Trinidad and Tobago Carnival

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Orange Carnival Masqueraders in Trinidad.jpg
Members of a costume band parade on the streets of Port of Spain
Observed byTrinidad and Tobago
SignificanceWeek before Lent
Celebrationsprocessions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade
DateSunday and Tuesday before Lent
2020 dateFebruary 24 & 25
2021 dateFebruary 15 & 16 (CANCELLED due to COVID-19)
Related toCaribbean Carnival, Mardi Gras, Carnival, Shrove Monday, Ash Wednesday, Lent

The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is an annual event held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday in Trinidad and Tobago. The event is well known for participants' colorful costumes and exuberant celebrations. There are numerous cultural events such as "band launch fetes" running in the lead up to the street parade on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. It is said that if the islanders are not celebrating it, then they are preparing for it, while reminiscing about the past year's festival. Traditionally, the festival is associated with calypso music, with its origins formulated in the midst of hardship for enslaved West and Central Africans; however, recently Soca music has replaced calypso as the most celebrated type of music. Costumes (sometimes called "mas"), stick-fighting and limbo competitions are also important components of the festival.[1]

Carnival, as it is celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago, is also celebrated in several cities worldwide. These celebrations include Toronto's Caribana, Miami's Miami Carnival, Houston Carifest, London's Notting Hill Carnival, as well as New York City's Labor Day Carnival.


Carnival, Port of Spain, early 1950s

The Cedula of Population of 1783 laid the foundation and growth of the population of Trinidad. The Spanish, who were in possession of the island, contributed little towards advancements, and with El Dorado the focus, Trinidad was perfect due to its geographical location. French planters with their slaves, free coloureds and mulattos from neighbouring islands of Martinique, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Guadeloupe, and Dominica migrated to Trinidad during the French Revolution. The Spanish also gave many incentives to lure settlers to the island, including exemption from taxes for ten years and land grants in accordance to the terms set out in the Cedula. These new immigrants establishing local communities of Blanchisseuse, Champs Fleurs, Cascade, Carenage and Laventille. Trinidad's population jumped to over 15,000 by the end of 1789, from just under 1,400 in 1777. In 1797, Trinidad became a British crown colony, with a French-speaking population. This exodus was encouraged due to the French Revolution.[2]

Though the foundation remained predominantly African, from the beginning of 1845, major influxes of indentured immigrants from India and other parts of the world dramatically changed the ethnic composition of the islands. These indentured servants brought their own folk music, primarily from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to the creole mix, resulting in chutney music. In addition to Indians, Syrians, Portuguese, Chinese and Africans came to the islands in waves between 1845 and 1917, and even after.

Major influxes of the French brought the Catholic ritual of Christian Shrovetide, extending from the Christmas-New Year period that tied into pre-Lent celebrations full of bodily freedom and hedonism. This consequently turned into the modern notion of Carnival. Traditional Carnival activities were derived and brought to the Trinidad from West African religious cultures and societies. Originally, Carnival was a strictly for the white elite similar to Mardi Gras of New Orleans and was celebrated through masquerade balls, house parties, and street parades with carriages. Middle-class people of colour and enslaved Africans were not allowed to participate in Carnival activities except when slaves were performing. Instead white upper-class society would dress up as black men and women to display carnivalesque practices and the racist notions that black men were childish and women were hyper-sexual.

After the emancipation of slaves in the British Americas on 1 August 1834, African slaves reenacted Carnival by taking to the streets in celebration of their newly found freedom. This festivity associated Africans with carnivalesque practices and were racially stigmatized as savage, vulgar, and dangerous by white elite, eventually leading to white withdrawal of participation as well as hostile journalistic representations of Carnival. This post-emancipation period allowed Carnival to become an annual ceremony demonstrated the African population's resistance against aristocratic European social and political dominance and thus European elite attempted to abolish and police Carnival much more.[3]

The 2021 edition of the event - scheduled for February 15 and 16 2021 - has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic[4]


The Mas tradition started in the late 18th century with French plantation owners organizing masquerades (mas) and balls before enduring the fasting of Lent. The slaves, who could not take part in Carnival, formed their own, parallel celebration called "Canboulay". Canboulay (from the French cannes brulées, meaning burnt cane) is a precursor to Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, and has played an important role in the development of the music of Trinidad and Tobago.

Calypso music was developed in Trinidad in the 17th century from the West African Kaiso and canboulay music brought by African slaves imported to that Caribbean island to work on sugar plantations. These slaves, brought to toil on sugar plantations, were stripped of all connections to their homeland and family and not allowed to talk to each other. They used calypso to mock the slave masters and to communicate with each other. Many early calypsos were sung in French Creole by an individual called a griot. As calypso developed, the role of the griot became known as a chantuelle and eventually, calypsonian.[5]


Stick fighting and African percussion music were banned in 1881, in response to the Canboulay Riots. They were replaced by bamboo "Bamboo-Tamboo" sticks beaten together, which were themselves banned in turn. In 1937 they reappeared, transformed as an orchestra of frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums. These steelpans (or pans) are now a major part of the Trinidadian music scene and are a popular section of the Canboulay music contests. In 1941, the United States Navy arrived on Trinidad, and the panmen, who were associated with lawlessness and violence, helped to popularize steel pan music among soldiers, which began its international popularization.


A Music Truck entertains the crowd on the streets. Trucks are an integral part of the street parade, featuring live performances or deejays

J'ouvert (translated from French as "break of day"), symbolizes the start of the official two days of Carnival. Beginning early Monday, revellers parade through town in the tradition of the Canboulay celebrations. Jouvay, as it is commonly known, features a variety of homemade or satirical costumes. This celebration involves participants dousing themselves in oil, mud and powder while they dance to calypso music through the streets. This is a stark contrast to the attractive and more formal costumes that are donned later in the day on Carnival Monday and on Tuesday.

