Trinidad Carnival 2015: Exploring The Culture of The Home I’ve Been Missing.
I believe it is a common and almost natural exercise of the human consciousness to pause and reflect and imagine life under a completely alternate set of circumstances. Often this can mean imposing some new set of social, economic and even ethnic stipulations. Who hasn’t envisioned a different existence for themselves, maybe purely out of curiosity or as an escape from their current lot in life? Many times we simply wonder what it would be like if we had made one or two different decisions. What if we chose a different college to attend? Or perhaps gave that failed relationship another try? Even what if I had paid attention in Sunday school more often? Life is full of decisions and commitments that we could rethink, however, most of my life has been defined by a decision that I consciously had no part in.
I was born in Staten Island, New York in 1991. Up until that point, every other member of my family could call themselves a citizen of the beautiful nation of Trinidad and Tobago. For those of you who do not know, Trinidad and Tobago is a twin-island nation located just north of the coast of Venezuela and is home to some of the most industrious, intelligent, passionate and hilariously honest people in the world. Before I was born, my folks made a decision to come to America in search of a higher education in order to set up a better life for my older sister and I. A story that is not incredibly uncommon, America is after all “the land of opportunity.” This seemingly eternal adage has held power if not truth, since the first boats from Europe arrived at Ellis Island. Even now we can see that immigration is a hotly contested topic in our country, but one truth about America that is eternal is the fact that this nation was built and continues to be built by immigrants.
So why the history lesson? They say it’s important to know where you come from in order to know where you are going, so I guess that’s why I had to lay that groundwork. Fast forward twenty-three years and I haven’t wandered very far from that hospital in Staten Island. In fact, I am still nestled in the sweet, frosty bosom of NYC. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to a few places and seen a few things. I’ve visited Trinidad to see family time and again throughout my childhood and adolescence, but I’m going to share with you exactly why my most recent trip to the home of my ancestors was the most important to me.
Being the only American-born member of my family came with its own unique set of expectations, limitations and insecurities. I don’t want to come across as a martyr or anything but when my parents uprooted their lives in order to afford me better opportunities, a certain sense of pressure innately came with that. Indeed, being a first generation American is a task and a privilege all rolled into one. Of course, I wasn’t truly cognizant of this for most of my life. It wasn’t until I visited Trinidad a few times that I realized what a demanding undertaking it was for my family to make that sacrifice for me. In my opinion, Trinidad was paradise and they left behind so much for me it seemed like. Beautiful weather, the best food, the best music and all of the people that they had grown up with, were all traded for the cold, unforgiving concrete jungle of New Amsterdam.
It was a place I admired but until recently I don’t believe I actually understood. For as long as I could remember I was the “Yankee” cousin. The one who watched basketball instead of futbol. The one who perhaps couldn’t eat all the same foods or dance as well as everyone else. I was frustrated that I stumbled over my words in the crass tones of Brooklyn and Queens, rather than sing them in the sweet rhythm of my family members. I was dismayed at times because I never asked for a different set of opportunities than everyone else. I often wondered what a true “Trini” version of myself would be like. Perhaps better at sports, more charming, a tad bit more confident, hell maybe even taller. For a long time, it felt like I was out of place in certain family settings. So I found myself detached from my heritage to a certain extent. Of course, I was proud to be Trinidadian, proud of my family and everything that they had accomplished, but I couldn’t shake the sense of being a tourist, a vacationer, a spectator.
I believe that I may have finally stumbled across a breakthrough in my most recent visit to Trinidad. The crown jewel of Trinidadian culture is the annual spectacle known as Carnival. The tradition of Carnival is a rich and decadent culmination of the many beautiful cultures and ethnic groups, which has left an indelible mark on the islands Trinidad and Tobago. The word Carnival can be directly translated to mean “farewell to flesh”, and it began as an elaborate celebration that took place between Christmas and the coming of Lent. Today, Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago has evolved into a multi-million dollar event which has attracted droves of revellers and inspired similar celebrations around the globe. However, no other party, not even Mardi Gras, can truly compete with the scale and creativity of Carnival.
I have to admit that on my flight down I was considerably nervous. After all of the stories that I had been told about Carnival when I was growing up, I had nearly mythical expectations of the madness I was about to walk into. Although I have attended numerous concerts and music festivals in the past, I was beginning to wonder if I could handle the all-day and all-night partying. Needless to say, I was grossly over thinking things.
