Carnival Caribbean Stylee: Very Possibly the Best Thing About Being Alive

In Martinique, as in many parts of the Caribbean, there’s one word that’s being whispered more and more frequently right now:  Car-ni-val!!  Official and unofficial public holidays, costumes, Caribbean music, mass participation and dancing in the streets = my kind of party!  With 5 days to go til Jouvert, the anticipation is in the air and I am not immune to it.Kiddies carnival 2013

Once upon a time, when I woke up on a February Sunday morning in Port-of-Spain, it wasn’t exactly a regular Sunday.  The day before I’d been watching the children’s carnival parade, and then been to a fabulous carnival fete (party/soirée) where I ate, drank and danced merrily in the company of fellow revellers to performances by some of the biggest soca artists Trinidad and Tobago had to offer.  Blaxx was my favourite, but Destra had put on such a fantastic performance at Soca Monarch two nights previously I feel the need to give her a shout out too.  The party was Penny’s Annual Bash.  A former Miss World/Universe and a born-and-raised Trini, her fete was a classy affair, and the only place I consumed wine and champagne with my three course meal that came with the ticket. I was due to leave Penny’s a little early to head to the steel pan finals (carnival’s brilliance is because at the heart of the festivities are the competitions), but we got caught up in the good time…

The other irregular thing about this particular Sunday morning alarm, was the time.  It was 3am.  It was dark.  I was waking up in the middle of the night deliberately.  To go to a party.  Yes. I was definitely in Trinidad, for carnival.

The Trini pal who’d invited me to experience the full cultural experience that was carnival had played it very cool.  When we disembarked the ‘park and ride’ shuttle at the entrance of the Shades Breakfast Party I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I had imagined this was a small family ritual.  It was more like something I’d watched on MTV as a teen.

DSC_1985We arrived just before 7.30am and the party was in Full Swing.  Hundreds of people were there taking in the music, food, drink, and vibes. Although others who’d also gotten up early were arriving, there were also plenty of people who’d clearly continued partying from the night before.

Shades somehow managed to take a huge plantation house in the mountains with a swimming pool and incredible views, set up a stage and sound system, organise live performances from top artistes, invite 30-odd small and large vendors (free suncream from neutrogena! Iced coffees from nescafe! Pancakes from auntie Patty!), have an open bar catering to hundreds, and still maintain a friendly chilled out house party vibe…it was nothing short of a miracle!

When I stopped dancing to breathe (and get breakfast), I took a walk and had a look around.  I was simply amazed.  There was all kinds of food – from Bake and Shark, doubles and other Caribbean snacks or full dishes, to spare ribs, omelettes, burger and chips, sandwiches, pancakes; whatever you fancied eating. For drinks there were smoothies, coffees, juices or alcohol.  And the alcohol was not simply a broad selection of rums; there were hard-to-find drinks in Martinique like Baileys, vodka, all sorts to choose from; I was literally spoilt for choice.  It also took me a while to get my head around the fact that people were partying hard, as I’d expect at 1am ‘at night’, at 8am in the morning.DSC_1998

One activity I particularly enjoyed was the random steel band.  At one point, they were playing along with the DJ, and then at another point, they let the partygoers try.  Some were clearly experienced pan players (this was Trinidad), but others were like me, keen to try and keep the rhythm to the soca tunes.  The music was loud enough that we didn’t disturb anyone, but the pans were loud enough that you felt like you could well be making a worthwhile contribution to the merriment. Génial!

As I write this considerably later, I’m still awestruck.  It’s a testament to what serious business carnival is in Trinidad; breakfast parties are a cultural phenomenon on a par with night markets in Thailand as far as I can tell.  Unfathomable to the uninitiated mind until experienced.  And then loved.  Intensely.  Live performances from the likes of Kerwin DuBois and Lil Rick at 9.30am in the morning?  To an appropriately hyped-up crowd, dancing outdoors in the most beautiful grounds I’d ever raved in?  Musta been carnival in Trinidad.

DSC_1995By Sunday afternoon (got home around 2pm) after 3 days of constant partying, minimal sleep and no tiredness I felt like a real Trini.  Cos one of the refrains of I learned is ‘Trinis Don’t Get Tired.’  I started to understand why my proposed itinerary only had 2 dedicated sleep slots; I got swept up in the carnival spirit and didn’t want to sleep!  I knew that somewhere in Port-of-Spain there was a party I was missing and the more sleep I had, the more I missed out!  And when I was partying I was full of energy!!! Full of it!!  Mass feting was in the atmosphere and as long as I was breathing I wanted to be partying.  In case you have doubts, I swear on my life, the whole time I was in Trinidad the only non-food substance I consumed was liquid; alcohol.  I was high on adrenalin and exhilaration!

Sunday was nonetheless a quieter day.  After the breakfast party we went home for Sunday lunch with the fam, and decided to skip the fete we’d planned to attend later that afternoon.  Instead we went to granny’s where Machel and the Soca Monarch result was the hot topic.  Seeing an 80 year old grandmother curse out and all but spit at the mere discussion of a soca artist she doesn’t like is an image I’ll hold onto for a while.

DSC_2003An early night, meant bed at 10pm. In the wee hours of Monday morning, about 1.30am I was awakened in the dark once again.  This time for Jouvert, the official opening of carnival.  We got ready and headed into town.  Once we’d found our truck we patiently hung out, making friends with fellow band members until 3am when, as advertised, the truck promptly began to move. Clothed in old sportswear, with a dash of revelry, we took to the road.  Why old sports clothes?  Because Jouvert involves getting dirty.  Traditionally people throw paint, but some bands also throw ‘mud’, ‘chocolate’, flour or oil for the duration of Jouvert.

