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2004-12-16 / Travel

T&T Carnival: Steel Drums And Merry Making

Trinidad &Tobago carnival costumes can be extremely elaborate. By C.D. Stelzer

I was a Cocoyea Devil, at least until the sun rose. Smeared dark with cocoa oil, I was among hundreds of kindred spirits milling outside the Trinidad Arts Center on Jamaica Boulevard at 3 a.m. on a February morning, foam-rubber horns protruding from our heads. We donned capes, sashes and headdresses fashioned from remnants of cloth, as organizers passed out cocoyea brooms, simple talismans made from the stems of a few coconut leaves.

In the street, a ragged crowd formed behind a truck, where volunteers dispensed refreshments, as the St. James Tripolian Steel Band struck up a tune on a flatbed trailer decorated like a streetcar. A tractor hitched to the float slowly lurched forward. Revelers fell in line, shouting, shuffling, waving their brooms high in the humid night air. Within a few blocks, the steel band was replaced by a giant truck that pumped out soca music, an infectious blend of soul and calypso. Cocoa-covered dancers cavorted, jumping and gyrating to the beat. Across the city other bands of merrymakers, slathered in mud or painted yellow and blue, engaged in similar cathartic capers. As dawn drew near, the groups converged in a caco-phonous crescendo.

The event is known as J’Ouvert, and it is only the beginning, the opening movement of Trinidad’s raucous two-day Carnival. The Caribbean is-land’s pre-Lenten celebration rivals—or perhaps surpasses—the frenzied fetes in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. That’s because Trinis, as they call them-selves, are avid participants in the Carnival season’s many masquerades, known as “mases.” The locals actively encourage tourists to join in the endless parades.

The 2005 celebration is scheduled for Feb. 7-8. But Carnival in Trinidad really never stops. It is an integral part of the national identity, and planning for the annual extravaganza goes on year-round. The parties themselves be-gin in early January, when calypso singers showcase their latest songs and steel drum bands start rehearsing.

The musical competition culminates in successive evening performances on stage in front of the grandstands in the Queen’s Park Savannah. On Monday, tens of thousands of jubilant parade participants stride through the streets of Port of Spain and across the stage before an overflow audience and a panel of judges.

Each dance group or band loosely embraces a universal theme such as love, peace or freedom. Women dancers generally outnumber men by as many as 7 to 1. Their costumes are starkly different than those of the rag-tag J’Ouvert revelers, who traditionally usher in Carnival in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning. Participants in the daytime parades, or “pretty mases,” can spend as much as $200 to $300 on outfits that more often than not consist of little more than a few glittery spangles stitched together.

Tourists interested in joining a band are advised by the Trinidadian tourism board to arrive early and check out various mas camps before registering. Large groups should consider an ad-vance visit for the same purpose. Larger bands, including favorites such as Poi-son and Legends, routinely register thousands of participants.

The official language of Trinidad and its sister island of Tobago might be English, but Carnival has a parlance all its own. Dancers who strut in rhythm to the music are said to “chip.” Those who “jump up” sway their hips in ecstasy. “Wining,” on the other hand, is a more pronounced rotation of the hips and waist carried out solo or with a partner.

Carnival customs are as rich in diversity as Trini culture, which is a mixture of African, East Indian and other ethnic groups. Trinidad and To-bago were longtime British colonies that gained independence in 1962. After slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century, East Indians were brought to the island as indentured servants. The combined influences of African and East Indian cultures make Trinidad unique among the Caribbean islands. Located only a handful of miles from

the coast of South America, the two-island nation is also the wealthiest in the West Indies due mainly to its abundant supply of oil and natural gas.

Christian dogma and ancient European and African mythology have all played roles in the development of the modern-day Carnival. The origins of the Trinidadian version, however, are deeply rooted in its colonial past, when masqueraders flouted authorities and clashed among themselves. Over time, disguises and mimicry became an annual ritual that temporarily relieved the tensions created by the rigid class structure.

Characters that have evolved in this rich anthropologic stew include Moko Jumpie, a stilt-walking giant of African origin; the Midnight Robber, a native highwayman; Jab Jabs, who are whip-snapping jesters; and assorted blue and black devils. More recently, some Carnival costumes, such as the ubiquitous sailor uniform, have been created to mimic American military presence in Trinidad since World War II.

The steel drum or “pan,” the national instrument of Trinidad, also has an indirect tie to the United States. Using abandoned 55-gallon oil drums, cut to various depths, Trini musical innovators hammered and forged concave tops capable of being tuned to a full chromatic scale. Winston “Spree” Smith is given credit for the invention, but many Trinidadians helped give rise to the instrument. Now respected around the world, steel band players were considered rebellious street hoods until the 1950s. The names of prominent steel bands, including the Desperadoes and Renegades, still attest to their once-notorious reputations.

Calypso, too, is Trinidad’s gift to the world. With its topical subjects and clever parodies of societal ills, the music could well be considered the precursor of modern protest songs. Harry Bellafonte might have popularized calypso music during the 1950s in the United States, but it’s the singer known as the Mighty Sparrow who has earned a statue in Port of Spain.

Carnival’s annual calypso competition mirrors the concerns of Trinidadian society. At last year’s final, Skatie, a young calypso artist who dressed in a red-sequined suit and cap, sang a song imbued with the spirit of Carnival: “Rich or poor, the same color runs through our veins. Here there is only one race, the human race.”

For more information go to: . ©2004 Car and Travel Montly

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