SEVEN DAYS AT THE WEST INDIAN FESTIVAL OF FÊTES AND HARD-EARNED FUN
My first memory of Trinidad Carnival was in 1993. My aunt, having just returned, told my sister and I about the history of Carnival on the Island. Held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Carnival began as an opportunity for slaves and indentured servants to party before Lent while the plantation owners held their private masquerade balls in the late 18th century. Modern-day Carnival has become less about the cultural traditions of African percussion music, stick fighting, steel pan playing and more about all-you-can-drink-and-eat marathon fetes leading up to the parade of the Masquerader bands on Monday and Tuesday. After the history lesson, she played a VHS tape of that year’s Soca Monarch winning performance, “Bacchanal Time” by Super Blue, a six-minute epic that described the ecstasy of carnival morning and wanting the two days of revelry to never end. As a first-generation American daughter of a church-going family that never took part in the festival, save my cool and rebellious aunt, Trinidad Carnival was ultimately foreign, a wild party that happened in a far away country. My mother, as a teen, was sent off to church camp on the far end of the island every year during Carnival and had actually never attended the rum-fueled festivities. As my siblings and I got older, our mom, wanting us to understand our cultural heritage, eventually started taking us to Brooklyn’s version of carnival, the West Indian Labor Day parade. Safely perched on a relative’s fire escape, we’d watch the masqueraders, massive DJ trucks and steel pan bands strut down Eastern Parkway. In my pre-teen years, I earned the privilege of going down to street level with my teenage cousins, but would quickly abuse the right by hopping the barricades, falling in line with the parade, dancing and jumping up behind the trucks. Every year, without fail, my mother would wonder what trouble I would get myself into with each coming Labor Day Parade. But my connection to the actual island of Trinidad was slight at best. Other than visiting for funerals and a family vacation during Junior High, I really didn’t have any idea what it was like to roam the island as adult. Rightfully so, my mom was very nervous when I announced that my sister and I were making the pilgrimage to her homeland for Carnival in 2014.
Attending Carnival requires months of planning—securing plane tickets and lodging, fighting to get into a masquerader band, plotting out an itinerary of parties and concerts. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, this year everything fell into place and with countless warnings from our mom resounding in our heads, my cousin, sister and I took off for seven days of soca music and marathon parties. Sadly, my first day and half in Trinidad were full of tension and anticipation. For those that arrived on the island early, major fetes and concerts had been going on all week long—Machel Monday, Zante on Tuesday and Mental Wednesday, our Thursday afternoon arrival left me thirsty to get into the thick of the reverie. Unfortunately, I spent most of Thursday evening and Friday morning snaking through the island’s incessant traffic collecting costumes, tickets and wristbands. Finally Friday night, we reached our first event, Soca Monarch, the international concert and competition with dueling performances from the island’s major artists held at the Hasely Crawford National Stadium.
Split into two distinct categories Groovy Soca, for the more melodic chill songs, and Power Soca, for the higher BPM songs, the concert spanned seven plus hours. We opted to sit in the stands, with the noticeably older crowd, while the rest of the 20- and 30-somethings hung out on the ground level drinking and wining. We sipped on fruity drinks, ate doubles, a local dish of curried channa layered between thin flour pancakes, and took naps in between sets alongside the other aunties and uncles. In the Groovy category, Kerwin Du Bois rode onto the stage with a gang of motorcycles and gave a Mad Max-themed rendition of “Too Real”. Mid-performance Du Bois warned Machel Montano, that he would nab the title this year. A six-time Monarch champion, Montano is like the Jay-Z of soca – a relentless winner that refuses to take the bench. As the final Groovy contender, Machel staged an insane performance for his song “Happiest Man Alive” that was a take on the movie “Gravity”. Montano, the astronaut, is sent spiraling through the stratosphere and seconds later, a man strapped to parachute drops from the sky into the open air stadium. We all went apeshit with astonishment and disbelief. With the surprise guests and the rush of non-stop fireworks, Montano’s entire set felt like a shoo in for the title, but despite the Hollywood-sized production, Du Bois took Groovy Monarch title and the $500,000 cash prize, his first ever.