DSC_2033People say there’s a vibe at Jouvert. That it’s almost a spiritual experience.  Admittedly, I didn’t feel that.  But being part of a mass of black people dancing down the road in perfect rhythm chanting ‘We ready for d road…’ at 4am didn’t leave me indifferent.

Throwing paint of various colours on my co-revellers and getting paint thrown on me at various intervals also further enhanced the surrealism of the experience.  Which occurred to the blaring of tunes that kept the hips swinging and the bamsees rolling.  I played Jouvert with 3canal and their band was fantastic; friendly people, good tunes, a lot of laughter, and of course dancing.  Watching the sun come up as we prowled the streets of Port-of-Spain, dancing all the way into the new day was one of those moments.  A heady experience of pure joy which is simply unforgettable.  DSC_2014

We completed the jouvert route around 7.30am.  It was at that point, when the trucks stop, the music turns off, and everyone starts trying to find their cars or rides, that we bumped into people playing with other bands.  We’d crossed paths amicably throughout Jouvert, but in the full light of day we could make out different paint patterns, or materials indicating who’d jumped up with who.  Jouvert was an enjoyable but intense experience.  Particularly on the back of 3 days of constant partying.  Chica and I crashed out on the quiet side of a back road for a solid 90 mins.  Then suddenly, as if fully recharged, we went home and got cleaned up, and put on our costumes for the mas band.

DSC_2063Thus it was that at 12.30pm we were back on the streets of Port-of-Spain, having found our band.  I maintain I was the last woman standing in my band when I played mas on Monday, and that I had danced in the streets until they turned off the music at Jouvert.  In Trinidad I found my true self:  I was Ms. Fete! From my experience at Carnival in Trinidad I truly understood the meanings of the soca tunes I’d been dancing along to for years.  The chorus of one of Machel’s big choons, for example is ‘Feting is we name, we don’t play; we going night and day no fete can tire we!’  I was a Trini!  I didn’t get tired!

For the girl with a reputation for taking naps before raving, or passing out in a corner for 30 mins in the middle of the rave, this was really quite an achievement.  Carnival in Trinidad was very similar to the carnival we have in London, perhaps unsurprisingly given London’s carnival was established by a certain Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian.

DSC_2073We played mas with a band who used their carnival profits to raise awareness about domestic violence the rest of the year.  For our money we had free food and drink all day, security, the right to dance on the truck, and in costume (got a goodie bag too!) as we moved in unison through the city’s streets on the designated route.  We had a 30 minute lunch and toilet break when the truck was on a back road (fyi London carnival:  this is an excellent idea) mid-route, and then continued dancing through the street of Port-of-Spain.  We jumped up until 9pm and then went home.  That night we swapped stories with my friend’s parents who had been participating with a ‘big people’s band’.  Everyone had had a ball!

With no alarm or middle-of-the-night wake up, we headed out for our last day of carnival.  Drink is a swanky but funky bar and restaurant on or just off The Avenue.  Without giving too much away, the owner, Dale, is a carnival man.  Suffice to say, I didn’t get to the bar (not too much inside time when you’re busy dancing in the streets) but I would recommend it to anyone heading to Trinidad or Port-of-Spain off the back of the man’s pro-party stance.  He is serious about having a good time.

DSC_2097On day two of carnival proper, we watched the bands go past from just in front of Drink for a while, before heading to 3canal mas camp aka headquarters for more partying.  We finished the night with one…last…all-inclusive fete!  One last twirl of my arms to Blaxx performing ‘Leh Go’ live as a truck carrying the artist who performed my personal anthem for carnival 2013 slowed in front of our chosen spot. And then…it was over.

I could have cried.  It was 10pm Tuesday night.  The trucks were rumbling off into the distance.  The music was slowing down. The non-stop partying, the official suspension of normal life was all over.  As my sister-girl and I danced through the streets back to the car for the final time, tears threatened to course my cheeks.  For the next month I would experience what Trinis refer to as a carnival tabanca: The depression when you realise all the good times are over and you have to wait another year for them to roll again.

DSC_2120And finally, the time is now!  A little later than usual, but carnival looms.  Time to wave my hands and leh go-ooooo all over again!  Martinique may do carnival differently, but I suspect the spirit of bacchanal will be here all the same…

Having done carnival in Port-of-Spain, London and Bridgetown, and loved it, Fort-de-France offers an alternative carnival experience. You know Martinicans, always gotta be different.  If it ain’t political dependence in the 21st century, or 3 player dominoes, it’s men in drag as a carnival tradition.

The result?  I have never been so nervous about participating in a carnival in my life.  A bunch of my non-Martinican pals are skipping the carnival and heading home for the break.  From the horror stories of people having sex openly in the streets to the plastic genitalia in toy form as a key part of the costumes, to the men (of all ages from all social groups) dressed up as women ‘for a laugh’ carnival in Martinique is just not what I’m accustomed to.  Apparently, once you get into it, it’s awesome. I pray this is true.  My first carnival soirée was the best party I’ve been to yet so I have hope!

One difference I’ve already spotted is that fancy dress is very important here; there’s burlesque marriage day (where men dress up as women and vice versa), red day, and black and white day.  Every carnival-time party also seems to have a theme; I’m supposed to heading to ‘Tarzan and the Indians’ party at some point, Jouvert is a pyjama party, and then there’s the military-themed day in St Pierre.  I have skeptically skipped the country on previous occasions, but this time, I shall immerse myself in the festivities.DSC_1970

Of course, all these nerves have made space for a bit of nostalgia for carnivals past.  Part One of my adventures at Carnival in T & T last year – aka possibly the best week of my life – are relayed here, You just read part two.

If you’re wavering about travelling for carnival, don’t.  Waver that is.  Book that ticket.  Don’t miss your life!

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