Trinidad Carnival

March 3 - 4, 2014
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Photo credit: sfmission.com via Creative Commons
Trinidad Carnival
Crowd
    Intimate to                 Massive
Attendees
    Local to                 International
Participation
    Spectator to                 Immersive
Preparation
    Simple to                 Complicated
Transformation
    Quiet to                 Life-Altering

Overview

Get ready to pour the rum and dance in the streets to steel drums, soca, and calypso music as Trinidadians party full stop on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent.

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Festival Stats
  • Crowd
  • Attendees
  • Participation
  • Preparation
  • Transformation

Location

Trinidad is the larger of the two islands making up Trinidad and Tobago, just off the coast of Venezuela in South America.

Chip's take

Trinidad and Tobago's motto, “Together we aspire, together we…

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Trinidad and Tobago's motto, “Together we aspire, together we achieve,” is an apt sentiment to describe the gargantuan effort that goes into creating one of the best Carnivals on the planet. But, by the end of the festivities, you might think a better motto is, “Together we dance, together we party, tomorrow we sleep.”

This festival takes stamina and you’re likely to lose a few pounds given all the shakin’ and dancin’ you’ll be doin’. You can’t spectate this festival. You must participate. And, there may be no community in the world that spends more of its year preparing for one annual celebration. What’s most resonant about Trinidad Carnival is the life-affirming, primal force of expressing one’s emotion and knowing joy, happiness and ecstasy can be contagious. Here’s your opportunity to answer to the rhythm of the universe that’s much larger than you.

You can’t spectate this one. It's your chance to answer to the rhythm of the universe that’s much larger than you.

Photos & Videos From the Festival

Essentials

Check out the “Kiddie’s Carnival.” Trinidad treats this festival as a family affair.

Don’t miss the Kings and Queens Costume Competition.

Come early to the Parade of the Bands.The best place to view it is in the Savannah at the Grand Stand or the North Stand.

The J’Ouvert is the wildest of the parties, don’t miss it. Cover yourself in mud and let loose.

The last two days are the best, though festivities occur in advance of Carnival for several weeks.


Practicalities

Fly into Piarco International Airport (POS). Book travel early (one year in advance is not at all jumping the gun) and make sure you get there at least a week before Carnival Monday. It’s worth it to watch the island build up its head of frenzy in the days before the big event.

Trinidad Carnival will test your endurance. The partying never stops and you will hardly get any sleep.

This is a festival full of intimacy as everyone gets in each other’s business and certain events can be rough. Leave jewelry and valuables at home and watch your alcohol consumption.

Details

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.

Origins

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.

The modern incarnation of the Trinidad Carnival is a bawdy, rum-flavored feast for the senses.

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.

J’Ouvert

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.

Wine Up

A popular tradition of Trinidad Carnival is the festive dance known as wine. When one wines, they gyrate their hips in response to their partner’s movements. This can happen en massewith 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.