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The Colourful Sights of Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival 2015

The Colourful Sights of Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival 2015

Posted by Shanelle Weir on February 20, 2015
"Carnival Beauty"; photo by Quinten Questel,  used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
“Carnival Beauty”; photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

 

Trinidad and Tobago Carnival has been called “the greatest show on earth”, with its costumes, pageantry, music and seemingly endless fetes leading up to the main event — the all-day street parades on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

Like most carnivals around the world, the twin island version often makes headlines for its beautiful and scantily clad women, but the festival is much more than meets the eye.

A "pretty mas'" masquerader, Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2015. Photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
A “pretty mas'” masquerader, Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2015. Photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

 

Carnival — or carne vale , as in “farewell to the flesh” — is an annual tradition that gives revellers a last hedonistic hoorah before the austerity of Lent. The Trinidad and Tobago version evolved from the masquerade balls the islands’ French colonisers would host; when Emancipation came in 1833, the freed slaves were finally able to mimic their former masters without consequence.

Two years prior, in 1881, the Canboulay Riots saw the descendants of slaves fighting for their right to put their own uninhibited spin on Carnival as a symbol of resistance. Their mimicry caused what began as an elite festival to naturally converge with what was at the time considered baser — African expressions, like the Calinda(stickfighting set to chanting and drums) and the Canboulay. Originally a celebration that revolved around the harvesting of the sugar cane (cannes brulées means burnt cane), it was full of earthy rhythms and movement, and played an integral part in honing the music of Carnival, eventually giving birth to the steel pan, since percussion instruments — such as African drums — were banned in the 1880s.

While pan music can no longer be considered the sole soundtrack of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival (many would argue that soca music has laid claim to that title), the annual Panorama competition is still a staple on any Carnival lover's calendar. The genesis of the festival has not been forgotten: the Canboulay Riots arecommemorated with an annual reenactment the Friday before Carnival.

"The Riot"; photo of the 1881 Canboulay Riots reenactment by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
“The Riot”; photo of the 1881 Canboulay Riots reenactment by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

 

Despite the popularity of what has become known as mass-produced “bikini and beads” mas', tradition is still alive and well in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Look no further than the portrayals of folklore Carnival characters and the Old Mas’ bands that provide humourous and cutting social and political commentary with their creative costumes and clever placard messages, to know that the roots of resistance are still strong.

The Dame Lorraine character represents the mimicry of the mas' that was played by French colonisers. Photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

The Dame Lorraine character represents the mimicry of the mas’ that was played by French colonisers. Photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

One of the Old Mas' portrayals in this year's Carnival celebrations. Photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

One of the Old Mas’ portrayals in this year's Carnival celebrations. Photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

 

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