is the amphitheatre setting of the Exodus Steel Orchestra. And with its musical arrangements being handled by Pelham Goddard (whose work in the calypso arena has produced the 13 most popular recordings in the last 23 years), there is a guarantee of good music from Exodus. To get there, you need to find a taxi going to Tunapuna via the Eastern Main Road, and tell the driver where you’re heading (give him a couple of reminders along the way).

Exodus is the pride of the east zone, having won that zonal title on 12 occasions, plus the national championship in 1992, and last year topping the mighty Desperadoes in the Champion of the 20th Century contest on Carnival Sunday night.

Also of major interest in the east zone are the InnCogen Pamberi, Nu Tones and Solo Pan Knights Steel Orchestras. Pamberi is on the Santa Cruz Old Road (which is reached via San Juan), Pan Knights is on the Eastern Main Road in Barataria, and Nu Tones, the 1998 national champions, can be found at Coryat Lane in Arima.

In Central Trinidad, the Tropical Angel Harps is your best bet. A Chaguanas taxi will get you to their panyard, but you should make arrangements to get home, as late night taxis may be hard to find. Tropical Angel Harps has won the south/central zone playoffs on four occasions, most recently in 1999. The band offers a tidy panyard and scintillating music in a setting that requires a drive through lush greenery and country scenes.

In San Fernando, on Coffee Street, is the TCL Group Skiffle Bunch, winners of last year’s World Steelband Festival, led by Junia Regrello. This highly-travelled band has a well-decorated panyard; its musical arranger is American jazz musician Andy Narell, and its history includes two victories in the zonal championships as a conventional orchestra. In its earlier manifestation as a single-pan band, Skiffle Bunch won on seven occasions.

Also in San Fernando at the corner of Fonrose and Claire Streets is another prize-winning band, which took its name from its location. Fonclaire, led by Milton “Wire” Austin, has taken the south/central title on 12 occasions since 1973.

If you’re going on to Tobago, check out Our Boys Steel Orchestra, right in the capital of Scarborough. Led by the president of Pan Trinbago, Our Boys has toured extensively with Andy Narell, and at home has had the good fortune of working under some of the best musical directors, including Jit Samaroo and Boogsie Sharpe. In operation since 1954, Our Boys has taken the Tobago zone title on seven occasions, made five trips over to Trinidad for the national semi-finals, and is the reigning zonal champion.

In Montgomery (in the Bethel area), you will find the only conventional orchestra led by a woman, Redemption Sound Setters, whose most recent visit to winners row came in 1997, when it won the national small band championships.

There are hundreds of steelbands of varying sizes (including traditional single-pan bands) sprinkled around Trinidad and Tobago. A good tour guide will give you a rewarding trip, with whistle-stops at various rehearsals.

Happy listening.

Carnival without Kitch

Some people seem to have been around for ever in the constantly changing world of Caribbean music. And the longer they’re with us, the harder it is to accept when the day finally comes that they’re no longer here.

Their careers span decades and generations, rather than weeks and months. You grow up listening to them, and, after a while, they become part of the fabric of your existence.

Last year, calypso said a sad final farewell to a man without whom it will never be quite the same: Aldwyn Roberts, known to calypso aficionados world-wide as Lord Kitchener, or simply Kitch. With the greatest respect to all the other wonderful calypsonians, there’s never been anyone quite like him. And — sadly — it’s safe to say there never will be again.

For Kitch was the product of a Caribbean that no longer exists. Many will argue that this isn’t exactly a bad thing. But there were some redeeming virtues to that bygone era, and one of them was a way of life that fashioned the music, the humour, the humility and, ultimately, the genius of Kitch.

In Trinidad, the home of calypso, he was, quite simply, revered. Kitch was the quintessential Trini: quick-witted but quiet and gentle, simple but perceptive, rakish in his trademark trilby, and with a wicked sense of humour. In his case, the package also included a spectacular gift for melody, a way with words they don’t teach in university, and a strong social conscience.

In fact, not only the quintessential Trini but also the quintessential calypsonian.

His musical career, which started in the 30s, had many highlights. Among them was the distinction of leading triumphant Caribbean supporters in a musical procession around the hallowed Lord’s cricket ground in London in 1950, after the West Indies had clinched their first-ever Test series victory. It was a day that marked the coming-of-age of one of international sport’s great dynasties, and the image of deliriously happy West Indian fans dancing around the normally staid Lord’s behind Kitch and his guitar is one that will live forever in Caribbean sporting history.

Kitch’s love of cricket was perhaps surpassed only by his love of pan — steelband music.

Kitch, whose father was a blacksmith in Arima, wrote many of his most memorable melodies for the steelpan, and his compositions have been played by the winning bands a staggering 19 times since Panorama, the steelband contest that is one of the highlights of Trinidad’s annual Carnival, began in 1963. It was Kitch who wrote the first calypso specifically for the steel pan — a tune called Beat of the Steelband, back in 1944.

A top steel orchestra in full flight is almost impossible to describe in mere words, and one of the most treasured memories I have in a lifetime of following music is Kitchener, looking nearer 40 than his actual 70-plus, acting as a virtual cheerleader as his memorable Bees’ Melody was performed by the Amoco Renegades at Panorama in 1992.

Kitch was also the king of the road at Carnival. His compositions won the coveted Road March crown a record ten times between 1963 and 1976.

Fittingly, he left us with a musical gift, a superb 1999 CD titled Classic Kitch, that features one of his finest pan compositions, a lovely song called simply Pan Birthday. And the CD proves that advancing years had not diminished his remarkable gift for composing lilting, catchy calypsos.

There’ll never be another Kitch, unless the Caribbean experiences a highly unlikely social transformation that takes us back to a gentler place in time.

— Garry Steckles

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