Trinidad, the small Caribbean island nation located just off the coast of Venezuela, is home to one of the world’s largest carnivals. New World urban carnivals have their immediate roots in the pre-Lenten celebrations of medieval and Renaissance Europe. On such occasions large numbers of the people took to the streets to frolic and engage in satirical performances that often challenged social hierarchy and everyday order. When Euro-Catholic carnival practices were transplanted to the New World by French, Spanish, and Portuguese settlers, they mixed and mingled with the traditions of the African slaves and their descendants, resulting in the emergence of spectacular creolized celebrations in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Port of Spain, Trinidad; and New Orleans. Increasingly these festivities took on an African flavor, as African masking traditions and neo-African music styles featuring call-and-response singing, improvisation, and syncopated dance rhythms became hallmarks of urban carnival.
The development of carnival in Port of Spain, Trinidad, demonstrates this process. The original 18th-century pre-Lenten street processions of the French planters were eventually taken over by the island’s African population who blended their own emancipation celebrations into the European festivities. By the mid-19th century they had established a large-scale annual celebration in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Street rituals evolved around groups of masqueraders who paraded and danced to percussion ensembles and a chantwell who led the revelers in rowdy call-and-response singing that became an important source of modern-day calypso song. By the early post–World War II years ensembles of steel pan players (steelbands) became the main source of music for the street processions of carnival masqueraders (mas bands).
By the turn of the 20th century the noisy call-and-response street carnival singing developed into calypso songs characterized by lyrical melodies, bouncy syncopated rhythms, and a solo verse/chorus refrain structure. Drums and bamboo percussion instruments were replaced by string (usually guitar) and horn accompaniments. Calypso songs offered witty and satirical commentary on a wide range of social issues, current events, and lewd scandals, often mocking the pretensions of the upper classes. In the 1930s a number of calysponians boasting titles like Lord Invader, the Duke of Iron, Houdini, and Roaring Lion traveled to New York to record and perform. Eventually they would foment a calypso craze in the United States that culminated with Harry Belafonte’s 1957 hit, “Day-O.” By the late 1970s Trinidadian calypso singers were incorporating elements of American disco and soul music into their sound to forge the new style of soca (soul/calypso), which featured a pounding bass line, heavy drums, and riffing synthesizers. Soca lyrics, often based around simple choruses exhorting listeners to party and dance, generally lacked the sophisticated wit and sardonic commentary associated with earlier calypso songs.
The second important Trinidadian carnival tradition, steel pan music, grew out of 19th and early 20th century drum and bamboo percussion ensembles that accompanied singers and costumed revelers in carnival street processions. Sometime in the mid-1930s tamboo bamboo percussion ensembles began experimenting with paint and trash cans, automobile brake drums, and other metal objects. Players eventually discovered that different pitches could be achieved by pounding the bottoms of metal containers into different shapes and striking them with sticks. Following WW II, the first true steel drums were forged by pan tuners (builders) who cut oil drums into different sizes to produce a wider tonal range. More sophisticated techniques were developed for grooving notes, leading to pans capable of producing fully chromatic scales and conventional Western harmonies. By the 1950s steel pan orchestras were playing complex arrangements of calypsos as well as Latin dance music, American pop songs, and European classical pieces.
Steel orchestras grew in size, and today may number as many as 100 performers playing a range of pans divided into six or seven sections. The high-range tenor pans usually play the primary melodic line while the double tenors and double seconds double the melody or contribute second melodies. The mid-range cello and guitar pans provide chordal accompaniment. Full-sized, fifty-five gallon drums, arranged in six, nine, or twelve drum configurations, maintain a moving bass line. A trap drum set, one or more conga drums, an iron (automobile brake drum struck with a metallic stick), and additional hand percussion provide a dense rhythmic accompaniment for dancing.
Brooklyn’s West Indian Carnival, based on the Trinidad model, is the most recent urban carnival to rise to prominence. Originally staged in Harlem on Labor Day (in deference to NYC’s climate that would not allow for a large-scale outdoor festivities during the traditional mid-winter, pre-Lenten carnival season), West Indian Carnival moved to central Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway in the late 1960s where large numbers of West Indians were settling following the 1965 immigration reforms. Mas bands of fancy costumed carnival-goers dance to steel bands and sound trucks pumping out contemporary calypso and soca hits as well Jamaican reggae, Haitian konpa, and the latest pop music offerings from Grenada, Barbados, and Panama. By the 1990s Brooklyn Carnival had evolved into the largest ethnic festival in the United States, drawing an estimated two million people. The festivities stretch over the entire Labor Day weekend with a series of nightly concerts headlined by international calypso and reggae stars, fancy costume competitions, and a panorama contest featuring the borough’s top steel bands.