It was several years ago now that I took my first trip to Antigua to try out their Carnival, it was a point in my life where I decided to take a risk and do something new and something different.
Each year I had travelled to and taken part in at least one new Carnival and already had Carnivals such as Trinidad, Grenada, Barbados, Notting Hill, Rotterdam and others under my Belt.
Hopping onto the Internet I started to do research and organising.
Preparing for YOUR Carnival trip can be a very serious and involved experience, there are lots of different things to consider that go beyond the obvious things like the flight you take, where you stay and the Carnival Band you choose to play Mas with.
I’ve always found it a bit of a contradiction, for me a Carnival provides the opportunity to indulge in the little child within, the clue is in the word “PLAY” Mas.
It also connects me with my cultural roots, gives me a chance to connect with people on the island, celebrate diversity, history and the best thing about a Carnival that I have found, is that regardless of how many times you go, there is always a knowledge that you are going to have the time of your life, and the Fun is in seeing how it unfolds and in what order.
A Carnival is organised chaos, it very much has a life of it’s own and it seems to reject being confined, contained or predicted. Each Carnival offers a framework that is slightly different from the rest that makes it unique, but regardless of the form that any Carnival takes each one will have occurrences that you cannot plan for, things that you may decide to do on the day or night that were not part of your plan, or things that don’t go-to plan but end up better than you expected.
I would argue that any Carnival that does not leave enough space for this randomness and freedom of movement will destroy the very thing that gives it life and makes it an experience rather than an event.
With this in mind I started by looking at the places that I hadn’t been to, at that time there was Brazil, Dominica (Mas Domnik), Carriacou, St Kitts (Real Mas) St Vincent (Vincy Mas), Antigua and St Lucia.
These were chosen based upon my knowledge of them, I knew I’d enjoy the Music, and a quick bit of research on Youtube was enough to let me know that the Festival would be an enjoyable one.
The next issue was the time of year and the cost, anyone who is serious about Carnival almost immediately begins calculating how much time, and when, they can get off work, what they can afford, who else is going e.t.c.
I settled on Antigua, almost no one else I knew was going that year, instead most were travelling to Barbados as the time of year for both Carnivals are almost the same, and a few were going to Grenada.
Antigua was a fantastic choice as it was new, and Grenada’s Carnival was immediately after it. I had been there before and with some planning, I could Fete for a week and Play Mas in Antigua, and then jump straight across to Grenada and do the same thing all over again!
SO I had decided what I was going to do, but I still did not know how I was going to do it. The Carnival and Soca scene is a great community, it attracts people with a very open and social mindset and for those who are within it making new friends and acquaintances is a standard part of existing within it. As a result I reached out to three of my friends who were Antiguan.
Two of them who were Sisters lived on the Island and one of them (Who was travelling to Antigua and Grenada like myself but with a friend) lived in the UK.
After brief conversations with both of them I had a plan, I would stay with the Sisters sleeping on a Couch (Couch Surfing) and then stay with my other friend once she arrived in Antigua a few days after me.
Everything was set-up, It was a new Island for me but unlike Trinidad where Mas Bands Sections and costumes can be sold-out within a few Months of launching, in Antigua things were a bit more laid-back which meant that I could arrange my Fete Tickets and my Mas Band when I arrived.
Everything was set!
7-8 Months later I flew to Antigua, I’ll always remember my time in the airport as they were giving out Rum Punch to the people who were arriving onto the Island!
I was greeted by the Sisters and once my bags were down I began to ask them that most important Question…………..”Who are you guys playing Mas with?”.
They looked at each other bemused and one of them replied: “Well I don’t know who YOUR playing mas with but WE’RE playing with Dynamics”.
I asked who Dynamics were and apparently, they were a much-loved Band in Antigua. When I travel to a new Island I dislike being surrounded by tourists and the opportunity to jam with the locals was appealing, however when I asked who they had playing the Music the other replied “Flames”…….
It took me a moment to realise they meant Red Hot Flames, a live band from Antigua that has produced some of the Sweetest Soca around today with Tunes like “Romans”, “Workey” and “Stampede”
Originally they were called Burning Flames but the Sisters told me that the Band Split and now you had two Bands, one that retained the Original name and Red Hot Flames that was run by one of the Other Brothers.
