- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad — There’s something magical about carnival that makes Trinidadians forget their troubles, cast inhibition to the trade winds and lose themselves in the euphoria of celebration.

“It’s what we live for,” says Dr. Faizah Assad-Perry of Houston, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Texas. “Without fail, every year, I do not miss it, come hell or high water. I’ve resigned from jobs if I couldn’t get the time off to go.”

Visitors pour in during the weeks leading up to carnival, which is held annually on the two days before Ash Wednesday — Feb. 7 and 8 this year. Local preparations start much earlier, and the Parade of Bands occurs Feb. 6, Carnival Sunday.

In October, organizers begin planning preliminary steel-band and calypso contests. Designers display costumes and put them on sale, with more elaborate productions shown later during major competitions. Locals begin making their way to calypso tents the day after Christmas to hear bards perform their new compositions of social commentary.

“We started in November 2004 because you need that buildup and time to have your songs properly rehearsed,” says Ainsworth Mohammed, manager of Exodus, which will defend its 2004 title of Panorama steel-band champion.

Exodus supporters flock nightly to the band’s pan yard in St. Augustine, east of Port-of-Spain, where some of Exodus’ 180 musicians rehearse into the early morning.

Patrick Watson, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, decided to quit the band three weeks before carnival while the orchestra was fine-tuning a piece.

“I set my heart on playing with a steel band, but the talent in that band is extraordinary,” says Mr. Watson, who plays the tenor pan. “I gave it my best shot, [but] in order for me to rise to an acceptable standard, my professional life would have to be sacrificed even more than it was.”

Carnival is a 166-year-old festival that has its origins in the clash and mesh of African and French cultures on the 18th-century sugar-cane plantations of the West Indies. The French-Creole planters spent the time between Christmas and Ash Wednesday indulging in life’s pleasures, then covered themselves in ash and repented for their sins when the 40 days of Lent began.

Africans, emancipated from slavery here in 1838, used carnival rituals to commemorate their sufferings on the plantations and at the same time lampoon the lifestyle of their former masters through costumed characters.

Today, the original characters of carnival are reserved for pre-carnival shows, but the history of the event has been preserved in other ways.

On the morning of J’Ouvert (pronounced JOU-vay, for opening day), festivities begin with a re-enactment of the Canboulay (burning cane) riots of 1881, when British colonial soldiers were beaten back with sticks and were stoned by African masqueraders for attempting to stop them from taking part in carnival.

For the carnival, billed as “the greatest show on earth,” the country dusts itself off; puts on its best face; and parks political acrimony, economic woe and unpleasantness of any kind offshore. It’s unlikely, however, that topical issues such as a wave of kidnappings and murders that have dominated the national headlines in recent weeks, including four killings in one day, will escape the calypsonians’ scrutiny.

For devotees, though, the carnival season is nothing less than the best of times. If there’s a fete — a Trinidadian colloquialism for party — Trinis will find it and find a way to secure a ticket.

“It’s a happy-go-lucky time. It’s a time of the year when Trinis and visitors who come to enjoy the festivities with us are really carefree,” Mr. Mohammed says. “You forget your troubles and dance.”

The pre-carnival shows reach a climax on Dimanche Gras (Fat Tuesday) night. On Carnival Sunday, on the open-air stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah, judges choose a king and queen of the masqueraders. Their costumes must convey the theme of their bands, but they must also demonstrate technical prowess in handling the costumes, which often have massive pieces soaring up to 20 feet.

A highlight of the Dimanche Gras show is the calypso competition, which includes witty, provocative songs with themes ranging from male-female relationships to the simple joys of life.

After the show, crowds spill into the streets to “lime” — hang out. Hardy veterans can be found partying at the camps of the J’Ouvert bands or wandering the capital city in search of fetes to keep them occupied until the bands appear.

“You don’t sleep during carnival,” Dr. Assad-Perry says.

In the dark of J’Ouvert morning, the masquerade takes the form of huge bands of revelers liberally daubed in mud or black motor oil in caricatures of notable figures.

This year, the roster could include anyone from Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston to Saddam Hussein. Visitors who join the fun must be prepared to take a mud bath. By afternoon, some masqueraders from the larger bands will don subdued versions of their costumes and pour into the narrow streets.

Steel bands make an appearance, but they’re not as visible on the final two days as they were from the 1950s through the 1980s.

The big explosion of color and the spectacle of creativity from costume designers comes Tuesday morning.

Thousands of masqueraders assemble at designated spots around the city. Dancing to the latest soca (soul calypso) compositions pumped out at ear-splitting volume by DJs on huge trucks, they head to the contest on the savannah stage.

“There are no doctors, no lawyers, no maids, no high school dropouts, no ditch diggers — it’s everyone, laughing, loving, partying … together,” Dr. Assad-Perry says. Her $350 costume, themed on the myth of Andromeda, includes a beaded blue-and-gold bikini with a blue-feathered headdress adorned with gold sequins.

Notably absent from the pre-carnival competitions for the second straight season is celebrated costume designer Peter Minshall, who brought Trinidad carnival designs to the opening ceremonies of the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games. Mr. Minshall, known for provocative themes that poke fun at local society and the decay of world civilization, has been critical of the modern trend toward colorful but meaningless costumes.

By Tuesday afternoon, tens of thousands of bodies will have crossed the vast savannah stage, moving to the seductive and rhythmic soca music. Many are young women in colorful string bikinis who use the stage to gallery — a Trini expression meaning to show off — their costumes, dancing and sex appeal.

“Carnival is just a time to enjoy myself, of freedom from stress. … I like to expose my lovely body that I work on in the gym for the whole year, and if you come and ask nicely, I would give you a little wine (dance),” says Trinidad native Natalie Headley.

Along with the locals, who have ancestral connections to Africa, India, China and Europe, about 50,000 visitors are expected to attend this year. Among them are thousands of expatriates such as Dr. Assad-Perry, returning from North America and England, and others enticed by West Indian friends to join the festival.

In Europe, Trini carnival celebrations have spread to Sweden, Denmark, Norway and France. In North America, they’re observed at various times throughout the year in New York, Boston, the District, Miami and Toronto.

Carnival has also become an important part of the local economy, not only for the creators — calypsonians, steel pan players, costume designers, musical arrangers and bandleaders — but also for hoteliers, beverage manufacturers, vendors and mom-and-pop eateries. Even those who recycle empty beer bottles left on the roads make good money.

An estimated $150 million was spent by visitors to the 2001 carnival, says Keith Nurse, economic researcher at the University of the West Indies. He says that figure has grown over the past three years.

“We always attempt to make the carnival bigger and brighter than the year before,” says veteran bandleader Richard Affong, president of the National Carnival Bandleaders Association and commissioner on the National Carnival Commission.

The celebrations end promptly at midnight Tuesday, and the next day brings an astonishing return to normalcy.

Visitors will find that the party has moved to the island’s numerous beaches, particularly Maracas Bay, where the inviting blue waters compete with the long lines for bake and shark — a favorite Ash Wednesday meal for Trinis.

Back in the towns, thousands will make their way to churches to have their sins absolved and to promise good behavior — at least until carnival 2006.

• • •

Trinidad carnival: Visit www.tntisland.com/events2005.html or www.visittnt.com, or call 888/535-5617.

Associated Press writer Yvette Blackman contributed to this story.

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