`All Ahh We Is One'

Article excerpt

Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

During the two days before Ash Wednesday, Carnival is celebrated all over the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. The center stage is in Port of Spain. People of every age, race, and circumstance participate, and strangers are freely invited to join in.

Twelve months of planning climax in a swirl of sensual colors and soaring rhythms. Costumed dancers sway to the rhythms of competing steel drum and calypso bands. The energy and creativity generate an orgiastic, deafening, heart-racing, insomniac party. The beat goes on and on.

With thousands crowded together in what some describe as a drunken, hedonistic state, one can only wonder at the fact that Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival is considered one of the safest such celebrations in the world. It is true that some Trinidadians, morally concerned by the excesses of the party, prefer to leave the city and head for the beach. But by and large, during Carnival, the country's soul comes together.

For two days, the nation's ethnicities celebrate their shared history with calypso and steel bands. In the festival's opening stages, the individual ego is displayed in costume and dance. Each participant demands: "Pay attention to me." But as Carnival draws to a dose, everyone is declaring, "All ahh we is one." That unifying power sets Trinidad and Tobago's celebration apart from larger or more commercialized Carnivals.

Days of parading

In 1783, Trinidad and Tobago became home to French settlers and many slaves from the French-speaking colonies on Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and other Caribbean islands. Carnival celebrations included several parties and lavish balls given by aristocratic society. The slaves created their own Carnival, based on dressing up in rustic masquerades, a variety of African rites and traditions, and mimicking their masters.

The 1830s brought the abolition of slavery, and the newly free black Trinidadians took Carnival to the streets. Carnival became associated with stick fighting and explicit sexual parading. The colonial British found the debauchery vulgar and unacceptable. For sixty years, they tried to control the rowdy festivities by banning drumming and prohibiting the opening procession of torches, drums, and stick fighters. The Carnival tradition was far too strong for them, however. In 1881, after the so-called Carnival riots, the governor of the colony, who had fought to end the festival, announced that he had misunderstood Carnival's importance to the general population.

Since then, the tradition has grown steadily. The modern Carnival officially begins at 4 A.M. Monday with J'Ouvert, which commonly means "daybreak." However, pre-Carnival fetes (gatherings) begin some weeks beforehand. Small, impromptu parties begin with a shared rum and punch, or a small group of musicians getting together. Many organizations advertise and charge admission to bigger fetes, all competing with each other by featuring well-known local calypso and steel bands.

The Friday before Carnival officially starts, the costume competitions begin for the semifinalists. On Saturday, the parade of schoolchildren dressed in mas (masquerade costumes) fills the streets of Port of Spain. That evening, hordes of steel bands led by girl flag carriers wheel out their instruments for the grand steel competition. The Saturday and Sunday before Carnival are the big party nights.

On Monday morning, the fetes begin. Partygoers dressed in shimmering sparkles, fluttering feathers, and glitter (and some barely dressed at all) pour into the streets. Bands converge, and soon thousands of ecstatic revelers are proceeding to the center of Port of Spain, moving their hips in sensual rhythm to the drums' incessant beat.

The costumes worn during J'Ouvert are homemade and much simpler than the elaborate garb worn later. However, J'Ouvert is Carnival in the truest sense. …