Illustration by Gauraang Biyani

Carnival: Independence and Identity in Trinidad and Tobago

On the celebration of Trinidadian identity through the festivities of Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival.

Mar 5, 2017

Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival began in the eighteenth century, a period during colonialism. It was celebrated by both Catholic French plantation owners and slaves by staging elaborate masquerade parties, called Canbouley, in which each group would try to impersonate the other through their dress and behavior. The Carnival season was held just after Christmas, and it ran until the commencement of the Catholic Lent. It was considered a farewell to the flesh before the beginning of this holy season, in which Catholics rid themselves of impure thoughts and actions. Once slavery was abolished in 1838, Canbouley was viewed as a festival of emancipation, freedom and rebelliousness. Consequently, the British colonial government at the time banned many of the practices associated with the masquerade: drumming, stick fighting, African-oriented religious practices and even the playing of the steelpan — an instrument that was invented in Trinidad and Tobago and that is still commonly played at Carnival.
After many struggles with the British rule, the festival developed during the independence movement into a symbol of Trinidadian identity and a platform from which to showcase the country’s cultural practices through art, dance, music, folklore and storytelling. The festival’s parade now happens annually on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Fast-forward to today and Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, despite initial efforts to suppress the cultural display, is one of the most spectacular and most anticipated events of the year in the country. The season typically starts directly after Christmas and runs until Ash Wednesday. The Carnival festival is where the country’s music began and saw its evolution from Calypso or Kaiso and Steelpan to what is presently called Soca. Soca music is predominantly played at this time, and is divided into two categories: Power Soca, extremely high tempo music, and groovy Soca, a slightly more mellow version. There are many fusions of Soca music as well, like Chutney-Soca. Huge parties known as fetes are held almost every day leading up to the final two days in which Soca artists perform their hit songs. The atmosphere in the country at this time is overwhelmingly lively and festive.
About two weeks before the final hooray, the Panorama Competition is held. Various large and small steel pan orchestras gather to compete against one another. The week prior to the Carnival is known as the Bacchanal week, on every day of which a major fete is held. The Friday before the Carnival is known as Fantastic Friday and the National Lotteries Control Board hosts its annual International Power and Groovy Soca Monarch Competitions — all qualified Soca artists compete on this night, presenting their most elaborate performances.
Typically, on the Sunday night before Carnival, the Dimanche Gras competition is hosted. The event is a grand artistic display and a parade of exceptionally elaborate, large costumes. By the end of the night, the Dimanche Gras King and Queen are crowned.
Carnival Monday begins in the wee hours of the morning with the J’ouvert — break of dawn — celebrations. This is a parade through the country’s capital where participants throw paint, powder, mud and oil on each other while dancing to the sounds of steel pan and Soca. People masquerade in several disguises: as blue devils, men are painted in blue and often breathe fire from their mouths, and as Jab Molassies, men are covered in tar and oil. These people typically try to scare and threaten passersby.
Directly after this parade, masqueraders return home to shower and change into their costumes. There are various carnival bands which masqueraders pay to parade with over the two-day period. The Carnival band packages include drinks, food and elaborate costumes. Mas bands, as they are called, design their costumes based on a theme. The large bands, containing over 1000 masqueraders are divided into smaller sections that each portray one aspect of the overall theme. Mas bands usually embark on their journey through the streets of Port of Spain, the country’s capital, at 9:00 a.m. and finish around 8:00 p.m.. The modern-day parade involves constant jumping up and down and what may be considered vulgar gyrating referred to in Trinidad as wining. Though previously Monday’s costumes would be quite simple, for instance shorts and a shirt, nowadays, masqueraders spend exorbitant amounts of money in purchasing designer Monday Wear from well-known Trinidadian designers.
Tuesday is the final day of celebrations and is by far the most colorful, energetic event of them all. Masqueraders get completely dolled up. People wake up as early as 4:00 a.m. to go to their hair and makeup appointments before putting on their festive bikinis and beaded costumes and meeting with their Carnival band around 8:00 a.m.. The processions through the streets are similar to those on Monday, except on this day the bands cross the grand stage for the judging of the costumes. Masqueraders cross the stage with full energy, jumping, singing and dancing while popular Carnival songs play in the background. The day’s proceedings normally end around 10 p.m. on Tuesday. For many this is one of the most bittersweet days of the year.
Photograph by Sonja Burkette
The commercialization of Carnival has made it a major source of income for Trinidad and Tobago. An article published by the Trinidad Express Newspaper revealed that in 2016 about 35,483 tourists greeted the shores of the twin-island state to partake in its festivities, spending approximately 340 million U.S. dollars. Besides the country’s oil and gas economy, the Carnival is one of the country’s major sources of income.
Dania Paul is a staff writer. Email her at
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