Carnival – a festive season that typically includes
parades and public street parties -- is serious business in the Caribbean. The
saying here goes that the party lasts
year-round: eight months preparing and partying in anticipation, a month
actually celebrating, followed by a period of blissful recovery and
Unlike the rest of the world where carnivals are
typically held in February (the most famous of which are in Venice and Rio), visitors
to the Caribbean can find a carnival at almost any time of year. Islands such
as Trinidad and St Lucia where the original colonists were Catholics tend to
keep their carnivals on the traditional schedule, meaning they climax in the
pre-Lenten period before Ash Wednesday, usually around February. But elsewhere,
local festivals like the July Harvest Festival
on the former British colony of Barbados have morphed into huge events with all
the trappings of carnival.
No matter the name or origin, all of these explosions
of creative energy share raucous dance, pounding music and flamboyant costumes
that combine into one heaving, sweaty orgy of colour and sound. And while
Caribbean carnivals share much, each has its own flavour. You will need to
visit many – if not all – to get the complete picture of what is always the
main event on each island's calendar.
Visitors are welcome at all these events and you can
fully expect to be swept up in frenetic, hectic riot of it all. So pick your
month, pick your carnival and enjoy the celebration.
Trinidad has one of the world's largest carnivals.
The celebrations begin up to eight months in advance, with costumes becoming
more elaborate and spectacular every year and hundreds of calypso bands
preparing their music. Easily the pulsing heart of Caribbean carnival
creativity, the island’s sounds are constantly evolving -- you may hear booming
rapso (a mixture of calypso and rap) or the latest variation on soca (the
ubiquitous carnival sound that started on Trinidad 50 years ago and combines
calypso, soul and African among many other influences). It is a huge honour
(and a large cash prize) to be named the Calypso Monarch, the person chosen in
national judging for their musical performances.
Affluent Aruba’s local music tradition is also a focus
of its carnival
celebration. Parades last for about four weeks before Ash Wednesday, with the
entire island thronging in the capital, Oranjestad, for the Grand Parade on the
Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The parade includes the ritual burning of an
effigy of King Momo, a bad spirit. Most carnivals throughout the Caribbean,
even the ones most closely linked to religious traditions, have a component of
old African mysticism and often involve the exorcising of evil spirits.
All the French-speaking islands celebrate carnival for
at least five days before Ash Wednesday, and St-Barthélemy has one of the best
around. It has all the expected parades, music competitions, pageants -- but
because of the island's small size, the festivities seem all-pervasive. Here,
King Carnival is the name given to the evil spirit and he goes up in smoke on
beautiful Shell Beach.
Jamaica's week-long carnival celebrates the island's world-famous music.
On Easter, bands from across the region converge in the capital, Kingston, for
festivals that start on the beaches and parade through the streets.
Back in the 17th Century when Barbados was largely British sugar
plantations, the slaves and locals began celebrating the cane harvest with the
appropriately named Crop
Over Festival in late July. Over the years it has become a proper carnival,
the second-largest in the Caribbean after Trinidad's. Calypso band competitions
begin in mid-July and peak on the first Monday in August, called Kadooment Day (Bajan
slang for "big commotion", when Barbados is one big party.
Once an island of carnival mania, the celebrations in Cuba
became muted in the early 1960s -- with the notable exception of island's
second city Santiago de Cuba, which throws a bash as good as any despite official
efforts to discourage it. The spirit and vigour are raw, and you sense
island-wide carnival energies just below the surface waiting to explode should
change come to Cuba.
Sint Eustatius may be small, but its late July carnival is not. Like
many islands, it has a midnight-to-dawn parade that ends with the burning of an
effigy -- here charmingly called Prince Stupid -- to rid the island of evil. Given
the island only has 3,400 inhabitants, this carnival is almost one-big family
The mid-July carnival on the island of St Lucia is one of the Caribbean's largest,
as seemingly every one of the 170,000 islanders has a vital role to play. The
capital Castries shuts down for a week so it can explode in colour, song, dance
and non-stop revelry.
In Antigua, the abolition of slavery on 1 August 1834 is the root of
this suitably free-spirited bash
which reaches its wild peak on the first Tuesday in August. Like other carnivals,
music is a key component, but on Antigua there is even more of an emphasis on
entertaining the jubilant masses island-wide. Bands of all sizes thread their
way around the island visiting villages big and small to party before heading
to the capital, St John’s, for the final explosion.
Junkanoo, as the party is called in the Bahamas, has its roots
in secret West African societies before slavery. Now a fully-fledged
carnival in terms of music, dance, colour and costumes, it kicks off on Boxing
Day (26 December) for a short and frenzied swirl of parties and parades that
culminate on New Year’s Day (1 January). Personal “floats” worn by one person
and weighing up to 90kg vie for prizes and star in parades in the capital,
Nassau. There is another flurry in July, mostly because it has already been six
months since the last Junkanoo.
The article 'A Caribbean carnival of carnivals' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.