In three weeks’ time on a Monday morning, far away from the freezing grey streets of Notting Hill with its piss and police, a real carnival will be parading through the hot colourful streets of Port-of-Spain. One that lasts two days straight with no sleep and a shit load of rum. I spent last year living in Trinidad and got to witness the entire 2014 Carnival season. It’s awe-inspiring to a Londoner like me who grew up thinking carnivals meant getting mugged in the rain while trustafarians glugged Red Stripe and danced badly to reggae. It’s a monster; a prancing, swaggering, jumping, marauding, stunning spectacle that Trinis spend the whole year yearning for. Trinidad and Tobago is a country that’s a mash-up of the entire globe. Its people are African, Indian, European, Latin American, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Amerindian and every kind of mix of the above – and they’re strikingly beautiful. Carnival is in the blood and it’s magnetic: the Trini diaspora in New York and Toronto always gravitates back home for Carnival Weekend (significant communities from whence came Nicki Minaj and Trinidad James).
The nation’s musical genres – soca, calypso and steelpan – are similarly diverse cultural fusions (although outside of carnival time you’re just as likely to hear young people playing US rap and Jamaican dancehall.)
The carnival of present day is pretty removed from its roots; an ultra-modern interpretation of old French Catholic tradition with a brazenness that shocked me with the same intensity a punk rock gig in 1976 might have done. Where once aristocrats masqueraded around town in horse-drawn carriages wearing masks and costumes (while their slaves indulged in clandestine midnight parties, burning sugar cane and painting their bodies) now beautiful Trinidadian girls and guys in bikinis, trunks and feathered headdresses dance and wine in front of enormous trucks serving ice cold drinks with towering sound-system speakers that emit chest-rumbling bass.
There’s no drugs: you don’t need them. But there is a comedown, sorry. You can’t have that kind of sustained high without a crash. In Trinidad they call it ‘tabanca’ – a dialect word meaning to pine for something loved and lost. The cure for it is a twenty minute flight to the smaller, paradise island of Tobago where you let your body and mind return to normal. Out on the streets, the revellers are divided into carnival bands – think of bands as party organisers who cater for thousands of party-goers in big bands with names like Tribe, Yuma, Harts, and Fantasy. If you’re playing mas, you pick your band (the one your friends are in) then you buy your costume for between £300 and £1,000 (even more for very extravagant ones). Then you drink and dance in it for two days.
A writer can drive himself into early hairloss trying to capture in words what exactly makes Port-of-Spain so staggering at this time of year. But out of all the pictures I took at Carnival 2014, the one above sums up for me what it all means to an outsider. It’s a snap of two English friends; two sweet girls who had come to visit while I was working for a Trinidadian newspaper. Dates wise, they had come on holiday by mistake, accidentally booking flights that arrived during Carnival week. Their feelings about this were a mixture of nervous excitement and abject horror. This picture was taken at 7am on the Queen's Park Savannah – an enormous park framed by lush green mountains to the north and the downtown urban sprawl to the south. The Grand Stand on the Savannah – a stage with a big spectator stand – is the place where revellers cross the stage in front of the judges, dancing maniacally, bending over to touch their toes, simulating sex with random strangers, doing the splits, humping the ground while elderly tourists off the cruise ships watch from their seats barely able to process what they’re seeing. And at this particular time, the madness was entering fifth gear.
You see the sultry, curvy woman with immaculate eye make-up, a bejewelled orange bikini with a plunging neckline and an understated head piece fluttering gently in the breeze. She smoulders past the camera with a reflex vogue, like it's her twentieth straight carnival on the bounce. To her left, two younger, tall girls in more elaborate, revealing turquoise blue costumes and shin-high boots spark up fags as they prepare for the ten hours of dancing that awaits them. In the background there's a man dressed in the striped shirt and nautical hat of a sailor (a traditional Carnival character like Midnight Robbers, Jab Jabs, Dame Lorraines, Blue Devils and others). A mass of people in riotous colour stretches back to the horizon as smoke from a food stand drifts over the scene like it’s about to ignite the whole thing. And, to the right of the photograph, my friends are simply trying to disappear completely, to make themselves invisible - two English dormice out of their depth on rave’s wildest Savannah plains.
