Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Carnival Tuesday

Although I’m certain any Priest would denounce the idea, one of the points of Carnival is to do something you’ll regret the next morning, leaving you in a properly penitent spirit for the beginning of Lent. The picture to the left should explain what I regretted Wednesday morning. While improper application of sunscreen may not be one of the sins most commonly associated with Carnival, it is much more in keeping with my Mormon values than excessive drinking and lascivious sex and I do thoroughly regret it.

I spent the day on Tuesday with Cornelia, a friend from church, and her family. She came by and picked me up mid-morning and then the two of us and Cornelia’s two daughters were invited to swim at her neighbors home. It was a beautiful sunny morning with temperatures in the low 80 F and swimming in the private salt water pool was most enjoyable. Then we joined Cornelia’s extended family for the afternoon of eating traditional Trini festival foods and watching the mas on TV.

I’m sorry I can’t tell you what its like to be in the middle of all the reveling in Port of Spain, that will have to wait until next year when Rich is here. I can however tell you a bit about what goes on and I’ve included pictures of some of the elaborate costumes. The Carnival Mas is organized into bands. The heads of each band start planning themes and costume designs typically 6 months or more in advance of Carnival. Each band has a king and queen who wear costumes that are so elaborate they are better described as human born parade floats than costumes. These costumes are often over 20 feet tall and equally as wide. Many are designed to be very light so that they can be carried by a person. Others have wheels that support much of the weight. One of the more elaborate king costumes this year which I did actually get to see in person was called “Iguana of the Night”. There is a picture of it in the slide show.

It’s an enormous mechanical iguana wearing a sombrero. The iguana bends up and down at the hips as its wearer maneuvers the costume around. Very impressive. The bright pink costume you see in the slide show is from the youth competition (yes she is a teenager). In the youth competition, the competitors have to carry the full weight of the costume so there is a lot of ingenuity that goes into designing these enormous things to be light enough that they can be easily carried by the young people.

Following the king and queen will be a truck carrying either a steel band or loud speakers blaring Soca music and hundreds to thousands of costumed revelers. Pretty much anyone can join a band but it is quite expensive. Costumes run in the hundreds of dollars and you have to get the costume designed and produced by your band. The band directors are licensed by the government and responsible not only for the theme and costume design but also to keep their band more or less orderly. I say more or less because while crime and vandalism are strongly discouraged, lewd behavior is pretty much expected. The bands of revelers dance and wine along the carnival route from morning until after sunset. People who are planning to play mas often start training for the event in the fall and this isn’t just so that they will look good in their skimpy costumes, dancing for 8 hours straight takes some stamina.

So that’s it for this year’s Carnival celebration, well except for the after Carnival shows. I’ll write a bit about them soon. Next year when Rich is here perhaps we can give you a first hand account of the Bacchanal.

Monday, February 11, 2008

J’ouvert (pronounced Jew-vay)

At 4:30 am on Carnival Monday, the Cooper’s picked me up. They both had their faces painted black and were wearing their oldest clothes. I was dressed in an old T-shirt given me by a friend at church and Rich’s orange shorts which I had to tie up with string to keep them from falling off. Margaret and I had feathered masks. All appropriately dressed for the occasion, we headed in to Port of Spain to play J’ouvert. If you dress up and join a mas (local for masquerade parade) rather than just watching, it’s said that you “played Carnival”.

Each Carnival mas is organized into bands. Each band includes banners, a king and queen, a large truck that carries either a steel pan band or an enormous sound system blaring Soca music, and costumed revelers that can number into the thousands. J’ouvert is the first Carnival mas and begins in the pre-dawn hours of Carnival Monday, hence our very early departure. It originated as the poor peoples answer to the elaborate parades and costumes that comes later in the celebration. People come in simple homemade costumes that often consist of little more than old clothes mud and paint and the custom is to get dirty. Many of the bands have a big bucket of mud, paint, oil or even chocolate for their players to smear on themselves, each other, or anyone they can find, hence the old clothes.

We arrived in Port of Spain a bit after five, parked at the Zoo and went in search some bedlam or Bacchanal. Rather than joining one band, Margaret and John like to move from band to band so they can see more of the festival. They made some changes to the event this year and had several smaller J’ouvert celebrations in some of the neighborhoods of Port of Spain so the main celebration by the Queens Savannah was by all reports much tamer than it has been in past years. After a while, John became concerned that I might not even get dirty and he began going around asking revelers to smear some mud or paint on me. In the end this turned out to be rather unnecessary as I got my share of mud, paint, and oil. At one point I had my hands covered in chocolate up to my elbows and was smearing it on people who looked a bit too clean.

In addition to the general mud slinging, j’ouvert involves a lot of dancing, jumping and wining (a Trini dance move that involves wild gyration of the hips) as the bands make their way around town and past the judging points. We moved around from band to band until things started to wind down about an hour after dawn. We then found some breakfast, corn soup and hot dogs from one of the Carnival vendors and some ice cold coconuts from a truck. Eventually we found our way back to the car and then Cooper’s house in St. Augustine where we sat on the Veranda, ate papaya and water melon and visited for a while before I headed home to wash up. Take a look at the slide show to see some the j’ouvert mas.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Extempo and Calypso


Last Thursday I was invited to go with some friends, John and Margaret Cooper, to the Extempo competition. Extempo is one of the traditional forms of Calypso. Authentic Calypso (also called Kaiso) is quite different from the popular forms you hear sung by people like Harry Belafonte. It developed during Colonial times among the slaves as a way to spread the news and avoid censorship. A good Calypsonian had not only to be able to sing but also to be able to make up new lyrics quickly complete with rhythm and rhyme. Calypso became the forum where you could say things that would get you in trouble any place else. Songs involve a lot of humorous but biting political and social commentary as well as comedy and sexual innuendo. Double entendre, word play and even puns are an important part of the art form.

