Playing Mas – Trinidad Carnival Ultimate Guide

Trinidad Carnival Ultimate Guide

Marry an island girl, they said… so I did! My island girl is from Trinidad & Tobago, home of the world-famous original carnival.

We are playing mas in 2023!

The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is an annual event held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Carnival, as it is celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago. There are similar celebrations in several other cities worldwide, including Toronto’s CaribanaMiami’s Carnival, London’s Notting Hill Carnival, and New York City‘s Labor Day Carnival.

Some Carnival History

The early white and free people of Trinidad would hold elaborate masquerades leading up to Ash Wednesday before Lent. The slaves would watch and begin their own partying at the same time. There is a dirty mas and a clean mas. We’re not going to regurgitate content if there is great information already written. The Origins and Evolution of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is a great article for some deep history.

Introduction

My wife and I have been together for well over 20 years, and in the early years, we visited Trinidad & Tobago a few times, usually for Christmas or family events. I often heard people talking about how grand the carnival is and that it should be the rite of passage to play mas (joining a band as a masquerader). After 10 years in Melbourne, re-settling in the UK, and the Covid-19 pandemic, my wife had made a couple of trips to Trinidad for family reasons and then managed to talk me into playing mas for 2023 as one of her friends was gearing up with one of the better bands to join. This is our journey and experience to give others insight into what to expect and some fundamental valuable information.

After the decision was made to play mas, it seemed critical to be in one of the better carnival bands, but to do this, you either need to have someone in the know or have your wits about you to ensure you register and pay quickly. My wife knew someone—a childhood friend—so we were given the heads up on registration and made prompt payment to join Carnival Tribe. This is (theoretically) one of the better carnival bands and carries the associated costs! The cost for me alone, with a basic costume and socks, was USD 850—I’ll break this down later. It is also highly regarded by locals as a great group to be with if you are a carnival newbie (like me). Flights from the UK and probably everywhere else are also at a premium as this is one of the more popular tourist events in Trinidad. I suggest having an extended holiday and spending time in Tobago to make the flight cost more effective if you are traveling a long way.

Once you have your carnival band booked (we have the 2023 carnival bands at the bottom of this article), you will need to measure up for costumes. These costumes leave little for the imagination, so the next challenge is getting into shape. If you are playing mas, you will need to have a level of endurance and fitness.

Playing Mas – Trinidad Carnival Ultimate Guide - 23/04/2024

Getting Organised

Be aware that playing mas at Trinidad Carnival can be expensive. Like all premium events, prices go up considerably on all things. Flights, hotels, and rental cars all become costly. If you are going to attend, then make sure you book all these as early as possible—you may not get the ideal prices, but at least you might get what you are looking for. We almost missed out on a hire car, but a family friend was able to help out at the last minute.

Make sure that when flying into Trinidad, you get the right forms from the airline steward. For some reason, our steward (British Airways) tore the duplicate sheet off and said we only needed the single sheet. At customs, we found out we needed the duplicates, so we were sent back to the end of the line and had to complete them all again! The flight in itself was one of the more extraordinary as it seemed most people were on their way for carnival. My whole back section (we were in cattle) seemed to be enjoying conversations in little groups all through. It was like everyone knew everyone—I don’t think that was the case, I think they were all just very friendly.

Playing Mas – Trinidad Carnival Ultimate Guide - 23/04/2024

On Arrival & Preparation

We landed a week before carnival as we had some personal activities to attend to, but it also enabled us to start preparing for the two days (Monday & Tuesday) of total dance and bacchanal. A few items to consider if you are new to Trinidad Carnival. First, there are lots of fetes leading up to the actual carnival—every day, morning, and night. Luckily, I was given insight into fetes and carnivals by Candy’s uncle (Chris). Asked what the difference is between a party and a fete, the answer was direct. A party is here and there, people grouped liming. A fete is a ‘state of mind’. There is more on this later, and probably another complete blog on Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy embodiment of Trinidad Carnival.

