Hey Hey Trinidad – carnival mayhem

Trinidad_Carnival01Nadella meets an old friend during Jouvert. To see more images of Trinidad Carnival please click image.

THE sky is punctuated with shooting stars and clear constellations shed enough light to guide us into downtown Port of Spain, capital of the republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is 2am and I am dressed in a yellow T-shirt and trousers, an outfit littered with holes cut out of the back, shoulders and knees by Nadella, a carnival costume designer.

I push my blonde hair under a yellow headscarf while Nadella, also dressed in yellow, twists her dreadlocks into a swirling African wrap. This is our makeshift costume for Jouvert (from the French jour ouvert, meaning opening day). Held in the early hours of the Monday before Ash Wednesday, this is the annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in Trinidad and the first event of the two-day carnival.

There are no mini-taxis at this hour, just tributaries of people converging on one point. The streets widen and dusky blue and green gingerbread houses with latticed verandas line the boulevards. This suburban fairytale is suddenly disrupted by the deep throbbing of soca music pouring from loudspeakers, balanced on slow-moving trucks. Body Water by Mini Priest competes with soca monarch Shurwayne Winchester and his popular rendition of Dead or Alive. Nadella urges me towards the beat of live African drumming. Yellow-clad musicians on a truck swathed in animal skins hammer out rhythms as if to wake reluctant ancestors from the dead. We have found our band.

There is no sign of an organised route, just anarchic processions of people following their respective trucks, their glowing skins coated in paint, tar or mud. Nadella points to a glistening Buddha-shaped figure, doused head to toe in dripping black oil. “That’s Judge Jones of the High Court,” she tells me, “a most respected man.”

She waves and shouts to the judge: “Hope you get that off before work on Wednesday or they will jail you, too.” He turns and smiles, his teeth brilliant against his oily skin.

Some of the figures have chalk-white faces and others drag chains along the street. Horned figures, coated in cobalt paint with fake red blood oozing from their mouths, stab pitchforks in the air: these are the notorious Blue Devils. We start to shuffle to the drumming, edging forward centimetre by centimetre. Even in the dark, I know I am conspicuous.

The crowd crushes in on us and men daub our faces, chests and arms with thick, black paint. We take a large swig from Nadella’s bottle of rum and merge into the swaying crowd. “Stay behind the rhythm truck,” she shouts as she is swept away by fellow revellers.

Despite the rousing beat of the music, I try to keep my flailing limbs in check. There is a thrust from behind and I am lowered, limbo-like, between jerks and intermittent rotations to the escalating rhythm of African drums. This is fun.
My faceless, fleeting companion jerks away and takes up with a younger reveller. A space opens up around them. They bend back and lower themselves in unison; no wonder the Pentecostals and Spiritual Baptists lock up their daughters and urge repentance for post-carnival babies.
I panic. Nadella is no longer in sight. There is a push from behind, shouts of resistance and people surge forward. The throbbing crowd is no longer a novelty, Jouvert no longer an exotic adventure. Rigid with fear, I am unsure if I will even survive.

Then the pressure of the crowd eases. There is someone, or something, pushing against the flow. A high swirling African headdress appears above a sea of heads, crying, “Where’s my lady? Where is my white lady?”
The commotion caused by this spectacular entrance breaks up the crowd. Nadella veers towards me, cradling me in her arms.
“Bumblebee, bumblebee,” she shrieks, pointing at my yellow outfit streaked with black. We laugh and hold each other close, losing ourselves in the sound of soca and the ascending dawn. No more limbo, no more fear. Just two women, one black, one white, arm in arm, jumping up and down in the middle of the road.

At dawn we disperse but meet up later to visit the mountain village of Paramin, home of the Blue Devils. Last night they ran through the streets, tossing their horns and whipping their tails on the ground. This time I am ready. I dive through the crowds and jump over sewers to avoid being daubed in blue paint. At one stage I am caught between two market stalls, one selling roti, the other shark. Trapped, I pay up my Trinidadian dollar and am left alone.

I now feel like a seasoned carnivalist. I can even recognise the costumes in the Monday and Tuesday processions from the best band competitions of the previous week. Swans dressed in crinolines peck at giant hibiscus flowers overlooked by haughty flamingos. A group of older men take Christmas as their theme, staggering under the weight of 2m-high turkeys, snowmen and puddings balanced precariously on their heads. Young boys fight with sticks, a sport developed by plantation workers who used bamboo to fight fires in the cane fields.

But nothing prepares me for the mass of people in each band. There are hundreds of them, like swirling dervishes in white flowing garments, created by master carnival designer Peter Minshall; there are armies of giant pink and purple puppet dolls in the Kiddies Carnival and thousands of women in feathers, sequins and skimpy bikinis. Bikini-mas (masquerade), as adopted by such bands as Poison, is looked down upon by carnival purists.

Trinidad_Carnival10Clad in sparkling bikinis and towering headresses, these carnival-goers take to the streets of Port of Spain for two days of music, madness and mayhem. To see more images of Trinidad Carnival please click image.

Carnival is full of traditional and quirky characters. There’s sailor-mas, parodying British sailors stationed on the island by colonial rulers, and stilt-walking Moko Jumbies, who are said to have walked across the Atlantic from West Africa. There is Dame Lorraine with her false bust and enlarged behind, satirising French plantation wives; the Midnight Robber with his huge brimmed hat and Pierrot Grenade in a harlequin costume, reminiscent of European jesters.

Carnival was introduced into Trinidad by French planters in the 18th century but adapted by slaves and taken to the streets after emancipation in 1834.
Then there is the music, soca drowning out the steel pan and calypso. All ages and races participate, with young Asians dancing to chutney soca.
By the end of the week I am exhausted and I fly to the neighbouring island of Tobago. I travel up the coast to a quiet village, wading through the waves, my suitcase aloft, to reach the shore. There I relax, soak up the sun, eat mangoes and plan which carnival band I will join next time.

This article first appeared on January 16 2010 in the Australian: www.theaustralian.com.au/life/travel/hey-hey-trinidad/story-fn44w9hc-1225818805188

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