Panorama – Steel Pan Paradise

After visiting Trinidad for Carnival, I am officially a Steel Pan snob. From now on, I’m not going to be completely happy until I’m dancing along to 100 drums along with fireworks, Moko jumbies, and dance routines. Oh boy, is this a fun time!

I have to admit, it wasn’t until I was standing in line, waiting to get into the Large Band Finals that I realized the name “Panorama” doesn’t refer to a lovely scenic view, but to a celebration of Steel Pan 🀣 Large bands have between 90 and 120 musicians – can you believe it?!? Most musicians play a single drum, but some of the bass and percussion players play 6 or 8 drums. It’s amazing!

Each band has their fans and supporters who cheer them just like a sports team. The week before the competition, we visited several of the pan yards on a Friday night to check out the practice. It’s fun to watch the players in a more casual atmosphere, and food trucks and pop-up bars surround the yard. It’s a local and inexpensive way to get a taste of steel pan by hanging out with the locals. And it’s a chance to pick the band you’re going to cheer for at the finals. Capt. Mike is a Renegades supporter. Me, I love Phase II. They actually write a new song for each Carnival season, rather than covering a classic, and I can’t get this year’s “We come out to party … Everybody happy” out of my head 🎡🎢🎼

It’s also fascinating to see how the bands perform on the big stage. The steel pans are loaded onto metal trailers with roofs. The roof protects the pannists when they are playing outdoors in the sun or rain, and they also make for better acoustics by bouncing the sound toward the audience. All the trailers are staged in a field outside the stadium, and when it’s a band’s turn, they have a strict time limit to move all of those trailers and musicians and support staff onto the stage. Each band only plays one song – one! But they put their all into it, matching costumes, dancing, decorations, and sometimes pyrotechnics. Then they have a strict time allowed to leave the stage before a literal SWAT team crosses the stage in body armor shoulder to shoulder walking any stragglers off the stage. A crew with brooms sweeps all the confetti and other potentially slippery stuff off the stage. And it starts all over again for the next band. Does this all sound very time consuming? Well we caught our bus from the boatyard at 4pm, and we got home around 3:00 in the morning. This so so not our usual cruiser schedule!

Parade Day at Carnival

When we first started thinking about going to Carnival in Trinidad, I seriously considered joining one of the big masquerade bands. Even contemplated squeezing my middle-aged white bum into one of those sequinced and feathery bikini costumes. But then I did a little bit of research and learned that it costs around $1,000 usd to join a band. More if you want feathers. Yikes! So instead, we joined a few friends and bought tickets at a restaurant on “The Avenue” where we could watch the parades from comfort and it was perfect!

As opposed to the “Dutty Mas” of J’ouvert, Tuesday’s parades are “Pretty Mas or Bikini Mas” Folks choose a band to join and choose the simple “Backline” costume or more elaborate “Frontline” costume. It’s called “Playing Mas” (short for masquerade) In addition to the standard costume, many women buy colorful sneakers or boots, and wear elaborate sparkly makeup. Add a backpack of feathers and maybe a headpiece and it makes for a colorful joyous spectacle.

If you’re gonna play mas in Trinidad, you’d better have some stamina! Bands “chip” and “wine” their way through downtown Port of Spain all day long, dancing and bouncing to soca. The parades are fueled by local rum and local delicacies such as doubles and shark and bakes. I’m not sure how they manage to keep up the energy in the hot tropical sun!

Some bands avoid bikini mas, and instead wear elaborate costumes that tell a story or depict some of the history of Carnival. The larger, grander costumes are feats of engineering and take the entire year to design and create. It’s really pretty amazing to be there in person to see them “on da road”.

By the afternoon, some partyers get tired of their heavy costumes and leave them behind. Our gain! We had a lot of fun trying on the castoffs!

There’s a competition for the Road March – the most popular and most frequently played soca song in the parades. Our favorite “Come Home to Me” came in third place. We were robbed!

Celebrating freedom at J’ouvert

The festival of J’ouvert kicks off the final two days of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, and if you’re doing it right you won’t get much sleep!

J’ouvert (the creole version of the French words for day break) has its roots in the history of slavery and emancipation in Trinidad. During colonial times, enslaved peoples created their own versions of the carnival celebrations of the French. And after emancipation in 1834 the celebrations came out into the open and took on a greater and more powerful significance. Well before sunrise, parades start winding their way through Port of Spain. The darkness itself masks revelers’ identities, allowing everyone to behave a little bit crazy and act not at all like their usual non-Carnival selves. The disguise gets even better when paint (and mud, colored powder, even oil) starts flying. Everybody dances and chips to the latest soca tunes following a band truck. And these days, probably a bar truck as well 🍻 Finally, at sunrise, folks wave the flag of Trinidad to welcome carnival Monday.

We met Jesse James’ bus at 2:00 am to ride from Chagaramas boatyards into town with a small crowd of fellow cruisers. We were all playing J’ourvet with the “J’ouvert Jumbeez” – a band of 3000 people, 3 DJ trucks, and 3 bar trucks. We had picked up our swag bags several days in advance and all the ladies had spent an afternoon of arts and crafts customizing our ugly yellow men’s t-shirts into something slightly cuter and more personalized. (None of us had paid extra for the sexy black “monokinis” that the more body-confident Trini ladies were rocking.) I had planned ahead and made coffee the night before in the hopes of finding some kind of energy in the middle of the night!

The bar opened at 3:00am (yes, I know this sounds completely and totally nuts) so we had time for a run and club soda in our matching insulated mugs to calm the nerves before the start of the parade. Good thing we packed ear plugs, because the soca music pounded so loud Capt Mike and I had to shout directly in each other’s ears to make our plans to stick together. We’d been listening to the DJ Private Ryan Soca 2023 playlist on Spotify for at least a month, so we knew all the songs and were definitely ready to “jump up” and put our hands in the air just like the Trinis (I’ve still got the song “Come Home to Me” by Nailah Blackman and Skinny Fabulous in my head – it just might be stuck there until next Carnival!)

The gates opened around 4:30am, and we slowly followed the trucks out onto the streets of Port of Spain. Mike and I made a pact to stick together and to watch our footing in the dark. Security staff held long ropes on either side of the street, so as long as you followed a truck and stayed between the ropes, it was impossible to get lost. Wow, there was a ton of energy! We didn’t really march, we pretty much bounced our way through town.

We had just gotten used to the crowds and the deafening music and the light show when the paint came out. Staff passed out plastic water bottles with sport caps full of red, blue, and yellow paint (supposedly washable, but you can’t prove it by looking at my sneakers) We shook our bottles and squeezed, spraying streamers of paint into the sky… and eventually back down onto our heads. I quickly dropped my bottle – there was plenty of paint flying from other revelers and from the trucks without my help. Capt. Mike took a more artistic approach, squirting smiley faces and polka dots on the backs of fellow JumBeez.  At a few points on the parade, colorful powder was thrown into the air to stick to the paint, and mud was splashed around our feet, but I avoided those variations as much as possible! There were even trucks with pressurized paint guns shooting paint 30 feet into the crowds.

Sunrise was subtle, but we gradually went from watching our footing in the dark to watching the crowds on the sidewalk who were out in force to see the parade. I have to tell you, there’s nothing cooler than seeing a full sized flag waving above the heads of a paint-splattered crowd in the first light of day. Back at the stadium, we “crossed the stage”. The DJs played the most energetic, jumpiest songs in soca and everyone, including the security staff, jumped up and down with hands in the air in celebration of daybreak, rebirth, and Carnival.