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Carnival in Trinidad: Jump up and 'wining'

Trinidadian 'panners' go wild during Carnival. Photo courtesy of Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Development Comp. Ltd. by Jim Stephens

If there was an all-Caribbean hip-swinging contest, the hands down winner would likely be the Carnival dancers of the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Perhaps you've seen those colorfully costumed mobs on TV prancing around their capital at Port of Spain to the red-hot beat of the island's own soca tunes (a peppy combination of soul and calypso music).

Slated each year on Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent, this year kicking off on March 5), Carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations in the Caribbean, the Americas and dozens of other countries have been called “the greatest show on earth.” On Trinidad, the fest dates back to the 1780s, when the island's slaves decided to hold their own version of the plantation owners' pre-Lent parties and fancy masked balls.

The slaves' celebration had a decidedly African flavor. The fun offered tastes of ancient traditions in which merry-makers courted Lady Luck by parading around their villages in costumes and masks, often accompanied by stilt dancers and guys dressed as giant puppets, all to the pulsating thumping of African drums.

“Trinis,” as the locals call themselves, take Carnival seriously. So seriously, that some of the main competitive rounds get underway long before the big event. For instance, judges start sizing up groups of steel drummers (the country's national instrument) right after Christmas. Select bands are then invited to compete before judges and thousands of spectators on Saturday night (March 1) at an event called Panorama before Carnival officially begins.

Next, on Sunday (March 2), comes Dimanche Gras, a fierce competition to name the King and Queen of the masquerade bands. Their spectacular costumes typically weigh anywhere between 50 pounds and 200 pounds, depict colorful themes and are often enhanced with lights, lasers, fog and even fireworks.

J’Ouvert, the official start of Carnival, takes place just before dawn on Carnival Monday (March 3), when soca-driven revelers pack the streets covered in grease, oil, paint, chocolate or mud (a celebration of the darker elements of the islands’ folklore). After sunrise, masqueraders in glittery, colorful costumes take over the steets for a day and night of “jumping up” and “wining” (gyrating their hips) to music blaring from speakers piled on moving trucks.

The grand finale gets underway early on Carnival Tuesday (March 4) with the judging of masqueraders in full costume dancing wildly to (you guessed it) more soca. The grand champion is crowned “Masquerade Band of the Year.”

The solemnity of the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday (March 5) takes the wind out of the revelers' sails – until next year.

Sound like fun? Let's go to Trinidad.

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