Central to understanding much of the Trinidadian psyche is to understand the festival culture of the island. And no festival is greater than the Trinidad Carnival. The dynamism of the festival has sparked its reproduction throughout the rest of the Caribbean island chain, and as far away as Toronto, New York, Miami and Notting Hill. But everyone knows that Trinidad is the “mother of all West Indian carnivals”, which attracts visitors from all over the world, including international celebrities like Halle Berry. Its roots are here

Discover Trinidad & Tobago and Caroline Taylor on 22 October, 2013 (last updated 29 April, 2018)

The origins of Trinidad Carnival
Trinidad Carnival dates back to the 18th century, and the influx of French Catholic planters – both white and free coloured – their slaves, and free blacks in the 1780s. The white and free coloured both staged elaborate masquerade balls at Christmas and as a “farewell to the flesh” before the Catholic Lenten season, with each group mimicking the other in their masking and entertainment. The West African slaves of these planters as well as free coloureds had their own masking traditions, and held festivities around the burning and harvesting of the sugar cane (this was known as cannes bruleés, anglicised as Canboulay or Camboulay). For each group, masks and mimicry were an essential part of the ritual.

After the emancipation of slaves in 1838, Canboulay became a symbol of freedom and defiance. In response, the British colonial government outlawed drumming, stickfighting, masquerading, African-derived religions (like those of the Orisa faith and the Spiritual Shouter Baptists or Shango Baptists), and even tried to suppress the steelpan – but was never able to stamp out what has become a hallmark of Trinidadian identity.

This masking and mimicry merged over time with the calinda – or stickfighting accompanied by chanting and drumming – and rituals of Canboulay to become a jamette – or underclass – masquerade. After many a battle with the British colonial government, who kept trying to ban drumming, masquerade, and even the steel pan – the festival eventually found a home on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent, and was adopted as a symbol of Trinidadian culture during the independence movement.

Characters from the earliest Carnival include the pis-en-lit, who walks around in a nightgown waving a chamber pot, and the Dame Lorraine, a man in a dress with enormously stuffed bosom and bottom. Some of these traditions have endured, but most of them are fading fast, replaced by the beads and feathers of Brazilianstyle costumes. But Carnival is driven by what the people want.

Businesses and the middle class have gentrified and popularised the festival over the last century, with formal competitions and committees taking some of the sting and violence out of the festival. There are still some sectors of society that consider Carnival as too lewd or morally unacceptable to participate or even spectate. Nevertheless, it has evolved into a festival celebrated (or avoided) by young and old, of every class, creed and colour, in what truly is a spectacle of creativity and resilience, and an exposition of all the nation’s strengths and weaknesses. It has evolved into one of international stature, and the signature event on Trinidad’s cultural calendar.

Carnival today: the modern festival
The Carnival “soca switch”
Carnival really isn’t just the Monday and Tuesday – it’s a whole season that essentially starts the day after Christmas Day. Carnival parties (or fetes) begin, and the radio airwaves and local TV music channels are inundated with the latest soca music. It is the irresistible rhythms and infectious melodies of soca – pioneered by Garfield Blackman (aka Ras Shorty I) in the 70s as a fusion of calypso and Indian music – that are the driving force on the road Carnival Monday and Tuesday, and in all the pre-Carnival parties.

Music has indeed always been the soundtrack for the festivals, as chantuelles and drumming led processions back in the 1800s, and calypsos (which emerged in French/Patois in the late 1800s and in English in the early 1900s) and steel bands (which emerged in the hills of Port of Spain in the 1930s) provided the music for masqueraders for much of the 20th century. While some mas bands still masquerade to steel bans, the primary music source is the mammoth speakers of music trucks that blast the latest soca music to energise the crowd.

By New Year’s, most people have put the down-payment on their Carnival costumes in their preferred Carnival band, though some wafflers can still manage to steal up some at the very last minute. It usually requires some budgeting, since the cost of playing mas (short for masquerade) on Carnival Monday and Tuesday has been increasing rapidly and can now run up to US$3,000 or more for an all-inclusive costume. It’s good to note, though, that doing without the all-inclusive option – where the band offers a variety of amenities, food, and unlimited drink – can decrease the price tag considerably.