Taking evening walks down to St. James where some panorama bands are rehearsing or Woodbrook with thriving bars and clubs will also keep you entertained and is a more relaxing way to take in some of the pre-carnival vibes and preparations. If you drift into Port of Spain, I’d recommend avoiding George Street and Charlotte Street (China Town). Although it is thriving with lots going on, it would be described as one of the more precarious areas. Not even my family drift down China Town, and in the short five-minute walk I took, there was a bloody fight between two ladies in the mall shop, which wasn’t pleasant.

Make sure you do what is required to pick your costume up and allow plenty of time for this activity as it could take longer depending on how many others arrive at the same time as you. We went just as Tribe opened (midday) and managed to be out by 3 pm—a three-hour turnaround to pick up a costume.

As alluded to earlier, Chris expressed that carnival is a result and follow-on of emancipation from slavery, the total notion of freedom. It is this freedom that is expressed by everyone playing mas. There is a stage that everyone goes on with their band with no rules as such to how you wish to perform. Everyone is an artist in that instance to the music, the costume, and the state of mind. Very Dionysian through the god of wine and dance, of irrationality and chaos, representing passions, emotions, and instincts with a huge dose of sexuality. If you participate in the traditional carnival, bands are judged on stage—I don’t know what the criteria is. However, according to Chris, no one judges the individual performances (at least they should not) as that would be too Apollonian.

Wining with the wife!

The bigger nuggets that carnival virgins need to be aware of is the event that I only understood after a few conversations with family. That is J’ouvert. J’ouvert or Jouvert is at the heart of Trinidad Carnival and is also celebrated in other Eastern Caribbean islands. The name J’ouvert originates from the French jour ouvert, meaning daybreak or morning, and signals the start of the bacchanalia that is carnival. This is the ‘dirty mas’. It starts on Carnival Monday at 2 am and goes through to 7 or 8 am. Everyone is flushed with paint, mud, and anything else folks get their hands on. This is where everyone displays their individuality even more than clean mas, complete Dionysus hedonism, and sexuality. Chris would describe the entire rest of the year in someone’s life would be rational thinking and order, logic, and prudence (very Apollonian), these few hours are the counterbalance of Dionysius.

Cousin Joel, a hardened local carnival participant, gave me the advice that you can’t do both. I was gearing up to do J’ouvert and play mas, but you go through the entire night for J’ouvert. This would be followed by 12 hours of playing mas on Monday, followed by the full costume mas on Tuesday. Not even the hardened masqueraders attempt this feat, and I wasn’t going to try on a first attempt, so that may be my blog next year for you all! My focus this time around is playing (clean) mas.

Carnival Weekend

Carnival is like everything in life—making decisions. A lot is going on, and you won’t be able to do everything, so if you want the total Trinidad experience, you might have to do it over two attempts. Friday night leading up to Ash Wednesday is known as Fantastic Friday and usually has some mega-Soca events. We had tickets to see Machel Montano for Friday night and were hoping to get to Kiddies Carnival, which occurs on Saturday. Unfortunately, Machel didn’t get on stage until 1:30 am. We left at 4:30 am as we had to walk and made it home by 5:30 am, basically killing the Kiddies Carnival for us on a Saturday. Machel seemed like a great artist, but this gig was marred with silly infrastructure problems, gates didn’t open until after 8 pm, it took us over two hours to get in, and some of the instruments weren’t working on stage, which was very embarrassing. A decent perspective can be found here. Traveling and getting out to these shows means you bump into all sorts of folks; we bounced up Brit from Cultures Uncovered whilst we spent two hours lining up.

Playing Mas – Trinidad Carnival Ultimate Guide - 23/04/2024

There are many events on the Saturday before carnival, if you want to taste the real Trini culture as I did, then the Panorama Annual Finals for big bands is the place to be and also a bit more chilled. Chris pointed to the stage and told me that on Tuesday, that was my stage to show the world my art form! (More on this later.)

