Carnival: when Trinidad explodes with noise and movement

Even before Jouvert (pronounced ''jouvay''), the dawn of the first day of carnival, the streets of Port of Spain seethe with people celebrating in the darkness. Pulsing melodies of steel-drum bands ripple through the warm night air , and the old port city is tense with anticipation.

For almost a year Trinidad prepares for two days (March 28 and 29, in 1983) when mas, or carnival, takes over this green Caribbean island. The two days before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, have been set aside for this celebration for the past two centuries. Preliminary parties and competitions start at the beginning of the new year. Parades, contests, displays, parties, and performances interrupt Trinidad's normal life, but when carnival officially begins, it takes over the island completely for 48 hours.

Most businesses stop, and about the only people working are carnival officials, hotel and restaurant employees, street vendors, and police. Automobile traffic almost ceases, especially in the center of town.

When the first gray light of dawn lines the far edge of the Caribbean at about 4 a.m. rockets and cheers erupt. At Independence Square, down by the shipyard, the carnival king and queen are being crowned before thousands of spectators in the dim early-morning light. The city explodes with noise and movement - carnival has officially begun.

Carnival is a marvelous madness, a happy blending of French, English, African , Chinese, and East Indian cultures and colors. Though carnival has been celebrated for hundreds of years in Trinidad, two unique ingredients of the modern carnival were developed during World War II - calypso and the steel band. Both inventions were triumphs over adversity.

Calypso grew out of protest. Protest against firm British rule, against American servicemen with pockets full of dollars, and against a lack of jobs and opportunity. Open dissent was forbidden then, but singing wasn't, especially if the verses were disguised. Today, Trinidad is a free nation, but calypso is still the favorite form of public criticism. At carnival time the competition for the titles of ''calypso monarch'' (wittiest social commentary) and ''road march king'' (most popular new song) is intense.

The great calypso singers have names like ''Mighty Sparrow,'' ''Lord Relator, '' ''Scrunter,'' and ''Chalkdust.'' Feared and adored, they are national heroes. Carnival is when they reign.

The steel-drum band, like calypso, was an answer to oppression. In this case, oppression took the shape of an obtuse British governor who outlawed carnival brass bands and drums. They were too noisy, he said.

The steel-drum band was Trinidad's answer to the new law. There was no shortage of oil drums on the island - oil had been flowing from the ground and from the nearby seabed for years, giving Trinidad more prosperity than the average Caribbean island. Cut an oil drum in half, hammer the flat end into divided sections, temper the metal to give a wide range of tones to the sections when they are struck by a rubber-knobbed stick - and you have a versatile musical instrument. Combine many various-size drums into a band, and you have a strikingly different kind of ensemble, melodious, soft, and strong. The law didn't cover steel drums, and soon Trinidad echoed to the sounds of the new bands.

''Pans,'' as the drums are called, are now played throughout the year in ''pan yards'' where band members meet regularly to compose, practice, and prepare for the carnival competitions.

Usually sponsored by local business firms, the bands have names like ''The Catelli All-Stars,'' ''The Amoco Renegades'' or, simply, ''The Nutones.'' It is impossible to imagine the carnival without them. Massed together on great wheeled platforms, or trucks, the tireless players perform their way through the streets of Port of Spain for weeks during the carnival season.

Followed by dozens, even hundreds, of dancing men and women, the numerous steel bands never seem to stop until the last minute of the last day. They and the brass bands (no longer outlawed) play the popular calypso songs of the year, compelling tunes like ''Ethel,'' by ''Blue Boy,'' or ''Flag Woman,'' by ''Lord Kitchener.''

The dancing crowds following the bands ''chip'' endlessly to the steady beat. When chipping, the soles of the dancers' shoes never leave the ground - it's a scraping kind of rhythmic walk that can be done for hours.

On Tuesday, the crowds gather at the Savannah, Port of Spain's huge public park, where two large covered grandstands have been constructed. Between the stands is an elevated wooden runway, high off the ground so that every spectator can see the parades and performances.

This is the time the local clubs' marching bands have been waiting for. This is when they finally ''strut their stuff'' in full costume. Like the steel-drum bands and the calypso singers, they work all year for this day. They're competing for the coveted title of ''band of the year.''

Dressed in colorful theme costumes, dancing in long, vibrant formations, these thousands of men and women of all ages and colors stream past the grandstands for hours as they did on Monday. But today - carnival Tuesday - is when they will be judged by serious-looking officials sitting at long tables in front of the south stand.

In addition to planning the costumes for all of the regular members, each band leader and his designers have to create elaborate and amazing costumes for the band's king and queen. Photographs of their costumes can only give a small indication of their effect. You must be there and see them moving to the beat of the calypso band and to the cheers of the crowd, their colors and fantastic ornaments glittering under the spotlights.

''Pride of the Caroni Swamp'' (the swamp is a Trinidad bird sanctuary) is a strong young queen carrying a 12-foot high ''foliage'' extravaganza topped by a large artificial scarlet ibis. Somehow, the ibis flaps its wings realistically as the queen dances jauntily across the stage. The range of imagination displayed is breathtaking. And the costumes are usually huge - yet carnival rules insist that the king or queen make it all the way down the boardwalk unassisted.

On Tuesday, all of the kings and queens, winners and losers, appear with their marching bands. After parading through the streets and the Savannah, the bands disperse throughout Port of Spain. Many members, still wearing their costumes, join the throngs of holidaymakers milling about the town.

By sunset a lot of carnival paraders are still dancing behind the indefatigable music bands. After dark, almost to the stroke of midnight, you still see them, dwindling in numbers and energy, but still at it - after all, carnival won't come again for another year.

Finally, it's over. The city is silent by the early morning hours, and the next day, on the way to the airport, life in Trinidad seems normal again. Your taxi lurches down a potholed side road through smells of wet sugar cane, petrol, and burning cedarwood. The whole island glistens, luminous after a shower. Against a darkened sky a rainbow arches over yellow-green fields behind small, tin-roofed houses; on the curb a child plays with discarded carnival finery. And somewhere in the city, a man is looking at designs for next year's costumes.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.