Carnival

BY AMANDA CUMMINS

It’s only weeks before Carnival hits the streets of Port of Spain and other parts of Trinidad & Tobago. Plans for the costumed bands, massed ranks of people bedecked in feathers, sequins and strategically placed pieces of Lycra will have been in place for months.

The two days before Ash Wednesday sees a country en fête.

Of course, Carnival time isn’t just these two days of prancing and dancing. There are calypso tents, where the calypso singers of the day sing their latest – quite often audacious, if not a little contentious – offerings. Steel band contests. Competitions to judge the Carnival Kings and Queens who will lead their band of revellers across the stage on Carnival Tuesday. Not to mention the Junior Carnival King and Queen competitions, with mothers who make the most competitive Fancy Dress parents at a pony show in the UK seem positively benign.

A favourite word to describe carnival time is bacchanal. Which, said with a Trinidadian accent, has a wonderfully rhythmical cadence: Car-nee-val is bacch-ah-nal.

Carnival proper kicks off with J’ouvert, or Jouvay. Before dawn it seems that most of Trinidad heads for various areas in Port of Spain, to join “playin’ mas” with a steel band and dancing through the streets to Independence Square. Hundreds upon hundreds for each band. No costumes required.

I only took part in Jouvay once. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

My father and I left our home in Port of Spain at around 4 in the morning to go to the Oval and meet up with a steel band. Friends had suggested we go to the other side of town, to join them with one of the top steel bands. An impossible task to get there, as all roads going west to east were shut.

We parked the car at a house belonging to one of the Trini cousins. Walking along the street towards the Oval, in the darkest time before dawn, the fizzing atmosphere of excitement became more and more electric. The steel band was atop enormous floats. Flag bearers prepared to take up position at the front when we set off.

The noise reached fever pitch. Not just steel pans, but also drums and whistles. We were off. To dance our way to Independence Square. Miles away.

To say we danced is inaccurate. It isn’t strictly dancing, that is for sure. We “chipped”. Which is a forward motion unique to Trinidad Carnival. I can best describe it as shuffling on the road without picking your feet up, hips swaying and with one’s arms waving in time to the pan music. I have tried to replicate this, with a steel band CD blasting in my kitchen in Warwickshire: I feel certain a hip replacement is required as a result.

The chipping malarkey was thirsty work. It is the only time I’ve ever drunk anything related to beer. Bottles of Carib seemed to appear as if by magic and down the hatch they went. Food didn’t feature until much later.

We chipped towards the Savannah and then down one of the main streets towards Independence Square. As we drew closer to our destination the noise of many steel bands, and attendant drums and whistles, was overwhelming.

A glorious cacophony as the many steel bands and their supporters met, becoming one huge carnival cavalcade.

The one thing my father had said to me before we set off was that I was not to move from the side of the steel band float, otherwise he might lose me. Very sensible advice. I chipped along, occasionally swigging from a bottle of Carib beer which had been passed to me. There were only a few friends with our particular band but that didn’t matter. It was all such fun, there was no hassle. We just chipped our way through the streets of Port of Spain.

There was just one moment when I had a frisson of concern. My father had disappeared from sight. I must have looked panic-stricken. One of the steel band chaps looked down at me and, through the noise, asked me if I was okay.

“I’ve lost Daddy.”

“No worries, Missy. Your Daddy, he doing his own t’ing at the front”

Oh. My. Goodness.

My father was at the head of our procession and in possession of one of the flags. Which he was waving as if he’d metamorphosed amidst the euphoria into a crazed standard bearer or bonkers matador.

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