As far back as I can remember, my family has celebrated carnival. Regardless of where we’ve lived, Trinidad & Tobago, our homeland, has always been apart of our lives and carnival culture is at the essence of that existence. Trini’s often say that once the carnival bug hits your veins, it’s virtually impossible to let it go and I couldn’t agree more.
Right around late summer of every year, we start to “catch it” as the anticipation for the next year’s festivities grow. From band launch season (where Mas bands reveal their themed costumes for the year) through the Christmas holiday, Trinidadians, lovers of Soca music and carnival revelers around the world are steadily planning, planning and planning some more patiently waiting for February on the twin island to arrive. Maybe it’s the many lead up carnivals throughout the globe such as Notting Hill, Brooklyn’s Labor Day, Toronto’s Caribana, Cropover in Barbados and of course Miami carnival in late October that give us an early taste of what’s to come, but Trinidad is steadily on the mind. It is after all, the mecca of carnival and the greatest street party on earth!
As the time draws closer, you and your crew have already begun to devise the plan: What band are you all playing in? What section? What fetes are you all going to? What day you’re flying in? Where is the crew staying and is transportation coordinated? And finally, are you all going to Tobago for the cool-down/last lap after? Once that’s all figured out, the agony of having to wait months to actually get there kicks in, especially as the Soca artists begin to tease you with the latest releases for the upcoming season (here are a few of my favorites from this season).
Once the moment arrived, the vibes were just as sweet as I imagined they would be. We literally touched down in Piarco International airport to the sounds of Kes The Band’s latest groovy tune “Hello” welcoming us with a steel pan procession in the courtyard. One quick stop to duty fee to stock up on Scotch, then to B-Mobile to grab a phone card and we were ready for the action!
This year, I teamed up with both B-Mobile and Bliss Mas Band to highlight #MYCarnivalExperience and share the unforgettable moments with you. Hopefully the next time you make travel plans, Trinidad carnival is not only on your radar, but becomes apart of your agenda because there truly is no place like it on earth quite like T&T. Now let’s get started on my experience so that you can get a snapshot for a future carnival jump up of your own.
When I touch down, a ‘doubles’ is always the first order of business. Two perfectly fried patties of dough known as “barra” topped with seasoned chana (chick peas) piled with fixings like tamarind, cucumber and peppa sauce make for the most delectable Trini street food dish known as a doubles. It’s impossible to have just one and for any visitor a doubles is a must. Nothing washes a doubles down quite like a fresh cut iced coconut. You can spot vendors along the highway and throughout downtown Port of Spain’s Queens Park Savannah. Many vendors even have scotch readily available to concoct Trini’s national drink, a Scotch and Coconut Water on the rocks.
On to the Fetes. For many friends who always inquire about my carnival adventures, they can’t seem to wrap their heads around going to a party that starts at 3a.m. and ends at 11a.m. then a quick cat nap before heading off to the next one. ‘Vanessa, how is this possible and when do you sleep’ are always the two most asked questions. The answer is simple- you don’t. Let’s be clear- Trinidad Carnival is not the place you come for a relaxing vacation- it is exactly the opposite. But luckily Tobago, its sister island offers those pristine beaches, relaxing villas and bungalows should you fancy that vibe. Trinidad on the other hand is straight vibes and non-stop bacchanal right through, so mentally prepare yourself for lack of sleep mixed with incredible energy. The all-inclusive fete experience is a huge part of what makes the culture so special. Each with their own signature theme and style, carnival fetes bring the island to life during the season. You’ll end up befriending your neighbors, reconnecting with old friends and taking a wine on a stranger is not only common, it’s totally acceptable.
This year, I attended 6 fetes during my carnival week- make a note of these for your next visit as they are not to miss: A.M. BEACH, SOCA BRAINWASH, CANDY COATED COOLER FETE, BEACHOUSE, SOAKA STREET PARTY AND VALE VIBE. (A few shots below).
With so many fetes to choose from it really just depends on your crew, how early you scout tickets and of your course budget. Important note: many of these fetes are ‘all-inclusive’ which means they include food and drink, so they will set you back at least a hundred dollars; be prepared to have a fete budget set aside.
If you’re not a feter type, you can still capture an authentic carnival experience more true to it’s ancestral past. Here are a few ‘must attend’ events to earmark:
- The Canboulay Street Riots Reenactment (pictured above): At 3a.m. sharp on carnival Friday in the heart of Piccadilly Square, downtown Port of Spain, thousands surround actors who reconstruct the famous Canboulay riots, paying homage to the stick fighters and fire breathers of the past. Trinidad’s rich culture wasn’t always an easy one; the riots were a forceful opposition by the slaves for the ability to partake in the carnival celebrations at all. If it were not for the Canboulay riots, there would be no carnival in its current form. For this very reason, Canboulay is one of the most attended and revered events during the season and a MUST for first timers.
