You’ve probably seen the extravagant costumes, heard the sweet sound of the steel pan, or felt the rush of excitement as you watch masqueraders dance through the streets without a care in the world, but do you really know what Carnival is? This history behind Carnival, playing mas, and Jouvert is fascinating, and it’s worth exploring to truly appreciate the experience.
A Brief History of Carnival
Caribbean Carnivals are held throughout the year, not only in Caribbean nations, but also in cities across the world including Toronto, Miami, London and Berlin (to name a few) as a celebration of Caribbean culture. While the history of each Carnival in the Caribbean varies by country, many of the Carnival traditions that are synonymous with Carnival today originated in Trinidad and Tobago.
In Trinidad, Carnival was introduced in the late 1700’s by the French. Each year between Christmas and the start of the Lenten season, the French plantation owners threw lavish masquerade balls. Banned from attending these festivities, the African slaves created their own celebrations in their yards. After slavery was abolished, the Africans continued to host Carnival celebrations in the streets and has since grown to become the largest Carnival celebration in the Caribbean.
In Trinidad, Carnival is held annually on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. This is the pinnacle of the Carnival season, where masqueraders dress in extravagantly colorful beaded and feather costumes and dance through the streets of Trinidad’s capital city, Port of Spain, to soca music. This grand parade is called Mas. The groups that participate in the parade are called Carnival bands. Each band chooses a theme for each Carnival year and creates beautiful costumes for those who participate, with that band. Masqueraders dance, or chip, down the road with their designated Carnival band and this activity is called “playing mas.”
Jouvert (“jou-vay”) is another tradition that is closely tied to Carnival celebrations. The word “jouvert actually originates from the French word “jour ouvert” which means day break. Historically, Jouvert was closely tied to folklore and to this day folklore characters are a part of the festivities. It is very common to see people dressed up as devils covered in paint or oil. Like Carnival itself Jouvert traditions very from one Caribbean nation to the next in terms of when exactly it is celebrated. In contrast to daytime mas, or pretty mas, as it’s often described, Jouvert celebrations begin long before dawn and finish shortly after the sun rises, and the festival typically involves participants dancing through the streets smearing one another with any combination of paint, powder, oil, mud or cocoa.
We would be remiss if we did not talk about soca music - the heart and soul of Carnival. Soca is a genre of Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. An offshoot of calypso music, soca music is influenced by chutney, funk, and soul. As soca music has increased in popularity, various sub-genres have emerged including groovy soca, power soca, and chutney. Leading up to Carnival in Trinidad, a slew of new soca songs are released. This set of tunes becomes the soundtrack of Carnival, not just in Trinidad, but in other Caribbean nations and in cities around the world all throughout the year.
Carnival represents a time of freedom, happiness, and brotherhood. In any city or country it is a unique experience that everyone should try at least once. If you have a chance to participate in Carnival, don’t stick! Let your inner Bacchanalist out and embrace the experience.