At almost 3 a.m. on a February morning, the city of Edmonton slumbers. At the same hour in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in a large grassy field at the T&T Cadet Force headquarters, several hundred people are milling about, myself included, garbed as if by kindergarten-aged couturiers: white cotton shorts held up precariously with elastic, white singlets splashed with silver sparkles, coifs crowned with toilet rolls and silver-paper stars. All of us are giddily waiting to “play mud mas” (short for masquerade) in a band called the Silver Mudders. For about $50, we get a costume, all the drink we can consume and, five hours from now at the finale of this year’s J’Ouvert, the official kickoff to Trinidad’s two-day Carnival, a catered breakfast.
In the dark, my little subgroup of revellers and I lather up with baby oil and dig into huge tubs filled with a mixture of mud, silver sparkles, silver paint and Hershey chocolate syrup that we generously slap all over – the final touch to our ensembles. We then pour into a quiet suburban side street, the musical tempo set by huge trucks filled with boom boxes. Loudly encouraged to abandon all vestiges of respectability, we thread in and out of the dancers. Other bands join the throng, and we spill out onto the neighbourhood’s main streets where revellers well into the Carnival spirit carry bottles of silver goop that they squirt at onlookers; others throw gobs of sticky, coloured goo. I no sooner fall into step beside a massive truck belting out calypso music, its rasta-locked riders dispensing endless quantities of beer and rum, when a large woman with a wicked grin and a pot of silver paint sidles up to me. Before I can protest, she smothers me in a slippery bear hug. Jostling all around me, celebrants “jump up,” dancing and gyrating to the music, and “wine,” rubbing against each other in a way that would make a stripper blush. But at this early Monday morning mud party, such antics are de rigueur.
Ever since my first Trinidad Carnival, in 1975, I have counted myself among that legion of northerners joyfully bitten by the Carnival bug and forever changed. I have been to three of these wild street parties in the years since, and each time the experience has transported me beyond the mundane of the everyday and into the immediacy of the now, placing Carnival high on the list of things I have found in my life to love. At that first Carnival in 1975, when I was on the island producing a radio documentary for the CBC, this realization came as a total revelation. My Toronto co-workers and I partied all night and worked all day. I learned to “wine” until the wee hours, fuelled only by rum, and along the way lost 10 pounds, fell in love and had the time of my life. I told my new Trinidadian best friends I would be back, and they told me about the legend that said: Eat the flesh of the cascadura fish and you will certainly come back. I ate cascadura by the truckload.
Of course, there are Carnivals everywhere, from New Orleans to Havana to Venice – some big, some small, some at odd times of the year, including the biggest and most explosive of them all in Rio de Janeiro. (Rio’s floats are so immense, entrants practically need a building permit.) Most are pre-Lenten Carnivals, all with floats and marches in the streets and competitions to choose “the best of the best.” Where they differ is in the details: the kind of music they play, the type of dancing that goes on and who the competing groups are. In Brazil, for example, these groups represent samba schools; in Trinidad they are “mas bands.” Still, cognoscenti claim that Trinidad’s pre-Lenten Carnival remains absolutely the greatest and grandest street party on the planet. After just a day of Trinidad Carnival, you understand why: It sucks you in and absorbs you, like the Borg in Star Trek, making it impossible to simply stand on the sidelines and watch. In costume or not, a lawyer will jump up and “wine” with a truck driver, a cabinet minister and street vendor will “jump up” together, as the superficial worlds of politics, commerce and status are suspended in a frenzy of colour, music and dance.
