Thursday, 10 January 2008

CARNIVAL for the un-initiated

Many many years ago, when Trinidad was populated by the French Aristocracy who had just escaped the French Revolution and the Guillotine; and the younger brothers of the English Aristocracy who had come to escape Excommunication and Beheading for Treason; and the Spanish, who were everywhere; they had a wonderful party on the two days before Ash Wednesday.

For the forty days before Easter, Lent, they had to be terribly holy and not drink alcohol, eat meat or race their horses. I suppose sex was supposed to be out too, but looking back at the family tree, I am sure they were at it all day, every day. Each couple seemed to bear about 14 children, not counting the unofficial kids who were educated quietly and later became pillars of the new society. Having so many kids was fine since there was a horde of nannies, cooks, washers and young men to wash the car and curry the horses.

Looking at my family tree is most interesting. Many branches in the 14 and 15-hundreds bear several sons, beside which states: "killed in battle. Beheaded, treason. Died." Often, not one son is left alive. Those royal families took power way too seriously. Daughters were quickly married off to their cousins, to keep the blood pure and so on. Our pedigree (yes, a PEDIGREE, like horses and dogs) is a mass of different coloured lines travelling back and forth, hither and yon. They would have a COW if they could see what the family has come to now! When our entire extended family gets together, we represent every single race and shade on the planet. Heh, heh!

ANYWAY. This is not meant to be a family history, though maybe I ought to write one some day. (my own grandfather was excommunicated when he married my grandmother, for example. She was his second wife, after his first could not handle life in the wild colonies and left him here.) These debaucherous and, dare I say, dangerous aristocrats were thrown together in the West Indies, where they intermarried somewhat (effectively mixing up the stagnant European gene pools) and traded customs, and excuses for a party. And the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became Carnival. Beautiful costumes were worn to Masqued Balls, French-style, and as much grog was drunk, as quickly as possible, so that they could survive the long dry Lenten Season on fumes.

Out in the barracks, the newly freed African slaves thought that a party was a GREAT idea! With drums made from wood and bamboo (tamboo bamboo), and eventually steel oil drums, they had a party of their own and invented steelband music. Other Trinis: the indentured labourers from India and elsewhere, joined in.

The masqued Aristocracy eventually realised that everyone else was having more fun and had way better music, so they all mishmashed it all together, made the whole thing official and NOW, after a century or so of trial and error, we have the GREATEST CARNIVAL ON EARTH!

Sorry, you can't come. Every flight and every hotel, everyone's spare room in every house, is booked to capacity. You will have to plan for next year.

From the first week of January, the Fetes begin. The pan sides, that is the steelband... Bands? Have a huge annual competition. Some bands are hundreds strong. During the year, these large bands have jazz and classical festivals, and they are awesome. But now, they just play party music: calypso, soca. A big steelband sound is indescribably amazing, and big music producers swoon. No-one has figured out how to record the stuff quite perfectly yet, but hundreds of CDs are available. I once plugged a steelband version of "Orpheus in the Underworld" into a recording studio system in Florida, and the producer there almost died. "WHAT? WHAT IS THIS??" Live, the music gets right into your bones. The bass stops your heart, and guitar and cello pans make your blood sing.

As time hurries on, other competitions are on: kiddies carnival, Dimache Gras, etc, too numerous to go into here.

J'Ouvert is "the beginning" of carnival proper. In the wee hours of Monday morning, the devil comes out to play. Into the pre-dawn darkness creep hundreds.... Thousands of men, women and brave children dressed as devils (jab jab), the "midnight robber" who you must pay, and many other folklore characters. If you go out clean, you will get rubbed up by a guy covered in grease, mud or blue paint. This year, we will play J'Ouvert. With our paint and mud. It takes DAYS to get it off of you. I wrap my hair up!

Once the sun is up properly, the "pretty mas" comes out. Bands like Harts and Tribe have teeny tiny, sexy costumes and the idea is to look as GORGEOUS as possible. Trinis exercise for the WHOLE YEAR so that they can wear a G-string for two days on the street! Women get up and spend two hours primping, applying body glitter, putting on all-day makeup, making sure that their tiny bikini top will stay on. If the bikini is not tiny enough, we run to Debs and make it skimpier with her bikini expertise. Within hours, the streets are a mass of red foreigners and glitter-covered bodies in sequined costumes, dancing to one beat. Last year, we played in Harts and had a blast.

The whole nation shuts down, officially, for carnival, and no-one is really expected to go to work on Ash Wednesday. Christians go to church, and begin their Lenten Fast. Trinis take their religion seriously, whatever it may be, and KFC serves fish during Lent. They have to, or they would be out of business.

So there. You can search hartscarnival.com, or just Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, for pictures. I am a little sad not to be playing pretty mas, but J'Ouvert is such fun and we don't have the energy to do both! We will still be on the street, dancing, and it will still be great. I love it.

Come next year! Book now!

3 comments:

edj said...

What fun! I wish I could. Have a blast!

Theresa said...

wwwwaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh... i wanna come home! Im sure you guys will have a BLAST with Jouvert, Monday night mas and Las Lap.

Elle said...

This sounds so great! I've been doing a brush up on Mardi Gras in New Orleans over at my place, and now I have TWO places to wish I were on Fat Tuesday!