Up Close at Trinidad’s Carnival

What’s behind the raucous pre-Lenten rite? An intrepid scholar hits the streets of Trinidad to find out

Partaking in an old but ambiguous rite, blue "devils" (in Paramin, with mouths colored by dyed bubble gum) offer spectators a deal: pay, or get rubbed with body paint. (Alex Smailes)
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But carnival has many faces and many moods, with different towns observing it in their own special ways. At dusk we were in the tiny mountain town of Paramin, sitting at an outdoor fried-chicken place. The townspeople were slowly assembling on the edge of the road, drinking beer and chipping to a sound system that had been erected just behind our table. At nightfall, the sound system fell silent, and ten men beating drums made out of biscuit tins emerged from the darkness—a reminder of the Trinidadian ingenuity at drawing music out of industrial detritus, like the island's steel drums, traditionally crafted from oil barrels. Behind the drummers came 20 people of indeterminate age and gender, covered in blue paint, some wearing grotesque devil masks, others leering hideously, leaping and writhing. Then another band of drummers, followed by another contingent from hell.

Some of the devils were pulling others on ropes or mock-beating them with sticks in what is thought to be an evocation of the work-'em-till-they-die slavery of early Trinidad. Certainly, there was an edge of menace here. When a Blue Devil approached and stabbed his finger at you, you had to give him a Trinidadian dollar (worth 16 U.S. cents), or he would pull you up against his freshly painted body. The onlookers laughed and shrieked and ran, and in the end I didn't run fast enough. Having used up my dollars, partly in defense of two genuinely frightened little girls, I was slimed blue. As the devils eased up on their attacks, the crowd swelled and surged toward the town's central square, where vendors were selling beer and rum amid the ongoing chipping. But I was too sticky with paint to continue—and too shaken, I have to admit, by the mimed hostility of the devils, with its echoes of historical rage.

Shrove Tuesday, the second day, is when the mas bands parade through Port of Spain to be judged on their costumes and music. If there was a time to witness the corrupting effects of commercialism, this "pretty mas"—so called to distinguish it from the first day's "old mas"—would be it. There are about 200 mas bands on the island, and each was offering, for the equivalent of several hundred U.S. dollars, a costume and such essentials as a day's worth of food and drink and private security. A pre-carnival article in the Sunday Express estimated that the big bands, with 3,500 or more members, would each gross ten million Trinidadian dollars, not counting donations from corporate sponsors, such as the ubiquitous cellphone company bmobile. This isn't just partying; this is business.

According to historian (and soca star) Hollis Liverpool, pretty mas grew out of the upper classes' efforts to tamp down the African-derived aspects of traditional mas, which they saw as vulgar and unruly. To an extent, they have succeeded: the price of admission limits participation to the more affluent, such as Nadia John, a 30-year-old lawyer I met in her apartment on the Sunday before carnival. For John, it was all about the costume. She modeled the one she would wear with the Island People mas band: a bikini made of wire, feathers and jewels, so minimal that she dared not let her mother see it.

Not that the poor don't try to crash the party—hence the need for all the private security that surrounds each band as it moves through the streets. According to Wyatt Gallery, one of the owners of the Island People band, this is because "we're very serious about the competition and don't want to look bad," as they might if a lot of un-costumed people slipped in.

So I wasn't expecting much, beyond a chance to see Nadia John in her glory, when we walked from our hotel to the part of town where the mas bands would march and found a place on the curb to sit. But it turned out that even pretty mas is impossible to tame. Despite all the "owners" and "producers," people were still creating carnival themselves, in the streets and on the sidelines—chipping, drinking, eating and smoking ganja. Then the bands began to drift by, each with its own trucks for music, food and drink. The marchers were chatting, chipping and, most notably, "wining." This is like grinding in American dance culture, only the pelvic motions are quicker, more fluttery—an artistic rendition of sex rather than a simulation—and it can involve up to three people at a time. Probably not quite what the British meant by "pretty." One costumed woman sticks in my mind, lost in her own chip, throwing her head back, her face gleaming with exultation and sweat. As Goethe wrote of the 18th-century Roman carnival, it "is a festival that is not actually given to the people, but which the people give to themselves."

Yes, Trinidadian carnival has been commercialized—or "Brazilianized," as they say locally—with too much money and booty involved. But as Che Lovelace, a young artist told me, carnival "can't go back, it must go forward." The money helps support hundreds of Trinidadian artists, musicians and entrepreneurs, and, he says, "helps drive the economy and create jobs." In Trinidad, commercialization is not the death of carnival, but part of how it perpetuates itself.

Score card for carnival 2008: in a win for Trinidad's persistent devils, a preliminary body count came to 5 dead and 20 others stabbed or shot. But in a triumph for artistry and social relevance, the title of best mas band went to the MacFarlane band with the apocalyptic theme "Earth: Cries of Despair, Wings of Hope." Its call for planetwide renewal and its towering, avant-garde costumes—giant structures pulled by the wearer and wreathed in colored smoke—stole the show.

Barbara Ehrenreich has written more than 15 books.
Photographer Alex Smailes' book Trinidad and Tobago appeared in 2006.


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