On a Saturday morning not so long ago, I had to think hard to answer a question which had come to me as if in a dream; ‘Is Carnival in Port-of-Spain possibly one of the very best things about being alive?’ The short answer is hell yes. Especially if you like dancing, soca music, drinking rum, liming, being around people, or more precisely around hundreds of other people who share these interests with you. If you also believe that the best location for these activities are the streets, i.e. public rather than private spaces, Caribbean carnival my friend, is for you.
Now there may be a fair few pauses in this article dear reader, as I recollect perhaps the best week of my life so far. I may pause to wipe tears in response to la fin, to fall off my chair in laughter at the memories, or just to smile like a crazy person while my eyes glaze over and my mind wanders to another time and place. To a land where ‘Super! Super!’ was chanted incessantly, where I followed the instruction to ‘Spread my hands and leh go’ each and every time it was given because I had indeed waited all year to mash up di place. To the place where fete after fete after fete was the norm because we were very much ‘ready for d road’. They may call me anti-stush, but ‘soca music I love you.’ Most of the hyperlinks will take you to straight to youtube so you can enjoy the music but through words I will try and convey how much I loved my trip to CarnivalLand.
Growing up in London, we all knew that as fabulous as Notting Hill Carnival was (and fabulous it is!), Trinidad and Tobago was only pipped in legendary carnival status by Rio. Claudia Jones, Notting Hill’s founder, after all, was a Trini who decided that one way to soften up Londoners hostile to their new loud Caribbean neighbours, was to invite them to the party. An ambitious lady, rather than do this one house party at a time, she introduced London to the joy of carnival T & T stylee. She was right, it was. From it’s early town hall beginnings, it’s now the biggest street party in Europe with Londoners of all hues participating, not to mention other Brits and people from all over Europe joining in.
For years, therefore, the invitation to come and experience my good friend’s local carnival, the mother of mine, was extremely tempting, if somewhat impractical with family in other islands who also required visiting. Was I really going to travel to Trinidad at the most expensive time of the year for a week, and then spend less than a week between each of the two branches of my family on their respective islands? But residing in the French Caribbean carries definite advantages; a newfound proximity to family which means a week in T & T at carnival time doesn’t carry the whiff of selfish hedonism I’d been trying to avoid for so long.
Simply put, carnival in Trinidad and Tobago was 7 days of fete after fete after fete. But fete as a state of mind, or philosophy rather than just parties. The time of my life is the best description I can think of. As much as I like to dance, I’ve never thought of myself as some kind of party animal. I just like to enjoy life and dancing is fun for me. I have a special love for dancing in the streets or on tables but that’s pretty much as wild as it gets for me. I don’t smoke, do ‘drugs’ and don’t drink much. I’ve been known to nap before a party, and during it when I get tired. I am not hardcore. And then I went to Trinidad.
Rather than try and explain how much I LOVED carnival, a love which was aided by a lot of freebies (it’s crazy expensive to party day and night apparently, especially when you frequent all-inclusives as is the norm at carnival time), a great pal who happened to be Trini and a loving family who took me in as one of their own, I will simply give you my itinerary. With a stopover in St Lucia, I managed to get there for €294 all in. My Caribbean Airlines flight was cosy if delayed (but by Liat standards, it was bang on time!) and my bags arrived with me (unlike Left In Another Town).
I exited Piarco International Airport at 6.30pm Thursday night, and 2.5 hours later was getting my first taste of Rapso courtesy of the inimitable Trinidadian group 3canal. Previously unfamiliar to me, my experience of rapso was soca-influenced rap with some powerful conscious lyrics. Thus with the activist artistry of 3canal, my carnival experience had begun. Their multi-media show, which was part musical, part concert, part theatre, and totally impressive (I mean 40 dancers, and never a lagging or out of place limb in sight after 2 hours!) and I needed a lime immediately afterwards to digest everything I’d seen and heard. Luckily, my host was obliging (and connected) so the 3canal show was followed by a short backstage lime and then we went onto the next lime.
