Preparations for carnival begin as soon as Christmas decorations have been taken down on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. First introduced by the French during their period of occupation of Trinidad in the late 18th century, the carnival was taken over and reinterpreted by the former slaves after emancipation came in 1838. From a series of elegant and rather staid dinners, costume balls and carriage rides developed what has now become the exuberant street party whose format has been copied and adapted within cities all over the world. Here you will find the biggest and best of all the Caribbean parties whose dates vary annually according to the Lenten calendar. Being one of the top public celebrations in the world, it is not unreasonable to start planning a stay a year or more in advance, and carnival dates up until 2015 are already available.
The nerves start building up as practice sessions for the steelbands in the panyards around the island become more and more frequent and frenzied. They will take part in the ‘Panorama’ competition, the year’s most hyped musical contest, where bands can consist of between 100 and 400 players. Carnival consists of a whole series of hotly contested titles which help build up the excitement of the attending crowds and along with street and indoor fêtes, provide the focus for the celebrations. The official celebrations start in the pre-dawn hours of Carnival Monday with ‘J’ouvert’, where thousands of people roam and dance freely to calypso and soca, wearing ripped clothing, body paint, oil, chocolate and mud. That evening, and the following, the not-to-be-missed highlights are the costumed parades, where thousands of scantily-clad, sequined and feathered masqueraders take to the streets and dance to the music of the DJ trucks.
Easter Tuesday in the village of Buccoo with its goat and crab races hosts one of the most unusual events on the dual island nation. The goat races have been part of the Easter customs here since 1925 and are taken as seriously as all competitive events are in the Caribbean, in spite of the fact that the racing crabs usually end up curried for dinner.
Among the entertainment highlights of the musical agenda is the Plymouth Jazz Festival in Tobago which features local as well as serious international stars: in 2008 the line up included Diana Ross, Shakira, Rod Stewart and Whitney Houston. With a strong musical tradition in various genres, Tobago is also the host for an International Gospel Festival in June as well as countless fairs and fêtes throughout the year where music forms a part of the celebrations and the rhythms of calypso, soca and steel bands form a backdrop to activities and entertainment, or the Parang Season with Latin based music influenced by the Spanish American community, where the ‘shak shak’ (maracas), ‘cuatro’ (guitar), mandolin, box bass and tambourine are played in danceable folky rhythms. The Great Fête Weekend held at Store Bay, Pigeon Point, is a gathering of keen party animals and incredible DJs hosting the number one beach party in the southern Caribbean. Originally part of the festivities surrounding the annual power boat racing events, it now stands as an event in its own right, gathering bigger crowds than the races themselves.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the cultural events in Trinidad and Tobago is the way in which we can see the expressions of the various diverse ethnic communities manifest themselves in an atmosphere of celebration. The large Hindu population turns out in October or November to celebrate divali, for example, when at Divali Nagar, or the village of lights, and other villages within the Hindu community, beautiful lit displays are created, traditional food is eaten and often a huge fireworks display is organized as the grand finale to events. They celebrate Phagwa in March, traditionally to welcome the new harvest in a haze of dancing, singing, costumes and vibrant colours. The Hosay festival on Trinidad is a colourful three day event celebrated by the Muslim community, while Emancipation Day is the big festival for locals from the Afro-Caribbean community to hold cultural events.