Unfortunately the second half of competition, the Power Soca category, was rather powerless with artist after artist trying to best one another yet barely wowing the crowd. Super Blue gave a half-hearted performance, in which both he and the stilt-walking moko jumbie fell on the stage. It was hard to watch the soca artist that shaped our cultural understanding struggle through a haphazard set. Mr. Killa, a Grenadian new comer to the soca scene, easily stole the show with “Rolly Polly” his lovesong to big gals. Killa brought out six acrobatically-inclined plus sized women, had them get into cheerleader pyramid formation and proceeded to wine on two while standing upside down on the backs of two others. We all thought the show could’ve ended there but Montano had to take the stage again to defend his Power Soca title. Montano sang “Ministry of Road MOR”, a massive jump up song that’s practically impossible to dislike due to its undeniable formula of easy to follow instructions– “mash up de road”, hyper crescendos and chants, “We want MOR”. Montano won yet another Power Soca Monarch title and the $1,000,000 cash prize.
Riding the energy of Monarch and the buzz of numerous cups of rum, my sister and I headed to A.M. Bush fete, an alternative j’ouvert party thrown by the Caesar’s Army entertainment crew. Held at a secret location deep in the bushes of Chagaramas, the party mixes the playful nature of traditional j’ouvert mas with a hyper soca rave. At the designated shuttle pick up, a passenger van drove took us further into the bush to meet up with the band of paint-splattered revelers wielding squirt bottles of neon paint and rainbow-hued powder. Since we were late and quite clean, partygoers enthusiastically dirtied our tees. It didn’t take long for us to get drinks, rum of course, and playfully hurl paint. Though it was just the two of us, surrounded by people that were essentially strangers, my sister and I felt very at ease. In a surprisingly egalitarian manner, absolutely no one cared what about you wearing or what their weave looked like or who made your shoes. Parties like this are pretty much unheard of in New York.
The A.M. Bush party route came to an end in an open field dotted with adult-sized water slides and bouncy castles. With the sobering morning sun bearing down, I queued up for doubles at a street vendor a few miles from the A.M. Bush finish line in hopes to get some food to soak up the rum. A handful of dudes from the same party were standing on the side of the road in their underwear scarfing down doubles. One of their friends, clearly drunk, decided to sit down in the middle of the road and take off his shoes. Cars on their way to work swerved around him—one driver threw a cup out the window and told him to move his ass. His homeboys shrugged it off, attributed his behavior to the rum and continued eating their doubles. The cops eventually rolled by and removed him. I decided to swear off rum for the rest of the trip.
The following day we headed out a breakfast fete, a sunrise party with hard liquor and performances. Fresh off of winning both the MTV Iggy and Soul Train International Artist awards, Bunji Garlin, along with his wife Fay Ann Lyons, a fellow Monarch winner, gave an eye-opening performance that was tantamount to a shot of espresso to the semi-sleepy crowd. After bowing out of the competitive Soca Monarch scene, this year Garlin found crossover success with his EDM-friendly song “Differentology”. In a six-verse freestyle loosely titled “Free As A Bird,” Garlin talked about the binding contracts and performance restrictions that come with winning a Monarch title. Though Garlin basked in his current freedom and growing success versus the local fame and limitations of holding Monarch titles, he joked about the song’s controversial tone and asked the cameraman erase that tune from his recording.
That night, we took another power nap before wrapping our heads in scarves, putting on old clothes and heading out to play J’ouvert. For this early morning festival, that officially opens Carnival, participants take to the streets covered in powder, paint, clay or mud, play steel pans, bang on homemade iron percussion instruments and converge in the city’s capital. We opted to play mas with the Cocoa Devils, a J’ouvert band that coated revelers in a mixture of cocoa and baby oil. Like most modern bands, Cocoa Devils utilize massive dj sound system trucks in lieu of old school pan and percussion sections. Though their website promised a steel pan section, there was none to be found. Feeling underwhelmed, I longed for the Labor Day j’ouvert bands back home in Brooklyn, where the traditions were surprisingly upheld. We ducked out of J’ouvert pretty early by most standards at 7AM and found our way home dripping in the chocolatey concoction.
