This year’s Trinidad Carnival season is once again a time of uncertainty, thanks to the ongoing pandemic.
But while lovers of the festival dream of spectacular Carnivals to come, they also cherish memories of Carnivals past. Janine Mendes-Franco, Mark Lyndersay, Laura Dowrich, and Caroline Taylor share their treasured Carnival memories in this year’s instalment of “Carnival is love”
“I did it for the joy”
A love letter to Kiddies Carnival, by Janine Mendes-Franco
Six-year-old me is a volcano. A flared onyx dress forms the steep cone, while an explosively elaborate headpiece towers above, plumes of lava and ash spewing skyward. In my right fist, I clutch a single, ivory feather as desperately as if it is my last breath of air before the dome’s invisible vapours consume me.
In reality, Gregory Medina, who designed the costume, had instructed me to “hold the feather tight.” I had no idea what perils lay ahead if it somehow escaped my grasp, so, though counterintuitive to how I wanted to play the mas — which was to pour myself into the volcano’s creative magma — that quill was not going to meet the end of its innocence on my watch. Thankfully, Gregory soon realised I had “a glow” once I hit the stage, and learned to leave me to it. Other photos that year show me featherless and free, the cascading strands of beads on my outstretched arms blowing in the breeze at the Queen’s Park Savannah, making The Eruption of Popocatépetl come alive.
For a twirly little girl who was always reading, imagining, and spinning stories, weaving their silky yarns into a web you could touch and feel and get caught up in, it was my baptism of fire into both the sacredness of Carnival ritual and the worth of creative life. The first realisation was easy to come to. The second . . . well, in a country that has a complicated relationship with its creatives, I often found myself fleeing the volcano’s fierce fertility. Better to be safe.
But volcanoes have incredible reach, their particles travelling over great distances and across years, settling into crevices, building up, becoming more burdensome, impossible to ignore. Only very recently have I started calling myself a writer, claiming it in the same way I claimed the stage, and bubbling over in my own defence when people preface it with the word “just.” For that, I have the transcendent experience of Kiddies Carnival to thank, for that is where — along with J’Ouvert, pan, and traditional mas — the spark of ingenuity that fuels our national festival burns brightest. Its fire helped forge me.
Despite the trophies, I was never in it to win anything. I did it for the joy. From the camaraderie of the mas camp to the sensation of the stage, Carnival was proof there was magic in the world: the way the flare of the sun would illuminate a piece of iridescent mesh or make a cheeky sequin wink; the way fish could be sculpted from a bland block of Styrofoam, or butterflies birthed by bending wire. Once I followed where each portrayal led, and trusted how the costume wanted to be moved, I existed only as a channel through which the mas coursed. What a privilege to bear witness to that discovery, year after year, to actualise something that wasn’t really there before I stepped into it, before I said “yes” to being part of the process of creation.
One Saturday morning a few Carnivals ago, I was driving, soca blaring in the car. A flatbed truck carrying a viridescent Kiddies costume overtook me, in more ways than one. The pangs of memory burned hot and bright as I teetered on the edge of my crater. I had to catch my breath, but when I did, it was to wish that mini-masquerader the power of inventiveness, the audacity of self-assertion, the courage to trust her instincts, the humility to bow before the gift that is Carnival — and with love, release the feather and step onto the stage, arms wide open.
“The crowds would go wild”
A love letter to calypso tents, by Mark Lyndersay
All my most vivid memories of calypso tents in Trinidad are moments of triumph.
In one of them, I am fighting past crowds on Henry Street in Port of Spain, washed by burned orange sodium vapour street lamps and the acid green fluorescent bulbs of Spektakula Forum, desperately waving my press pass to get past surging crowds flowing into the massive hall.
In another, I am off to the side of the stage with a camera at the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union Hall on Wrightson Road, waiting for Bill Trotman to walk closer to me on the stage as he sings “Schooldays”, with its infectious chorus, “Mammy, mammy, I want to go back to school.” Trotman is laughing broadly as the chanting crowd, embracing the hit from the tent’s master of ceremonies, keeps calling him back for encore after encore.
And finally there is the Queen’s Park Savannah, home of the Calypso Monarch competition. The night that strobes bright in my mind is a three-tent clash as Winston Bailey, the Mighty Shadow, marched solemnly onto the broad stage to steal the show. Bailey stood stock still in front of the microphone to sing “Jump, Judges, Jump”, his reproach of the judges who placed him unforgivably low in his breakout year. He faced the Grand Stand for one verse, then swivelled the microphone stand to address the North Stand, remaining otherwise immobile save for a quiet hop on the beat as the crowd roared its endorsement.