Carnival Monday

The first thing you see as you make your way to your band is the remaining J’ouvert masqueraders making their way somewhere—I suspect home for a shower then bed. My wife quite rightly points out that they look the same as the street vagrants and that this is the only time of year when the vagrants can chance their luck at a wine since they completely blend in!

Carnival Monday seems to be more of a dress rehearsal. My Band Tribe had rules, but like everything in Trinidad, they tend to be more guidelines than rules. I wore my board shorts and wristband on the correct wrist, but I was in the minority. We made it to our band around 11-ish, they were easy to find and seemed to be ramping up. The bars were open, and everyone was getting started. Brit has a great VLOG on what to bring… having my earplugs remain in place for the next two days was critical for me! So, we started doing laps of Port of Spain mainly up and down St. James, which is where my family lives. So, after one very slow lap at around 3:30 pm, we stopped for lunch. My band had numerous food booths and soft drinks for the lunch. As always, the queuing was ridiculous, some people queued better than the English, whilst others just pushed straight in—not too much of a problem as they had plenty of food. I’d recommend the vegetarian dishes. I had them both days and it was quite tasty. At 5 pm, we set off again, basically another lap and a half around, which carried us through to 8 pm-ish. It was after 6 pm that some of the more popular spirits ‘sort of’ started running out. What do I mean by ‘sort of’? Well, as an older male asking a young barman for a rum and coke, I was told there was none left. I sent my daughter in, and with some negotiation of Instagram exchanges, we had rum for everyone. One further note on this, more times than not, the bar staff were generous in their drink mixing. Usually in a bar, you get a shot of spirit with the glass topped up with the mixer, but at carnival, I found it was a shot of mixer with the remaining topped up with spirit. I paced myself by not starting the alcohol intake until later in the day and kept hydrated with plenty of water.

Some bands have ‘Monday Wear’, which is clothing you wear on Monday. It is all very relaxed, just have your wristband.

It is at this point that I need to highlight one of the most positive parts of carnival. That is, people wear very little if anything, and no one blinks an eyelid at the complete spectrum of human body types. This is one of the least judgemental times I’ve ever seen—no one seems ‘body conscious’. Sometimes I felt like I was in a Star Wars Cantina Band bar scene with all the various costumes and shapes—everyone just wanted to express their freedom.

Playing Mas – Trinidad Carnival Ultimate Guide - 23/04/2024

Monday evening ended up with people dispersing into various side streets. I believe my band was putting on pizza and beer, in retrospect, we should have made our way back to where we had lunch. That was a long way in the opposite direction, so we just stayed where we were. At 10 pm, we were cooked, and my wife was just told by her childhood friend that makeup for Carnival Tuesday was no longer at 7 am (which was bad enough) but now at 1 am, which was never going to happen. After 42,000 steps for the day, we went back home to rest up before an early start for Carnival Tuesday.

Carnival Tuesday

Don’t worry about walking down the street in full regalia, nearly everyone is in costume on this day, and some looked unbelievable.

Our band was due to meet at 8 am or so—again, don’t get wound up by this. As it was my first time, I didn’t want to miss out on anything, and since I was ready, I was off to meet my band soon after 8 am. My wife and daughter had their makeup to do now and would meet me later. If I’d left it another hour, my band would walk past my street, but I was back into the mood. Not sure if it was luck or design, but I stuck with ‘Truck 4’ as it seemed to be the one that had a photo close to my costume. In any case, it’s important to be with your correct section for when you go on stage. This is another carnival anomaly. When on stage, you dance your art form, but you are still part of a collective as you all wear the same-coloured costumes for the stage.

My section entered the stage area, which was at Hasely Crawford Stadium (where I was for Machel), and not the ‘proper’ official stage, which was Queens Park Savannah Grandstand. My band did carnival their way. If you want the main official stage, select a band that is in the official carnival routes. The Lost Tribe won the official carnival mas. In any case, for me, there was a stage, music, and time for me to do my thing. I took a couple of photos, but this was time to enjoy the moment and not record or photograph.

