On a Saturday morning in January, the ferry from Guadeloupe to Dominica is packed. While tourists on deck rock on a rolling sea, two small squads of exuberant women in orange and yellow T-shirts, sing aloud in their local Creole, dancing and gyrating with flirtatious glee.
They are headed to Roseau, Dominica’s hurricane-devastated capital city, for Real Mas, its carnival. Even in the worst circumstances, the party must go on.
Just like they do in Brazil and New Orleans, Caribbean locals take their carnivals seriously and even a natural disaster can’t stop them. The tradition dates back to the 18th century. During the winter season of Lent, while white colonialist landowners held costume balls, black slaves, responsible for harvesting sugar cane, mounted their own carnivals in the streets. They relied on African drumming, primitive instruments like conch shell horns, and subversive dancing as a way of liberating themselves from the oppressions of daily life.
These days Caribbean carnival season has expanded to throughout the year with one of the biggest, Crop Over, in Barbados in August. Some carnivals are known for their size and elaborate party schedules, similar to those of New Orleans and Rio. Others are known for their artisanal costumes and attention to tradition.
Here is a list of five worth checking out in the weeks ahead.
This French Caribbean island has a carnival in every city and town starting in early January and ending on Ash Wednesday. The largest is in the port city of Pointe-a-Pitre, held on Fat Sunday. “Our season is longer here and our carnivals are more traditional,” said Louis Collomb, the president of the Guadeloupe Carnival Association.
One factor that makes Guadeloupe carnival season so enjoyable is its reliance on artisanal costumes, body painting and traditional music — played on drums, cymbals, conch shells, calabashes, cowbells as well as brass instruments — not on the sound systems used in other countries. Young boys lead off parade groups by smacking whips on the ground (a reference to slavery and symbolizing ritual purification), and four different types of drum corps exist in Guadeloupe, each with its own distinct sound.
February 11 in Point-a-Pitre; February 12 in Basse-Terre
Guadeloupe’s sister French Caribbean island to the south has a major carnival in its capital city, Fort-De-France along with a truc de carnaval schedule of parties and parades. The celebrations of the last days include La Fete Des Diablesses (Day of the She Devils) and the burning of Vaval, the carnival king. Although it isn’t the biggest in the Caribbean, Martinique is known for drawing spectators in costumes.
Particularly notable? Men dress as women and women dress as men. They take it very seriously, as they do the dance routines they perform, with rehearsals starting months in advance.
Jacmel, in the southern part of the country and a three-hour drive from Port au Prince, is Haiti’s cultural capital and a world heritage city known for its painters, writers, musicians and artisanal craft scene. Donna Karan goes there often, and works with locals to create accessories and furnishings for her Urban Zen line.
The city’s affinity for the handmade and traditional add to the fun of a massive parade influenced by traditional Voudou but also fueled by contemporary beats of Kompa and Zouk music.
This tiny island in the Grenadines, once under English rule, has a carnival with typical activities including street dances, “Mas” bands of marchers, “Jib Jab” devil costumes, and a Calypso competition. But it also has one element that makes it unique and uniquely literary – a Shakespearean verse-reciting competition. Contestants dress in masks, crowns, petticoats and cloaks, and if they fumble in their war of words, they must succumb to little smacks from the sticks of opponents. To quote the master, Zounds!
Port of Spain, the capital city of this polyglot nation of European, Indian, African and Arab cultures, hosts the biggest carnival in the Caribbean and one of the oldest. While steel drum bands (known as Pan) and Calypso competitions used to dominate, these days amplified Soca (a modern fusion of calypso, African and Indian music) sets the driving beat behind a week in which tens of thousands pay to “Play Mas,” and march with groups competing for prizes.
The costume emphasis is feathers and sequins, some made by local designers. Also on display – lots of skin and well-toned bodies “wining,” a kind of bumping and grinding that will be familiar to the twerking inclined. The center of the Bacchanal is in the city’s Queen’s Park Savannah, but the party, stretching for an exhausting and exhaustive week, is everywhere.