At all these venues, and many more, buoyed by hundreds of witty, lyrically diverse, and unquestionably colourful calypsoes each season, none ever repeated, the crowds would go wild. A cultivated thirst for this seemingly unquenchable flood of inspired verse, commentary, and colloquial wisdom was barely sated by return visits. A visit to a calypso tent was an encounter with everything that makes Trinidad and Tobago unique.
From the aroma of corn soup to the authoritative bark of the brass players backing the calypsonians, the calypso tent framed the sharp commentary (picong, in local slang), the brutally funny observations, and the ruthless social self-examination that were the hallmark of the practice of calypso at its peak, in an experience that was culturally singular.
Like the most terrible of deaths, the slow collapse of the calypso tent from that pinnacle was a steady social erosion over two decades, and what is left barely hints at its glorious past.
In this century, calypso tents are very different. Squeezed between a new generation’s preference for soca — the dance music form of calypso — and poor audience management, there are tents that convened in 2020 with casts that were barely outnumbered by their remaining patrons.
I visited many of these tents that year on a personal mission to photograph the calypsonians on the 2020 circuit, and found shows produced on shoestring budgets for sparse audiences. COVID-19 dealt a death blow to tents as performance venues just a few weeks later, but also offered, through online streaming, a chance for calypsonians to rethink their reality in the context of a new world.
In San Fernando, in an unspectacular concrete office building, Kenny Phillips reimagined WACK Radio’s studio spaces as a streaming venue, offering live and on-demand shows that took the fevered pitch of calypso tent life from a crowded room into a new digital space. Clouds of cigarette smoke were now replaced with aerosol disinfectant, as Phillips worked to balance safety with opportunity, giving calypsonians a new, if somewhat disorienting chance to connect with audiences viewing the shows on smartphone screens and tablets all over the world.
Without government subsidy, it’s unlikely that any tent could afford to produce a live show anymore, but COVID-19–inspired necessity created a new public record of these folk artists in performance. Limned by colourful LEDs in a black painted room in San Fernando, singing to pre-recorded backing music, generations of calypsonians preached an old sermon into a twenty-first-century medium.
Where calypso and the aggregation of performers known as a tent go from here remains uncertain. But calypsonians have been given sight of new opportunity, and a world’s worth of audiences, to recraft and relaunch an experience born on dirt floors under thatched roofs into a particularly cold and unforgiving medium.
“Unfiltered glee gathered in my soul”
A love letter to mas, by Laura Dowrich
It was the prettiest costume I ever wore. A red organza-like material was shaped into a halter top with a large rose in front, and a long skirt with frills that cascaded onto the ground. Together, it looked like one piece of fluffy red cotton candy, a look I completed with synthetic rose petals stuck on the left side of my face and hair.
That costume, Beyond the Roses from the 2016 band Finding Shangri-La from K2K Alliance and Partners, wowed everyone who saw it. I was stopped for so many photos that Carnival Tuesday by fascinated onlookers. To say I am a proud peacock in a fancy costume is a gross understatement. I particularly love when I come off stage, the ultimate preening platform, and a little child approaches me in awe to ask for a piece of my costume.
I have been playing mas since the age of five. I think my first costume was a fish. My father fashioned it from a piece of sponge, stuck on an assortment of coloured foil pieces with contact cement to look like scales, and sprinkled glitter to give it that extra bling. I will never forget that day. As I stood still for my father to complete his last-minute alterations, mere hours before we hit the streets of San Fernando, a well of unfiltered glee gathered in my soul, and I wept.
To this day, putting on a costume makes me cry with unbridled happiness. Something about walking the streets disguised as something other than myself makes me ridiculously happy. There is also a sense of pride wrapped up in there, too. While some people love the chance to flaunt their bodies in the skimpiest of costumes, I cherish masquerading in a full costume that actually depicts a theme.
Throughout the course of my mas-playing years, I played a member of an American Indian tribe, a mermaid, a fancy saloon girl, and Jean and Dinah, a band section inspired by Sparrow’s infamous song.
Our Carnival is rooted in history, with early masqueraders using costumes to portray and make fun of other people. As the mas evolved, portrayals derived inspiration from history and literature. My uncle Hollis Dowrich won the San Fernando Band of the Year competition three times in the 1950s with portrayals of Shakespeare, Spain in Mexico, and West Indian History from Columbus to Federation. In those days, they used metals and heavy fabric to stay as true to the theme as possible.
Nationally, pre-eminent masman George Bailey tapped into history, bringing Ancient Egypt and Africa to life, among his many themes. Peter Minshall continued that legacy, incorporating history into a social narrative that forces us to learn something about ourselves.
I have nothing against bikini and beads, and I have played mas in them in the past, but we have so successfully exported that version of mas that foreigners are often shocked when I show them photos of my costumes. And beyond educating them on the real purpose of mas, those photos show them our inclusivity. In some countries, people wouldn’t dare don a costume if their bodies weren’t close to perfection.
