Playing Carnival In Grenada

When late August rolls around, it means carnival time on Grenada. After attending a pan practice, and seeing the colorful parade costumes being made, we were excited for the celebration to begin, and to attend some of the events.

Carnival was introduced to Trinidad by French settlers in 1783. Banned from the masquerade balls of the French, slaves would stage their own mini-carnivals in their backyards. They used their own rituals and folklore, but also imitated and sometimes mocked their masters’ behavior at masquerade balls.

As Grenada’s largest cultural event, carnival is celebrated as a public holiday. Called Spicemas, the ten-day celebration includes event such as “Pree Day,” (a soca reggae show), competitions for the best steel pan band at Panorama, bikini cruises, all-white attire parties and the highlight of the celebration, Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Attending events or participating is referred to as “Playing Carnival,” and we were ready to bring on the play!

The first event of Carnival Monday was J’ouvert (pronounced joo-vay), and began before dawn. Participants, known as “Jab Jabs,” gather on the street that runs along the carenage (or bay) in St. Georges, covered in paint and/or motor oil (yep, motor oil…used motor oil), and parade through the streets. The celebration continues through sunrise, lasting into the late morning. I’d definitely heard of carnival parades, but this J’ouvert thing was new to me, so I did some digging.

In some of the French-based creole languages of the Caribbean, J’ouvert means “dawn” or “daybreak”. The origins of the street party come from the emancipation of slavery in 1838, which provided Africans with the opportunity to not only participate in Carnival, but to embrace it as an expression of their newfound freedom.

It is believed that some J’ouvert traditions are in remembrance of civil disturbances in Port of Spain, Trinidad, when people smeared themselves with oil or paint to avoid being recognized. The original “Jab Jabs” were thought of as devils. They wore very little clothes, horned helmets, were covered in black from head to toe, with a tail, and their tongue dyed red.

Hmmm, we didn’t know what to make of this event. Unsure of a Carnival street party in the dark, with people covered in paint and used oil, we polled long-time cruisers in the area for information, as well as cruising friends who’d been to Grenada before. They all endorsed J’ouvert, saying it was not to be missed, but told us to wear clothes that we didn’t mind throwing away afterward. What were we in for??

With peaked interest and cautious excitement, we gathered with friends at  Prickly Bay Marina…at 4am, and loaded into a van that would take us to the downtown street party. As we approached St. Georges in the dark, groups of oil-coated figures lined the streets, making their way to the carenage area, chanting and rattling chains; there was no turning back now.

The van dropped us off, just as there was enough light to see, and we made our way down to the main street – straight into the oily crowd.

We decided that “liquid courage” was a good idea, and turned to find the nearest bar. Armed with drinks, we walked our white, oil and paint-free bodies into the crowd…let the games begin!

As the sun began to rise, we were able to get a more clear view of our surroundings. The crowd was full of men, women and children of all ages, making their way up and down the street. They were covered in paint, oil and even chocolate, with many wearing shower caps to protect their hair (quite a look!). People, black with oil, held onto chains as they snaked through the crowd, while others stopped to dance in the street.

Along the way, there were “oil stations,” trucks and carts with buckets, jugs and drums of oil available, in case you needed “freshening up.” As the morning progressed, we smeared ourselves with muck along the way. Scott found some people doling out paint, and decided to add some color to his oil.

Tractor trailers, stacked high with huge speakers acted as “bands,” blaring out music, with deejays entertaining the crowd from overhead.

Now I can safely say that an event like this would be drastically different in the U.S., full of stumbling drunks, fights, fights and more fights, with an occasional stabbing or shooting thrown in for good measure. Here, drinking was secondary to dancing and laughing, and the street was a sea of oily, friendly, happy people.

Back at our liquid courage starting point, we met up with our friends who had scattered throughout the crowd. From the bar above the street, we had a good view of the oily crowd.

Pick up time was approaching, so we made our way back to meet the van. It arrived, interior covered in plastic (smart man), and when our group of cruiser Jab Jabs were all present and accounted for, we climbed in and headed back to the anchorage.

Now I’m not one for nude bathing in public, but there was no way we were going to risk getting paint and motor oil inside the boat, or even in the cockpit, so Scott and I tied up the dinghy, stripped off our clothes, threw them on the swim platform and hit the water to get as much oil and paint off as possible before stepping foot on board. We quickly shoved some food in our mouths, and hit the bed; it was 9am, and we were exhausted. Round two was just around the corner, Monday Night Mas that same evening, so a big nap was in order.

