CARNIVAL IN TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
by Renee Daniel
Caribbean Carnival's principal components are calypso, steelpan and playing mas (masquerade). In the historic capital city of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, these elements are harmoniously structured to form a five day ritual pageant beginning with the King & Queen Contest, Panorama, Dimanche Gras- French for “Fat Sunday,” J'Ouvert and the Parade of the Bands. These main events and countless others build to an unforgettable epiphany of beauty and stunning display of the irrepressible human spirit before concluding and allowing the quiet first day of Lent and reflection known as Ash Wednesday to be admitted to consciousness.
The genesis of this "world's greatest" Carnival has been attributed to the many cultures of Trinidad and their interaction. While the African influence is predominant, the Carnival carries an overriding theme of unity, a central part of this unique culture's mythology. Trinidad's namesake, the holy Trinity is blessed as the unifying principle. This is my country's well known motto, resting at the base of the ubiquitous and striking T&T Coat of Arms reads, "Together we Aspire, Together we Achieve." Yet the wisdom lies in paradox for there is no Carnival with more intense competition than Trinidad's.
Today Trinidad's model for public celebration is the most widely imitated festival art form in the world. Many Trinidadian Carnival artists are able to work year round performing throughout North America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Yet despite this success, many believe the best is yet to come.
But where did carnival begin? Where did it come from? Well according to muhting.org “Hundred and hundreds of years ago, the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and in fact the practice spread to France, Spain, and all the Catholic countries in Europe. Then as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they brought with them their tradition of celebrating carnival.”
During the interview with my great grandmother over the phone, she spoke of the dynamic economic and political history of the Caribbean as being the ingredients of festival arts as we find them today throughout the African and Caribbean Diaspora. She said once Columbus had steered his boat through Caribbean waters, it was only a few hundred years before the slave trade was well established. “By the early 19th century, six million slaves had been brought to the Caribbean.” “Between 1836 and 1917, indentured workers from Europe, West and Central Africa, Southern China, and India were brought to the Caribbean as laborers.”(muhting.org)
Muhting.org described Trinidad and Tobago as “a beautiful example of how carnival can unite the world. For in this small nation, the beliefs and traditions of many cultures have come together; and for a brief five days each year, the whole country forgets their differences to celebrate life!” Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, as the French settlers began to arrive as my great grandmother states. The tradition caught on quickly, and fancy balls were held where the wealthy planters put on masks, wigs, and beautiful dresses and danced long into the night. The use of masks had special meaning for the slaves, because for many African peoples, masking is widely used in their rituals for the dead. Obviously banned from the masked balls of the French, the slaves would hold their own little carnivals in their backyards — using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating their masters’ behavior at the masked balls.
However one of the exciting aspects of Caribbean carnival is the appearance in the early 20th century of the steel pan created by Winston Spee Simon, which instruments are made from used oil drums that have been cut off on one end and then shaped, pounded, and tuned. Every carnival season, steelbands, composed of one to two hundred pan players, practice for months on end. Ready with their tunes, these steelbands take to the stadiums and the streets, to create some of the most beautiful music in the world. The steel pan has been used in collaboration with several famous American artists like 50 cent.
One of the most incredible artists working today in Trinidad is Peter Minshall. He is acclaimed internationally as the foremost artist working in the field of “dancing mobiles,” a form of performance art that combines the three-dimensional quality of large-scale sculpture with the dramatic and choreographic expressiveness of a live human performer. As Minshall has noted, “The dancing mobile is one of many forms to grow out of the masquerade tradition of Trinidad Carnival.” In my opinion Peter Minshall is one of a kind.
But Carnival doesn’t stop here. Another part of Carnival is J’ouvert is the raw heart of Trinidad carnival. It is a massive, night-time street party and procession which crystallizes in central Port of Spain in the early hours of Lundi Gras, before the daytime carnival parades. Really it is a continuation of the 'fetes', the parties, of the night before, as tens of thousands of revellers spill out onto the streets from about two o'clock looking for more fun. They dance till dawn and beyond - j'ouvert (pronounced jouvay) is a Creole corruption of the French jour ouvert-opening day. As stated in the website of TriniGourmet.com, “[J’ouvert] seems to symbolize us going down to our rawest most animal and basest selves in the cover of the night, before the sun emerges to reveal us in our finite forms and encourages us to wash all the mess and stress away and be reborn in our shiny new costumes.”
Trinidad and Tobago are situated in the Caribbean Sea – a true natural paradise. Trinidad and its little sister, Tobago are the Caribbean archipelago odd couple. They are probably two of the most popular and well known vacation destinations in the Caribbean. Famous for its beautiful sun kissed beaches and party atmosphere, this dual island nation in the West Indies has the distinction of being one of the most colorful places in the region to visit. Here calypso and soca music can be heard in the streets, with plenty of beautiful resorts to relax in once you are done having fun.
