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A Quick Guide to Trinidad & Tobago Carnival

It's Carnival weekend in Trinidad and Tobago! Yesterday, Fantastic Friday, saw two of the biggest and most hotly contested events for the season – the 2014 Soca Monarch competition and the finals of the Kings and Queens of the Bands. Today, the spotlight will be on the nation's children during the Junior Parade of Bands, while tonight is the much-anticipated steelband Panorama finals. Even for the most seasoned Carnival lover, it's a demanding schedule to to keep up with, but one blogger, TriniGourmet, has decided to break it down, so that the whole Carnival experience is easier to understand.

Youngster in traditional "Indian Mas" costume.  Image by Mark Morgan, used under a CC license.

Youngster in traditional “Indian Mas” costume. Image by Mark Morgan, used under a CC license.

Naturally, she begins with an overview of the entire festival:

In Trinidad the Carnival season begins almost immediately after the Christmas leftovers have been put in the fridge and ends with a final 3-day frenzy that ends on Ash Wednesday. ‘Dimanche Gras’ takes place on the Sunday night before Ash Wednesday. Here the Calypso Monarch is chosen (after competition) and prize money and a vehicle bestowed. Also the King and Queen of the bands are crowned, where each band to parade costumes for the next two days submits a king and queen, from which an overall winner is chosen. These usually involve huge, complex, beautiful costumes.

She goes on to explain the meaning of “J'ouvert” [Jour Ouvert; literally "the opening of the day"]:

J’ouvert, or ‘Dirty Mas', takes place before dawn on the Monday (known as Carnival Monday) before Ash Wednesday. Here revelers dress in old clothes and cover themselves in mud, oil paint and body paint. A common character to be seen at this time is ‘Jab-jabs’ (devils, blue, black or red) complete with pitch fork, pointed horns and tails. Here also, a king and queen of the J’ouvert are chosen, based on their representation of current political/social events/issues.

Jab Jab, image by Quinten Questel, used under a CC license.

Jab Jab, image by Quinten Questel, used under a CC license.

Then, she describes what happens on Carnival Monday and Tuesday:

Carnival Monday involves the parade of the mas bands, but on a casual or relaxed scale. Usually revelers wear only parts of their costumes, and the purpose of the day is more one of fun than display or competition. Also on Carnival Monday, Monday Night Mas is popular in most towns and especially the capital, where smaller bands participate in competition.

Carnival Tuesday is when the main events of the carnival take place. On this day full costume is worn complete with make up and body paints/adornments. Each band has their costume presentation based on a particular theme, and contain various sections (some consisting of thousands of revelers) which reflect these themes. Here the street parade and eventual crowning of the best bands take place. After following a route where various judging points are located, the mas bands eventually converge on the Queen’s Park Savannah to pass ‘on the stage’ to be judged once and for all.

This year, there is some controversy over parade routes.

Image of a band on stage on Carnival Tuesday by Georgia Popplewell, used via a CC license.

Image of a band on stage on Carnival Tuesday by Georgia Popplewell, used via a CC license.

In another post, TriniGourmet blogs about the accompanying music of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival – soca:

The best places to see, hear, experience soca and calypso are the numerous fetes, reviews and tents that pop up over the Carnival season. Growing up there really was only competition that mattered, that was the one to be named Calypso Monarch on Dimanche Gras night. However nowadays, as the genre has grown and splintered, numerous concerts and competitions have popped up to meet the demand for musical expression and recognition.

Nowadays Trinidadian Soca music (itself a sub-category of calypso music) has spawned 3 distinct sub-categories.

1. Rapso: Trinidad dialect ‘hip-hop’ with smooth calypso melodies and bold socially conscious lyrics
2. Chutney-soca: A fusion of traditional Indian percussion and style of singing and Calypso
3. Ragga Soca: A fusion of Jamaican Dancehall and Trinidad’s Soca – uptempo calypso beat with moderate bass and electronic instruments.

Part 3 of her series is dedicated to the steel pan, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago:

The steel pan (not drum) was invented in Trinidad and is the only [surviving] acoustic musical invention of the 20th century. It should then come as no surprise that it is our national instrument and one that we hold dear!

Just like an orchestra, different types of pans combine to form ‘bands’. Steelbands.
Once a year the various steelbands (often with corporate sponsors) compete at Carnival time in a festival called Panorama.

One of the things that never fails to amaze me is the sheer passion and dedication of the panplayers who volunteer countless hours, memorizing 20 to 30 minute arrangements without the aid of sheet music, formal training (for the most part) or the visual metronome of a conductor.

Pans being cleaned in preparation for a performance.  Image by caribbeanfreephoto, used under a CC license.

Pans being cleaned in preparation for a performance. Image by caribbeanfreephoto, used under a CC license.

Next, she tackles one of the most popular parts of Carnival – the myriad of parties, called “fetes”, leading up to the big event:

If you are getting the sense that Carnival is one big long party you are right! So it only makes sense that one big long party would be made of many many big long parties as well. These parties in Trinidad…are attended by hundreds, sometimes thousands. Fetes feature the biggest soca artists of the season and can go on until daybreak. As the Carnival season draws near the number of fetes grows exponentially, and are not restricted to weekends either. It is not uncommon for people to attend a fete until well after midnight and then to go to their day job as usual.

Fetes are often held by schools and non-profits as fundraisers, by corporate sponsors and of course, by party promoters.

At a fete you will usually see people waving huge flags and other such colorful ‘accessories’. And of course no Trini worth their red, white and black would think of showing up at a fete without their own rag or ‘kerchief to wave and jump with. Fetes sometimes have ‘rhythm sections’ that add to the frenzied sound and atmosphere.

Finally, she blogs about “Dimanche Gras” or “Big Sunday”:

Here the Calypso Monarch is chosen (after competition) and prize money and a vehicle bestowed. Also the King and Queen of the bands are crowned, where each band to parade costumes for the next two days submits a king and queen, from which an overall winner is chosen. These usually involve huge, complex, beautiful costumes. In recent years however this traditional format has been tweaked and adjusted so that all of the above fall on different nights leading up to the Sunday Night.

The compositions performed on Dimanche Gras night tend to be socio-political commentaries on the issues of the day.

Image of traditional Carnival character "The Bookman" by Quinten Questel, used under a CC license.

Image of traditional Carnival character “The Bookman” by Quinten Questel, used under a CC license.

Of course, there are always fringe events that include aspects of the festival not mentioned here, including traditional Carnival character shows and re-enactments of the Canboulay riots, which birthed modern-day Carnival celebrations centuries ago.

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