Indeed, there has been much controversy about whether these expensive all-inclusive bands provide real value for money and whether they couldn’t actually produce their costumes (often mass-produced in Asia and Latin America now, rather than traditionally with volunteers in local mas camps) for much less. But for the moment, it seems in the absence of regulations or an all-out public boycott, rising costume prices are here to stay.

The entire climate of the island changes in the new year. Droves of would-be masqueraders also hit the gym and local parks like the Queen’s Park Savannah to get into shape for the festivities. There are several big parties a week, many offering the ubiquitous “all-inclusive” party experience and featuring performances from the biggest soca stars.

Limboists limber up and stickfighters refine their footwork and reflexes. In the pan yards, steel bands of up to 100 players rehearse vigorously. In the mas camps – the workshops of Carnival bands – designers and volunteers frenetically assemble costumes for up to thousands of masqueraders (that is, the ones that aren’t made entirely overseas), and mount sometimes colossal Carnival Kings and Queens. Professional calypsonians sharpen their tongues to deliver scathing (and often humorous) social and political commentary at the calypso tents.

Bacchanal week
The build-up to Carnival Monday and Tuesday starts from the week before, with countless major fetes and finals of limbo, stickfighting and traditional carnival character competitions (a great showcase of these is the Viey La Cou event two Sundays before Carnival).

On “Fantastic Friday”, in the wee hours of the morning, there is a re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots of 1881, which ensured that – despite interference – the Carnival would go on and belong to the people. Once night falls, Soca contenders gear up for the International Soca Monarch competition – either as competitors or quite often as guests.

Carnival Saturday hosts the Kiddies Carnival, with Saturday night reserved for the best bands of steel pan players competing for the Panorama title. In the final hours before the launch of the day parades, the last major competitions culminate with the Dimanche Gras show, where the best preservers of the traditional calypso artform compete in the Calypso Monarch competition, and the Carnival Kings and Queens showcase their magnificent costumes, vying for the crown All night, several fetes keep the energy going before people break out into the streets in the wee hours of Monday morning to play J’Ouvert.

J’Ouvert, also known as jouvay, is perhaps one of the last modern Carnival festivities that most reflects the origins of Carnival – in particular, its origins in masking and in Canboulay processions. This is also true of the Canboulay re-enactment that happens in wee hours of each Carnival Friday morning in Port of Spain.

Described by some as a “religious” experience, the dance from dark to light through the streets of town early on Carnival Monday morning is called J’Ouvert (from the French meaning “break of day”). This is the pre-dawn ritual that begins the two official days of Carnival.

J’Ouvert is mud mas’, dirty mas’, and still boasts several of the traditional Carnival characters: jab jabs, blue devils, bats, midnight robbers, Dame Lorraines. It starts officially at about 4am Monday morning (the official time changes fairly regularly), with scores of people chipping through the streets of the country’s cities, covered in paint, grease and mud. Locals and visitors from all walks of life lose themselves in the anonymity offered by costumes of oil, mud, clay, body paint and even chocolate. Vigorous gyrations to pumping music and “rhythm sections” (music bands made up only of percussion instruments) keep any early morning chill at bay.

J’Ouvert is not the modern “pretty mas” that commands the cameras on Carnival Tuesday. In the dim light of dawn no one is paying attention to the details, but the energy of the thousands who take to the streets is irresistible.

“Ole mas”, an essential part of J’Ouvert, is street theatre. Ole mas competitions pit rival masqueraders – dressed in their own or borrowed old clothes, often incongruously composed and cryptically elaborated by a satirical placard (usually of something socially or politically topical) – against each other for the prize. Puns are a mainstay for the placards and costumes. These cheeky and clever costumes and characters often reflect public sentiment on current affairs, and also reflect Trinidadian’s playful creativity (some of the other islands actually refer to us as “Trickidadians”).

Bands of traditional mas characters like dames lorraines, devils, midnight robbers and Indians join the melée. This is the raw, elemental, sometimes even confrontational belly of Carnival that takes over in the wee hours before daybreak, and is not for the prissy or the squeamish. As the local saying goes (referencing the powder of the traditional “fancy sailors”): “you cyah play mas’ and ‘fraid powder”.

