Beat the crowd
Trinidad Carnival isn’t until mid-February, but there’s a LOT of feting to be done beforehand. And, says Yolanda Zappaterra, the run-up might even be better than the main event…
Wa’ you wanna be? You wanna be a baby doll? Burrokeet? Jab jab? Blue devil? Midnight robber? Moko jumbie? Or you wanna play bikini mas with thousands of sequinned and feathered masqueraders, rollin’ your bum-bu-lums and practising your chippin’ and winin’ on the most exuberant road march in the Caribbean?
You can be whatever you want when you play mas at Trinidad Carnival, which climaxes on 12 and 13 February 2018. But whatever you do, don’t miss the build-up. Many visitors fly in just for the big two-day event, before making a sleepy recovery for a few days on white-sand beaches.
But, as with so many things in life, when it comes to mas, anticipation is everything – the partying and preparations start months in advance. As one masquerader put it: “This is a two-day event that starts immediately after Christmas and ends on Ash Wednesday.” They weren’t exaggerating: the new calypsos for the following year’s Carnival are released on Boxing Day.
The first time I visited Trinidad for Carnival I was determined to experience the real spirit of mas. I arrived two weeks before it, and quickly began to learn how the country’s history and cultural diversity have shaped the celebration in unique ways. Everyone, from the gold-toothed bootleg vendor in Woodbrook to the toothless coconut vendor on Queen’s Park Savannah, would ask: “You playin’ mas?” before launching into enthusiastic mini-lessons in its history, anthropology, music, costumes, bands and dancing – and a long, long list of things that I shouldn’t miss in my mas build-up.
Central to these were the numerous fetes, pan rehearsals and concerts taking place all over Port of Spain and beyond. The huge, rowdy outdoor fetes had already imposed themselves on my consciousness in a boomtastic way. One night the wooden house in which we were staying near the Country Club started to shake to the sounds of Machel Montano exhorting us to “push our flags up, big it up, jump up, spread our wings and fly away”. Its insistent soca beat literally forced us to dance around the reverberating house before deciding that, since we definitely weren’t going to be getting any sleep, we might as well go join the party. Cue hours of loud, sweaty, dance-filled joy, and a headful of insistently upbeat, uptempo soca tunes that I couldn’t stop singing for months.
Searching out sounds
Fetes take place all over Port of Spain, but they’re not just confined to the capital. Naparima Bowl in San Fernando, Salybia on the north coast, Jamboree Park near Tunapuna, La Soledad in Maracas St Joseph and the Blue Range Courts in Diego Martin are just some other top spots. Some of the best recent ones have been Lime at Hyatt, Soka in Moka, Brian Lara’s Fete, Gateway to the World Fete and the Bishop Anstey All-Inclusive Fete. But whichever you go to, they’re great places to hear the music that will soundtrack many of the road marches at mas. To see the people making those tunes, and playing them live, is an integral part of the Carnival experience – and easily done because so many of the stars play non-stop in Carnival run-up.
A quick confab with locals led us to a wonderfully varied range of live musical events, from the discovery of Chutney soca – which fuses Indian folk, soca and Bollywood songs – to Tuesday on the Rocks, where sets from top mas artists such as Kes, Barrington Levy, Alison Hinds and Edwin Yearwood combine to create a fantastic party night.
We also discovered the Under the Trees concerts at the Normandie Hotel, famed for its intimate, friendly vibe and the chance to see both established and emerging soca and calypso stars – the likes of Bunji Garlin, Fay-Ann Lyons, Machel Montano, Destra, Denyse Plummer, Mighty Sparrow, Black Stalin, Calypso Rose and David Rudder. At around TT$250, tickets are pricey by local standards, but include some of the hottest sets you’ll see on the island. Best of all, they finish at about 11pm, just when the panyards start swinging into action…
Before my visits to the panyards, I hadn’t appreciated the skill and dexterity involved in steel pan. But spending nights on these scrubby concrete lots, watching some of pan’s best exponents rehearse for Trinidad and Tobago’s annual nationwide Panorama competition was a revelatory experience, and the best place to feel the energy of Carnival. Suddenly I got it: the different sections of the band; the intricacy of the arrangements; the subtle nuances of the bass and tenor pans; and also the fact that the instrument itself is so entwined with the cultural and political heritage of the islands.