They must have seen the lack of enthusiasm on my face, and if they did they were right!
One Band? Playing their same old tunes over and over and over again????? Frankly, it didn’t sound like Fun.
One of the Sisters suggested that I sign-up with a Band called “Myst” It was their first year on the road and they had a DJ that played Music from all of the Islands.
But the Sisters were decided, they were playing with Dynamics and that was that!
I said I’d think about it, I was conflicted, on one hand I wanted to take part in the Carnival the way that someone local to the Island would, and also it was my first time and I knew the Sisters were not the type of people to go somewhere that they wouldn’t enjoy.
On the other hand I was thinking “ONE BAND!?” From ONE ISLAND!? And only playing their own Music? how does that work??? How can that be any fun???.
I put the decision to the back of my mind, I’d make the decision tomorrow. Tonight was the first Fete and I needed to prepare myself. Those who know me know that Carnival is like a Marathon of Fun, it’s non-stop fun from start to finish. So I got myself ready.
That night we went to the Wadadli Fete, I had plenty of Fun, Artists like Tizzy and Tian Winter were on the stage, and they had brought over a Live Band from another Island to take part in their Competition which was nice. It was plenty of Fun and the local Rum was Cheap and the Measures were Generous.
The well-lit bar that I was directed to had a decent selection of alcohol, but they did not have any of the Local Rums like English Harbour or Cavelier that I had been told about, but whilst trying to decide what to get I was lucky enough to spot a Man sitting in the middle of the yard with a Bottle and some plastic Cups on a table, I approached him pointing to the English Harbour Rum and asked if he was selling drinks. He put together a drink and I was delightfully surprised to find his pricing cheaper than the Bar and made a mental note to return when my drink was finished…….(My return was a little sooner than expected as during my first sip I realised that mix was composed of 85% Rum and 15% Coke and needed him to add some more Ice and Coke to Balance it out).
Half way through the night I was sandwiched between two local girls who danced with me during a performance by Tizzy (There was no escape…………neither should there have been), it was a crazy night full of Good Music, Jokes and fun.
Unlike Music performances of other Music Genres Caribbean Stage shows usually incorporate Humour, Theatrics, Messages, and in Antigua a LOT of Crowd Participation! This comes from the roots of the Musical styles in the Caribbean that often included Political and Social Commentary within the Music being performed and acting of some sort in order to assist in expressing the message embedded in the song. Some were Humourous and other were Serious, but they were all entertaining.
Morning commentary on last night at the Fete
The next day my other two friends had arrived, I bid the Sisters farewell. And told them I’d need one more day to decide who I’d be playing Mas with.
I’d be seeing them later that night for the Second Fete on the list called the “Lions Den”
It was essentially a Car Park, with a Stage erected and a Bar full of Drinks, lots of Antiguans went there each year, and a Low-quality video that I was shown by one of the Sisters made my Jaw Drop.
It was a video of the Lions-Den during the year that “Kick up Dust” was released by Red Hot Flames. And IT……LOOKED……WILD!
Here's a cleaner version of the Fete that year before the dust REALLY started flying!
Flames would play there for a series of nights on the lead up to Carnival from night-till Morning and then they would play on the Road for Dynamics during the Carnival.
I will take this moment to thank the Friends and Families that I stayed with in Antigua, in both places I was treated extremely well during my stay in Antigua.
We took trips to the Town and the Beach and I got a nice look at what life is like in Antigua, and I learned little things like they seem to LOVE Jamaica, they have their own Genre of Music there called “Benna”, Their National Bird is the Frigate Bird, They have 365 Beaches.......(That you can see I wasted no time in enjoying)........
..................and one of their national Dishes is a stew called Fungee & Pepperpot made with Cornmeal, Okra, and other ingredients, I tried it and it was delicious!
I asked my friends who they were playing Mas with (Half hoping they would give the name of another Band) but they both replied saying “Dynamics”.
This clinched it for me. I had a good idea of what I was getting if I decided to play with “Myst” but everyone seemed to be Signed up with Dynamics so I set things in motion that day to arrange my Costume with Dynamics…….Whats the worst that could happen right?
