Calypsonians, Steelpans and Blue Devils – Carnival in Trinidad

Trinidad Intoxicated by Music


The countdown to the carnival in Trinidad, one of the most sensual, boisterous, multi-facetted festivities in the world, already starts months before Jouvert, the official start – at four in the morning on Carnival Monday – of musical intoxication in Trinidad. Months earlier, new pieces of music are selected and orchestrated; even before Christmas, rehearsals for the steel orchestras with well over a hundred players have started outdoors in the panyards. So for months, the steeldrums ring out through the streets every evening, until midnight. Kaisonians, calypsonians and soca singers arrange their songs for Big or Soul of Calypso bands, and get ready for the big competitions (Panorama). But string instruments also have their own tradition in Trinidad, alongside the steelpans. The cuatro is widespread, and learning to play this instrument is compulsory at some schools. Robert Muno is one of the masters on this little instrument with a big sound. The melodies and rhythms hark back to distant Spanish colonial times: these were the island's rulers before French slavery and British rule. The stick fighters are training, and already having preliminary fights, so that the best in the country can be on show in the last days of the carnival. Stick fights arose in Trinidad after the liberation of the slaves, and the fights are a sign of re-won freedom. The Midnight Robbers are writing the new short stories with which, wearing oversize masks, they will entertain people in the crazy days to come. In the courtyards, splendid costumes are being sewn.for the big parade on Carnival Tuesday, and the Jab Jabs (the blue devils) are sketching their horns, crosses and the wild masks that they will carry on their naked bodies, dripping with the colour of Satan. On the peak days of Carnival the Jab Jabs draw people on the streets into the underworld; only those who buy their freedom with a Trini dollar are spared. Groups in the alley-ways of the suburbs (Laventille) are practicing a pulsating mixture of African and Indian rhythms on iron scraps, drums and metal blocks. And the Indian Tassa-groups too are heating the skins on their drums to get the tension required to get a perfect register. In the towns of Trinidad, the tension rises from day to day until, with Jouvert, the greatest show on earth erupts, and ecstasy runs wild.

Trinidad has given the world a new acoustic musical instrument: the steelpan (or steeldrum). Ever since the slave era, African and Indian rhythms have set the pulse for this Caribbean island which lies only a few kilometres away from Venezuela. Earlier one used African drums, or struck up a dance with bamboo stalks of different lengths. After the Second World War, the beats are struck on leftover oil barrels. To get a particular pitch, the base of the barrel is heated and reshaped, so that, depending on the size of the pan, high or even low scales can be produced, as well as individual pitches tuned to one another. The principle of the Steel Orchestra is invented. And so, to this day, a large number of different pans have been developed, analogous to the string instruments with different registers in the classical orchestra. For every steel orchestra, the most important goal is to be a winner at Panorama, the national competition held during Carnival. The Exodus Orchestra, arranged for by Pelham Goddard, is the winner of the 2005 World Steelband Music Festival, and has been chosen by a jury in 2005 as world champion: the Best Steelband. The man who has led Exodus, named after the film by Otto Preminger, to success is Ainsworth Mohammed, who is also responsible for the youth group – the St. Augustine Senior Comprehensive Steel Orchestra – .that wins the National Junior Panorama finals in 2007. Ainsworth Mohammed's steel orchestra opens and closes this musical journey through the Trinidad carnival.

Another music with an unmistakeable sound arises in Trinidad. Kaiso (calypso), stemming from West Africa, develops into a new style on this French/British Caribbean colony at the end of the 19th century, and is still a standard part of Trinidad's music. Its origins go back to West African slaves, who mainly communicate through music, since they’re not allowed to talk to one another. Calypso remains a means of communication: it's the main way of spreading news in Trinidad. Politicians, journalists and the public debate its contents, and many inhabitants regard these songs as their most reliable source of news. The songs create scope for free expression of opinion, such as the uncovering of political corruption. The British authorities tried to limit this through censorship, but they failed. The first calypso recordings date from 1914, inaugurating a Golden Age of calypso. The tents initially set up during Carnival to practice before calypso contests now became the actual stages for new music.The first musicians to make the leap onto the international stage are "Attila the Hun", "Roaring Lion" and "Lord Invader", followed by "Lord Kitchener", one of the most long-lasting stars, and "Mighty Sparrow". Along with his audience at Carnival 2007, calypsonian David Bereaux sings and celebrates the great hits of "Roaring Lion", "Lord Kitchener" and "Mighty Sparrow": "Ugly Woman","Tie Tongue Mopsie", "Mr. Benwood Dick" and "Mae Mae". And in Kaiso House "Lord Nelson" gives thanks for the amazing public success of his hit "Meh Lover".

Around four on Carnival Monday, the Laventille Rhythm Section opens the last two hot days of this hubbub. This early Mas, known as Jouvert, is a ritual that celebrates the darker side of human life. The blue colour of the devil whirls everywhere. A chaotic jumble of colours, costumes, sound, movement, rhythm, rum and beer creates the world's wildest street party. Extravagant costumes, gleaming colours, masked faces and bodies ape and mock the colonial rulers (even today), even if their faces are different now. A frightening group in prison clothes from Bush's US camp in Guantánamo pops up and then disappears amidst the alleys of Port of Spain, accompanied by African and Tassa rhythms. In the big parades one sees breath-taking costumes, adventurously decorated floats and a population in an ecstasy of enjoyment. Everyone is part of the festivity, there are few spectators: Carnival in Trinidad means joining in. They play day and night, swarming through the streets of Port of Spain for almost 48 hours, and then, as Ash Wednesday dawns, the songs and rhythms of Trinidad and the festive clamour die away, in the certainty that there will be another Jouvert to come.


– Stefan Winter (Translation: Richard Toop)

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