When I arrived on the beautiful island that my family has called home for years I quickly felt at ease. Surrounded by people who loved and cared for me I realized that I didn’t have to try and fit in at all — because I already belonged there. In fact, that was one of the truly beautiful aspects of Carnival that I experienced firsthand — everyone was welcome. Whether you were a native or tourist, we were all united, proud and excited, we were all Trinis. What I witnessed was a splendid array of people, of all different backgrounds, skin colors and dialects, that descended upon Trinidad to celebrate life, freedom and most of all a love of music.
The streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital city, came alive in an explosion of color and sound, the likes of which I had never seen before. Rather than venturing from one stage or event to the next as you would at a normal festival, during Carnival the entire city became a stage. The entire Island erupted each night and each day with effortless joy and beauty, and although the constant events had me slightly dizzy by the end of my trip, I felt as though I had contributed to something beautifully unique and timeless.
My guide for most of my trip was my father. The time I got to spend with him was especially precious to me, due to the fact that we now live several hundred miles apart. No form of social media or digital contact can replace the physical forging of memories through a medium that we both lived for, music. The first event that we attended together was the annual Panorama, which is a Steelpan competition which pits the best bands in all of Trinidad and Tobago against each other in a live performance setting. This was my first time seeing steelpan, the signature instrument of Trinidad, played live. While I watched I began to become increasingly elated and intrigued by the seemingly endless fathoms of sound and texture that these bands were able to muster. Their musicianship was a wonder to behold, and what was even more amazing was that the whole experience felt innately natural to me. It was as if I was listening to music that we was speaking directly to my soul, awaking a part of me that I never knew was slumbering. I watched with wide eyes and thought to myself “How could I have been missing this all my life?”
I watched as Trinidad All Stars edged passed their rivals Phase II, to be crowned Panorama 2015 Champions. For me, it was hardly about the competition as I clearly didn’t have a horse in the race. However just to be a part of the experience, to stand where past generations stood and feel the rhythm and hear the roar of the crowd, it was a truly immense revelation. At that moment my trip ceased to feel like a vacation and took the shape of a homecoming.
After I was enlightened by the bands of Panorama, it was time to truly dive head first into what Carnival had in store. The next night under the cover of darkness, thousands of partygoers began to amass in droves, dressed in their Sunday worst ready to take to the streets for the bacchanal that is known as, J’Ouvert. J’Ouvert (from the French ‘jour ouvert’ or ‘day open’) is almost ritualistic in its celebration of the darker elements of the island’s folklore and history. Bathed in chocolate, mud, oil and paint from head to toe, bands of revellers march through the moonlit streets of Port of Spain accompanied by massive trucks outfitted with high-quality stereo systems that filled the air with the unmistakable lifeblood of Carnival, Soca Music.
As I pranced through the city covered in paint and mud, dancing to the electrifying tunes of artists like Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin and Destra, the meaning of Carnival began to coalesce in my mind. It is truly a celebration of all the facets of life, washing away the shortcomings of the past while still paying homage to your history, the fleeting nature of the present and the unpredictability of tomorrow. During J’Ouvert there is no time to worry about how you are dressed or what substances your body might happen to be covered in, there is only time to laugh, smile and dance before the morning arrives and Carnival’s “Pretty Masquerade” begins.
Carnival Monday and Tuesday represent the triumphant apex of the entire season. Thousands of masqueraders in full costume flood the streets again, clad in riotous colors and fueled by the raucous energy of Soca music. Dozens of Carnival bands come together to create a magnificent parade, each band styled in their own unique historical, mythological or tropical theme and are judged as they cross the main stage in The Queen’s Park Savannah. The entire spectacle was a wonder to behold. The passion and energy that filled the city was like nothing I had ever come across.
Although I love attending music festivals in the States, there was a sense of enormity and depth in Carnival that I had never witnessed. In the U.S. dance music and dance music culture is slowly integrating itself into the popular mainstream culture, however, most of that community still exists within the counterculture. In Trinidad, Carnival is culture. It’s a celebration of an identity that defines a nation and a people in ways I could hardly fathom before experiencing it for myself. During my Carnival trip, I gained a greater appreciation for the culture I come from and the family that raised me. The doubts I had before about myself have dissipated and I now see how ludicrous they originally were. For most of my life, I was trying to fit into an idea of someone I thought I needed to be, fabricating an identity crisis that was totally self-inflicted. As cliche, as it sounds the person I wanted to be and needed to discover, was within me the entire time. I simply needed the freedom and confidence to let him out, and that after all is the quintessential essence of Carnival.