About This Festival
The worldwide phenomenon of Carnival — that raucous party that occurs just prior to Lent in the Catholic tradition — has many manifestations depending on where it’s celebrated. But while Brazil gets all the attention for its party, the Caribbean island of Trinidad puts on an epic celebration of its own that’s not to be missed. Every year on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, this tiny island nation lets loose in a unique and colorful burst of tropical love that’s a year in the making during the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.
Origins of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
Carnival in Trinidad is a true hybrid celebration, originating when West African slaves began mimicking (and mocking) the lavish ballroom festivities of their French masters with their ornate costumes and dances. The West Africans adopted the elaborate masks and costumes while creating their own music using household items like sticks and pans. Eventually, the complex rhythms and melodies of this improvised orchestra evolved into the calypso music that forms the backbone of Trinidad Carnival to this day.
In the middle of the 19th century, slavery was outlawed but the tradition carried on, mixing calypso music with French influences to create another hybrid, the Caribbean-based genre of music known as soca.Then things really changed with the invention of the steel pan after World War II. The music of the region has never been the same since.
In 1950, the National Carnival Commission formed to secure the event’s place in the national heritage. Trinidad’s Carnival, music and culture also inspired another major international event—London’s Notting Hill Carnival in England.
A Feast for the Senses
The modern incarnation of the Trinidad Carnival is a bawdy, rum-flavored feast for the senses: dancing, eating, drinking, sweating—generally speaking, the biggest party (also known locally as a fête) that you can imagine. Carnival is definitely not a spectator sport. You couldstay on the sidelines if you tried, but what’s the point? Participate in the masor masquerade by purchasing an outfit or designing one of your own. Remember, this is the Caribbean: the emphasis is on sexy. Make sure you look the part. Feather boas, sequins, brightly colored undergarments and other such revealing clothing are the standard here. The less inhibited, the better!
Mas-makers are the real-deal, costume-making wizards behind the flamboyant outfits you will see in the mas bands. It’s a year-long undertaking. Launch parties are not just for Silicon Valley tech companies; the mas bands have their own launch parties in October just to give the public a sneak preview of the costumes. There is soca, rum and costumes — what more do you really need? You can buy the outfits too at around $100 and “play mas” as well.
Carnival fever takes over the island weeks (and months) in advance. Fetes get started early and most anyone and everyone throws one. The most notorious is the Brass Fête, a cross dressing free-for-all in Queen Park’s cricket ground held a couple weeks before the official Carnival. It’s rumored to be so wild it’s borderline dangerous, so travel in a group if you dare. The Saturday of Carnival, don’t miss the Panorama Finals, which is the epic pan drum competition. There are plenty of “panyards” to explore near Port of Spain, which host pan drums and scores of pan troupes practicing for the finals.
Monday and Tuesday are the peak days, definitely the ones not to miss. Festivities begin early Monday morning (like, wee hours early — you might still be partying from the night before, in fact!). This part of the Carnival is known as J’Ouvert, and is an exciting, messy way to start the festivities. This ritual represents the original Carnival-goers rebellion against slavery. Some dress as devils known as jab jabs, but most will just get doused in oil, cocoa and mud. This is informally referred to as the “dirty mas.” Come dressed in clothes that can be thrown away (not your fancy outfit that you’ve been preparing for Carnival!) and prepare to be slathered. It’s recommended that you arrive “pre-treated” in baby oil to ease clean-up after the sloppy affair closes out. You can do it on your own or register in advance with an official J’Ouvert band like the Mudders, which offer perks like heated and purified mud. Who wants cold, dirty mud anyway? Wash up, then come 8 a.m., it’s the Parade of the Bands, with the mas bands dressed in their finest masquerade costumes. The dancing and merrymaking continue all day and all night, so prepare yourself.
A popular tradition of Trinidad Carnival is the festive dance known aswine. When one wines, they gyrate their hips in response to their partner’s movements. This can happen en masse with a large crowd of people engaging in a big group wine. The wine is a common initiation into the party vibe of Carnival. When someone offers, make sure you say yes! It’s dirty dancing defined.
This is a party that has no borders — everywhere and everyone is a part of Trinidad Carnival for at least the five days leading up to Lent. On Port of Spain, you’ll find the public parades, with outdoor sound systems, floats and throngs of masqueraded dancers and other revelers. In addition, there are private or paid fetes that you can participate in as well. These include the epic and refined fete at the Hyatt Regency on the waterfront and Bacchanal Wednesday, a popular fete featuring live music and a full bar. There’s generally an all-inclusive fee for these parties (meaning booze and food) so come hungry and thirsty and make sure to get your money’s worth!
All in all, Trinidad Carnival is an epic good time and the perfect capper is a trip to Tobago for some chill, island unwinding after the party time. Both Store Bay and the less-populated Swallows Beach make excellent decompression zones after the furious activity of Carnival. But if you haven’t had enough, the partying masses migrate to the northern beach towns of Maracas and Manzanilla to revel in the sun in a huge beach party.