Trinidad, Carnival in

Trinidad, Carnival in

Carnival in Trinidad has been called the biggest party on earth. Indeed, approximately one-tenth of the island's population participates in the costume parades that take place on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Thousands of others play in calypso or steel drum bands that accompany the parades, dance in the streets, or participate in Carnival in other informal ways. The Carnival season begins after Christmas and lasts until Ash Wednesday, with the most intense celebrations taking place on the last two days of this period. Calypso bands, steel drum music, elaborate and imaginative processions of masqueraders, and various competitions for the best singers, songs, costumes, and bands are the most characteristic elements of the Trinidad Carnival.


In 1498 Christopher Columbus became the first European to visit the island of Trinidad. Spanish settlers began to arrive shortly thereafter. Trinidad's native population soon died out from overwork and ill treatment received at the hands of the European colonists. When native workers became scarce the Europeans brought slaves from Africa to work on their plantations. Spanish, French, and English colonists arrived in turn, determined to make their fortune in the New World. After slavery was abolished the British brought East Indians to Trinidad to serve as manual laborers. This mix of African, Asian, and European cultures gave birth to Trinidad's distinctive Carnival celebrations.

French settlers, who began to arrive in 1783, introduced Carnival to Trinidad. The celebrations of these well-to-do planters emphasized elegant costume parties and dances. Free blacks took part in these revels, but the influence of African culture was minimal. This state of affairs began to change after the abolition of slavery in 1833. From the 1840s onward elements of African culture began to play an increasingly important role in the festival. Eventually the formal Carnival parties favored by the European settlers became a thing of the past.

The Africans and their descendants instead introduced the element of street theater to the celebrations by wearing their costumes in public and engaging in spontaneous horseplay with bystanders. Some of the costumes they favored mocked the ways of both wealthy and working-class Europeans, while others recalled bits of African and European folklore. One such character, called "Dame Lorraine," required the masquerader to don wide flowing skirts, carry a fan, and flirt with people in the streets. Another character, a richly costumed swaggering fellow named Pierrot Grenade was based on a European clown. Other characters, such as the "moko jumbie," a man walking on stilts, evolved from west African folklore. This costume offered a special advantage, as moko jumbies customarily used their newfound height to solicit tips from those watching Carnival celebrations from their balconies. Drunken sailors, Indians, minstrels, devils, the burrokeet (a donkey and rider), Jammet (a figure who is both male and female), bats, and midnight robbers rounded out the cast of traditional Carnival characters. Today these traditional costumes have fallen out of favor with most masqueraders, but can still be seen here and there at Carnival time.

Carnival Music

Calypso music, inseparably associated with Carnival in Trinidad, also evolved from a combination of African and European influences. Its roots lie in the songs of praise and criticism sung by musically talented slaves to amuse their patrons. The slaves hid direct criticism in jaunty tunes and witty words so as to avoid punishment. Today's calypso singers often improvise their lyrics and many songs address contemporary social concerns and issues in a pointed and yet lighthearted way. Guitars and maracas accompany a vocalist, tapping out a rhythm that often runs counter to that established by the singer. In the mid-twentieth century another important kind of Carnival music emerged from the folk culture of Trinidad. In experimenting with the bottoms of old, discarded oil drums, a by-product of the nation's emerging oil industry, street musicians discovered that they made a pleasing sound when struck like a drum. What's more, they found that when hit in different places the steel drums produced different tones, permitting the drummer to tap out a tune. At Carnival time dozens of drummers gather together to form large steel drum bands that accompany Trinidad's costume parades.


As Carnival Monday and Tuesday approach promoters begin to schedule fetes (from the French word for party, fête) with increasing frequency. These leisurely musical events feature a long lineup of calypso bands and singers. In between acts people munch on food that they brought from home, sip drinks, and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the performers. Fetes usually last many hours.

Mas Bands

Trinidadians refer to the practice of masquerade as "mas." Participating in the parades of costumed dancers and musicians that take over the streets during Carnival is known as "playing mas." The groups themselves are called "mas bands." The months of preparation required to organize these parades takes place at a temporary headquarters known as a "mas camp." Those who run the mas camp may have been working out the theme and costumes for this year's mas band since the close of the previous Carnival season. In the past groups of family members, friends, and neighbors organized themselves into mas bands and spent months working on their elaborate costumes. Today many prefer to pay money to march in a professionally organized mas band that has already designed a set of costumes around a specific theme. These fabulous costumes dazzle the eye and make Trinidad's Carnival among the most glamorous in the world. Some costumes require hundreds and perhaps even thousands of hours to complete. Insects, animals, figures from folklore and history, ancient cultures, outer space, and other fantasy themes provide the inspiration for many of today's costume designers.

In the past mas bands numbered forty, fifty, or sixty people. Nowadays a band of that size would be considered quite small. Bands ranging from several hundred to over a thousand people are considered medium sized. The largest bands are composed of seven to eight thousand people. These large-scale bands reflect the increasing importance of professional designers in Trinidad's Carnival celebrations.

