Samstag, 27. Mai 2017, 00:37:08 Uhr

05. März 2010, 18:32

Carnival in Trinidad

Most folks associate island fun with lazing about, sand, sun and drinks with little umbrellas. And on the island of Trinidad I suppose you can find that, but for some decades stories of the frenetic madness of the Trinidad Carnival have been infiltrating circles of hipsters, daredevils and anyone touched by the spreading Caribbean Diaspora. Fotos (c)Agustin Munoz/Red Bull Photofiles Location: Trinidad, Trinidad/Tobago Country: Trinidad/Tobago.

6.3.2010 Brüttisellen (mk) Forget “laze”, try “pace”. The heart of Carnival is rebellion, terms like “free up”, “break away” and “bacchanal” litter Carnival conversations. It is a festival loosely associated with many Carnivals world over that immediately precede the Catholic period of Lent, the basic premise of indulgence before sacrifice the same, but as evolution works with fauna, developing differently in isolated circumstances, so too evolution works with culture, this island Carnival stands alone and, dare I say, above.

So you touch down in Trinidad, pleasantly surprised to find that the airport is not a thatched hut and quickly adjust to the mix of technology (mobile phone and internet service provider ads bombard you from all sides) and laid back attitudes, oh, and HEAT. No joke, 2010 was a sweltering season. Then you want to see your costume. Here begins the pivotal differences between Trinidad’s Carnival and all others, it is a fully participatory festival.

The culmination of Carnival takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in the streets of the nation’s capital with thousands and thousands of costumed bodies dancing to high-speed beats pumped from trucked speakers in a massive moving party, while consuming whatever liquids sustain them. Red Bull, as you can imagine, fits in snugly with the various concoctions.

You could travel here to observe what has been dubbed, “The Greatest Show on Earth” (all respect to the Barnum and Bailey Circus but who are they kidding?) but the fix is to participate. So yes, you want a costume. Some locals ‘play mas’ in costumes of their own making and take to the streets solo but the massive visual effect of Carnival is largely achieved by the efforts of highly organized bands who offer, for a fee, the option to don a costume and parade as part of a group.

The hot ticket these days is to “jump up” with a band that charges a higher fee but provides drinks, security, the costume itself, food, even mobile toilet facilities (affectionately dubbed “wee wee trucks”) in unlimited supply for it’s masqueraders. The larger bands boast over four thousand participants, quite a spectacle, imagine the experience. We’re getting ahead of ourselves though.

In loose talk “Carnival” can refer to the “Parade of the Bands” itself but for Trinis Carnival is a season with over a month of parties (fetes) and competitive events. Christmas is regularly encroached by Carnival lovers rearing to go, the radio stations re-program to play only the popular Carnival music (soca), it’s so official the collective action actually has a name, the “soca switch”. By the time your cold bum hits the tarmac, you’ve got some catching up to do.

The lead-up events are more than just opportunities to party frequently, the fetes tumbling one after another, sometimes three in one night, allow the soca hits to emerge, guided by audience response. Attending the fetes is also how one builds the endurance needed to appreciate the street parade to come. Fetes range from the intimate to full-out raves with celebrity DJs, dozens of live performers and thousands of patrons but the music threads all together. There is little innovation; instead the DJs seem to be in an effort to align. It evokes a child-like instinct that appreciates repetition and reacts to a call or beat before consciously recognizing it.

While the pool of songs heard at any Carnival event is relatively small (somewhere between 30 and 60 new compositions mixed in with older favorites), competition between performers is strict, and there are a couple kinds of “best” to compete for. For soca, the most formal competition is vying for the title of Soca (get this) Monarch. And within that competition, there is the “Groovy” Soca Monarch, and the “Power” Soca Monarch. The big difference between them is pretty much the tempo with the power category being much faster. Separating the two is necessary when crowd response is a judging category, to the unfamiliar ear it might all sound the same, watch the crowd to observe the difference.

Soca as an offshoot of calypso (Soca = Soul Calypso), which was an offshoot of Kaiso has offshoots itself. Chutney Soca, created by Indo-Trinidadians, is probably the most successful. While its subject matter is often centered on alcohol (especially rum), one keeps in mind that it comes made for the Carnival season, rarely is any kind of Soca especially philosophical. It is dance music after all. In any case, there is a Chutney Soca Monarch crowned at a separate event earlier in the season. The winning song almost always immediately enters the mainstream.

