Photography by Alex Smailes
Bright sun forces my eyes open. I blink. Staring up at a clear blue Caribbean sky, I look around to find myself lying flat on my back, with my arms outstretched and one leg in the air.
On my ankle is Rhys, my friend from the UK, tugging vigorously. “Get up, come on, you can do it,” he kept repeating. In my hand was an empty bottle of rum. It’s Carnival Monday and I fell asleep or collapsed in the middle of Queen’s Park Savannah. I tried to prop myself up with a pink plastic spear which immediately folded in two and I closed my eyes again with a ringing in my head.
Trinidad and Tobago has many celebrations throughout the year. Carnival is the largest and most significant, with almost a year in production of costumes, followed by months of fetes, calypso tents and shows. Finally, a five-day ritual centred around the Savannah’s main stage, beginning with the King and Queen Contest, where large caricature structures are judged (Friday), Panorama, where numerous steelbands compete (Saturday) and Dimanche Gras, a calypso show with the country’s greatest artists (Sunday).
Then the free abandonment of Jouvert, starting at 4 a.m., where painted demons, devils and mud run the streets and to conclude, the Parade of the Bands, where the streets are filled with beautiful costumes (Monday and Tuesday) before Las’ Lap around the Savannah and the first day of Lent, known as Ash Wednesday to repent the last few months’ excesses.
The region’s complex historical, social, cultural and political background gave birth to this celebration over 200 years ago. With roots and rhythms from Africa, pageantry and masquerade from colonial France, folk songs from Spain and Mother England supplying lords, landowners and numerous stupid laws to create mocking caricatures, born from slavery or post emancipation.
Apart from the King and Queen shows the “great mas’’ costumes have slowly chipped into retirement. Artists such as Minshall, Wayne Berkeley, and George Bailey have been replaced with more Brazilian-style beads, glitter and feathers pre-made in China, although fresh young designers, such as Sandra Hordette, have recently been doing a fusion of modern materials and old themes. However, there are still two facets of traditional Carnival that can still be experienced.
One is the wry calypsonians with their clever banter on topics and people of the day. In traditional ‘’tents’’ around town, kick back and enjoy old-time kaiso, hot, hot, hot soca and lots of humour—some subtle, some raunchy, but no topic is taboo and no one, from politician to priest, is spared. Larger venues across the island and off into the western peninsula offer huge fetes with modern soca artists and spectacular stage performances and thousands of partygoers.
Other events that give a sense of Carnivals past is the Viey La Cou show, a one-day event which showcases all the old-time characters including; bats with fearsome masks, moko jumbie stilt-walkers and some of the raunchy Dame Lorraines, large buxom ladies with huge, padded posteriors, and watch out for baby doll bands, who may cling onto an unsuspecting male and claim the toy doll in their arms is his child and extract a few dollars maintenance.
An extension of this takes place when the players move the show to country villages and you can experience what it used to be like in a rural setting, which is nice, as you’re away from stadium seating and advertising banners. Here, fire-breathing blue devils are free to harass ladies and police officers. Remember to offer a dollar to stay free of paint. You may also catch a glimpse of rarer bands, such as a cow band, made of sacking, gorillas and howling red Indians.
One cannot experience Trinidad Carnival without investigating the steel pan for yourself. It is a lot more than the single fellow tinkering away in the background of some restaurant in a flowered shirt.
Pan is a way of life as old as the oil industries that fuelled it. On the weeks preceding Panorama, the islands’ grand steelband competition, you can wander the pan yards around town to see bands such as the Renegades, Trinidad All Stars or venture further east to see awe-inspiring Phase II.
You hear pan before you see it. From a distance, you may hear a cacophony of noise, seemingly incoherent to the unaccustomed ear. But listen carefully and you will hear the skills of the pan man. And woman and child and even foreigner. Anybody can join a steelband, once you have the time and energy to put in practice.
Under acid green flourescent lights, in the middle of the noise, comes the repeated “taptaptap” on the side of a pan from the arranger signalling they are ready to start. The noise dies out. After a nod and mumbling that everyone but the audience understands and a few seconds of rare silence, it begins.
