- Published on Saturday, 18 February 2012 23:51
The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is an annual event celebrated on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and is highly regarded as "The Greatest Show on Earth." Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is the most significant event on the islands' cultural and tourism calendar, with numerous cultural events running in the lead up to the street parade on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. It is said that if the islanders are not celebrating it, then they are preparing for it, while reminiscing about the past year's festival. The heart of the musical celebration has been calypso; recently soca has replaced calypso as the most celebrated type of music. Costumes, stickfighting and limbo competitions are also important components of the festival.
Carnival as it is celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago is also celebrated in cities worldwide, most notably in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities but also including Toronto's Caribana, Miami's Miami Carnival, New Orleans Mardi Gras, Houston Carifest, London's Notting Hill Carnival as well as New York City's Labor Day Carnival to name a few. Carnival was created when the indetured laborers and slaves who saw the French celebrating in costume and mimicked them while combining aspects from their own cultures (predominantly East Indian and African).
French planters, indenturered laborers, and their slaves emigrated to Trinidad during the French Revolution (1789) from Martinique, including a number of West Africans, and French creoles from Saint Vincent, Grenada, Saint Lucia and Dominica, establishing a local community before Trinidad and Tobago were taken from Spain by the British. Carnival had arrived with the French, indentured laborers and the slaves, who could not take part in Carnival, formed their own, parallel celebration called canboulay.
Stick fighting and African percussion music were banned in 1880, in response to the Canboulay Riots. They were replaced by bamboo sticks beaten together, which were themselves banned in turn. In 1937 they reappeared, transformed as an orchestra of frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums. These steelpans are now a major part of the Trinidadian music scene and are a popular section of the Canboulay music contests. In 1941, the United States Navy arrived on Trinidad, and the panmen, who were associated with lawlessness and violence, helped to popularize steel pan music among soldiers, which began its international popularization.
Today musical competitions make up a large part of formal Carnival; groups and individuals compete hard to win. To be named Calypso Monarch is one of the country's greatest honours, and the competition is aired on television. Along with the honour comes an enormous trophy, a car, TT $2,000,000 (approx.) and possible endorsements and other contracts. Other prestigious titles are the King and Queen of the Bands (; the International Soca Monarch (both Groovy and Power); the Carnival Road March; and Panorama (for steelpan). For the latter, the 2011 prize was TT$2 million. There are also limbo, stickfighting, and other competitions.
Traditionally, musicians use drums, claves, and the steelpan, created in Trinidad and reported to be the only non-electrical instrument invented in the 20th century, that has been hammered down in different areas to create a wide range of different notes. A group of performers practise weeks in advance on these pans to compete. Trinidad and Tobago is multicultural (Amerindian, European, African, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern), and all of its groups have contributed musical influences to the sounds of Carnival. These cultures have combined to create a music vastly different from that of Carnival in Spain, Venice, or New Orleans.
As with other Carnivals, many participants wear elaborate costumes, often decorated with feathers and sequins. Carnival bands are organized groups made up of participants who pay for costumes fashioned by a designer and assembled by teams of volunteers. The costumed participants dance through the streets to the sounds of a steel band, a soca band or a d.j. – this is called "playing mas'". A unique feature of this parade is that locals and tourists alike participate in the parade of bands. Each band is led by a King and Queen, who wear extremely large costumes, often requiring extensions and wheels to assist the masquerader to carry it through the streets. Each year on Dimanche Gras (Carnival Sunday), a competition is held to award the King and Queen of Carnival title to two of these masqueraders. On Carnival Monday and Tuesday, the bands are in competition to win the Band of the Year title. Small monetary prizes are associated with these titles, though they do not cover the full amount of producing the band's music or the King's or Queen's costumes. Participation occurs at all levels of society; three-time calypso monarch David Rudder described it as "from bourgeois to grassroots." Children participate from as early as parents can get them into costume; sometime even strollers are decorated. Children can extend their fun by participating in smaller "Kiddies' Carnival" shows, competitions and parades as early as 4 weeks before the culmination of the festival. For weeks ahead, several preliminary rounds of competitions and parties (or fêtes) take place. As Carnival is part of the national curriculum, several programmes take place at schools across the country. Regional authorities handle smaller Carnival celebrations in smaller towns and villages.
Band leaders and designers begin working on their presentations months in advance of Carnival Monday and Tuesday. They usually hold a launch party the up to 8 months before Carnival to showcase their costumes. Costumes are available for purchase at the mas camp. Some camps offer costumes for sale online as well.
A few specific characters have evolved during the history of Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival. Among these characters are:
Pierrot Grenade – he gives speeches on issues of the day, all in rhyme
Minstrels – musicians acting as wandering minstrels, wearing white facepaint
Midnight Robber – his grandiose bragging is known as "robber talk," a style which evolved from African Griot storytellers
Jab Jab - Jab is the French Patois for 'Diable' (Devil), and Molassie is the French Patois for Mélasse (Molasses). The Jab Molassie is one of several varieties of devil mas played in Trinidad and Tobago carnival. The costume consists of short pants or pants cut off at the knee, and a mask and horns. The jab molassie would carry chains, and wear locks and keys around his waist, and carry a pitch fork. He may smear his body with grease, tar, mud or coloured dyes (red, green or blue). The jab molassie "wines" or gyrates to a rhythmic beat that is played on tins or pans by his imps. While some of his imps supply the music, others hold his chain, seemingly restraining him as he pulls against them in his wild dance. The differences among the various forms of devil mas were once distinct, but have become blurred over time.
Dame Lorraine – an amply blessed woman – stuffed in the appropriate areas – dressed as an 18th century French aristocrat