Playing Mas – Trinidad Carnival Ultimate Guide - 23/04/2024

After 5-10 minutes, you are unceremoniously shuffled off the stage. There are a few people in the stands, but I don’t believe we were judged. If we were judged, I believe my section should have won by default on orange socks. My section colours were orange for inciendo (fire), so my socks were orange, which made sense. Then I saw that all the other males, no matter what their section colour—purple, green, or blue—all had orange socks! So, we win.

Lunch hit around the same time, 3:30 pm-ish. Everyone was still in full swing. We re-hit the road at 5-ish again and started our way around the St. James block. Popular spirits started to run out again after 6 pm, but leading into the evening, we had a couple of mishaps—an ambulance was called for one person. As that ambulance was taking the person away, another ambulance was called for someone who we think had passed. Everyone headed back to the Nelson Mandela Park where our band put on more food and drink. Everyone was still going at 9 pm when I called it time on carnival and started making my way home to recover. 38,000 steps on this day.

Is it Worth the Money?

My cost for a male for the two days was USD 850, which included a USD 150 booking fee. As a male, I was cheaper than my wife and daughter, who paid more for female costumes.

You can get a list of what is provided at https://carnivaltribe.com/on-d-road.

Below is a summary of my thoughts on each:

Package Item

Estimate Cost

Notes & Thoughts

   

Premium bars with an unlimited supply of alcoholic & non-alcoholic drinks (Johnny Walker Scotch, Smirnoff Vodka, Hennessy, Black Label, White Oak, Tequila, Gin, Beers & more!)

USD 50

This would be enough to have you out on both days, and they do run out in the evenings.

Lunch on both days

USD 20

Buying in bulk, doubt costs would be more than this.

Breakfast and Snack on Tuesday

USD 5

A minimal snack which I’m not sure how many people have.

Private security team

USD 100

I saw plenty of security, this was a real positive as you felt very safe.

On-site paramedics

USD 50

Again, I think there were a few. Again, more on this later.

Mobile restrooms

USD 50

Should have had more than two trucks.

Complimentary shuttle service to the band

?

Didn’t know this existed and was not sure what information was given out for this service. I didn’t see it.

Roaming photographers

?

I saw photographers, none seemed to photograph me or my family, I’m not sure what this was for.

TRIBE Goody Bags with souvenirs and carnival essential

USD 20

Some reasonable stuff for the males, again not too much here.

Your Costume

USD 50

This is interesting, I think I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

So, I think an overall cost to the band is guestimating around USD 350 – 450, which based on my cost gives a very healthy profit of over USD 400 for each person. There are no refunds, none at all, for anything. You had better know you are doing this when you register.

Is it worth it? You have two days of potentially 10-plus hours of dancing, music, and entertainment in a free and from what I can tell safe environment. The above doesn’t mention the many music trucks, the many, many bar staff, and others that support this event. At a quick calculation that works out to be around USD 40 per hour for a very Dionysian experience. Is it worth it? Yes. Especially for first-time masqueraders. In this instance it is the experience you are paying for; all the other stuff is a bonus.

Summary

As a first-time masquerader I had some better grounding than most as my wife is a native of Trini, more importantly, her family still in Trinidad provided so much more information which I have tried to share here. I had a fantastic Trinidad Carnival and learned so much, I have no regrets. This Carnival was fun and I’d recommend it to anyone starting. Next time I think I’d do things a bit differently. First, I might take a look at the kiddies Carnival on the Saturday, I’d probably have a run at J’ouvert. If I was planning to play clean Mas on the same Carnival, I’d skip most of Monday, and I’d join a cheaper Band that passes through Queens Park Savannah Grandstand. If that happens, then this will become Part 1 of a two-part blog. Until then, I’ll look forward to your comments and questions and leave you with a list of bands below you can research.