We later learned that locals cover their bodies in shortening before the J’ouvert celebration. The kitchen staple becomes a Jab Jab’s best friend, acting as a primer for the skin before the oil, and making removing the stuff easier afterward…..a tidbit that would have been great to know ahead of time, as my arms itched for days afterward!

Here are some video scenes of our J’ouvert morning:

Carnival Monday ends with Monday Night Mas, a street “jump up” that begins well after dark, and continues until the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The parade is made up of “bands,” groups of people  wearing brightly colored t shirts and waving fluorescent wands, who dance down the street behind trucks of huge speakers. The trusty van dropped us off just before 8pm, and we secured a spot at our J’ouvert bar, to wait for the parade to begin.

As usual, this event was on “island time,” and the parade didn’t start until after 9:30. We could clearly hear music thumping from the many trucks of speakers, long before the parade arrived. In the distance, a glow of color appeared across the carenage, and before long, a sea of fluid, vivid color flooded the street. Sadly, my camera is terrible at night, so I borrowed some online photos of the colorful parade.

You could pay for a shirt and lighted wand, and march in the parade, we chose to just be spectators, knowing our stamina most likely wouldn’t make it to the end of the street party.

Things were just getting into full swing, when it was time to meet the van for pick up, but we enjoyed our time watching the colorful display of light and sound. It was just as well, we were still dragging from our J’ouvert party the night before, and still had one more day of play ahead of us.

Spicemas concludes in a big way, with Carnival Tuesday’s Pretty Mas, a costumed parade where fancy, feathered masqueraders fill the street. This is where the costumes that we’d seen being constructed would be unveiled, full of color and texture. Again, you can pay to have a costume made, and join in the parade. This was very tempting for me…not so much for Scott. Lucky for him, the cost was out of our budget, and we were again happy spectators.

We arrived downtown in the mid-afternoon, and waited in the Grenada August heat for the parade to begin. It wasn’t long before the first wave of colorful costumes came into view.

Each group was lead by a member wearing an especially ornate costume, in same color and theme of those that followed behind.


There were many children in costume as well, who seemed to be old pros at this Carnival thing.

Trucks of all shapes and sizes made their way down the street. The “bands” blared music that thumped in our chests, while mobile bars quenched the thirsty.

Surrounded by music from the many trucks, the paraders danced their way down the street.


Even this woman on the sidelines, in her 90s, couldn’t resist the music.

The ornate costumes were adorned with feathers, beads, sequins and lace, each one more beautiful as the next.

Many costumes symbolized Grenada’s plants and spices, such as sugar cane and nutmeg.

A group appeared, who were much different than the rest of the costumed crowd. They looked almost clown-like, with small mirrored pieces covering their costumes, webbed masks and bells around their ankles.

We learned that these men are referred to as Shortknee, and the mirrors function essentially as talismans, “protecting” the wearer by reflecting his enemies.

The Shortknees don’t have a band truck to follow, so they make music by a rhythmic stomping of their ankle-belled feet (the little bells are called “wooloes”), while chanting songs that are meant to “out” individuals who have offended the community’s moral codes. Shortknees reprimand in song, and express approval in showers of talcum powder. They must have approved the hell out of us, as the cloud of powder was so thick, we could taste it.

As it got dark, we headed back to what was now our “home” Carnival bar, where the music and dancing of Pretty Mas was still in full swing on the street outside.



Inspired, our friend Di learned some moves from some of the locals who shared our viewing area.

Our trusty van arrived to take us home, and again we arrived back on board Sea Life ready to collapse into bed; this playing Carnival really takes it out of you! The non-stop events of the past few days were a whirlwind of oil, lights, feathers and fun. We had a ball with our friends, as well as the friendly and inclusive local people. Spicemas was definitely a highlight of our stay in Grenada.

Here are video scenes from the very pretty, Pretty Mas:

And many, many more photos, of our time playing Carnival, in Grenada.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”




Preparing For Carnival – Pan Practice And Costume-Making

Spending hurricane season in Grenada meant we would be on the island for its carnival celebration. We’d experienced several carnival parades and such during our time in the Western Caribbean, and were excited to be in Grenada for theirs. Being so close to Trinidad, and in the Eastern Caribbean in general, we looked forward to a much bigger event.

Several weeks before carnival began, there was an announcement on the morning net, about a “pre-carnival” event. “Shademan”, one of the local taxi/event drivers (they all go by crazy nicknames), was taking a bus up to watch the local steel pan orchestra practice, and also to see costumes for the various parades being made. We were excited at the idea, and quickly replied to reserve our spot on the bus.