Carnival dates[edit]

The table shows a list of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival dates from 2009 to 2026.[6]

Calendar Year Carnival Monday Carnival Tuesday
2009 February 23 February 24
2010 February 15 February 16
2011 March 7 March 8
2012 February 20 February 21
2013 February 11 February 12
2014 March 3 March 4
2015 February 16 February 17
2016 February 8 February 9
2017 February 27 February 28
2018 February 12 February 13
2019 March 4 March 5
2020 February 24 February 25
2021 Cancelled due to Covid
2022 February 28 March 1
2023 February 20 February 21
2024 February 12 February 13
2025 March 3 March 4
2026 February 16 February 17

The 2021 edition of the event - scheduled for February 15 and 16 2021 - has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic[4]


Large King and Queen costumes, like the one shown above, play a major part in Trinidad's Carnival celebration

Today, musical competitions make up a large part of formal Carnival. To be named Calypso Monarch is one of the country's greatest honours, and the competition which is called Dimanche Gras is aired on television. Along with the honour comes an enormous trophy, a car, TT $1,000,000 (approx.) and possible endorsements and other contracts. Other prestigious titles are the King and Queen of the Bands; the International Soca Monarch (both Groovy and Power); the Carnival Road March; and Panorama (for steelpan). For the latter, the 2011 prize was TT$2 million. There are also other competitions that are involved in the Calypso Monarch.

Traditionally, musicians use drums, claves, and the steelpan, created in Trinidad, and reported to be the only non-electrical instrument invented in the 20th century that has been hammered down in different areas to create a wide range of different notes. A group of performers practise weeks in advance on these pans to compete.

Trinidad and Tobago is multicultural (Amerindian, European, African, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern), and all of its groups have contributed musical influences to the sounds of Carnival. These cultures have combined to create music vastly different from that of Carnival in Spain, Venice, or New Orleans.

As with other Carnivals, many participants wear elaborate costumes, often decorated with feathers and sequins. Carnival bands are organized groups made up of participants who pay for costumes fashioned by a designer and assembled by teams of volunteers. The costumed participants dance through the streets to the sounds of a steel band, a soca band or a d.j. – this is called "playing mas'". A unique feature of this parade is that locals and tourists alike participate in the parade of bands. Each band is led by a King and Queen, who wear extremely large costumes, often requiring extensions and wheels to assist the masquerader to carry it through the streets. Each year on Dimanche Gras (Carnival Sunday), a competition is held to award the King and Queen of Carnival title to two of these masqueraders.

On Carnival Monday and Tuesday, the bands are in competition to win the Band of the Year title. Small monetary prizes are associated with these titles, though they do not cover the full amount of producing the band's music or the King's or Queen's costumes. Participation occurs at all levels of society; three-time calypso monarch David Rudder described it as "from bourgeois to grassroots." Children participate from as early as parents can get them into costume; sometime even strollers are decorated.

Children can extend their fun by participating in smaller "Kiddies' Carnival" shows, competitions and parades as early as 4 weeks before the culmination of the festival. For weeks ahead, several preliminary rounds of competitions and parties (or fêtes) take place. As Carnival is part of the national curriculum, several programmes take place at schools across the country. Regional authorities handle smaller Carnival celebrations in smaller towns and villages. Some of the most innovative carnival costumes came from kiddies carnival. Rosalind Gabriel, a 30-year veteran and the most decorated children's bandleader in the country's history, has sent her costumes to carnivals in North America and other Caribbean islands. Proving that Carnival not only has worldwide appeal to adults, but children too.


Moko jumbie characters

A few specific characters have evolved during the history of Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival.[1] Among these characters are:

  • Burrokeet – A "donkey-man" character constructed so as to give the illusion of a dancer riding a small burro or donkey. This masquerade was brought to Trinidad by Venezuelan settlers.
  • Dame Lorraine – An ample voluptuous woman. The costume parodies the dress of 18th-century French aristocratic women and is stuffed in the hips and bust.
  • Jab Jab – The name comes from the French Patois word for devil.
  • Midnight Robber – A character who brags about himself and whose costume is influenced by American Cowboy clothes.
  • Minstrels – A group of singers
  • Moko jumbie - A stilt dancer. The character is of African origin. Originally the character wore a hat made of dried wild cucumbers, and the stilts were striped.[7]
  • Pierrot – A well-dressed character that prides himself on his knowledge

In Pop Culture[edit]

Trinidadian Carnival is most notably seen in Nicki Minaj's music video for her 2012 hit Pound the Alarm. She traveled back to her hometown to shoot the video in Queen's Park Savannah and featured over 500 people in carnival attire.


  1. ^ a b "Traditional Carnival Characters". Retrieved 2019-11-19.
  2. ^ Green, G. L., & Scher, P. W. (Eds.). (2007). Trinidad carnival: The cultural politics of a transnational festival. Indiana University Press.
  3. ^ Nurse, Keith (1999). "Globalization and Trinidad Carnival: Diaspora, Hybridity and Identity in Global Culture". Cultural Studies. 13 (4): 661–690. doi:10.1080/095023899335095.
  4. ^ a b [1]
  5. ^ French creole influence on calypso music. YouTube. 2010-12-17. ISBN 9780313357978. Retrieved March 6, 2014.
  6. ^ Trinidad Carnival Dates
  7. ^ John Mendes (2014). Côté ci Côté là. Port of Spain: Caribbean Print Technologies. p. 235. ISBN 978-976-8194-060.

External links[edit]