With no sleep in between, we decided to get ready and head straight into Carnival Monday. Of the two official carnival days, Monday is more casual day, with masqueraders reserving their full costume for Tuesday. Most ladies in our band, regardless of size and shape, confidently wore custom bejeweled swimsuits with fishnet stockings. Though we would’ve felt scantily clad back in NYC, my friends and I were definitely overdressed by comparison in our daisy dukes and tanktops. We paid it no mind and proceeded to chip, wine and have fun on the road anyway. Being Carnival virgins and exhausted from powering through the 90+ degree heat, we opted to head back home after the band’s rest stop and reserve some energy for Tuesday’s 6:30AM call time.
We were running three hours late and thankfully, met the band as they were queueing up at the stadium to cross the SocaDrome stage. While running to catch our section, Amaluna, I held my iPhone in my left hand and a Clif Bar in my right. After nibbling what would be three bites of breakfast, I threw the bar in the bush, tucked my phone in my waistband and kept running. After we fell in line with our section, my friend tapped me on the shoulder and handed me Clif that had dropped out of my waistband while I was running. I realized that I pitched my phone in the bush and kept the Clif Bar. Laughing at myself, I took a shot of tequila and made up my mind to enjoy Carnival Tuesday to the fullest. After anticipating this moment for years, I had to practice all of the wild abandon and carelessness that soca music preaches. Amid all of the plumed headdresses and layers of crystals, the exuberant energy from my fellow Yuma masqueraders was contagious. I chipped and jumped and wined across the Soca Drome stage.
With the stage crossing out of the way, we all took to the road with more vibes than we had on Monday. Feeling carefree yet very grateful, my sister and I would turn to each other from time to time and marvel at the fact that we were actually playing mas in Carnival. Halfway through the day we took shade on the lush grounds of the Queens Royal College park, to eat, rest and recover. Yuma, one of the premier mas bands, prepared an amenity-filled rest stop with tons of food, massage therapists to work out the knots we gained on the road and an abundance of frozen rum punch popcicles. We took rest in the shade and regained our energy to finish off the ‘last lap’ of the parade route. After conquering last lap, our crew of friends wandered through an empty field singing the songs that blared in our ears for the past weeks.
Reaching back to the National Stadium where our day started, we stumbled upon one last dj truck that was blasting soca music. We realized that it was Bunji Garlin’s truck and that he was in the middle of taping the video for his song “Truck On The Road.” We took in the free show, dancing in the middle of traffic. Garlin amped up the crowd and called for people to climb and wine in the trees for the camera. Seemingly out of nowhere, former Miss Trinidad and Tobago and winner of Project Runway Season 9, Anya Ayoung-Chee quickly scaled the tree and freely danced among the branches. It was wild fate that we took this road and ended at a random video shoot– the perfect way to end a day that you didn’t want to end. The next morning as we drove up to Maracas Beach to relax and detox for the last time, two talk-radio hosts argued vehemently that the masqueraders behavior this year was the worst thus far. Full of hyperboles and moral rhetoric, the talking heads debated the difference between a casual wine and casual sex among strangers during Carnival. I got the feeling that this debate took place every Ash Wednesday, after the carnival madness subsided. We laughed at how quickly their talks had escalated to screams, then popped in a CD of soca tunes to block out the chatter.
Back in NYC, my sister and I proudly recounted all of our Carnival adventures with our mom and aunt, excited to share the freshly-minted connection that we now felt to their country. But to non-West Indian friends, I had a hard time expressing the true importance of this trip, the sheer joy that it brought me and the sting of its bittersweet ending. Though we had crazy memories, drunken days and the pictures to prove it, there was now a void where months of anticipation had once been. In West Indian slang, this mild-depression has an official name: Carnival Tabanca. I hear from Carnival veterans that the only cure is to start planning for next year.
1. An old school King of Carnival costume
2. Paint mas at Caesar’s Army
3. Sunrise on J’ouvert morning*
4. Casual on Monday*
5, 6 Costumes on Tuesday*
7. Maracas beach*
*Photos taken with a Lomography La Sardina camera.