From a small rumbling in the bass section to a full-out pounding in the mid and tenors, they beat out an instantly recognisable song, from Bach to a latest soca song. The metal frames sway, bottoms swing and beer bottles are tipped, ensuring appreciated nods and gentle dance from the patrons.
So, there I am on my back in the Savannah. I recalled the pitch-black night in downtown Port of Spain, the thud of several bass lines echoing around the streets, the intricate metal clangs of a rhythm section of percussionists hitting on old brake drums, parts of cars, dustbins, empty bottles and anything else that they can find.
A demon covered in dripping red blood sticks out his tongue and rolls his eyes, a dreadlocked Rasta with horns and a long tail, which doubles as a whip, twists and turns before cracking it on the ground. An Indian girl with bright eyes and teeth, reaching out, smears me in blue paint. I saw Rhys disappear arm in arm with two little brown female devils with plastic horns, who smeared liquid cocoa paste all over themselves and then him. This was Jouvert—Trini style.
A quart of Black Label rum later and donning pink women’s bloomers and an orange wig, I ended up on South Quay, a convenient safe judging point to watch the final procession.
Five a.m. and with some relief, pinkish streetlights and shadows make way for shards of orange sunrise which creep through Woodbrook. I headed home through the nightmarish organised chaos, dodging music trucks stuck on tight bends with a few stragglers still chipping to a beat, oblivious to the new dawn. Past the odd groups of friends caked in dried clay from a mud band, stumbling left to right like a scene from a bad zombie movie, munching on a hot bake and shark. And occasionally, a glimpse of an old-time resident dressed in the now quaint traditional bat costume, with skinny black-stockinged legs and quivering wings.
Last stretch around the stadium, when suddenly a posse of pink and white moko jumbies rushes towards me, children on eight-foot stilts, skillfully avoiding collisions, with their long legs wading in slow motion. I’m home free; a bag of hot spicy doubles starts to leak on my car seat but it doesn’t matter. To my relief, Rhys also survived the night! I find him drinking fresh coffee with red eyes. Little is said except an acknowledged glance. It was his first. But after a quick dip in the pool and scrub under a shower, we transform into the plastic hybrid of what is today known as pretty mas.
The liquor-fuelled morning continued with a few more Jamaican coffees laced with generous dashes of local Vat19 rum and we find ourselves in bright white sun on the pre-stage line up. It begins: the frantic search for your section, toilet for your girlfriend, beer for the building heat. The surreal site of an insurance building with three bikini clad women bustling past in a flurry of beads, feathers and trainers. An old gentleman in a cream shirt jac and felt hat sips an ice-cold Guinness on the steps of a crooked home, taking it all in with an expressionless face.
It’s 8 a.m. The beers have replaced water, the sun, noise, sweat, tension and glitter-filled dust rise and we round the bend to the main stage’s entrance. Work colleagues, friends, acquaintances, your bank teller and a glimpse of a familiar face all collide in the first stretch.
An ancient human kinship of tribal gatherings envelopes the beautiful, sculpted bodies and curved women of Trinidad and Tobago. Individuality reigns, yet band members unite in a flirtatious mass of colour. Skin and heavy bass lines. It is moments away, just in sight; you can taste, hear and smell Carnival in every cell.
Then, with masqueraders like racehorses at a starting gate, the flags go down and there is a frantic rush over the stage. Section after section, people jump, jam, wine, wave, scream and shout. Rhys is once again lost in the midst of the throng, thongs or both. I’m sure I saw one of my editors doing the Dog dance on all fours! I took the last swig of now warm beer; I do a double take as she’s now doing the Reverse Dog on her back! Pretty girls, big, tall and small jostle for the media corner, security officials gently persuade previous sections off the stage but a few rebels break ranks and make a mad dash backwards to rejoin the hedonism.
Within what seems like minutes, it’s over, you’re spewed out the other end of the fun machine and as you gaze around collecting yourself you realise only one thing: time for another beer.M