Most stirring of all was the stamina and commitment of the orchestra members. A full-scale top-class pan band, such as Phase II Pan Groove, Renegades, Desperadoes, Invaders or Trinidad All Stars, comprises around 100 musicians of all ages and experience, working for hours every night in the run-up to Panorama final, a huge competition held on Carnival Saturday at Queen’s Park Savannah. Visitors are welcome to come and listen. So we did, supping beers and corn soup while checking out the different yards in downtown Port of Spain.
At time of writing there is some doubt about funding for next year’s Panorama, but it’s hard to imagine this crucial element of Carnival not taking place. It’s as integral a part of Carnival as the likes of Peter Minshall. Indeed, if there’s one person who has ensured that Carnival’s long history of bands devised and dressed by talented band leaders has continued into the 21st century, it’s this masman. In the 1970s Minshall brought his artist-trained eye back home from London’s Central School of Art and Design to create fascinating narratives for each year’s parade, with eye-popping costumes to match. Bands such as Tribe, Elements and Harts can now number in the thousands, often dressed in little more than that ubiquitous Carnival staple of lurid sparkly bikinis and feathers. But Minshall, and equally influential ‘theatre mas’ man Brian Mac Farlane, have always offered something more thoughtful and considered.
A marvellous mess
In between the fetes, concerts and panyards, we were advised to take copious quantities of R&R – we didn’t want to peak before J’ouvert. So daytimes were spent in the shade of coconut trees at Maracas Beach trying not to indulge in too much rum & Ting and shark and bake.
We returned to the fray on the Sunday evening before Carnival for the huge culture festival of Dimanche Gras at Queen’s Park Savannah. Here we watched around a dozen calypso singers battle for the title of Calypso Monarch before heading off for a few hours’ sleep prior to our 3am wake-up call to mark the start of Carnival proper with J’ouvert.
Starting at daybreak on Carnival Monday morning, this primal gathering of revellers immersing themselves in ‘otherness’ is a truly surreal experience – and a messy one. Within minutes, people dressed as blue devils, adult babies or just in T-shirts and shorts were covered in everything from cocoa powder to motor oil, mud, blue or black paint, partying in an atmosphere that’s probably closest to the devilish days of early mas.
These days, chocolate-maker Isabel Brash is too busy making amazing Carnival-inspired treats for her Cocobel label to attend (see page 33 for more about her chocolates), but she recalls: “One of my favourite times in Carnival was playing J’ouvert with the Carib Rugby Club. The constant beating of the pan while you chip along, covered in mud, starting in the cold dewy dark morning and ending with paint and mud drying and cracking up on your skin at daybreak, is almost spiritual… like a washing. J’ouvert overall somehow has more of an intimacy to it – you go as you are and then baste yourself or get basted by others in dirt until you are unrecognisable. It’s very primal. I love that.”
Most people these days join a band such as Red Ants or Cocoa Devils and parade with them. We donned old T-shirts and shorts and did the same, revelling in the mud and edginess. To subvert an old saying: “You can’t ’fraid mud and play J’ouvert.” Suitably dishevelled and feeling that we’d welcomed the day sufficiently, we headed back to clean up and catch a few hours’ sleep before the final act of excess: mas. The best bacchanal on earth needs no introduction or explanation, but for me that lengthy build-up to my first mas was even better than mas itself. As Brash concludes: “Doing at least one event that is not just about the party gives you a little more insight into the culture of Carnival. There are so many facets to our culture – it would be a pity to travel here and see only one side.”
Secure your seats for Carnival 2018! LIAT flies to Trinidad direct from Barbados, St Lucia, Grenada and St Vincent, with connecting flights across the region. www.liat.com