Why this event?
As an original West Londoner, Notting Hill Carnival has always been one of the my favourite parties of the year and growing up in London meant most of my friends (some I won’t see for a year until Carnival comes back around!) all congregated for annual debauchery. It’s very common knowledge that carnival in Trinidad is one of the originators of the mas / carnival which was historically widely celebrated across the Caribbean and started by slaves. Trinidad Carnival has always been somewhere I wanted to visit and luckily having friends that grew up their meant I had absolutely no excuse to visit. Finally after five years or so I was finally convinced to take some time off work by my friends and book a two week trip . I have to say after visiting the beautiful & immensely cultural Trinidad, I was blown away by the country, it’s people & especially J’Ouvert which I have to say is one of the best events to ever take place on earth!. I’ll continue below with a description of how it all started, what to expect in Trinidad, how events are produced, the level of visible health & safety and finally some top tips in-case you the reader would ever want to visit! (I highly recommend adding this to your bucket list)
Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is celebrated before the commencement of Lent. Carnival originated from 1783 for half a century where the French developed their carnival. This was noted to be a season of gay and elegant festivities extending from Christmas to Ash Wednesday. Following this the Africans started to participate in the festivities from 1833 after the Emancipation Bill was passed. 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 Brazilian style costumes. But Carnival is driven by what the people want.
Modern Day Carnival
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. 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, all over the world, as seen in London, New York, Brazil & all over the world. Mas is a signature event on Trinidad’s cultural calendar.
Steel Pan and its Significance
The steel pan emerged within the 1930s – with skilfully hammered 55-gallon oil barrels were used to carefully produce perfect musical tones. The drums were developed in Trinidad during the early years of the 20th century, and were used by steel pan musicians called pannists.
Throughout the mid-1930s metal percussion was being used in the Tamboo Bamboo bands, who would play music through tuneable sticks made of bamboo wood. Originating in Trinidad, these were hit onto the ground with other sticks in order to produce sound.
By the late 1930s the occasional all-steel bands were seen at Carnival and by 1940 it has become the preferred Carnival accompaniment of young underprivileged men.
Production, Event Management and Health and Safety
Due to Trinidad’s proximity to the United States and the long history of events taking place there, Health & Safety is at a strong level and visible meaning I felt safe the whole time. There were an abundance of stages, whether or not they were imported from America I was un sure. Understanding health & safety is such a priority in the UK I assumed that there would be less concern for the guests at these events. There were armed police walking through the crowd & Machel Monday’s and I also felt there were no crowd control issues during Jouvert and at Carnival. Floats were protected by a line of security stewards with ropes to keep attendees away from the tires of the large vehicles. After countless years of events in Trinidad you can really see the level of event management and production quality with huge SFX on the floats and at the countless fetes I visited. Events were really well run.
Ped barrier & CCB were visible across the events I visited however Heras wasn’t widely used. Instead, immense amounts of Layher scaffolding could be seen and used for all purposes from the large stage constructions themselves to fencing off back of house areas.
Language, Food and Culture
Lime: To hang out or chill
Playing Mas: Short for Masquerade – slaves were unable to participate in the French plantation owners pre lent celebrations so they started their own. To “Play Mas” in modern day carnival terms describes participating in the event from donning the outfits to dancing.
Wine: wining is an intimate form of dancing that is not necessarily sexual. People do not just wine with their partners, but with their friends or strangers also.
Doubles: a common street food in Trinidad and Tobago. It is a snack made with two baras (flat fried bread) filled with curry channa (curried chickpeas).
Bake and Shark: Bake and Shark is a classic street food dish that is sold at a multitude of food stalls and cookshops all over Trinidad and Tobago. It consists of a fried flatbread (“bake”) filled with fried pieces of shark meat and various other ingredients and sauces.
J’Ouvert: the official start of carnival, at dawn on the Monday preceding Lent. (my favourite). The event starts around 3am and the main feature is truckloads of paint, mud and powder which is thrown. Do not wear your best clothes or shoes! J’Ouvert runs until around 9am, at which point attendees go home, shower and get into their colourful and bright costumes ready for the next two days of festivities. Not for the faint-hearted!
Fete: Basically a fête but pronounced without the e at the end. A fete is essentially a party. These take place all over Trinidad from Christmas right up until carnival Monday & Tuesday. This can range from huge production events with stages at large stadiums such as the popular “Machel Monday’s concert which takes place at The Hasely Crawford Stadium and attracts crowds in excess of 30,000 people, to truck floats with huge sound systems that drive up to school courtyards, open spaces and basically anywhere large enough to host a large crowd and a load of conical shaped marquees! I was lucky to visit Machel Mondays. Some previous well known performers to have supported Machel include Sean Paul, Pit Bull, Ashanti etc.
- Come to carnival with a wallet full of cash. Although drinks and food is cheap, to participate and play mas properly involves joining one of the countless bands available. Usually you pay a sum which can be anywhere between £300 – £1000 and this includes a costume, wristband to follow the bands, lunch break and an unlimited amount of booze provided by the band (this is usually in the form of another truck that follows the main sound system float with a well-stocked bar)
- It’s hot, keep well hydrated and wear sun cream!
- Be ready to hear soca and nothing else for the duration of your stay
- Enjoy the countless number of pre carnival fetes
- Go to J’Ouvert!
- Visit Panorama, this is the famous steel pan competition hosted on the Saturday before carnival
- Dress to impress, the less you wear the better
- Be comfortable in your body, there are people of all races, sizes & ages that attend the festivities!
- Be safe, stay in groups and do not walk around on your own at night
- Trinidad is full of culture, don’t ask where someone is from as they’ll probably automatically assume you’re a local!
- Visit the number of great beaches in Trinidad (and Tobago!)
By Rami Ali, Senior Production Manager