It’s almost time to “play mas” in T&T as final touches are put on costumes and steel pans tuned for the Caribbean’s biggest party.
Certainly Brazil’s pre-Lenten “Carnaval” is better known than the celebrations about to take over the streets of Port of Spain, but rest assured, the Trinidadians can get festive with the best of them. Beginning well before dawn on Carnival Monday with J’Ouvert (meaning “daybreak” in French, the name alludes to the French colonial origin of carnival), this year’s celebrations take place March 7 and 8th.
An incredible cultural kaleidoscope mixing people from all walks of life, calypso, soca, pan (steel drum), local cuisine and the most extravagant costumes this side of Rio, Trinidad Carnival is something every true traveler should experience at least once (*Editors note: I went a decade ago and I still break into wide grin every time I hear a steel drum).
The first thing to know is this is not a spectator sport: during Trinidad Carnival, you don’t just stand alongside the road and watch masquerade bands go by while others “play mas” – you’re expected to dive-in, sing, dance, wave your flag (make sure and buy a colored kerchief to wave) and immerse yourself in the festivities.
A Little Carnival History
Carnival was introduced to Trinidad by the French in 1783 in the form of elaborate masquerade balls thrown by plantation owners. Banned from the festivities, the African slaves would hold their own celebrations using rituals and folklore while imitating (and mocking) their masters’ behavior. Once slavery was abolished in 1838, the freed Africans took their Carnival celebration to the streets and, as each new immigrant population entered Trinidad, a new flavor was added to the festivities. Today, the diverse culture of both islands has influenced the music, food and traditions of the festival.
Many countries host their own Carnival celebration each year, but Trinidad & Tobago’s unique components, such as Panorama, Kings and Queens Costume Competition, Kiddies Carnival, J’Ouvert and Masquerade Band of the Year, give it its own distinct flavor:
Trinidad Carnival Guide & Calendar
Saturday, March 5
Carnival Saturday belongs to the children. This is when the masqueraders of the future come out dressed in costumes. Thousands of excited children, from tots to teenagers, take to the streets with their parents waving enthusiastically from the sidelines. Sometimes even strollers are decorated!
Saturday, March 5
Created in 1963, Panorama is the annual competition for the national instrument – the steel pan. Preliminary contests are held throughout the country in the weeks leading up to Carnival. The finals are held on the Saturday night before Carnival officially begins and represents the ultimate test of pan beating. This is a must-see; if you are going to Trinidad Carnival, do not miss Panorama!
Kings and Queens Costume Competition
Sunday, March 6
This is a fierce competition where the leaders of each of the masquerade bands compete for best costume. Designers spend months creating spectacular and stunning costumes that can reach up to 30 feet high and are usually attached to wheels, making mobility easier for the brave soul who will spend two days in it parading and dancing on the streets of Port of Spain. Upon presenting their works of art to judges, designers enhance their stage show presence and their chance of winning with special effects such as lasers, fog, light shows, fireworks and musical sound effects.
Monday, March 7
J’Ouvert, the official start of Carnival, takes place before dawn on Carnival Monday. Revelers dress in old clothes and cover themselves in oil, grease, paint, chocolate and/or mud and parade through the towns and villages of Trinidad to the sounds of soca and calypso until the sun comes up. Once J’Ouvert is over, revelers grab breakfast and catch a few hours of sleep before venturing back onto the streets of Port of Spain to join the masquerade bands as they continue the celebrations throughout the day and into the night.
Carnival Monday and Tuesday
Monday, March 7 and Tuesday, March 8
Mas bands consist of thousands of people ‘jumping up’ in the streets of Port of Spain. Band members wear glittery, colorful, barely-there costumes, and each band has its own historical, mythological or tropical theme. Carnival Monday is just a “warm-up” for Carnival Tuesday, a dress rehearsal of sorts as well as a qualification for judging. Carnival Tuesday begins promptly at 8 a.m. and mas players are in full costume ready and waiting to strut their stuff in front of the judges. Bands are judged in three categories: small, medium and large, and winners are announced after all the bands have been judged. The grand champion is crowned Masquerade Band of the Year.
After the festivities, wandermelon suggests chilling-out on Tobago, Trinidad’s easy-going sibling, which still preserves the feel of the old Caribbean. Check out areas like Castara and Englishman’s Bay, which feature ocean-view B&B’s, hikes in the Main Ridge Rainforest, and isolated beaches to sooth weary souls – and soles.