My great grandmother, who is 89 and now blind, can still differentiate the twin islands vividly. With Trinidad being the ideal place for those who are looking to have some fun. Rich in culture, the island has a charm of its own with one of the best Carnivals in the Caribbean to enjoy. She describes its music scene as lively and vibrant with the people warm and friendly, welcoming all with open arms. You will find churches sitting next to temples and mosques, making Trinidad an ethnically diverse island with a uniquely distinct culture. She speaks of Tobago as more relaxed and laidback, making it the perfect place to kick back and take in the tropical sunshine. Life in Tobago moves at a much slower pace than in Trinidad with some of the most stunning beaches to enjoy.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is a grand pageantry of beauty and color overflowing the streets of this little nation. Although officially a five-day celebration of partying, steelband music and calypso singing, the unofficial party is jumpstarted just after Christmas with the launching of the Mas Bands, and climaxes with the grand parade of thousands of colorful masqueraders dancing and celebrating to the sound of hot spirited calypso music on the streets of the capital city -Port of Spain. Carnival arts offers all of us a dynamic tool for self-expression and exploration, a tool to seek out our roots, a tool to develop new forms of looking at the world and its cultures, and finally, a tool to unite the world, to discover what we all have in common, and to celebrate what makes us different. The power and creativity that underlies these art forms can transform lives. “All ah we dancing the song of life.”
On Carnival: An Interview with Eldica Lewis
by Renee Daniel
Carnival is second nature to me. I personally had the opportunity to participate in the vast event with my school and major bands, and play beside well- known artist from the Caribbean. So I could truly relate to what my great grandmother spoke of in terms of carnival and some of its history, “fete”(parties), mas, calypso, soca, and the culture that affects multiple countries across the globe taking its own form as it arrives. This adds to the diversity of Carnival. As described in muhting.com “Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is a beautiful example of how carnival can unite the world.”
Carnival is an annual celebration of life found in many countries of the world. And in fact, by learning more about carnival we can learn more about ourselves and a lot about accepting and understanding other cultures. Carnival is such an important aspect of life in Trinidad and Tobago that many schools believe that sponsoring a carnival band is a way to teach young people about their tools and culture. In Trinidad, hundreds of schools and community organizations participate. In this way, communities work together to develop stronger friendships and greater respect for the many cultures that makes up Trinidad and Tobago. “Is de culture dat have we, we is one through carnival,” as stated by my great gran.
Interviewer: Renee Daniel
Interviewee: Eldica Lewis
The interview with my great grandmother went fairly well. It was a bit difficult to interview her because she was that type of interviewee that goes on and on, so noting several things that she said was intricate.
How did carnival begin in Trinidad?
“It started wit de French people in dey nice clothes and gowns and dey fancy hats. De slaves used to mimic de French people by makin’ dey own costumes and ting.”
What instruments did they use then and now?
“De drums from de slaves, ole pan and de old wood and lil strings and de woman and de men would go round de streets and parade but now Spree Simon make up de steel pan, but first dem used to beat de oil drum- He was a man wit a plan in he hand (laughing).
How were the bands and costumes back then?
It was more historical like Columbus, and Lowie de sixth and d Queen of England den- Juliana. Yuh no royalty.
J’ouvert, where did it come from?
Answer 4: J’ouvert was de dawn of Carnival. People was never fully dress. Like real dirty mas.
What about the Blue Devils?
Maskacraders used to dress like dragons and blue devils. Dey had de bats to. De devils use too have dey tail, fork and dey wud ask yuh for a penny. It was “Pay de Devil!” back den penny was plenty!
And the Calypso?
“Gene and Dina, Rosita and Clementina,
Round de corner posein’ bet yuh life is somethin’ dem sellin’
And if yuh cetch dem broken
You can get dem all for nothing
Dow make a rump
De Yankee gone and Sparrow take over now!”- The Mighty Sparrow.
How did Carnival evolve?
De carnival started to evolve from d small band we get big. From one or two pan to dem moving in trucks. It have dem bands comin’ from mask camp to de judging post “chippin with de music.” De costumes for de steel bands in de 60s and 70s was sailors and American Indians. Rask Shorty Aye, I cah remember he real name. But he bring soca deys all yuh young people music now but he was de first to bring out soca. Dyes wen Peter when peter Minshall and Harts ( carnival agencies) really come out and de music hype so people does get hoe fast so dyes why de costumes get more lighter and festive and not European.