Yet more than half the fun is the warm-up. Carnival season in Trinidad revs up immediately after Christmas, with an army of designers and seamstresses working around the clock, sketching and sewing costumes and shaping elaborate wire structures into huge feathery, sequined or pyrotechnic extravaganzas. Even more elaborately themed outfits are created for the king and queen of each masquerade band, and variations on that theme for the hundreds – sometimes thousands – of its band members. Costumes can be comically simple (like those for our mud mas), homemade or the spangled Las Vegas-style variety that are crafted by professional seamstresses and cost a small fortune. The ornate productions worn by the king and queen competitors leading each band can weigh hundreds of pounds and cost thousands of dollars. Each band, made up of a few dozen to thousands of members, then competes for the “Best of Carnival.” Though Carnival is actually a series of competitions: for best costumed band, best king and queen, best steel band, best road march song and best calypso. Children have their own tier of events.
Starting in the New Year, performers also introduce their biting, satirical calypsos at special parties called “fetes” (once held in canvas tents, these are now hosted in public buildings to accommodate the large numbers of participants). When Carnival celebrants begin arriving, up to a week before the big weekend, the steel bands are already practising feverishly in their “pan yards” (backyards or parking lots), where they play until midnight and beyond. And by the Thursday before J’Ouvert’s wild night of mud dancing, most locals and visitors alike are touring the various pan yards, sipping beer from huge plastic cups and munching on roti while they wander among the musicians or dance to calypso. The larger steel bands hope to build a fan base before the weekend’s Saturday night fete, when an audience of 35,000 to 40,000 will cheer on the winners. The volume of the music is deafening. Even a so-called medium-sized band boasts between 60 and 90 specially produced pans, played by male and female drummers ranging in age from teens to seniors. At a cost of up to $7,000 each, these instruments are a far cry from their predecessors: recycled oil drums hit with simple mallets. And what began as simple tunes to march by have evolved into everything from jazz to classical compositions performed by highly sophisticated orchestras, with up to $400,000 invested in pans.
The next day, Carnival Friday, the grandstands in the Queen’s Park Savannah are overflowing, and good-natured betting between the spectators is fast and furious. Each of the bands pounds into overdrive as their band name is called, a last chance to show off their respective king and queen contestants. The would-be royals, some hardly visible beneath a mountain of sparkle and glitter, some dragging immense, flashy creations on wheels, whirl, strut and posture with surprising energy considering the weight of their costumes. It is anyone’s guess how the judges will lean: Will band leader Peter Minshall’s sophisticated king triumph over Barbarossa’s flamboyant pyrotechnic monarch? Will Evolution’s Curtis Eustace knock out the other hopefuls? Will the white queen knock out the red one?
Saturday morning is family time at Carnival. The next generation of revellers, watched proudly by their parents, takes to the streets in costumes wild with colour and glitter. The kids jump and gyrate, competing just as fiercely as the adults in their drive to become junior king and queen. That night, one calypsonian after another struts across the stage in Queen’s Park Savannah hoping to be named calypso king. On Sunday (Dimanche Gras), the stage is given over to a spectacular theatrical show meant to capture the essence of Carnivals past, present and future. It ends well after midnight, leaving just enough time for partiers to grab an hour or two of sleep before they don mud, chocolate and sparkles to take part in J’Ouvert.
It is now dawn, and my muddy companions and I have been wending through the serpentine streets of Port-of-Spain for four hours. As the sun rises and warms the cobblestones, weary masqueraders slump by the curbside. Our truck continues to blast ear-splitting Caribbean melodies with a rhythmic beat. My early morning buzz of excitement has faded, but my colleagues, who have been hitting the beverage wagon with far greater regularity, weave and grin inanely, claiming they’re having the time of their lives. Carnival is officially open. I stagger back to the hotel for a shower and nap, but wake in time to return to the streets leading to the Savannah. The bands are still marching through the streets, now teasing the spectators with only parts of their costumes – a headdress or top – in the countdown to Mardi Gras, the grand finale.
