By Kelisa Pascal
A vacation to the Caribbean can almost guarantee a fête any time of the year. The Caribbean is filled with people who love to celebrate life itself, with island nations hosting their annual carnival celebrations in varying months throughout the year.
While each island has its own unique twist in carnivals, a spirited and roaring crowd with national pride can be found at any of them. And the vibrant celebration will always have four main elements no matter the venue: music, song, dance, and costumes influenced by the ancestors of each island.
Aruba Carnival: Arubans kick off their two-month long Carnival with a lighting parade. Visionary costumes and floats include hundreds of little lights to intensify their nighttime look. This is only the beginning of the amazing, bold, and cultured celebrations. The pulsing and powerful music of Soca, Calypso, Latin, Dutch, and Tumpa energize crowds of people to dance non-stop. Torch lights parade at night through the streets; King and Queen of Carnival elections and children’s parades are all part of the festivities. To end the jubilation, King Momo, a traditional carnival character, is burned marking the end to Carnival.
Dominica “The real Mas”: Similar to other carnivals in February, Dominica’s festivities are before the religious period Lent. Strong African influences can be seen in many creative ensembles such as the Sensay costumes created with layers of cloth, paper, and even old banana leaves. Sensay costumes’ finished look involves a mask and large cow horns. Some costumes create an intimidating look, but it is all part of the fun as Dominicans and others dance in the streets to Calypso, Soca, and Bouyon music. Calypso Monarch Competition, Queen Shows, and street parades with women wearing colorful alluring costumes are all merged together to create a wild and wonderful Carnival.
Dominican Republic “Carnival Dominicano”: Relying on symbolism and comedy to express their culture, Dominicanos aka Dominicans celebrate Carnival every weekend in February. The festivities differ around the island but there are three famous Carnival cities: Santo Domingo, La Vega, and Punta Cana. La Vega hosts the Grand Parade on Feb. 27, Dominican Republic Independence day, where patrons in detailed traditional Taíno costumes of their Arawak ancestors or costumes of “Diablo Cojuelo”, the nation’s most famous carnival character, parade around as they chase spectators for play. Clear visuals from Dominican culture are shown in Santo Domingo, where the abuse of African slaves by Spanish conquerors is reenacted for awareness. Punta Cana Carnival embodies the peculiarities of Carnival on the second Saturday in March. Men are showcased in drag, dressed as overweight women attempting to steal chicken and hiding them in her clothes. No matter the city, Dominicanos have a blast dancing to Merengue and Bachata.
Puerto Rico “Carnaval de Ponce”: A week-long celebration that has been going on for more than 250 years. Before Lent, Puerto Ricans and others dance to lots of Bomba, Plena, and Meringue music at various street parties in unique costumes and getups. A highlight of Carnival de Ponce are the Folkloric Vejigantes characters. They can be seen in whimsical and brightly colored masks with horns and teeth and a clown-like suit with a flowing cape. The Vejigantes express the arts and crafts tradition of the island.
Trinidad and Tobago: Carnival starts the day after Christmas for Trinidadians when many parties play the hottest Soca music. Bacchanal week holds the most festivities before the big fête on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Onlookers can experience traditional celebrations such as Limbo and Calinda, a.k.a stick-fighting dances. Bacchanal week also includes a Kiddies Carnival, Calypso Monarch competitions, and Carnival Kings and Queens competitions. J’ouvert, a.k.a Mud Mas, takes place in the dark hours on Monday where people are covered in paint, grease, and mud to jump up and wave their rags until the sun comes up. The festivities continue with masquerade bands consisting of people jumping up and whining in their shimmery bold revealing costumes on Carnival Monday and Tuesday behind trucks carrying huge speakers.
