Carnival 101

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Carnival: A brief history

The origin of carnival varies depending upon who you speak to. Some historians believe that carnival started a pagan festival in ancient Egypt, others say it began as a Greek spring festival honoring the god of wine, Dionysus, which was later adopted by the Romans where they honored Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and Saturnalia with a feast. As part of that feast masters and slaves exchanged clothes amidst a day full of drunken revelry. was originally a pagan spring festival celebrated by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Roman Catholic Church modified the feast of Saturnalia into a festival preceding the beginning of Lent, which later evolved into a larger celebration of indulgences in music, dance, food, and drink, and led to present-day carnival.

The root of the word carnival is also questionable. Some trace it to the medieval Latin carnem levare or carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove meat. Over the years Carnevale or carnival has been translated to mean farewell to flesh, based from the Latin word carne for flesh and vale meaning farewell. This derivation has been accepted by many seeing how Carnival corresponds to the commencement of the rigid 40 days of Lent, during which Roman Catholics in earlier periods fasted and abstained from eating meat, among other practices. 

Carnival is celebrated in more than 50 countries. The first day of Carnival varies with both national and local traditions. Many countries celebrate carnival just prior to Lent, while others based around other historical or cultural events. Carnival generally includes events such as parades, street parties and other forms of entertainment. Many carnival traditions include elaborate costumes and/or masks, with carnival participants frequently indulging in copious amounts of alcohol, meat, and other foods that will be abstained from throughout Lent.

carnival in the caribbean

The inception of carnival in the Caribbean is a bit complex. It’s origin is connected to colonialism, religion, and ultimately freedom and celebration. Carnival in the Caribbean derived from Italian Catholics Carnevale in Europe, which spread to France and Spain. French and Spanish slave traders brought this tradition with them when they colonized Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands. Historians believe the “present-day” Caribbean Carnival started in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 18th century when French colonizers began their high-society tradition of Fat Tuesday masked parties on the island.

African slaves were excluded from participating in the celebrations and extravagant masquerade balls. However, with slavery ending in 1834 freed African slaves transformed the pre-Lenten European celebration into a celebration of the end of slavery that allowed them to celebrate their African heritage and culture and freedom through costumes, song, music, and dance.  African dance and music traditions remodeled previous forms of carnival celebrations in the Americas, as African drum rhythms,  stick fighters, enormous puppets, and stilt dancers started making their appearances in the carnival celebrations. Many of these components, dressing in masquerade, music, and dancing, continue to remain paramount to Carnival.

From Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival spread to many other islands, where the tradition fused with the unique local cultures, such as salsa showcases on Antigua, and calypso in Dominica. Some celebrations have even moved off the Easter calendar and are celebrated in the late spring or summer such as Batabano (Cayman Island), Vincy Mas (St. Vincent), Spice Mas (Grenada) and Cropover (Barbados).

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Carnival refers to various celebrations/festivals around the world, (but for Fete Finder we're referring to carnivals  in the Caribbean). A number of carnivals around the world take place right before the commemoration of Lent. Most (Caribbean) carnivals celebrate the historical and cultural past and traditions of the country and include music and dancing. When it comes to Caribbean carnivals, Trinidad is often considered the “Mother of Carnival”.


Fete: pronounced (Feht)
A fête, or fete is a party. It can be used as a verb (I’m going to fete tonight/I’m going to party tonight) or as a noun (My friends are going to have a huge fete tonight at the beach).


Jab Jab:
A person dressed up as a devil-like character during Caribbean carnival (best known during Spicemas (Grenada) but also in Trinidad and other countries). The word jab has its roots in the French word “Diable,” meaning “devil. So jab jab mean “devil, devil or double devil”. The historical reference for jab points to the term French slave owners in the Caribbean called slaves. The cultural reference of the Jab Jab during carnival has the devil threatening to abuse someone with a whip or chains and forcing them into providing something to the jab or performing some type of action for the jab (dancing with them, giving them money).


J’Ouvert/jouvay: pronounced (joo-vay)
J’Ouvert or jouvert is a street party held prior to dawn or daybreak. Many Caribbean islands as well as other cities and countries celebrating carnival and Caribbean culture include jouvert in their festivities. Jouvert translated from the Creole French word jou ouve’ means break of day/daybreak. Jouvert is considered as "dirty mas" where participants "wear" costumes of oil, mud, clay, body paint and even chocolate. Origins of jouvert are attributed to Trinidad and Tobago’s emancipation from slavery in 1838 and is still a part of their carnival traditions. In Trinidad j'ouvert kicks off the two official days of Carnival. Other islands celebrate jouvert during carnival and some prior to their country’s Emancipation Day.


Mas/Playing Mas:
Mas is a shortened form of the word masquerade. In reference to Caribbean carnivals mas refers to the costumes worn by  participants during carnival parades; these participants who are known as masqueraders dress up in costumes, masks and other disguises and dance or perform (play a mas) in masquerade bands (mas bands) during the parade.


Mas Band:
Mas bands are organizations that design and create costumes for masqueraders (see definition above) to participate in the carnival parade. Participants pay to wear these costumes and take part in the parade.


Groovy Soca:
Groovy soca was termed in 2005 by the International Soca Monarch competition organizers to refer to the slower tempo soca styles that had been popular in Trinidad and Tobago since the inception of soca music in the 1970s. Popular groovy soca artists include Kes the Band, Voice, and Teddyson John among others.


Power Soca:
The term power soca received it label 2005 by the International Soca Monarch competition organizers to refer to the uptempo jump & wave soca style that took hold in Trinidad and Tobago during the early 1990s. Well-known artists with popular power soca songs include Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, Mr. Killa, Skinny Fabulous, Lyrikal, among many others.


Road March:
The song that is played the most by DJs as mas bands cross various carnival judging points.


A musical genre created in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970’s by Trinidad music icon Lord Shorty in an effort to bridge the sounds of the country’s East Indian and African populations and revive younger Trinidadians interest in calypso. Lord Shorty created a fusion of calypso with East Indian music and referred to this new sound as the “soul of calypso” or sokah. Over the years soca has developed numerous variations to its tone, with varying countries and regions creating a different sound by incorporating different forms of instrumentation.


Wine or Whine: a dance style where dancers move their waist and/or hips in a “winding” (winding around either clockwise or counter-clockwise) motion.