Innocently named, with carnival vibes in the air, The Avenue was seething with Brooklynites, Londoners, Canadians of Trini origin, other Caribbean folk and Trinis of all hues. All with the same intention; to drink, dance, and be merry cos it was car-na-val!! To the uninitiated it’s hard to explain how much pent-up energy is released during carnival. I once explained it as like Christmas; you literally look forward to carnival all year, and though it’s technically only 2 days, the run up can be weeks and months of bubbling excitement. We bounced up (rough translation=bumped into) friends, danced in bars that were packed and spilled into the streets as happened all along the avenue, food vendors did a roaring trade and the only people not having a whale of a time were the motorists trying to drive through the melee. Poor fools. What unwise person would try and get in the way of a street full of liming Trinis?
Around 2.30, having long changed into flat shoes (and heels would not be seen again until departure day) we moved to a private lime where I showed myself a newcomer and promptly passed out (tired not drunk for the record). Taking my foreignness into account, after much to-do, I was controversially permitted to sleep until the final lime of the evening; the recreation of the Canboulay Riots.
Thanks to a Hayward Gallery retrospective on the work of a fellow South Londoner, artist Jeremy Deller, I caught last year, I actually went knowing what a re-enactment was. At 5am we waded through huge throngs to get a view of the historical origins of carnival. New as I was to the mantra of fete after fete after fete, it was a relief to get a ‘why’; from whence the tradition of carnival comes, and what it meant to revellers some 130 years ago: a sacred joyous celebration of the end of slavery. Tired as I was, I could appreciate the outdoor theatre, and saw my first live retelling of Colonial Caribbean life, which is slightly depressing now I think about it. All that time spent in British theatres and never seen a single show set in the Colonial Caribbean, a period of some 400 years? Well I have now!
At approximately 8am I crawled into bed fully acknowledging that I was not a true feter and the carnival spirit appeared to have gotten the better of me. I slept and chillaxed all day while my host – a real Trini – left for work at 10am. When her mum came home from a daytime fete, that is to say a party, that took place during daylight hours, I asked her if she was tired. She looked at me with a smile that in England also meant ‘funny foreigner!’ She turned her head, looked me in the eye and said ‘Trinis don’t get tired’. I apparently had a lot to learn.
She was lovely. On day 2 I got a key to her house and by day 3 she was waking me up in the middle of the night to make sure I didn’t oversleep and miss a party. On day one though, we chillaxed and watched Indian soaps with really bad subtitles. Watching ZeeTV was a crazy throwback to sleepovers chez my Asian friends back in the day, and was the last trigger for homesickness I expected to encounter in Trinidad and Tobago. But T & T is unfortunately rather famous for its Afro-Indo tensions, and my friend is a Dougla, a person of mixed Indian and African heritage, so I really shouldn’t have been so surprised to see Sharukh Khan’s newest film being advertised by the local multiplex. This was Trinidad.
I had just about caught up with the storyline of the intricate family drama when it was time to get ready to fete again. During the day I had taken some time out to familiarise myself with the debates around the proceedings that I was about to witness: Soca Monarch 2013. Machel Montano, the soca equivalent of R.Kelly as far as I could tell, had been pretty much unbeatable since he graced the competition with his presence after they introduced T&T$2m prize money three years ago the way my friends told it. Tonight though, might be the night he lost his crowd.
I was surprised by the strength of anti-Machel feeling I encountered in T & T. His anger management issues were at the centre of a court case which was going on throughout the carnival festivities, but he also seemed to be blamed for creating and/or controlling what people were referring to as the Soca Mafia. This was news to me. From my soca raving days in London, all I knew about Machel was that year after year he brought out tunes that I loved. Like with R. Kelly, you’re slightly sickened to hear there’s a downside to the music, even in the face of overwhelming undeniable evidence, but can’t deny the fact of a long and top-quality discography.