Local playwright and J’Ouvert aficionado Tony Hall describes it like this:

“It is half-five, six in the morning, and the colour of dawn coming through and all these people all paint up in different colours, a riddim going and all of a sudden you feel this sense of suspension. You see all these people, all these people are your community and you realise, you feel a strong sense of love and you realise that what you are really doing is renewing a vow to love these people for the year coming.”

This celebration of love is the start of the mas. Once the sun comes up, most J’Ouvert players stagger into bed to sleep off the highs (natural or induced) and get some shut-eye before the activities of Monday carnival officially start. The streets are often deserted, with large grease and paint stains on pavement walls the only evidence of the earlier celebrations.

Pretty mas: Carnival Monday & Tuesday
Around 11am the action picks up again as thousands flock into Port of Spain, the country’s capital, to meet the band with which they’ve enlisted to play (or intend to crash). Almost no-one is in full costume, though – the joy is in just being in the streets. The object for most bands is to follow a specific route passing before all the judging posts, where adjudicators will choose the next Band of the Year. At each of these judging points, the bands slow down and the masqueraders get the chance to play themselves – or really let go! Band DJs then choose the most popular party tunes to whip up the crowd into a frenzy. The judges then count the number of times each song is played, and the leader wins the Road March title.

The only break in the activities – allowing those who have not slept since the previous Thursday night a little rest – comes on Monday night, though some people still party all through the night into Tuesday morning. Tuesday starts early, and the bands march through the streets once more, stopping only for lunch, and going until they can go no more. Some with less energy crash at sundown, but other keep going with the bands, following the huge music trucks until late at night, maybe ending up at a Last Lap fete. Then and only then do we all finally get some sleep.

This is Carnival
Dis is de ting self. A frenetic (and expensive) two months, and the highlight of many a Trini’s year. Love it or hate it, it is an integral part of Trini – and Caribbean – culture. Some even say that it is Carnival which has saved Trinidad from severe political upheaval and in-fighting, for the festival provides an outlet, a distraction – catharsis.

Trinidad Carnival: the key elements
Calypso: indigenous Trinidadian music with roots in West African songs of praise and mockery, strongly influenced by calinda (stickfighting) chants and lavways that chantouelles sang to lead Carnival bands. Originally sung in Patois (a local French derivative)
Canboulay Riots: significant uprising in 1881 against the British governor who attempted to ban the Carnival arts
Limbo: sacred folk dance indigenous to Trinidad, once performed at wakes in African communities; the lower the dancer could go, the higher the spirit of the dead could ascend
Ole mas: traditional Carnival characters like the ominous Midnight Robber, talkative Pierrot Granade, and gender-bending Dames Lorraines; best viewed at traditional character parades and Viey La Cou (two Sundays before Carnival)
Playing mas: masquerading, usually in costume with a band (up to US$700 “all-inclusive”). Some bands sell out from September, but returns can be grabbed last minute. Of course, you can make your own costume (or band) – and don’t need a costume to band-hop
Pretty mas: mass-produced costumes, usually skimpy bikinis, feathers, and beads
Road March: song played most often by bands at judging points
Soca: fast-paced, high-energy offspring of calypso, pioneered by Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman) in the 70s, fusing African and Indian sounds. Trinidad’s pop music, it has absorbed R&B, dancehall, hip-hop, reggaeton, house music and other influences
Steelpan: developed in Laventille communities in the 1930s, the only non-electrical instrument invented in the 20th century. Began as single “ping pongs” hung around the neck playing just a few notes, now covering full western scale in bands topping 100 players.

More Carnival info
Check out the rest of our website for a range of Carnival information — its origins and history, how a steel pan is made, and a calendar of events. For schedules and info, visit the websites of the National Carnival Commission (ncctt.org), Pan Trinbago (pantrinbago.co.tt), the National Carnival Bands Association (ncbatt.com), Ticket Federation (ticketfederation.com/events) Trinidad Carnival Diary (trinidadcarnivaldiary.com).