Trinidad’s Carnival: “The Greatest Show on Earth”

What a blast!  Chipping, dancing and hanging loose in what many call “the greatest show on Earth.”  Here are some short blurbs and photos from my February trip!

Trinidad’s Carnival. All photos by Richard Varr.


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It’s Carnival Tuesday on Trinidad and throughout this annual February celebration, the strong Caribbean sun and a seemingly non-stop parade route, where liquored refreshments flow freely, are not enough to slow down the partiers – including me.  I too am “playing mas” or masquerading with locals and visitors alike.  It’s my first Carnival on this 37 by 50 mile-long island, reputed to have one of the biggest and best such festivals in the world.

The two-day Carnival officially kicks off early Monday morning with “J’ouvert,” where painted and mud-slimed revelers start parading a few hours before dawn, marching to soca and calypso until the sun comes up.  And some of the most colorful and carefully designed costumes are seen during the Kiddies Carnival.

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The melodic sound of the steel pan – music I have heard on American city streets – has its roots in Trinidad.  The instrument was founded in Trinidad in the 20th century following a strange twist of events.  In 1883, the British government banned the playing of drums on the island fearing islanders were using them as a form of communication.  So islanders began playing other items such as metal objects, and they also beat bamboo sticks on the ground.  With World War II came military bases and lots of discarded oil drums that were quickly put to use.  With a bit of cutting, the “instruments” were fine tuned and the rest is history.

During Carinval in particular, steel pan bands hammer out their chiming melodies during the Panorama competition.  Bands have dozens of members, each playing steel drums with a broad range of tones, from low-range 55-gallon sized drums to higher-pitched pans.  “I’m full of adrenaline,” says Tineil Riley, a woman playing a smaller pan drum.  “I feel wonderful, like I can fly off the stage.”

“The music makes me feel real good because it’s therapy,” says Jimi Phillips, a local steel pan musician who also stretches, heats and pounds metal drums to create and fine tune new steel pans. “After all the hard work of making the instrument, it’s time to relax and play some music.  It’s therapy for me.”

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Snuggly nestled within the peaks and valleys of Trinidad’s rugged northern side, Paramin is a quiet community where thyme, rosemary and parsley abundantly grow on the verdant mountainsides.  But on the Monday night before Carnival Tuesday, this sleepy town turns turbulent when the Paramin Blue Devils tramp through the streets and look for victims as part of a nearly two century-old tradition.

Smeared in blue paint and to the beat of a makeshift drum, they step closer and closer to you demanding one dollar bills (TT dollars).  As they inch nearer – and because of the crush of onlookers on the narrow streets – you run the risk of getting smeared in blue paint if you don’t give up the money.  You can try and hide, but they’ll find you – going into stores and canvassing every corner of the public area.

Against better judgment, I wore a white polo shirt, but luckily had lots of dollars to ward off the aggressors.  You must pay the devil, the locals will tell you.  The tradition dates back to the Emancipation when former slaves, who didn’t have money for Carnival costumes, instead covered themselves in molasses.  That eventually led to blue paint to keep in line with the European tradition.

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