Extempo is a test of a Calypsonians ability to do all those things on the fly. In the first round, there were eight competitors. In turn, each competitor drew a topic from a hat. The topic was read aloud for the audience and the judges. The band then started up with the classic Extempo melody and after about 15 seconds of music, the singer had to sing 4 verses on the topic. They were judged not only for clever on topic lyrics but also good rhythm and rhyme. In the first round the topics were all based on recent local news items. Some dealt with characters and events from the recent elections, others dealt with the recent crime wave and gangs. One singer drew the topic “Too much bikini in mas”, a frequent complaint made about the skimpy costumes worn by many in the Carnival parade. Another drew the topic “Brian Lara is back”. (Brian Lara is the Trinidadian hero of Cricket).

Following the first round, four singers were chosen to advance to the semi-final round where they were paired off against each other. Each pair drew a topic from the hat. The first singer would sing a verse on the topic and then the other had to sing a verse in response. They alternated back and forth until each singer had sung 4 verses. In this round the topics were designed to provide the singers ample opportunity both to boast of their own virtues and insult their opponent. The first pair drew the topic “personal hygiene” and the second “I could teach you Extempo”. The best two singers from this round advanced to the finals which was organized the same way except that each singer got 6 verses to prove his superiority to his opponent.

The final two singers were an older man who goes by the Calypso name of “Short Pants” and a younger man who goes by “Lingo”. Evidently, Lingo had been a student of Short Pants and it was evident that the two knew each other well and were skilled at playing off each other. Their verses had the audience roaring with laughter. In the end, Lingo won the crown and composed one last verse as an acceptance speech.

In between the Extempo rounds, we were treated to the final competitions in several of the Calypso categories including political commentary, social commentary, comedy, soca chutney and vintage Calypso. The winner of the political commentary did a parody of the opposition leader who lost the recent elections. In the vintage Calypso category the winner sang a song much of the audience knew very well called “Two at Twenty-five” which is about the woes of having a 50 year old wife. The title gives you a hint at the remedy the song proposes.

Friday night I went out with the Coopers and a group for their friends to a Calypso Tent just down the road in St. Joseph. A Calypso Tent is a show featuring a Calypso band made up of brass instruments, bass, keyboard and drums and a variety of singers who perform a mixture of new songs written for this year’s carnival as well as classic numbers. Once upon a time Calypso Tents were actually held in Tents but now they are held in theaters and halls. The show featured several younger singers who had qualified for the finals in the King of Calypso competition to be held on Carnival Sunday as well as older singers performing vintage Calypso. To qualify as a Vintage Calypsonian you must have to have been performing Calypso for over 40 years. The newer numbers contained a lot of social and political commentary. The best one, at least in my opinion, was titled “I’m sorry” and was the tale of a father apologizing at the grave of a son killed in a gang fight for not being more involved in his sons life. The vintage Calypso was all of the humorous and often racy variety. I suppose that political and social commentary go out of fashion much faster than laughter and sexual innuendo. One of the funnier Vintage numbers was called “The Boogie Man” and was about an exhibitionist in the Carnival parade.

All this was tied together by a young Master of Ceremonies who did a bit of stand up comedy between the numbers. He started off wearing a Cowboy hat, imitating a Texan drawl and making jokes about American culture. As the night wore on his act got a quite vulgar at points. Enough so that the Coopers who had invited us all along were quite embarrassed but not so much that it spoiled the fun of the evening for me.

Carnival in Trinidad

In Trinidad, where it’s summer twelve months a year, they say the seasons are defined by the holidays rather than the weather. Since the beginning of January it has been Carnival season. The Carnival celebration in Port of Spain is reputed to be one of the largest in the world, second only to Rio. When you consider that the city proper of Rio de Janeiro has a population of over 6 million and the entire country of Trinidad and Tobago has only 1.3 million, you can get an idea of how all consuming this event is for the country. Everyone seems to get involved at one level or another even if it’s only to complain about degeneration of morals during the season.

Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the pre-Lenten Carnival was brought to Trinidad by the French but here Carnival isn’t a simple Fat Tuesday celebration or even a long weekend Celebration. It’s a full season of party and competition culminating in Carnival Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Parties or Carnival Fetes start up right after the new years parties finish. During the season there are a myriad of shows and events as the steel pan bands, Calypsonians and the rest prepare for competitions. The competitions are staged with the best performers progressing to semi-finals and finals which take place during the 2 weeks prior to the big parades. Carnival Monday and Tuesday are unofficially public holidays and virtually all businesses, offices and schools in the country are closed. About half the population don’t show up for work or school on Wednesday either. The tail end of Carnival week features follow up shows featuring the highlights and winners of all the competitions. In the coming days, I’ll post about the things that I’ve done for Carnival.