From the elaborate bejewelled costumes and feathered headwear to the parades of steel pan musicians, Caribbean carnivals have become world famous. While some events harness centuries-old folk traditions — embracing the use of makeshift instruments and wearing costumes that depict mystical characters — others have brought in modern-day elements such as performances by international reggae artists and the crowning of festival kings and queens. What they all have in common, however, is an infectious energy and a strong sense of cultural pride. Here are some of the best carnivals across the Caribbean.
1. Junkanoo Festival, Turks & Caicos
With roots in West African culture, the Junkanoo Festival of Turks and Caicos is thought to date back to the celebrations that plantation slaves enjoyed when given three days off over Christmas. Each year, across December and January, the 16-island nation continues this jubilant party. Locals donning handmade costumes parade through the streets, often playing traditional ripsaw or rake-and-scrape music, produced using a range of instruments including the humble saw. Considered a key cultural Bahamian artform, there’s a museum dedicated to the Junkanoo tradition, in downtown Nassau, Providenciales, where many of the best celebrations take place.
2. Mas Domnik, Dominica
Dubbed ‘The Real Mas’, this dazzling display of music, art and dance is considered one of the most authentic Caribbean festivals. It has strong ties to the island’s African and French creole roots by way of colourfully decorated BwaBwa (stilt walkers), bouyon music (a mix of soca, zouk and other Dominican musical styles) and traditional lapo kabwit drumming bands. Held across January and February and ending on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, you can also expect an impressive display of pageantry through the streets.
3. Carnaval Dominicano, Dominican Republic
While February’s Carnaval Dominicano has evolved to become a nationwide celebration of Dominican independence, one of its main centres is the town of La Vega in the middle of the country, where some half a million people come together to enjoy one of the Caribbean’s oldest folkloric traditions. Revellers compete for the best costumes — depicting a wide range of mystical characters — but the freakish limping masked demon, otherwise known as the ‘Diablo Cojuelos’, is the one not to miss.
4. Trinidad & Tobago Carnival Trinidad & Tobago
Having inspired festivals in all corners of the world, Trinidad’s Carnival, held in Port of Spain, is widely considered to be the Caribbean’s biggest and best. Usually held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, it brims with full-volume steel pan and soca beats, elaborate masquerade costumes and dazzling sequinned outfits that leave little to the imagination. In a similar way to other islands, the big feature of Carnival Monday, or J’ouvert, is the throwing of paint, flour, mud and, sometimes, clay. So, whether you’re spectating or ‘playing mas’ (participating), this is a carnival that requires you to fully let your hair down.
5. Crop Over Festival, Barbados
Pulsating calypso beats and a family vibe distinguish this July event, which, historically, celebrated the end of this island’s sugar cane harvest between the 17th and early 19th centuries. After the original festival ended in the 1940s, the re-imagined Crop Over of the 1970s and 1980s retained a flavour of the original traditions with features such as the Crop Over folk concert, ceremonial delivery of the last canes and crowning of the festival king and queen. Also at the heart of the celebrations are calypso and soca competitions, held at Bridgetown’s famous Kensington Oval, and highly anticipated Pic-o-de-Crop calypso music finals. Today, the carnival culminates in the Cohobblopot — a concert of local and international performers — followed by the Grand Kadooment (big party) where music trucks, elaborate themed costumes and masquerade bands parade the streets.
6. Sumfest, Jamaica
As the home of reggae, it seems only right that each summer, Jamaica puts its most treasured musical genre on the global stage. Featuring beach parties and concerts showcasing some of the world’s most famous reggae artists, SumFest — held in popular Montego Bay — has evolved since its inception in 1993 into one of the largest music festivals in the Caribbean.
7. Antigua Carnival, Antigua and Barbuda
Like many Caribbean carnivals, Antigua’s main summer festival has roots in the emancipation era of the 1800s. Its modern incarnation was established in the 1950s and features Queen of Carnival pageants, teen pageants, calypso and steel band competitions spread across 13 days. Taking place between July and August, it’s the highlight of the nation’s cultural calendar with food stalls filling the Antigua Recreation Ground, which is also the venue where marching troupes officially kick-start the event.
8. Spicemas, Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique
For ten days in August, Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique are awash with colour. This tri-island state celebrates the exuberant Spicemas carnival, also known locally as the August Mas. While this carnival didn’t take off until the late 1800s — almost 100 years after Trinidad’s — the spice-producing island of Grenada has a similarly vibrant schedule of pageantry, and calypso and soca beats. While the harbour capital of Saint George’s hosts the Sunday grand parade (Dimanche Gras), a unique element of this festival is the Monday J’ouvert parade where traditional Devil Mas bands dance through the streets from their parishes. Revellers cover themselves in paint, oil, mud, molasses and — this being a cocoa-producing island — even chocolate.
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