Getting to see Machel Montano live promised to be spectacular. He’s something of a God he towers so high in the soca world and is revered (unhealthily) as such by too many people. 30 years in the business (and wiki says he’s 38) and year after a year his tunes are among the best. Before going to Trinidad, if someone asked me what soca music sounded like I would have said youtube Machel but I now know that in Trinidad he’s a ‘divisive figure’ i.e. you either love him or hate his attitude, but can appreciate his choons either way.
This year, however, the so-called soca mafia had turned on him. This year they would be supporting another artist to win the coveted Power Soca Monarch title, Superblue. A legend of the Trini soca world, a story which involved falling so deeply into addiction that he could be found offering to wash cars for money on the streets at a particularly low point. At Soca Monarch (see here for an explanation of how amazing being there at all was) I saw loads of the big stars I have been dancing to in London for years. Machel put on a hell of a show for the 16 minutes he was on stage. He sounded horrible but it was impressive to watch and galaxies ahead of what the other artists were doing in terms of stage performances. That said, Soca Monarch 2013 was an experience like no other, Destra, Benjai, Blaxx, Iwer George, Nadia Batson, Swappi, JD and Blaze, Patrice Roberts, Denise ‘whining specialist’ Belfon…so many great artists on the one stage. The absence of Bunji Garlin and Fay-Ann Lyons on home turf was keenly felt if wholly justifiable (they withdrew on principle, google it) but I’d experienced their magic in London so all was not lost.
When I crawled home at 5something am, however, I could not rest too long. At 10 I had to leave for the annual kiddies carnival family hangout. The kids costumes were lovely and I was surprised some of the overtly political messaging of some of the bands, but it was a fantastic way to discover the issues Trinis wanted to highlight. Much laughter, liming and soaking up the atmosphere with some very warm – and hilarious – people. Home just before 4pm, with time enough for a shower and quick wardrobe change, then out to another all inclusive for 6.
This time it was with former Miss Universe, Penny, whose annual carnival shindig I was headed to. As well as my first non-rum alcohol, as an all-inclusive there was a huge delicious 3 course meal, and live music with the ticket. As well as getting close up, longer performances of two of the artists I’d seen on stage the night before – Blaxx and Iwer George – I also discovered Chutney soca. To my simple ears, it’s Indian-influenced soca. I’d first heard it when Drupatee performed at Soca Monarch the night before, but I fell in love with an Indian Trini that night, when KI came on stage. He and 3veni (with whom I fell in love) did the longest set and after KI lit up the stage in his first 3 mins on it, 3veni’s voice and cheeky charm swept me off my feet. Coming on after the huge stars who were themselves excellent performers was no easy feat , so props to them for captivating me all the same.
Although I was home just before 11, it was not so much an early night as a scheduled slot for sleep. I was awakened by at 4 so I could get ready for the Breakfast Party. True story. Having received my itinerary in advance, I had imagined this was a small family ritual ‘me and my cousins hav a lil tradition…’ said the itinerary. It was more like something you’d see on MTV…but I will save the details of the next three days of carnival for another post. At this point I should add, as my sister pointed out, that all soca greats do not come from Trinidad and Tobago, lest anyone reading this get the wrong impression. I’m merely highlighting some of the contemporary soca artists who call Trinidad and Tobago home, and kept me on the dancefloor throughout my time there. Special thanks to Blaxx cos I spread my hands and leh gooooooo ooo ooo ooo ooo everytime his tune came on. Made a lil aeroplane, and spun around with my hands in the air too, throwing my stress away. By the time I climbed out of bed Sunday morning, I wasn’t thinking about sleep, I just wanted to be sure there wasn’t a fete somewhere which I was missing. There was. There was 24 hour feting the week I was at carnival, but I wasn’t missing any of the fetes I had planned to be out. Yup, Carnival in Trinidad is definitely one of the best things about being alive.