In Trinidad, Carnival songs invariably include some kind of instruction, usually something to do with waving yuh flag/hand high in the air or wining (gyrating) down low. Trinidadians are happy to oblige. Last Tuesday, thousands of masqueraders in bright bikinis, beads, feathers and other accouterments jumped, waved, and even went so far as to “drop on the ground and roll,” as commanded by Fay-Ann Lyons in her song “Miss Behave,” as they took to the streets for the pre-Lenten festival.
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While Carnival is celebrated in other parts of the world, most notably Brazil and New Orleans, what sets Trinidad’s Carnival apart from the others is this level of enthusiastic participation, which those who "play mas" (short for masqueraders) say offers a natural high.
Gail Awai, 44, started playing mas when she was 23 and has only missed two years since.
“I just love being behind the [music] truck and dancing all day,” says Awai, who lives in Diego Martin, Trinidad. “I feel vibrant and alive on the road. I power up and get energy from the music and the people and everything. It’s like I suck up all the energy and then I can go for the rest of the year.”
Kester and Ann Branford met during Carnival in 1979, and though they have been living in the U.S. for several decades, they have returned to Trinidad for Carnival almost every year, and even took their two children out of school when they were younger so that they too could enjoy Carnival.
“It is an intrinsic part of our culture, the time when there is the most creativity among our people—the artists, the calypsonians, pan players, the designers of the mas, the costumes,” says Ann Branford, who is in her sixties. “It is the time of the year the creativity of the people just rises, and I felt it was important that the children experience this.”
French settlers brought the tradition of pre-Lenten festivals to Trinidad in the late 18th Century. They held lavish balls and often dressed up and danced like their slaves. The slaves in turn amused themselves by mimicking the plantation owners, and often used the confusion of Carnival for occasional revolts.
Trinidad’s Carnival is unique in that it is a fusion of the island’s cultures—African, European and East Indian. According to the 2000 Census data, of the twin island republic of Trinidad & Tobago’s 1,226,383 people, 40 percent are of Indian descent, 37.5 percent are of African descent, and 20.5 percent are mixed. While there is sometimes tension between the different ethnic groups, during Carnival, there is at least the illusion of unity.
“The African influence and the European orientation have to coexist in one place,” says noted Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace. “It’s a goal. Imagine if we didn’t have the illusion or idea that ‘all a we is one.’ Even if you jump up with someone today, it doesn’t mean that tomorrow they’re your friend. But at least you see the person, whoever that person is. This is the opportunity we have during Carnival, to be so close we can see behind the curtain.”
While the Carnival season culminates on the Tuesday before Lent with the parade of the bands (over 40,000 visitors and 780,000 locals participated this year, according to the Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Development Company), it begins as early as the summer before, when bands reveal their costumes.
Each band selects a theme. This year, popular band Tribe’s theme was “Take me too…” and included sections called “Dubai,” “Fiji,” and “The Runway,” which featured costumes designed by Project Runway winner Anya Ayoung-Chee. Designer Brian Mac Farlane’s band, which has won the Band of the Year competition six years straight, presented “Sanctification—In Search Of”, with costumes in Trinidad & Tobago’s national colors of red, black and white.
The band’s brochure read: “[Sanctification] is a call to heal, purify, and cleanse, and it taps into a collective consciousness that somehow we can be better than the headlines, but it is first necessary to partake from a common coin of communication, and sanctify.”
Mac Farlane’s band differs from many others in that he uses elaborate costumes and cloth to tell a story, as was typically done in decades past, rather than the bikinis and beads that most bands now favor.
Critics say that Trinidadian designers are diluting Carnival by imitating the skimpy costumes worn in Rio rather than drawing on their own ingenuity.
“We are not looking at ourselves for creativity,” says Lovelace. “People want to see themselves on the world stage not recognizing that they’re the ones who make the world stage.”
Music is also an essential part of Carnival, from the sound of sticks on steel during Panorama, the steel pan orchestra competition, to the songs that pulsate from the music trucks as bands wind and people wine their way through the streets.
The climax for the masqueraders is when they get to the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah, where they let loose in front of judges who award the prize for Band of the Year. Security men and women have to stand in a line, arms locked, to keep the masqueraders off the stage until it’s their turn.
Those who’ve experienced Carnival say it’s difficult to describe that moment when they finally burst onto the stage, jumping, waving, wining—and this year rolling. Some say the combination of colors, people, music and energy is euphoric, but even that can’t quite capture the emotion.
“When your band is crossing the stage, it’s hard to put into words,” says Kester Branford, 61. “I feel like I am out of my body when I cross the stage on Carnival Tuesday. Even when I look back, the memories of melodies are what remain so striking.”