P l a n e t
P a r t y 

It is rare that an entire country dances together, that more or less every one of its inhabitants who is able to overdresses or undresses and takes to the streets. However, in Trinidad, an island nation in the West Indies just north of Venezuela, this is an annual occurrence. Carnival, its principal festival, is celebrated in some way by most of its population, indeed, in the weeks leading up to the event, Trinidad is dominated by Carnival, and those of its citizens who object to the festival on moral or other grounds often chose to flee the country for its duration.

Carnival consists of 48 hours of non stop celebration. It is an explosion of sensuality, of pulsing music, of rum, sunshine, and provocative dancing, and it is decorated by a fantasia of disguises, which are months in the making, worn whilst the festivities last, and then are flung into the gutter or given away. Its celebrations are based around musical contests, in which Calypso songs, and steel band tunes are performed and judged, and costumed processions of perhaps 100,000 Trinidadians through the streets of their capital, each one of whom is aiming to surprise and please their peers with the energy of their dancing, or the daring of their disguises. It is an event where invention and expression are valued above all else, and one at which every Trinidadian hopes to titillate the imaginations of their fellow citizens with the shock of the new.

Trinidad is the most inviting of all the world's great carnivals – anyone can rent or buy a costume and join in the fun of “playing Mas”:

Playing Mas embodies the laudable philosophy that (pace voyeurs) it is more fun to join in than to look on. The Mas players form themselves into bands, and each band is in itself a mobile party. The bands are accompanied by music in the form of truck mounted sound-systems, and they proceed along the carnival parade route to a rhythm known as “chipping”, which is a shuffle in time to the music that combines self expression with forward motion, and conserves energy for “breaking away”, which is said to occur when the music seizes an entire band, who dance with a passion and intensity that invites exhaustion. Whilst they are breaking away, Mas players “wine and jam”. These are not a drink and a condiment, for carnival has spawned its own vocabulary, but rather are ways of dancing during the festival. Wining, which involves moving the hips round and round in time to the music in imitation of coitus, is a perfect demonstration of George Bernard Shaw's maxim that dancing is “a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire”. Wining can be done solo, or with one or several companions of either sex. It is a contact sport. Jamming, in contrast, is obeying instructions embedded in the music, such as “Put your hands in the air!”.

After chipping, wining, breaking away and jamming, the next most important form of behaviour on display along the carnival route is flirting. This activity, in Trinidad, is not a discreet example of the genre. Instead of relying on amorous sighs, sideling glances, and coded hand signals, Mas players telegraph their desires, and mime their intentions. The air is awash with pheromones, the music is overwhelming, and freedom of expression rules. Even if aspiring lovers do not succeed in communicating their proposals to the paragon that they desire to possess, their gestures will have been noticed by a hundred other pairs of eyes, some of which may be receptive.

The Mas parade course leads via a series of street parties, and even its quietest legs pass through crowds of people cheering and dancing, who infiltrate the bands for a wine or two. Refreshments are available en route - there are bars and food and drinks stalls at strategic points along the track, in the style of water stations along the path of a marathon. From the air, the Mas parade resembles a giant rainbow snake squeezing its coils through a convulsive crowd. Mas bands parade on Monday afternoon and evening, and all day Tuesday until midnight, the official end of carnival. Tuesday is the day when the bands are judged, the costumes come out in all their glory, and the Mas players dance as if the world were about to end.