Jamaica “Bacchanal Jamaica”: Three months of non-stop activities take place in the home of Reggae music. This includes live entertainment in the streets, bands with amazing costumes, good cultural food, and provocative dancing. Carnival was introduced to Jamaica; therefore, it takes soul from neighboring islands but with a Jamaican twist to celebrations. The main events kick off the week before Easter with a beach J’ouvert and ends with a road march where party-goers don’t stop fêting to Calypso, Reggae, and Soca until their feet hurt.
Cayman Islands “Carnival Batabano”: Columbus named the islands “Las Tortugas” because of the islands’ abundance of sea turtles. The word “Batabano” was the name given to the tracks that sea turtles leave behind on their way to nest. Caymanians, like other islanders, enjoy a good time and what better reason to fête than finding turtle tracks. The Cayman Islands have more than 100 nationalities, so just imagine the creative costumes, various music, and different dances originated from diverse historical influences.
St Vincent & the Grenadines “Vincy Mas”: Vincentians host various carnival celebrations from Vincy Mas launch in May till July. Colors, culture, talent, and beauty can be seen in the Miss SVG competition. King and Queen of Carnival competitions hold a cultural aspect of the Vincentians that will never die. Parks come alive with Soca music at the Soca Monarch Competitions and where you can experience the raw creativity of music by steel pan bands. Mardi Gras and J’ouvert are street parties where you can be a part of the celebrations and whine your waist, roll your bumper, or even two-step without judgments.
Barbados “Crop Over Festival”: The Calypso and Soca music is enjoyed by many for a period of twelve weeks in Barbados. Bajans and visitors alike jump up and celebrate the end of sugar harvest. The sugar harvest was once the backbone of the Bajan economy and while it is unfortunate it declined, the impact is forever. Besides parading in costumes, you can experience spoken word on another level with dance, music, and vibrant cultural wear. Entertainers such as calypsonians, comedians, and steel pan competitors please the crowd of admirers. Sunrise beach parties, street fairs, and parades are all part of the madness.
Grenada “Spicemas”: The official event takes places in August but an early visit to the island can be worth the money because of other fun festivities. In the early stage is the National Queen Show, Soca Monarch competitions, and steel band competitions. The official kick-off begins with J’ouvert before sunrise, when dance and costumes are influenced by African, Grenadian, and European ancestors. Pageant Mas includes a traditional band called the Short Knees whose members wear vibrant costumes with head coverings, bells around their feet, and powder to mark their trails. Grenadians then dance to popular Calypso music in dazzling and vibrant costumes at parades. Parades then turn into Monday Night Mas where Carnival people dance in the streets at night wearing glow sticks and brightly colored clothes.
Kitts and Nevis “Sugar Mas”: St. Kitts was once the wealthiest nation in the Caribbean because of its sugarcane production. The word sugar in Sugar Mas comes from the significance of the sugarcane, while Mas is short for masquerade. Kittitians and Nevisians celebrate by jamming in the streets, parading in floats, partaking in band activities, and attending entertaining competitions. Sugar Mas unofficially begins in November and is a cluster of celebrations and events influenced by African heritage that doesn’t end until the beginning of January.
Bahamas “Junkanoo”: This festival is currently viewed as the island’s premier festival and there will be an introduction of Bahamas Carnival May 2015, so look forward to more fêting. Junkanoo starts in the dark mornings of Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Bahamians shine from the streetlights as they pass through the streets of Nassau. Dancers show off their movements to the sound of music enhanced by drums, whistles, brass horns, cow bells, and drums. The energy of the crowd drives the decisions of judges to award prizes for best costume and music.
St. Croix “Crucian Christmas Carnival”: Crucians start celebrating Carnival the day of Christmas and it lasts until January. The history dates back to more than 60 years ago when African slaves were first allowed to celebrate Christmas and New Year. Entertainment ranges from the Carnival Queen Competition to the Calypso Monarch Competition to J’ouvert, a food fair, and several parades. The parades are divided to suit the children, but there are adult parades where people may get wild. All entertainment displays the Crucian culture–from hand-crafted costumes and reggae music, to popular local foods such as johnnycakes.