After the usual cramming in like cattle (more on this later), we made the short ride (thankfully) in Shademan’s bus, and arrived at a community center with a large, open concrete area in front of it. Spilling out from under a tarp were pans of all sizes.

I’m used to seeing one or two pans played at a waterfront bar, but never this many in one place, and never of so many different sizes.

We watched several sections practice, made up of children of all ages.

Different sections of the orchestra practiced together, as others players arrived. Here’s a video of a section of the orchestra practicing:

Over time, more players arrived, and by dusk the orchestra was practicing with a complete group.

When they took a break, the band’s director came over to welcome us, and took time to tell us about the orchestra, the pans and how they’re made.

Pans are built using sheet metal. Historically, they have been built from used oil barrels, but currently many instrument makers do not rely on used steel containers, and instead have the bodies manufactured according to their preferences and specifications.

The metal is first stretched into a bowl shape, known as “sinking,” which is usually done with hammers, or the help of air pressure. The note pattern is then marked, and notes of different sizes are shaped and molded into the surface. Each one creates a different note, subtly different from the ones around it, according to their position and size. The note’s size on the pan corresponds to its pitch; the larger the oval, the lower the tone.  Next, the notes are softened and tuned, to get the right notes for each playing area, as well as the desired pitch.

The size of a pan varies from one to another, with the length of the skirt (the cylindrical part of the oil drum) generally corresponding to the high or low range of the drum. A pan may have almost all of the skirt cut off, with many soprano-range notes.

Or, the entire drum may be used, with only a few notes per pan, in which case one person plays a group of pans.

In an orchestra, instruments are grouped together to create sections: horns, woodwinds, strings and percussion. Each section contains instruments that play in various parts of the musical scale, from the very high notes (soprano) to the very low notes (bass). The Steel Drum family of instruments is the same.

I found this great chart, with visuals,  showing types and sizes of pans we saw at the orchestra practice.

p1cph1-t.jpgLEAD                             Melody                                   Soprano
p2cph1.jpgDOUBLE SECONDS       Contra Melody, Harmony         Alto

dble-guitar-t.jpgDOUBLE GUITARS       Rhythm/Chords                       Tenor

cello-pans.jpgTRIPLE CELLOS           Rhythm/Chords Low                Tenor

tenor-bass-t.jpgTENOR BASS               Bass/Rhythm                          Baritone

six-bass-t.jpgSIX BASS                    Bass Line                                Bass

We learned that most bands are a real part of the local community. Young children are encouraged to join a band, from as young as five years old. They learn the art of playing the steel pan, but also are educated in community values and social standards.

After our pan lesson, the director led us into a building where costumes were being made for carnival. We expected a much larger room, and couldn’t believe how much production was going on in the small space.

Women were hard at work sewing and gluing, surrounded by piles of fabric, laces, trims and beads.

Headbands were piled on tables, headpieces hung from the ceiling, and skimpy outfits lined the walls.

The room was filled with different colors and textures, and screamed..Carnival is coming!

We were then lead into an even smaller, adjacent room, which was crammed full of finished pieces. Amid the room full of feathers and sequins, a man was cutting fabric…for still more costumes.

We came back outside to find the air filled with the sound of music and the smell of food. The food tent was up and running, selling barbecue chicken and oil down. The national dish of Grenada, oil down is a one-pot dish found at all island events, and is also made by locals for gatherings of family and friends.

Breadfruit is a staple ingredients in the dish, and vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, are added. Meat and fish, both salted and fresh, and crab are also used. Flour dumplings, lots of fresh coconut milk and turmeric, a key ingredient, round out the dish. Fresh turmeric gives the dish its signature deep gold-yellow hue and adds overall flavor.

There is no one set recipe for oil down, and each household and parish makes it to suit their taste. The oil down served at the pan practice was some of the best we had while on Greneda…delicious! I found a really interesting article about the history of oil down, where its ingredients came from, and how it’s made. Read it here.

By now, official practice was over, and the orchestra was playing for fun. The thunderous sound of all those pans was amazing. Here’s a video of these talented musicians, one of which having an extra good time:

We stayed and enjoyed the music, and our oil down, until Shademan came around to gather us back to the bus. It had been such an interesting, informative and fun evening! We were glad to have had a behind-the-scenes look at carnival preparations, as well as a delicious dinner, and were now extra excited for the upcoming festivities! Here are more photos of our evening of pan music and costume-making.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”