Carnival in the Caribees

Caribbean Carnival

A million and more words have been written about the festival season of Carnival, so bringing something new to the page could be tricky, but sometimes the brevity of space and a straight to the point type of style can enlighten a few of the wondrous blog readers out there who have never been to a street party.

Carnival literally means ‘farewell to the flesh’ but the origin of the word is still disputed. Some believe it comes from the Latin carrus navalis (“ship cart”) or a float in a religious parade. Others proffer that it comes from the Italian carne levare or similar, meaning to “remove meat” as meat is prohibited through Lent.

If the event is linked to a church belief or gathering the scheduled time of the year is pre-Lenten, usually through February and March leading up to Ash Wednesday. But there are other times within the year that are used as a landmark, such as the completion of a local harvest or a centuries old paganish rite that has been revived for the sake of a community knees-up that may lighten up a gloomy winter time in the more northern countries.

When Carnival is mentioned globally, people invariably think of the excitement, colour and party hi-jinx that is Mardi Gras – known as Shrove Tuesday in some Catholic countries, or the last day of a carnival – taking place in Rio, New Orleans and Trinidad & Tobago. Indeed, these are in the big league when it comes to a ‘money no object’ mix of glitz and spectacle that takes over the respective day to day happenings for at least three weeks, sometimes a month.

In the Caribbean particularly, the Trinidad Carnival is acknowledged as the place to be if you’re a serious West Indian performer or pageant queen as the exposure and rewards are enormous. Carnival follows a well thought out and traditional programme here as it does in other regional islands, with the main shows like Carnival Queen, ‘Dimanche Gras’ – the Calypso Monarch and the Last Lap parades all taking place on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. This is also the top venue for leading steel bands (pan music) and you can honestly say that you’re on top of the world if your group takes first place in the Trini National Panoramic competition.

Two regional islands I can think of that have carnivals but are not religiously based would be Antigua and Barbados. The Antiguan Carnival is a celebration of music and dance held annually from the last week in July to the first Tuesday in August; similarly Barbados’ festival is referred to as Crop Over and both events are pointed at the tourist market, as this part of the year is the main vacational period for North American and European families.

Everybody, irrespective of competition wants to be seen in costume, affectionately known as mas and groups of one hundred to five hundred following their favourite band or Hi-Fi are not uncommon. Pre-carnival is a flurry of action behind the scenes at the various mas camps, many seamstresses and designers ensure that the eagerly awaited event will be as innovative and colourful – even rather sexy, shall we say – as common sense allows.

For those with a sense for social devilment or innocent mischief, whatever, Carnival Monday can’t come soon enough. This spectacle starts before dawn on the Monday before Ash Wednesday and is known as J’ouvert or ‘Dirty Mas’. It also means ‘opening of the day’ – this is where revellers dress up in old clothes and cover themselves – and you most likely – in blue paint and other odd cocktails. The live music pulsating from an array of mighty speakers atop trucks festooned in bunting and sponsorship web-site addresses, more often than not letting you know that corporate land has underwritten the very equipment and operatives you’re looking at.

If you survive this amazing alcohol squeeze and mega decibels on the street, then Last Lap on Tuesday is a pussycat. On this day full costume is worn plus make-up and body paints/ adornments and each group tries to portray its theme with a greater panache than the other. Eventually, the whole parade meets in the National Stadium for a judging ceremony. Also on this day the Road March King or Queen is crowned. This honour goes to the singer of the most played song of the past two days. He or she is proclaimed winner as well as receiving a cash prize and usually a new vehicle.

So, some may say that Carnival is not for the faint hearted, but if it’s for you make sure your camera’s working and your batteries are charged, you won’t regret it!

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