Carnival Caribbean Style (Copyright ©2009)

SHE Caribbean, June 2009

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For island people, Carnival is all about letting go of your inhibitions, putting work on temporary hold, slipping on those old tennis shoes and liming hard! Little wonder this festival is the most popular celebration on the Caribbean circuit. Every year, thousands of revelers all over the world come to the islands to join in the festivities of calypso music and street jump-up, and don elaborate costumes to play Mas in true Caribbean fashion.

Though carnival is celebrated in different ways and at varying times from island to island, the true essence of celebration remains the same. It’s a dazzling display of social solidarity and a cultural explosion of music, art, dance, and tastefully done Caribbean fare. It’s a celebration of life, and all things Caribbean!

Carnival in the region has come a long way since the days of slavery, when African slaves were forbidden by law to participate in street festivities of their own. In the days following abolition of slavery and the slave trade, the freed slaves celebrated by engaging in masquerade, dancing and singing in the streets, accentuating the social, political and economic circumstances of daily life. Essentially, they used this opportunity to embrace carnival as an expression of their newfound freedom.

In countries like Dominica and Antigua, the celebration lasts 10 days, but in Barbados, Crop-Over Festival, which signals the end of the sugar cane harvest, goes on for 5 weeks.

An important aspect of carnival is the African traditions of costume-making or masquerade. In Trinidad for example, many months before Carnival, you can find costume builders at “mas camps” hard at work sewing, painting, attaching feathers, glitters, beads, shells and fabric to create an award-winning masterpiece. Apart from elaborate, three-dimensional, large-scale sculptures, moko jumbies, sensay and stick fighters are authentic African masquerades still popular during carnival parades.

Carnival is a time of bacchanal, frivolity and endless debauchery. For Vincy Mas in St Vincent, and Mas Domnique in Dominica for instance, people from all corners, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, get together and share the excitement of carnival fever. It’s a time when friends spend quality time together at blockoramas, cultural galas and backyard fetes. At house parties, you just bring a bottle or a home-made dish to add to the potluck- there’s usually fried chicken, goat water, fish broth, curries, fried plantains and other typical Caribbean foods, accompanied by local beer and signature rum punches.

There’s no such thing as Carnival without Calypso. Throughout the islands, you can hear calypso music dominating the airwaves of local radio, minibuses, bars and shops. Peppered with socially and politically charged lyrics, wit and satire, Calypso is undoubtedly the mouthpiece of the people and so the influence of calypso music has been an integral aspect of carnival in the Caribbean.

If you’ve never been part of a carnival before, you will be amazed at what carnival lovers get up to in the wee hours of Carnival Monday morning. At around 3 am, revelers take to the dark streets, dancing and chipping (a mere shuffle of the feet) to the rhythmic beats of steel pan and lapo kabwit (goat skin drums). This is Jouvay morning-a spontaneous, come-as-you-like, anything goes type of celebration. Revelers dress up in whatever takes their fancy, usually mimicking celebrities or political figures, or cover themselves in paint or charcoal, and dance, drink and party hard, well into daybreak.

On Carnival Monday and Tuesday it is bacchanal time and the heat is on. Costumed bands flood the streets, competition winners strut their stuff, and flat-bed trucks carrying steel pan bands and sound systems blast soca, bouyon, kaiso and calypso music.

It’s a sight to behold, as the streets are jam packed with revelers waving rags and bumping and grinding to Caribbean music. Popular dance moves are ‘bottom in de road’ and ‘whining yu waist’ - a seductive, sensual style of dancing where the hips are swayed, gyrated or thrust in a sexually evocative manner.
For two consecutive days, it’s non-stop partying and over-indulgence like there’s no tomorrow.

So, if you really want to experience real Mas, the Caribbean is good place to start, because carnival in the Caribbean is one big fete not to be missed!

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