Trinis tout togetherness as a tenant of the festival, and to react to the soca beat is a strong example, especially with the waist motion familiar to, er, mammals, known locally as “wining”. The dance (you might call it grinding) is inherently sexual, but interpretable. Trinis manage to do it joyfully when called on, brothers and sisters may dance together without evoking raised eyebrows. Whimsy not passion.

Passion is all over Carnival in some form or another, from base sexual examples to the sublime creative. Passion is what created the only percussive instrument invented in the 20th century, the Steel Pan, in the hills of Lavantille, Trinidad (best not visit without a guide, maybe not even then) as a way to replace outlawed drumming in the 1930s. The development of the instrument and the parade have interweaving stories, and while Steelpan bands do feature on the road Monday and Tuesday music trucks provide the music for the big bands instead.

The real spotlight for ‘pan’ is the finals of the national competition dedicated to it, “Panorama”. Bands balance technical skill with vibe for huge crowds. The all-day event is “a must” to feel the power of percussion, for the moment that a hundred men and women stand poised in silence and then smash it in unison with an explosion of rhythm. The crowd at Panorama is filled with all ages, races and nationalities, your cup is filled with… your choice.

For the party set, Panorama sets off a domino effect of events, it features on Carnival Saturday, the day before the day before the first day of the ‘road’. Once the winner has been announced, debated and celebrated, waste little time; shower, change, head for the Western Main road. This is the solitary route to the coastal area of Chagaramus, host to not one but several of the biggest fetes, particularly tonight.

Deep breath, you are entering. First stop is ‘Trini Posse’ cooler fete, bars are available with drinks for purchase but the idea here is to pack your own cooler with whatever you like, as long as there are no glass bottles involved. Party pretty with what you prefer, expect somebody to stand on your cooler and wine at some point. Around 2 or 3am your crew will put the cooler back in the car, or perhaps abandon it altogether, not unheard of, leave the fete and move further on down the road… to another party. This one, Insomnia, has achieved a legendary status for vibe and innovation. Set in a mod open air hillside pavilion overlooking a yachting marina, it is a daybreak party characterized by special performances, water hoses soaking the crowd as the day breaks and the heat rises, and beds up top for the soft, oops, exhausted. It’s Sunday by the way but as the Trinis say “You now start”.

A neighborhood fete is a specific fete experience. The vibe there is one of familiarity, joy and inclusiveness, a block party. Somewhat ironic in that the tickets are often the most hotly contested and in short supply, it’s really all in who you know. “Vale Vibes” in the Diego Martin suburb of Diamond Vale can claim queen of these (Diamond Vale also claims another queen, resident Wendy Fitzwilliam, Ms. Universe 1998, almost always in attendance).“Vale Fete” as most people call it starts while Insomnia is still going, but if you’ve got a ticket the general consensus is to move on directly. There are parties with uptown crowds that suffer from uptown vibes, what locals call “stush” attitudes, less dancing and more posing for the swarming photographers who supply the paparazzi websites, but Vale Vibes manages to attract an uptown crowd and escape the attitude. It’s all smiles, waist motion, sunlight and the sense that, well, Sunday is the day before Monday.

Tired? Go home and nap, but sleep too long and you will miss one of the purest and most creative moments in all ‘d mas’. Carnival in Trinidad as I’ve said is participatory but unless you’re a kid, you’re on the sidelines for this one. The parade route gets a little breaking in, hosting “Kiddies Carnival”. One can perhaps appreciate the propriety of Sunday Carnival for the innocents, as much as any propriety can exist within the season’s framework of improper.

While adult costumes move toward showgirl style skimpy glitzed get-ups the kids are canvases for bandleaders who want to create real characters and showcase strong motifs, an Anne Geddes lover’s dream. The craftsmanship of artisans is evident, especially in the more ornate “individual” costumes. Note the wire frames that some creations hang on, custom made and lightweight. To create them is a legitimate art and one of the last traditional Mas making skills alive in modern Carnival, with many adult costumes mass-produced in China from Trinidadian designs. Older folk say that the Kiddies Carnival is naturally a better throwback to “Ole time Mas” than any other attempt to preserve the culture.