- The Panorama Steel Pan Finals: Nestled in the heart of the Queens Park Savannah in Port of Spain, the panorama finals take place on carnival Saturday. The sweet sounds of world-renowned panorama bands compete for the crown of band of the year. Whether it’s the popular Desperados, Phase Two, All-Stars, Renegades or Silver Stars (to name a few), you can get your fix as these bands recount the biggest soca tunes of the season with their own special versions and twists. Steel pan performances can be heard throughout the year, but there’s something special about this week in particular where bands bring out their finest players as they compete for the crown. The Panorama semis and finals throughout the years have grown so much in popularity that thousands descend on the savannah grounds for the “lime” or gathering to partake in festivities.
- The Jouvert: I’ll never forget my first jouvert experience in Port of Spain. I was filming my docu-series Carnival to the World and was invited by the Cocoa Devils, a popular jouvert band based in Woodbrook to mix cocoa before the festivities on carnival Monday. They wanted to give me a taste of what was to come. Walking in to collect our packages, they invited us in for a drink and gave me the handle and said stir! Mixing the cocoa powder with oil and a secret ingredient I helped to create the bucket of cocoa that would be used during Jouvert morning. Clean white shirts baring the logo along with a drinks cup and wristband, we gathered at 2a.m. for the jouvert festivities that would be one of the most life changing for me to date.
Imagine watching the sunrise with 5000 friends and strangers to the sounds of Bunji Garlin’s thumping classic Differentology while you’re completely covered in cocoa. This is Jouvert– It literally means the darkness before dawn and as the sun rises you are born anew (hence when carnival Mas officially begins). If there’s one event I recommend that you experience, it is JOUVERT- so take my advice and take a jump when you can! Jouvert symbolizes: no judgment, no discrimination, no class, and no race. It is the definition of oneness, freedom and pure exhilaration.
And FINALLY, we arrive at The Mas…
After the street food, the fetes, the panorama and the Jouvert, Carnival Monday and Tuesday finally arrive. These are the two days of the year when no boss, no emails, no arguments, nothing and I mean nothing can come between you and the road! It’s your chance to let yourself go, RULE THE ROAD and soak in the tradition alongside the hundreds of thousands who traveled to the island to do the very same. I was lucky enough to find vendor Carnival Kicks (owned by fellow carnival reveler Farrah Ragoonath) that had every accessory needed, from stockings, to eye gems, glitter and boots to make preparation for the road easy and seamless. All of the planning had paid off and now comes the time to simply let the music take you and ingest the energy of the carnival.
Crossing the stage for many carnival revelers is the highlight of the experience as it gives us a chance to show off that famed costume they were so eager to put on. Layered with feathers and adorned with jewels we descended on the Queens Park Savannah stage or the SocaDrone stadium stage to have our moment. The stage is a special place. You almost get transported, if only for a few moments to your own virtual reality, with Soca music pumpin, music trucks flanked on all sides, confetti falling and pure bliss all around, you take to the stage and RULE IT.
The Lost Tribe and BLISS MAS band both crossed the SocaDrome this year on Carnival Tuesday. Hopping between bands, I had a chance to take in the vibes with both groups. (Below are a few pictures I captured from of the beautiful costumed ladies of BLISS on Carnival Tuesday).
After playing Mas for several years with different bands, what I’ve come to realize is that carnival and Mas in particular is ALL ABOUT YOUR CREW! The BLISS/Tribe experience mastered by band leader Dean Ackin and his team delivers that all-inclusive feel that many crave and has become the gold standard in carnival Mas bands. Every detail has been coordinated so the only thing you need to worry about is locating the drinks truck for a top up of scotch and the rest stop for lunch. The many sections per band flock the side streets of St. James and Woodbrooke and Port of Spain where nearly every corner is littered with Masquereders making their mark, getting on bad and taking that wine down low.
The Gentlemen of Carnival also stopped the show.. Below, a small taste of the beautiful shades of male melanin on the road Carnival Tuesday.
If I could change or edit one part of this year’s carnival experience with BLISS it would be that it wasn’t long enough. Two days simply that took so long to arrive literally flew by at lightening speed. Two days truly isn’t enough time after waiting an entire year to enjoy with friends. Luckily, as the carnival tradition continues, the preparation has already begun for another season and soon enough the time will come for us to take a jump once again. Let the planning for 2019 begin!
Written by Vanessa James ~ All opinions are my own.
More carnival coverage:
See my HelloBeautiful.com carnival costume picture collage, click here.
For a look at my carnival round-up article for Caribbean National Weekly, click here.