12 Things You Must Experience At Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival

Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival is probably most famous for its parties and street masquerade, a vibrant parade of beautiful people in pretty costumes. Each year around this time, the  streets of our nation look like bliss come to life. Still, if you only experience the Pretty Mas and the fêting, you're barely scratching the surface. There is much more to Trini Carnival than these two elements. The breadth of traditions and history is what makes this three hundred year old festival special. Here's a broader view of what you can experience at Trinidad & Tobago Carnival. 

1. The Canboule Reenactment 
From 1881 to 1884, a series of riots erupted in Trinidad when the British authorities severely restricted the island's Carnival celebrations. The Brits banned the carrying of torches and canboulé (canne brûlée, i.e. burned sugar cane), a pivotal symbol in the harvest celebrations and Carnival. Angered by this latest manifestation of colonial control, blacks took to the streets in protest. During the ensuing clashes, police killed several people but the rebels triumphed in the end. The Canboulé Riots freed African expressions in the Festival. The victory of the Canboulé Riots marked the beginning of modern day Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago, an iteration that would later spread to other Caribbean islands and elsewhere. The reenactment of this historic event heralds the start of Carnival each year. 

2. J'Ouvert
This element of Trini Carnival has become pretty commercialised. Just about every island that now has a Carnival includes so called J'Ouvert events in their festivities. However, what many may not know is that J'Ouvert is more than a paint party. Like Canboulé, it is connected to a history of defiance. J'Ouvert began as a mockery of European prejudices and aristocracy. From the rituals of djabs to the masses smearing paint and mud on their bodies, J'Ouvert is a celebration of nonconformity. J'Ouvert, which losely translates to Day Break or Dawn, is the perfect example of how liberating Carnival is.

3. Dimanche Gras
The Kings and Queens of Carnival Bands wear the most elaborate of Carnival costumes. The work and creativity that the artists invest into the large pieces are on another level. At the Dimanche Gras show, this artistry is on full display. Even though some of these spectacular floats make their way to the streets on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, Carnival Sunday is the best time to view them. On this night they claim pride of place on the Queen's Park Savannah stage. 

4. Panorama
To really appreciate the beauty of the steel pan, which was invented  in Trinidad & Tobago, you have to hear the instrument live. Panorama is the perfect opportunity to do so. Steel pan orchestras of various sizes engage in musical battle; playing Calypso classics and new Soca. You can patronise the event by paying to listen stage-side, where you will be up close for the amazing performances or you can stay outside on the bull-track as the orchestras practise. The latter is a favourite liming (hang out) spot because in addition to hearing the bands play for free, most of the food & beverage vendors set up in this area. Whichever way you choose to take in the event, you're in for a treat!

5. Calinda
Stick-fighting was once a common tradition throughout T&T. Long ago stick-fighters or bois men/women fought one another in villages. Chantuelles (singers) hyped them on by chanting call  and response songs called lavwés that were the precursors to Calypso music. Nowadays, the custom of Calinda is kept alive in just a few areas. Carnival is one of the rare occasions when the public can witness this local martial art that has origins in Africa. Even though the competition is a restrained display, the skill of the fighters is still evident. Calinda is a departure from the typical events you might expect at Carnival but it is one you need to see. 

6. Traditional Mas
 'Bikini, beads & feather' costumes are the norm in Carnival but there was a time when masqueraders wore less skimpy costumes that were more about portraying a theme and telling a story. Mas traditionally included characters that appeared every year. Several of these, like the Pierrot Grenade, Midnight Robber and Dame Lorraine have managed to survive. Before you delve into the sexiness of Carnival Monday and Tuesday, make sure to check out some traditional Mas. There will be a few opportunities to do so.

7. Kiddies Carnival
There are events for every age at Trini Carnival including some catered for children. Various communities across the nation have parades but the main ones are the St. James Kiddies Carnival and The Red Cross Kiddies Carnival. The creativity of the costumes often rivals the adults' and it's a joy to see the kiddies enjoying themselves. Whether you want your babies to participate or you just want to spectate, add the Children's masquerades to your list of must do Carnival events. They occur on different days so you can choose between the two or attend both. 

8. The Calypso Monarch Competition 
Before there were music trucks and Soca, steel pans and Calypso provided the music for Carnival. These days though Calypso is relegated to the periphery. While it may not be as popular among younger crowds, it still plays an important role in Trini culture. Born on the plantations to critique slavery and colonialism, Kaiso (the traditional name for Calypso) remains an outlet for social commentary. At the Calypso Monarch Competition you can hear some of the best calypsonians face off against  politicians and their fellow competitors. 

9. The Soca Monarch Competition
Artistes come from all over the Caribbean vying for the handsome prize $$ and bragging rights. There are two categories in the competition: Groovy Soca and Power Soca. As the names imply, the Groovy section is for the slower paced Soca and the Power section is for faster paced songs. Soca in of itself is an exuberant genre and the contestants bring their 'A' game on this night so the event is full of energy. The Soca Monarch Competition is a good alternative to the large fetes if they are outside your budget.

10. Fêtes! Fêtes & more Fêtes!
The Trini propensity for partying has been well documented. Fêting is an indelible part of our culture in general and it's given free reign during  the Carnival season. These months consist of hundreds of fêtes ... no exaggeration. Some fêtes include alcoholic drinks and food in their prices. For others, attendees are invited to bring drinks themselves. In the last few weeks of Carnival there are sometimes twenty or more parties in one day. When you consider how tiny a place Trinidad and Tobago is, this is incredible. A person can easily feel overwhelmed by the choices. So it's best to figure out a budget and choose just a handful of parties to enjoy. 

11. Pretty Mas
This is the climax of the Carnival season, when Trinidad & Tobago  becomes filled with colour. For two days masqueraders throughout the twin islands dress up in their costumes and dance in the streets to pulsating Soca. It's hard to describe the euphoria in the air. Even though the price of 'playing mas' in T&T is more expensive than it used to be, it's worth it. There are dozens of mas bands with which you can register. In addition to the costumes, their packages include different items such as food, drinks, access to parties etc. The masquerade bands usually start unveiling their costume presentations and packages from the summer before Carnival.  It's a good idea to begin saving even before then so you will have downpayment money ready when you find a costume you like. The popular bands sell out  very quickly. Once you register with a 'mas' band, you will be counting down the days to the Greatest Show On Earth.

12. A Beach Cool Down
After partaking in all that fun, it will be hard to believe that Carnival is over, well until the next year. Revellers reluctant to walk away from the happiness of the Festival try to squeeze every last ounce of joy on Carnival Tuesday night. Trinis call this the Last Lap. Yet, for some these waning hours of partying are still not enough so there are parties the next day to cool down. They provide a way to bid a final farewell to the festivities. Many of these cool down fêtes occur on the water: on boat rides, at rivers and at beaches. Should you be lucky enough to still be in Trinidad & Tobago on Ash Wednesday (the day after Carnival), why not  enjoy one last hoorah ?!

Even though you may not be able to attend all the above events, we recommend experiencing at least a few of them. It will help make your Trini Carnival all the more memorable and give you a better glimpse into Trini culture. 

For  details on these events for 2021 Carnival be sure to follow the @trinidadandtobagocarnival page on Instagram and check the Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival Commission website. It is

Photography Credit:
Pics # 3 & 17:  Jason Audain
Pic # 15: Rosaline D. Honer
Pic # 5: Xperience Local Tours 
All other photos were taken by Ancestral Memory

Post a Comment