Monday, February 22, 2010

Carnival in Trinidad

The famous Parade of Bands and the big final event of Carnival came almost as anti-climatic after a week of activities. The thousands of people, fabulous costumes and unrelenting Soca was as expected, but it was harder to be involved. Security persons with ropes surrounded the bands at many places and the crowds made it often impossible to get up close.

We sat at first in some bleachers near the first of the three judging stands at Adams Square. For several hours we watched Bands pass and saw two of the big groups there; "Resurrection of the Mas" and "Jewels of the Caribbean". The first was amazing and ended up winning that day so we felt lucky to have seen them performing.
Let me explain first what happens at the Parade of Bands.

First, a Band isn't a musical group. It may have a live band on a truck participating but most had huge sound trucks instead. For example the winning Band, owned by Brian McFarland, had more than ten trucks. They all play one song, in this case "Palance". The winning song is the one played by the most Bands.

"Palance" won by a land slide, having been played by over 400 Bands that day. Are you getting a hint of the size of this thing? So a theme is chosen by each Band. "Resurrection of the Mas" was inspired by the historical costumes of the period between 1880 and 1930, and rendered mainly in gold, bronze and copper colors. The Old Time Mas (that is the Trini word for Carnival) has a series of characters that represent historical figures or archetypes. The plantation owner's wife (above left) is one of these and her figure is an exageration of the classic T and A (tits and ass for those not familar with A Chorus Line).

Every Bands has it's own King and Queen and the latter is a classic example of this character. The Baby Doll is another figure representing the slave mistress of the owner and their child. The owner himself is all dressed up in formal wear, the overseer carries a big whip and the devil is not far behind. Sailors were a big part of early island life and they are in almost every band, if not the whole theme. The Fancy Sailor is almost unrecognizable as a historic or current figure. Only bits give you a clue, often the hat or the buttons, especially the women. Indians are a big component and of course lived on the islands before the Europeans came, but the ones in Carnival are American Indians from our own Wild West Shows - due I expect to the endless possibilities for costumes. The slave types themselves are also represented, usually in their Sunday best with turbans and parasols. And then there are conquistadors and african witchdoctors too.

Each of these types formed a sub section of the band and had between 25 and a 200 participants. So the whole band can have up to 3,000 members. Just one band out of hundreds.

The Parade starts early in the morning and didn't finish until late that night. Brian McFarland said he wasn't going to participate next year because he was fed up with the poor organizing.

His people were in costume by 7 AM, through the first judging stand by 10:30 AM and still didn't get through the third and final judging point until 8:30 that night. This means he lost a lot of his participants before the final and most important judging. And I suspect his was one of the most motivated groups.

One of the reasons for the drop outs is the other important trucks accompanying the Bands; the refreshment trucks. Bands such as McFarlands are all inclusive bands. That means all you can drink (and they also have Pee trucks with them - with port-a-potties lined up on the truck beds). A top Band like Brian's costs about $800 to join. For this you get a costume (it's not clear to me whether you can keep it or not) and all you can drink. Only those in top shape (of some sort) can manage to walk (and dance) for twelve hours or more. Or they leave for a rest and then try to return later. That isn't always easy as in between the judging spots the bands take different routes, trying to keep moving. So as the day wore on the bands intermingled.

It was frustrating watching all this from up in the stands so we took off to walk the streets. At times we would be next to a band and just outside the security ropes. Most of my better pictures happened then. Other times the band would be by and nothing would be following, so we'd walk around the back streets. There we would encounter many multi color costumed participants enjoying some food and drink, sitting on the sidewalks and in the parks.
The sun was hot so we purchased bottles of water and beer along the way. For lunch we had roast chicken with rice and some stir fried veggies from a stand outside a Chinese restaurant. Most vendors had made up lunches in styrofoam containers and anywhere you could possibly sit, someone was sitting.

And as the afternoon drew on the whining stepped up. Whining is a "dance" movement where the man (or sometimes woman) steps close up behind a woman and they begin a bump and grind to the music. Lamada but from the rear!

Two couples here demonstrate the process. It appeared that not all the participants knew the person approaching them - it's just a friendly gesture I guess. Sometimes this turns into a group manuver with three or four stacked up. The song "Palance" had a number of other dance moves called for in the lyrics. Hands went up, then the group moved to the left and to the right with the leading leg lifted. One of the photos near the top on the right shows one of the white sailor costumed ladies leading a group of devils in this step.

One of the sayings about Carnival is "Baccanal is Carnival and Carnival is Baccanal". We left at 4 PM so I'm afraid we saw the family rated version. As the night went on we suspect that everyone lossened up considerable. To be honest the real fun is being one of the participants not the audience!

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