Somewhere in the afternoon you are allowed to sleep, but if you’re interested in roots Carnival culture then the “Dimanche Gras” (named in a similar manner that titled the simultaneous New Orleans’ festival) tonight will call you out of bed. The show brings out the best in two different areas, the grand King and Queen Costume competitions and the Calypso Monarch competition (open to both genders). The huge costumes tend to be achievements in design, the men and women carrying them achievers in stamina. The average height of a king costume is 30 feet, and many have movable parts, possibly pyrotechnics. In recent years one designer, Brian MacFarlane, has incorporated stilt walking into his King and Queen costumes, a feat of physics.

The Calypso competition has a tempo much slower than any Soca competition and the song subjects are often critical of society and government. This music is not just for dancing, the crowd will roar more for a lyrics line than a baseline. The crowd is inevitably more mature as well but the winners will make just as many headlines the next day. You may indulge in a party or two that night, Dimanche Gras wraps up around 11pm, but it’s not recommended if you plan on checking out the true opening of Carnival on the road, J’ouvert. And if you’ve never done it, do it.

The costumes described so far are designed with the sun in mind, to shine in it, to reflect it, smartly so, but Monday morning at 2:30am is about darkness. It’s dark physically and emotionally, an entirely different vibe. J’ouvert (literally the opening of the day) is more guttural, instinctual, less about showing off and more about hiding beneath your costume. And depending on the band you choose, “costume” means either paint, mud or powder. You will be smeared and sent down the road with a drink, to dance until dawn or later if you choose, but there are certain J’ouvert practices that go much further.

J’ouvert is prime time for some to take on a traditional Carnival character, the dark menacing kinds are most popular, and the most famous of all these are the blue devils of Paramin. For decades the men, and some women, of Paramin have painted themselves blue, affixed horns, tails and other paraphernalia and taken on a terrifying role. Some will use a red liquid to simulate blood coming out their mouths, some will carry small live animals such as lizards or frogs. The effect is street theatre to the extreme, they snarl, drool and taunt. It attracts hordes of onlookers to an otherwise quiet rural area in the hills.

By 8am in many Trinidadian households, masqueraders are in the front yard spraying each other with the garden hose, to wash away the now dried “Mud Mas”, before sleeping or heading straight out to “Pretty Mas” which kicks off around 10am. Will you be kicking with it? Good luck getting everything out your hair, ears and under your fingernails.

At this point, Port of Spain explodes with activity, supportive agencies like the police service, roadside vendors and carnival organizers included, full employ. Locals will tell you policemen are thin on the ground for most of the year but for Mas’ police are about on foot and horse back, cars are cumbersome to maneuver in crowds.

Trinis living in the west may snobbishly assume that Port of Spain is the be all and end all for the Parade of the Bands but areas like San Fernando, Arima and Scarborough host their own ‘Jump up’ with good attendance in the streets and on the sidewalks.

Monday Mas is a more relaxed precursor to the competition of Tuesday. On Tuesday, the music and the bands will be judged at various points along the parade route so in an effort to preserve their costume, masqueraders either wear a pared down version or something else entirely on Monday. The activities on the road are the same. Drinks, wining, meeting people, more drinks, walking, dancing from point A to, well, back to point A to disperse for the night.

Monday night may be the quietest night of the season. No big fetes, though bars do a furious trade in places like St. James mostly for non-masqueraders, everyone who was on the road sleeps, like the dead.

Carnival Tuesday is when the long hours of planning and production emerge en masse, as if by no effort at all, on one masquerader after another, seeking their band (the larger bands are trackable by text) to fall in to the frenzy. Port of Spain has four judging points or “stages” and to be eligible to win “Band of the Year” bands must cross at least 3 of them.

Their place along the parade route is highly organized so that bands do not get mixed up. A hazard that must be avoided as masqueraders will be little help untangling themselves from their new friends. While the band organizers work to keep masqueraders safe and in their sections the DJs read the reactions to the top soca hits and select the crowd favorites to play at the judging points.

The song played the most frequently will be named the “Road March”, a title carrying more bragging rights than possibly any other in all of Carnival. Decided by the people, no way around it. All of Carnival is essentially decided by the people who support it with their participation, and yours. If it sounds like too much, Red Bull will help. So who you playing with next year?

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