With three major religions, one of the world’s biggest carnivals, and thirteen public holidays, Trinidad & Tobago is well known for its penchant for partying and celebration.
In many ways island life revolves around its explosiveCarnival, the Caribbean’s largest celebration. The hype and build-up begins as the New Year’s Clock strikes twelve, and culminates in four days of non-stop music and dance in February in the streets of the capital Port of Spain. From January, each weekend hosts a series of fêtes – in fact stage shows – with all night dancing and imbibing of rum. During the week calypso tents put on nights of less franticmusic, accompanied with witty poetry and social commentary. The country’s atmosphere builds in intensity until February when the main street paradeevent takes place.
Brought to Trinidad by the French in the 18th century as mardi gras, Carnival is the ‘parting of the flesh’ (carne-vale) before Ash Wednesday and Lent. The French indulged in masked balls while African slaves took to the streets with bamboo sticks banged rhythmically on the ground. Satire of the plantation system followed, combined with a number of West African folklore characters such as stilt walkers (moko jumbies) and demons (jab jabs) – all adding to the multicultural brew. After emancipation in 1834, the burning of sugar cane alongside wild dancing built up the intensity. Carnival in essence began to bring together the powerful and powerless once each year. Playing mas (masquerading) was acceptable with anyone; prejudices and lusts were brought into the open, and a truly Trini cultural identity was born.
Carnival now begins with the raucous Jouvert(pronounced ‘jouvay’) celebration (from the French ‘jour overt’). At 4am on Carnival Monday, huge bands of revellers hit the streets with a vengeance, most often covered in mud – a true setting free of the spirit before the (slightly) calmer pretty mas(costume parades) of Carnival Monday and Tuesday. The old traditions are still found in one form or another on the streets of Port of Spain – thoughsound systems, fast Soca music and bikini costumes have taken over much of the event. As Carnival Tuesday draws to a close and Ash Wednesday’s quiet streets begin to dawn, much of T&T’s population can think of only one thing:bring on carnival next year!!
But in Trinidad you never have to wait long until the next party. This is par for the course when you have a mix of races and religions in your country; Christmas, Eid and Divali are all national holidays, as is Indian Arrival Day, Easter, Independence Day and Emancipation (from slavery) Day. Hindu Divc ali and Phagwa, and Muslim Eid tend to be celebrated by many outside of each faith, including school children of all denominations. Additionally, every region has its own local festivals – in Arima people of mixed Spanish & Amerindian descent hold the Santa Rosa festival in August. Add to this yachting, steel band and oral tradition weeks, as well as regular cricket and football matches, and, well, you begin to get the picture.
One of the most colourful Hindu festivals takes place shortly after Carnival. The Caribbean version of the Indian ‘Holy’ festival, known as Phagwah, welcomes the coming of Spring with a flurry of pink die, sprayed, fired, tipped and smeared over all present at a number of Trinidadian locations. Not for the faint (or clean) hearted!
Trinidad really is a rainbow nation – aside from the Hindu Mandirs (temples), Muslim Mosques and Christian churches you will see all over the islands, there are even one or two places in Trinidad where Hindus, Christians and Muslims worship in the same premises – such as Kernaham village at Nariva. Intermarriage between people of African, European, Indian and Chinese descent is just seen as normal on these shores.
On Tobago, the festival calendar is equally diverse, if a little less routed in religion. Easter holds the world-famous goat race, accompanied by judicious gambling and partying, and attracting people from across the Caribbean and well beyond. The Great Race in August centres around fast boats competing to be the first arrival from Trinidad – though most people concentrate more on the liming and dancing than anything else! Biggest and smartest of all, however, is the Tobago Jazz Festival (www.tobagojazzfest.com), an international music event which over the past few years has featured artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Diana Ross, Steel Pulse and Sting.