Band

Presentation

Website

𝗬𝗨𝗠𝗔

𝘈𝘞𝘈𝘒𝘌𝘕𝘌𝘋 𝘛𝘙𝘌𝘈𝘚𝘜𝘙𝘌

https://yumavibe.com/

𝗨𝘁𝗼𝗽𝗶𝗮 𝗠𝗮𝘀

𝘔𝘈𝘚 𝘒𝘠𝘈 𝘋𝘜𝘕

https://www.utopiamas.com/

𝗧𝗥𝗜𝗕𝗘 𝗖𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗶𝘃𝗮𝗹

𝘈 𝘕𝘌𝘞 𝘋𝘈𝘞𝘕

https://carnivaltribe.com/

𝗕𝗹𝗶𝘀𝘀 𝗖𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗶𝘃𝗮𝗹

𝘞𝘐𝘓𝘋

https://blisscarnival.com/

𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗥𝗼𝗴u𝗲 𝗕𝗮𝗻𝗱

𝘙𝘖𝘎𝘜𝘌 𝘉𝘖𝘛

https://carnivalrogue.com/

𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗟𝗼𝘀𝘁 𝗧𝗿𝗶𝗯𝗲

202𝘞𝘌

https://losttribecarnival.com/

𝗛𝗮𝗿𝘁𝘀 𝗖𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗶𝘃𝗮𝗹

𝘐𝘚𝘓𝘈𝘕𝘋 𝘉𝘙𝘌𝘌𝘡𝘌

https://www.hartscarnival.com/

𝗣𝘂𝗿𝗲

𝘗𝘜𝘙𝘌 𝘌𝘕𝘌𝘙𝘎𝘠

https://purecarnivaltt.com/

𝗥𝗼𝗻𝗻𝗶𝗲 & 𝗖𝗮𝗿𝗼 𝗠𝗮𝘀

𝘛𝘏𝘐𝘚 𝘐𝘚 𝘗𝘈𝘙𝘈𝘋𝘐𝘚𝘌

http://ronnieandcaro.com/

𝗣𝗮𝗽𝗮𝗿𝗮𝘇𝘇𝗶 𝗖𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗶𝘃𝗮𝗹

𝘉𝘙𝘌𝘈𝘒𝘈𝘞𝘈𝘠 𝘉𝘌𝘈𝘛𝘚

http://www.paparazzicarnival.com/

𝗘𝘅𝗼𝘂𝘀𝗶𝗮 𝗠𝗮𝘀

𝘚𝘈𝘕𝘊𝘛𝘜𝘈𝘙𝘠

https://www.exousiamas.com/

𝗞𝗶𝗻𝗲𝘁𝗶𝗰 𝗠𝗮𝘀

𝘌𝘟𝘏𝘈𝘓𝘌

https://www.kineticmas.com/

𝗞𝟮𝗞 𝗔𝗹𝗹𝗶𝗮𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗣𝗮𝗿𝘁𝗻𝗲𝗿𝘀

𝘞𝘖𝘙𝘓𝘋 𝘞𝘈𝘙𝘚 – 𝘐𝘕 𝘛𝘏𝘌 𝘛𝘐𝘔𝘌 𝘖𝘍 𝘚𝘈𝘓𝘖𝘔𝘌

https://www.k2k-carnival.com/

𝗥𝗘𝗦𝗢𝗡𝗔𝗧𝗘 𝗖𝗔𝗥𝗡𝗜𝗩𝗔𝗟

 

https://www.facebook.com/ResonateCarnival

𝗗𝗥𝗘𝗔𝗠 𝗖𝗔𝗥𝗡𝗜𝗩𝗔𝗟

 

https://www.facebook.com/dreamcarnivaltt

Some GoPro 360 reels to get the vibes!

Last evening shenanigans!

Picture of Didge Smith

Didge Smith

Being the canary in the coalmine on adventures so that others don't make the same mistakes I've made! Turning my hand to other life fulfilling topics.

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One Response

  1. As a Trini who went to school with your lovely wife. I’m glad you experienced this carnival,. Next time let Joel take you guys to ambush which is a more fun , grown folks jouvert held the Friday night into early morning of Saturday . You will not regret it.

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