Trinidad and tobago

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Carnival, The Pulse of Trinidad & Tobago - Draft

[Because the cultural vocabulary is unique, I have attached a glossary of terms.]

Trinidad & Tobago is a twin-island republic, located on the southern fringe of the Caribbean Sea, approximately six miles off the northeastern coast of Venezuela.

The economy of this tiny republic (with an area of 1,979 square miles and a population of approximately 1.3 million) is acknowledged as the most prosperous and sophisticated, in the island states of the Caribbean region. It is largely based on oil and natural gas, which it mainly exports to North America.[1]

The islands offer contrasting experiences, Trinidad hosts the commercial, financial and industrial activity of the nation; while Tobago is the Tourism destination of foreign visitors, with its sandy beaches, coral reefs, sport fishing, and all-inclusive hotels. The social experience is also a significant attraction. The widely diverse cultural components of the island nation, makes for interesting customs, foods, and activities. The resulting easy-going, laughter-filled nature of the average Trinidadian and Tobagonian, makes for a great host, and memorable experiences.

This unique potpourri of peoples with their contrasting cultures, blended gradually into the personae known as a “Trini”, is annually rejuvenated in that cauldron of harmony, known as Trinidad Carnival.

Trinidad Carnival developed as part of the Roman Catholic observance of Lent, which mandates the abstinence from meat and pleasure (carni - flesh and vale - to say good bye to). Its pre-Lenten activity culminates in two days of explosive masquerading, leading up to Ash Wednesday, but the actual festivities start with the parties, competitions and shows that begin right after the Christmas season is over. Of, course the creative activity that results in the vistas of sight and sound on Carnival Days usually start shortly after the end of the previous Carnival.

Brilliant costumes by the thousands are created and assembled at Mas Camps throughout the island, as early as September. Hundreds of pannists religiously practice their musical arrangements at the various panyards, in preparation for the musical competitions. Songs specially created for the festival are performed nightly at the Calypso Tents and blared with monotonous regularity from the many radio-stations, who promote their favorites for the various Calypso, Soca and Chutney competitions.

At the fetes (day time or night time), tourists will look on in amazement at the throngs of people effortlessly jumping in time with the beat of the runaway harmony of calypso or soca music played by the steelband, brass band, or the ubiquitous fete DJ. These parties are so infectious, that it impossible to be a spectator for long, and one by one, the non-participants fall prey to the music and energy, and shuffle or sway as best they can to the beat.

These parties also present an opportunity to experience the aromas and tastes of many local dishes, generally, flavorful and spicy: corn soup, pelau, roti, doubles - truly, finger-licking, delicious!

The weekend before Ash Wednesday, hosts the finals of most of the major competitions of the Festival. On Saturday night, the Panorama competition final is the big event with remaining 16 bands competing for the highly coveted title of “Panorama Champion” and significant prize-money, in two categories - large band and medium band.

This event is the ultimate challenge, the moment for which all the participating pannists have so diligently practiced over the past several months. Emotions are so charged at the venue - The Big Yard at The Queen's Park Savannah - from players and spectators alike, that the electrical energy could probably light up the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The musical harmony can be heard from afar, sweet and euphoric to the connoisseur. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the judges' scores produce emotional highs for the winners and their supporters, lows for the disappointed, and fuel for lively debate until the next Panorama.

On Sunday night, all look forward to experiencing the breathtaking spectacle of sound and color of the grand finale of all Competitions - “Dimanche Gras”, so named because all the major finals took place at this event (until the Panorama Final was relegated to Saturday because of the significant logistics involved).

The crowning of; the Calypso Monarch, the National King and Queen of the Bands can be enjoyed live, at the Queen's Park Savannah, for an entry fee amounting to the cost of a ticket to a Broadway Show, or in the home, for free on National Television.

Before the break of dawn on Monday morning - precisely at four a.m. - the Street Parades are officially launched with the Jouvert celebrations. This phase signifies the opening of festivities and is characterized by the portrayal of characters and ‘mas' forms intrinsic to the development of Trinidad Carnival. One popular portrayal is the commentary on social and political events, through the satirical use of placards, costume and pantomime - once the essence of the early Carnival art form. Several Bands parade in costume, but the theme and content are subdued and remind of the somber costuming of Halloween. Much like the grey of dawn, before the beauty of tropical sunshine.

Monday evening breaks the exhausted sleep of revelers, who are part of the Big Parade, for the prelude to the big day, Carnival Tuesday. All registered bands parade in the streets in all the towns of the twin island nation, but the major spectacle occurs on the streets of the capital, Port of Spain. Costumes are elaborately made - with beads, plumes, brocades, sequins, lots of color and style. To participate in the parade (‘play mas'), apart from purchasing a costume from the “Mas Camp” - which can now be done from overseas via the Internet - you must be physically fit; for the process of jumping and dancing on the asphalt, in 97° F + temperatures, is no picnic! As a result, from the month of December, gyms and parks are invaded by intended masqueraders, sweating and jiggling, in the hope of miraculously looking like Brad Pitt, Barry Bonds or Halle Berry in their precious little costumes. On these Parade days, the crowds on the streets would rival those of New Orleans' Mardi Gras.

There are specific parade routes for the bands to use in order to access the three main judging venues in the capital city. The most popular venue with spectators and masqueraders alike, the Queen's Park Savannah, is the place to be when the color and glitter of the sea of swaying costumes are caught in the splendor of the setting sun!

The magic of Carnival is not just in the audio-visual spectacle, but for the islanders, it is a time when the soul of the Trinidadian regenerates itself, while achieving the goal of the religious of observance of Lent. The nation experiences lower crime rates, while social and class differences are set aside. It is as though the soul of the Trinidadian recognizes that the time has come for the annual leveling of the human playing field, which is necessary for peoples of a diverse ethnic heritage, to coexist in harmony and to foster the cross-fertilization of cultures, critical to the identity of a unique Trinidadian. At this time, the superficial world of commerce is placed on the back burner. Carnival is a time to enjoy the art, music, friendships, and simply to relax.

So significant an event is Carnival to the Trinidadian, that those, who found it difficult to return to the motherland every year to be part of the renewal, have began to introduce the process to their adopted countries and cities: New York, Boston, Miami, Toronto and Notting Hill (England). However, as any Trini will own, it is not the same. Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago, once truly experienced cannot be forgotten, and the attraction to return is difficult to resist.

  1. Out of an annual US import of 631 million cu ft of LNG, 439 million cu ft originated in Trinidad & Tobago - Energy Information Administration; US Natural Gas Imports by Country (Annual) <http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/ng/ng_move_impc_s1_a.htm>

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