On the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, each band's king or queen will lead them along the parade route. A truck equipped with loudspeakers precedes each band, blaring out the year's favorite Carnival tunes. Really large mas bands may have several trucks stationed at intervals along the long procession of masked dancers, so that every segment of the mas band can hear the music. Other mas bands dance to the sounds of marching steel drum bands.

Carnival Kings and Queens

The prettiest and most elaborate costumes in each mas band are those worn by the band's king and queen. These costumes may extend far beyond the body of the person playing the king and queen, sometimes measuring thirty feet in height or width. Various wires and supports hold the costume together and some of it may rest on wheels in order to lessen the amount of dead weight carried by the person wearing the costume. In the past king costumes may have weighed close to two hundred pounds while queen costumes have been known to exceed fifty pounds. New, lightweight materials are helping costume designers take the burden off these Carnival kings and queens. In spite of the difficulties involved in playing the role of king and queen, many Trinidadians view it as the opportunity of a lifetime to play a starring role in a festival that has come to define the culture of the island.

Carnival Saturday

On Saturday evening a steel drum band competition takes place in Port of Spain's Queen's Park Savannah, a park with a large grassy expanse that will become the staging ground for many Carnival events. The winning group will be declared the band of the year. More than one hundred bands take part in this competition. For months beforehand, pan yards - empty lots converted into outdoor rehearsal halls for the local steel drum band - reverberate with the sounds of their nightly practice sessions.

In recent years promoters in Port of Spain have scheduled a special kiddies'Carnival event on Saturday morning. About seventy or eighty mas bands take part in this event. The tots parade through the city's streets in matching costumes in much the same way that the adults will do several days later. The children's bands are smaller, however, numbering less than one hundred participants each.

Dimanche Gras

On Dimanche Gras, or "Fat Sunday," two more competitions take place in Queen's Park Savannah. Calypso singers perform before a panel of judges to see whose tune will be selected as the top song of the competition and thus come to define the year's Carnival celebrations. In addition, the kings and queens of each mas band parade before the judges to see whose costume and interpretive dancing will win them the title of best Carnival king and queen.


J'ouvert is a contraction of a French phrase meaning "day opens." This prelude to the costumed processions that take place during the daylight hours on Carnival Monday and Tuesday begins in the wee hours of Monday morning. J'ouvert, sometimes referred to as "dirty mas," contrasts with the "pretty mas" parades that follow it. People roam the dark streets in sketchy suggestions of costumes, chase each other and throw dirt and other messy substances at one another. Men dress in such a way as to exaggerate their sexuality or dress as women. Other popular J'ouvert costumes include devils and demons. Many drink to excess and chase the opposite sex. People band together in informal parades, accompanying their charge through the streets by drumming on metal tins, car hubs, or steel drums. Trucks equipped with loudspeakers roll down the avenues blaring out calypso, or soca, music and gathering a string of wild revelers in their wake.

Carnival Monday

Many people who participate in J'ouvert will be back later on Monday morning to march in the first parades. These sally forth around midday. Not every member of a mas band will participate in the Monday march. Some save their strength for Tuesday. In addition many will not wear their full costume. Especially fragile pieces will be saved for Carnival Tuesday, when the parades will pass by the judges'stand. The masqueraders stay on their feet for hours dancing to the calypso or soca music that precedes them, shuffling, or "chipping," when they get too tired to dance. Most bands break up at eight or nine p.m.

Carnival Tuesday

The processions begin somewhat earlier in the morning on Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival Tuesday (for more on Shrove Tuesday, see Shrovetide). Many hit the streets by eight a.m. in order to get a good position in the lineup of bands that will pass by the judges' stand. Band members will spend all day dancing and chipping behind their king and queen. Forward movement sometimes slows to a standstill because once mas bands arrive at the judges' stand, they stop to put on performances. These stoppages back up the parade route for the remaining bands. Thousands dressed in street clothes cavort behind the masquerade bands. By evening time even people who spent the afternoon watching the spectacle from the sidelines have joined the dancing in the streets. By dark the masqueraders are entering the "last lap" of Carnival, when the mas bands march back to mas camp for one last party. Many participants never make it that far, however, having dropped out from exhaustion somewhere along the route. Carnival celebrations end abruptly at midnight. Many feel that it is inappropriate to be seen in a costume after that hour.

Ash Wednesday

In past times many Trinidadians observed Ash Wednesday as the first, solemn day of the Lenten fast. Nowadays, however, many head for the beach to relax after the excitement of Carnival. The bouncy calypso music heard everywhere and the crowds of exhausted partygoers give these beach scenes the feel of an extended but much more lowkey Carnival celebration.

Further Reading

Ellis, Royston. Festivals of the World: Trinidad. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 1999. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Hill, Errol. The Trinidad Carnival. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1972. Mason, Peter. Bacchanal! The Carnival Culture of Trinidad. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1999.

Web Site

The "Visit Trinidad and Tobago" web site, sponsored by the Tourism and Industrial Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago, Ltd., offers a number of pages on Carnival customs and history:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002