The prelude to Carnival comes on “Fantastic Friday” and the International Soca Monarch Final at the national stadium – a competition in which soca artists contest the Soca Monarch title - a sort of Mercury prize for the hits of the year if PJ Harvey jumped on a table and started waving a rag - and £200,000 prize money. From there we went to Carnival Saturday, surrounded by steelpan aficionados. We tried to stay awake until 4am at Panorama – the finals competition for steelbands – but fell asleep in our seats in the Grand Stand. To be fair, we were saving ourselves for something special. All year, I’d heard about J’ouvert – historically the slaves’ celebration while the masters still slept. It promised to be one of Carnival’s most manic celebrations: a noisy, full-on, drum-beating, stick-waving experience that the British colonialists tried to stamp out, but failed.
Back then, Calypso was the big sound of the Caribbean - at least until the 1960s when ska and reggae exploded. It’s a music derived from West African kaiso rhythms brought to the island by the slaves of French planters who used it as a kind of griot singing to satirically mock their masters. In the mid 20th century, the sound was infused with jazz and swing, the acoustic guitar and maracas blended with catchy woodwind, brass refrains and lyrical content which, while retaining a largely socio-political context, broadened to include other pretty popular Trinidadian subjects like women and sex. Soca only came along in the 1970s when Indian chutney and Bollywood sounds were blended with the African calypso beat and took on the more urgent pace of US disco. At the same time, Steelpan emerged from Laventille, a tough neighbourhood of East Port-of-Spain once referenced by M.I.A in the song “Boyz”, where the locals lacked money to buy instruments so used empty oil drum lids instead.
Today, all of these sounds fill the air constantly during carnival season; from the calypso tents to the soca fetes to the panyards where steel orchestras rehearse until late every night preparing for the Panorama. But this year’s big tracks were all contemporary dancehall-infused takes on soca: Bunji Garlin’s “Truck on D Road”, Kerwin Du Bois’ “Too Real”, Destra’s “Just A Little Bit” and Farmer Nappy’s “Big People Party” played often but it was Machel Montano’s huge anthem “Ministry of Road” that dominated the city, shaking the houses to their foundations.
Before sunrise on the Monday morning, we got into our cars drove and drove down to the centre of town with thousands of other young people. J’ouvert was beginning and there was something feverish in the air. The trucks began rolling at 3am and the music started to pump. A girl rushed up to us declaring us “too civilised, too polite” and daubed us in wet mud. Hitherto we’d maintained a stiff upper lip, but after that we just totally lost control.
By 4am we were covered in paint, powder, mud and clay. There was something animalistic about it. My housemate from Guadeloupe, a reserved guy who spent most of his leisure time playing Playstation, turned into a kind of howling banshee. My girl friends danced atop walls on streets lined with ambassadors’ residencies. A group of Australians laughed hysterically. People jumped into my arms for spontaneous crotch-bumping sessions. Suddenly I didn’t feel so English.
When the bright sun came up, and our J’ouvert ended by the cricket ground, we saw ourselves in a different light; something had changed, we were different people. I stripped off my paint-caked clothes down to my underwear and drove us home round the Savannah, where we encountered another J’ouvert band still going strong. Waylaid by the crowds of people I slowed the car to a crawl, women gyrated and humped the car, two came round to my side, shouting, “Come out de car!” When I stayed put they opened the door themselves, lowered their asses in and took a wine on me, one after the other, right there in the driver’s seat.
As carnival roared on into Tuesday I realised I’d fallen in love with the majesty and history of the best party in the world. At the beautiful Victorian-era green space, Adam Smith Square, a small spectator stand provided some shade and respite where I watched, recuperated, drank and wondered how the hell they stay out on the road for the fourth day running.
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