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Carnaval Around the World

© Whip Masters, Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago 2001 Photograph by Robert Jerome

The small two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is located in the green, tropical environment of the West Indies in the Caribbean. French Catholic plantation owners who settled here in the late 18th century introduced Carnival and persuaded the local British colonizers to join them in carrying out elegant balls and fanciful masquerades. Enslaved Africans brought to work on the plantations were emancipated in the early 19th century and soon embraced the festival as a symbolic rite of liberation. A variety of cultural traditions drawn from France, England, the United States, and West Africa contributed to Carnival masquerades seen on the streets of Port of Spain throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

For security reasons Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago was banned during World War II (1939-1945), but since the 1950s it has evolved into a huge celebration with thousands of revelers coming together in processions, music, and dance. Today Carnival in Port of Spain is known as mas, an abbreviation for mask or masquerade. Ironically, few participants actually wear masks but their costumes convey a variety of themes. The majority of revelers pay to join one of the larger organized groups whose fanciful outfits change from year to year. Some of the smaller groups and individuals prefer to play traditional mas, donning the masquerades that evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

© Devil Bookmen,
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago 2001
Photograph by Robert Jerome

Individuals wearing devil masquerades began to appear in Port of Spain Carnival in the late 19th century. By the 1920s they were organized into large groups with a number of different representations ranging from simple devils to more elaborate "rulers" who wore large papier-mâché masks and ornate costumes with capes. The "rulers" went by such names as Satin, Lucifer, and the Bookman who carried a book to record the sins of the people of Trinidad. Although large groups of devils no longer appear in Port of Spain, a veteran masquerader, Desmond "Jim Bill" Sobers, continues to perform as the Bookman.

© 2001 Fancy Sailors,
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
Photograph by Robert Jerome

Masqueraders portraying British navy men appeared in Port of Spain Carnival throughout the 19th century, but a visit by the United States Atlantic fleet in 1907 started a new phase of imitating "Yankee Sailors." Further inspiration came during World War II when Americans set up a naval base near the city. Today many masqueraders wear simple navy uniforms of white pants, shirts, and hats. Fancy Sailors, distinguish themselves with more elaborate headgear, decorating their costumes with medallions, ribbons, rosettes, braiding, and other embellishments. Among the Fancy Sailors are the Stokers, who push long iron rods in front of them while shuffling forward in the Fireman's dance.

© Carnival Revelers in the Barbarossa Band-Savage Saga,
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago 1994
Photograph by Barbara Mauldin

Carnival in Port of Spain annually attracts thousands of participants who pay to join one of a handful of large organized groups, called bands. Each year the bandleaders select themes for their costumes that range from historical events, to ethnic heritage, to pure fantasy. The latter category has become increasingly popular in recent years as liberated women want to show off their bodies. Many costume designers embrace the idea that less is more and express the fantasy theme through skimpy outfits ornamented with strings of beads and feathers.

© Curtis Eustace - King of Carnival,
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago 2003
Photograph by Noel Norton

One of the most important Carnival events in Port of Spain is the King and Queen competition, held on an outdoor stage on Dimanche Gras, (French for Fat Sunday.) Most of the organized Carnival groups present a King and Queen who dance across the stage dressed in large elaborate costumes portraying aspects of the group's annual theme. The designers often integrate sophisticated technology into the costumes, adding a kinetic effect to the performance. Here Curtis Eustace performs in his costume entitled "D Sky is D Limit" as King of the Legends band.

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