Carnival in Trinidad
On Carnival Monday and Tuesday the traffic lights of Port of Spain are turned off and the streets are turned over to a human traffic jam of costumed revelers. They jump and dance to the pounding sound of music trucks and turn Port of Spain into a pulsing celebration of island life that they call the mas.
Trinidad’s celebration has evolved through the years. What was once a two-day affair has turned into a lengthy party season starting in early January and lasting until Ash Wednesday. The biggest and best parties are held in and around Port of Spain, where locals max out their credit cards and even take out bank loans to finance their costumes and attend as many parties as possible.
Huge outdoor parties—called fetes—are held in the months before Carnival; during the final week, there are usually several fetes every day. You can get tickets for many of them through the major hotels, but some exclusive fetes may require an invitation from a well-connected Trinidadian.
While fetes are important to Carnival, the Panorama Steelband Preliminaries and finals are essential. Two weeks before Carnival, the “Prelims” are held, when dozens of steel drum orchestras compete for a place in the finals held on Carnival Saturday. Music lovers go to hear the throbbing sound of hundreds of steel pans beating out a syncopated rhythm, and the rum-fueled party often rivals even the best fetes.
On Carnival Sunday, top calypsonians compete to be Calypso Monarch, and this offers you an especially good opportunity to experience Carnival in one easy shot. The show is held in the Queen’s Park Savannah.
To be a true part of Carnival, you need a costume. Every mas band has its own costumes, which must be reserved months in advance (these days online). You pick up yours at the band’s mas “camp” and find out where and when to meet your band. Then all you have to do is jump, walk, or wave in the Carnival procession as the spirit moves you. Drinks and food may be included.
Carnival is powered by music, and though the steel pan still plays a big part, it's the soca performers who draw the biggest crowds. You can hear the most popular performers at the bigger fetes and at the Soca Monarch competition held on Carnival Friday before the more prestigious Calypso Monarch contest.
The Mas Bands
Trinis are passionate about their favorite mas band. The most popular have costumes largely comprised of beaded bikinis and feathered headdresses and are called “pretty mas.” Very large bands such as Tribe, Island People, and Hart’s fall into this category. If you’re not willing to show that much skin or want more theater, then choose a band like K2K & Associates, which offers more elaborate costumes with a thematic story. As has always been the case, women greatly outnumber men in the bands.
Safety is an increasing concern in Trinidad, especially at Carnival time. Fetes that attract a better-heeled crowd offer more security and sufficient bars to cater to the thousands of revelers who attend. They usually command higher prices but are worth the cost.
Beach House. This fete attracts an upscale crowd at a different spot each year. The party runs till about 10 pm with catered food and premium drinks.
Eyes Wide Shut is held at the Oval (home of Trinidad cricket) and tends to attract a younger crowd.
Insomnia is an overnight fete held in Chaguaramas, just west of Port of Spain, on Carnival Saturday, and the partying doesn’t stop till sunrise.
The Brian Lara and Moka all-inclusive fetes are both held on the afternoon of Carnival Sunday. Tickets for both are highly sought. Brian Lara is considered the most exclusive of all fetes and is the most expensive.
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