At last, it’s Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras. All the stops are pulled as participants and on-lookers alike abandon their inhibitions and revel in the warmth, the noise, the excitement, the music. The steel bands and the revellers and the trucks with the boom boxes move out in full force, pulsing through the streets and on to the bandstand at the Savannah to hear who has been voted the best of the best. Thousands of partiers, led by their kings and queens, hit the stage with whatever fragments of energy they have left. They jump up, they gyrate, they holler and whoop, hoping that over-the-top enthusiasm will sway the judges. Finally the best band is chosen. And suddenly, Carnival is over for another year. Only the tradition of Las’ Lap, when passionate – but exhausted – Carnival aficionados escort their favourite costumed troupe back to base camp, is left to enjoy.
On Ash Wednesday, I droop over a coffee at an outdoor café and call an old colleague in Toronto, Trinidadian TV producer Fred Thornhill. I chide him for not jumping up this year, and he tells me he no longer “plays mas.” Like many Trinidadians these days, he thinks Carnival has shifted too far from its roots. The costumes have become too skimpy and “Las Vegas,” the hijinks on the streets are too (blank), the music too loud. He yearns for the days when the music was supplied by steel bands, when costumes were not all sparkle and provocation. And perhaps he’s right. The old traditions have faded. Many of the names on this year’s bands are new; the old-timers who once had so many fans have slipped away. But there’s a rumour afloat that 2008’s Carnival will feature more steel bands, more traditional costumes and less skin. And this year’s fete wasn’t all that bad, I tell Fred. “Remember when we clocked less than six hours sleep from Dimanche Gras to Ash Wednesday, and still took part in Las’ Lap?”
He laughs. “Oh, yeah.”
“Well, I didn’t dance till dawn this time,” I say. I hate to admit it, but we were back at the hotel by midnight every night. Maybe the kids were right when they said I was getting too old for this thing. But how about I tell you all about it over a little cascadura?”
The Skinny on Fat Tuesday
Air Canada has flights four times a week to Port-of-Spain through Toronto. (Book early as seats are snatched up quickly.) Carnival Weekend 2008 starts in early February.
Best sleep: The author tried the Courtyard Marriott and found it a peaceful getaway after a day of revels. In Invader’s Bay, on the Audrey Jeffers Hwy. 868-624-1945; http://www.marriott.com
Best eats: Shark-and-Bake, rotis and doubles (a vegetable pita filled with chickpeas and spicy sauce).
Trinidadians describe themselves as “the rainbow people” because of the amalgam of races that over the years have integrated, married and blended to create what is now a Trinidadian or a Tobagonian. And since 1967, 100,000 rainbow people have entered Canada (65 per cent of them settling in Toronto), including well-known Trinidadian-Canadian authors Neil Bissoondath, Frank Birbalsingh, Samuel Selvon and David Chariandy, pro NBA basketball player Jamaal Magloire and jazz trumpeter Nick “Brownman” Ali. Ian Hanomansing is a familiar face on the CBC, Frances-Anne Solomon a popular filmmaker and producer, and Hedy Fry is a Liberal MP who ran for party leadership. But perhaps the most visible contribution of Canada’s Trinidadians is the summer’s most colourful festival in many Canadian cities:
- The great-granddaddy of them all, Caribana, in Toronto, began in 1967 and is now the largest Caribbean festival in North America, with more than a million participants each year. Held at the height of summer.
- Montreal’s Carifesta was inspired by Caribana, but Montreal’s interest in calypso actually began in the 1940s when a well-known calypsonian, Lord Cares- ser (Rufus Callender), settled in the city. Carifesta is usually held two to three weeks before Caribana.
- Canada’s other Trinidad-style Carnivals include:
- Calgary’s Carifest (http://www.carifestcalgary.ca);
- Edmonton’s Cariwest (http://www.cariwestfestival.com);
- Hamilton’s Mardi Gras Carnival (http://www.hamilton carnival.com)
- Caribbean Days in North Vancouver (http://www.caribbeandays.ca)
- Ottawa’s Caribe-Expo (http://www.caribe-expo.com/events) and
- Winnipeg’s Caripeg