Trinidad Caribbean Carnival, by Chi-Caribena

Do you think that carnival is just a party with a bunch masqueraders jumping around with feathers on their heads gyrating to infectious boisterous music? If you believe this statement to be true, this is not the case. There is a reason for everything and the celebration of carnival is no exception. Raised from the ashes of Europes King Dionysus, the carnival festival would later fuse and travel with the cultural traditions of the enslaved Africans.

From the historic 1800s, music, costume, dance, and folkloric characters would the staple of makes carnival. But the celebration of culture, religion, art, diversity, and most importantly, life is why we continue to celebrate carnival today.

The Crossover

Trinidad was the birthplace of the Caribbean Carnival. The islands carnival story dates back to 1797 with the French planters and slave settlement. Throwing lavish balls that were the norm back France, the wealthy French planters brought the tradition over where they would wear masks, elegant ball gowns, and wigs to dance the night away. Although African slaves were unable to participate, they were also a large contributor to the creation of carnival using components of their customs and rituals, including canboulay (from the French word cannes brulee or burning cane). With these festivities, slaves were able to share each others rituals and take a moment to mock their owners. Laws and religious outcries caused a temporary ban of the celebration. But after the emancipation, there was a reason to celebrate.

The Costumes

Costumes formed for carnival are important symbols of African tradition. Feathers were used on headdresses to symbolize the ability to persevere and rise above anything and to take flight on the journey into spiritual rebirth. Although costumes are more revealing and have a sense of glamour now, there was an organic guise using natural materials such as beads, shells, and grass. These objects carried a spiritual aura that enlightened the wearers experience. Masks were worn by Africans to depict a spirit. It was also believed that the once the carnivalesque disguise was put on, a spirit of the ancestor would possess the body of the person wearing the mask.

The Dance

From Jouvert to Carnival Day, movement in unison built the strength of the community. Africans believed that moving in circles through the village would bring good fortune and would take away the pain and hostility of the community, as well as to pay respect to the deceased. The calypso dance and stick fighting was not an acceptable form of dance to the planters because of its pelvic movements that were either violent or erotic in natural. But this was part of the tradition of the freed Africans that they refuse to give up.

The Music

One of the major issues of the enslaved African slaves was the combination of tribes rarely spoke the same language. This made communication often difficult. The drums and kaiso (West African musical style) were the new voices of the slaves. But of course it was foreign to the planters. So, the planters tried to ban that too. Yet, the African Diaspora found its way back to home by finding other ways to other ways to communicate with homemade instruments like oil drums, which eventually became the calypso steel drum. Music in Trinidad has evolve to fit the times. Ras Shorty I (Lord Shorty) pioneered a new and infectious sound that pulled the soul of calypso and fused it to modern times that we call today, soca. Indentured servants from India that crossed over and settled in contributed to the culture of music which is called chutney music.

The concept of Carnival spread throughout the Caribbean. Many of the islands still celebrate Carnival today. Each island may have its own special traditions but the celebration of life, death, love, and freedom still exists.

Chi~Caribena Designs continue to celebrate carnival everyday as we celebrate life and being on this planet no matter how torrential it is. We have much respect for it’s heavy African and European roots, yet we remain color blind because this celebration is for everyone! We may be divided by the blue water that surrounds the bodies of land, but in our hearts and souls we believe in unity of one spirit and celebrate that with dance. And that’s what makes us feel a true sense of joy in souls when we hit the dance floor. There is a sense of respect, spirituality, and regality when we celebrate carnival. We hope to bring this energy to everyone we meet.

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© Charleston Carifest 2023