In T&T, there are costumes for everybody and every body. You don’t need to have a six-pack to play mas, you just need to find the right costume for your comfort level — and if you find passion and purpose in helping to tell a story, there are costumes for that.
Last Carnival, in the absence of a parade, I put on my Lost Tribe costume from 2020 and paraded in my yard. I look forward to the day I can once again dress up in an extravagant creation and play a mas in the streets of Port of Spain. I am pretty sure the tears will be flowing fast and hard.
“And this was just until Friday night”
A love letter to doing everything for Carnival, by Caroline Taylor
Picture it: Port of Spain, 2007. For a plucky twenty-something, it is the first full Carnival season back in Trinidad after several years in the cold. Greedy (and hubristic), she looks upon the tantalising buffet of Carnival experiences, and resolves that none shall go unsampled.
It started sensibly enough — a reasonably spaced series of mandatory Carnival activities. Panyards. Pan semis. Calypso competitions. Viey La Cou. Some fetes. But the week before Carnival is . . . different. The quasi-hermit who could be counted on to shimmy out of almost every social invitation was instead seeking out as many pre-Carnival activities as could reasonably be attended without physical expiration, linking up with seven different posses of friends on the final sprint to Ash Wednesday.
The ambitious pre-mas itinerary was Tribe Ignite; then the Canboulay Riots re-enactment in town at 5 am; traditional Carnival character competition at midday; then Soca Monarch backstage. And this was just until Friday night.
Saturday morning was the critical re-fuelling point before Panorama finals at the Savannah, immediately followed by Insomnia fete at MOBS 2. There would be no cat naps. And the friend who was joining me on my mother and her friends’ annual pan pilgrimage was also coming with me to Insomnia. Bailing was not an option.
I cherished the pan. Among the lime that night were All Stars, Phase II, Renegades, and Despers die-hards, all fiercely cheering and arguing for their bands, but with a magnificent camaraderie in celebration of our resplendent instrument, our defiant resilience and creativity. Listening to the pan, with a view of the lights flickering on the surrounding hillsides under that cool, crisp night air, has always been an experience that fills me with tremendous gratitude, no matter the victors.
Still high off the music, my friend and I persevered through the gridlock entering Chaguaramas. I was grateful for the company, despite my hermit tendencies beginning to flare from lack of sleep, too many bananas (they’re so useful for hangovers), and having far exceeded my weekly peopling quota. At some point, hours later, when the sun was well into the sky, I made my way happily but wearily back home.
By this time, my body had begun to stage an intervention. Not even black-out curtains could fool my body into believing this was sleeping time. Even if I couldn’t sleep, I could at least remain horizontal, giving my aching feet and sore back a chance. After all, I was registered to play two days of mas and J’Ouvert a few hours later.
That night, as I took in the final Dimanche Gras performances, I entertained a brief flirtation with the idea of making a J’Ouvert costume — at the last minute, despite my dodgy arts and crafts skills, and with nary a clever sociopolitical pun at hand. I settled for old clothes, lathered up in baby oil, and made the rounds to collect a couple of friends before heading to meet 3canal. One homey, who shall remain nameless, was putting the final touches on her J’Ouvert kit in the back seat, using the dome light overhead. This was the first time I was driving myself to and from J’Ouvert, so my delight at successfully dodging all the bands assembling on Long Circular Road and securing a park in Woodbrook was short-lived. Because Jesus knows the speed walk back to Ariapita Avenue after crossing the Savannah stage is a gauntlet when there’s no music truck, no alcohol, and the sun starts assaulting your weary body from the sky.
I hosed down, showered, hydrated, closed my eyes for a five, and then readied myself for Monday mas. It was not even a thought to skip it. I hauled my behind to the car . . . which would not start. My battery was dead. It wasn’t until my dad gave me a jump that I could see why: my friend never switched the dome light off after we met the band. I had to laugh. I took it as a sign to ask my dad for a lift to be on the safe side.
Several groups of friends were playing in Island People that year, so with a few SMS messages I was able to link up with my section. We jumped the afternoon away, got some great photos (including blue paint still leaching out of my skin — several showers later — onto my white Monday-wear shirt). But I knew my limit. I needed to ice. And to hydrate. And to get one full night of sleep before the final push.
I met the band downtown early Tuesday. There’s one particularly sleepy-looking photo of me from that morning, somewhere near South Quay. The rest of the day was a blissful blur, right through to Last Lap by the Stadium — all powered by soca, Lucozade, and spirits. There was a photo that came out in a Carnival magazine afterwards that took me years to figure out. And then I realised.
Dip in de centre
Do de jumbie dance
Lean back and reverse
Do de jumbie dance.
It was that — all of us in our bronze costumes leaning back, reversing, doing the jumbie dance. The perfect immortalisation of the year I was fully (or almost fully) outta body, then back to myself.
We ready for mas again?