That night we went to the Lions Den, we met up with the Sisters, Flames started to Play and things got Crazy, I was told by one of the Sisters that “What Flames say Antiguans DO!” and she was right! Whether it was moving to the left, Karate kicking to the Right or moving backwards or forwards EVERYONE by the stage was doing it!
But that wasn’t the best part………Bear in mind that every song I had heard from Burning Flames and Red Hot Flames up until that point was recorded in a Studio, and played by a DJ in a Club.
This was a LIVE PERFORMANCE and they were playing from night till Morning!
The First thing I noticed was the Music, they were able to start the night with some of their slower tunes, this gave people a chance to talk, find out where they were going to stand, some people were already dancing by themselves or together. Laughing and Joking (I took the opportunity to get another drink from the Bar).
As the Tempo and pace began to increase I began to see the appeal of the live band, the first thing is that Flames were no Joke, these guys were playing right the way through the night and into Sun Rise.
How they got the energy to do this I have no idea, but their ability to connect with the crowd was amazing, they were able to increase the Pace and then decrease the Pace throughout the night, reading the crowd in a way that many DJ’s cannot. And the Live Performance was unpredictable, unlike a Pre-recorded tune Flames were able to freely interact with the Crowd, telling them what to do. Changing the Lyrics on a Chorus, or Singing the Lyrics of one tune on the Beat of another. They were able to perform their own interpretations of the tunes of other well known artists too. But even their own tunes sounded different outside of the confines of a recording studio. It had an energy that you could feel and you couldn’t help move too. They would drop the tune sometimes and cut the Music, and at other times build by stopping all of the instruments apart from the Drums, building anticipation before ramping up the energy levels by bringing all of the Instruments back in. And best of all their music had no definable start or end, or length of time, they would often flow from one tune to another…….or stretch a tune out for 7 Minutes if it really caught the crowd……it was amazing! time flew and before I knew it, it was morning.
By the end of the Fete I was completely sold on the idea of joining “Dynamics”.
The first day of Carnival was great fun, cheaper than most other Carnivals Jouvert started at around 4am and flowed smoothly past the day time and into the day time as we partied on the road and into the afternoon. Foam machines and Water Cannons were working hard cooling the crowd and adding to the craziness as people danced and celebrated to the Music on the various trucks. It was brilliant.
The next day I was on the road with Dynamics, a small voice inside was worried that after hearing Flames at the Lions Den that perhaps I wouldn’t have as much Fun today, maybe the Novelty would wear off and I’d spend the day walking beside the trucks with low energy levels.
The Sun was burning Hot while the Truck with Flames on it rolled up, people in their Carnival Costumes were standing wherever there was Shade and all of us waited while the finishing touches and adjustments were being made to costumes and Flames were doing a few of their Sound-Checks.
Then…….the truck started to move and Flames started to play, and the effect was immediate the Masqueraders started to Whine and go crazy! I could barely believe it but It was even better than my experience at the “Lions Den”. Enjoying a Fete Outdoors in good weather beats any indoor party in my opinion, but any party on the Streets is better than any Fete in a Static space…….This time we were moving down the road, dancing with each other and even some Spectators at times, at some point along the route a small paddling pool was set up and it was so Hot I jumped in and the Girl I was dancing with followed me in,
it was insane and soooo much Fun. And all the way Flames didn’t slow down, the Masqueraders rode a wave of high paced rhythm from the Musicians on the truck, down the road. The music was almost continuous and if you were there you just couldn’t stop moving.
We had started on the road a little before Midday passed through the judging point in the Stadium and after a short rest we partied into the evening. Later our band travelled to the Mas Camp where the Truck had parked and I was lucky enough to be introduced to and shake the hand of one of the lead performers in the Band Sir Oungku. He probably doesn’t remember it, but after seeing him and his band perform for hours on end both at Lions Den and on the Road for Carnival I felt it was a great honour and I had a new-found respect for musicians and their ability to entertain and move a crowd.
The rest of the night the Party went on in St John along the roads where the Antiguan Carnival takes place with lots of drinking dancing and good times shared amongst the locals and masqueraders.
It was a good Carnival and one I’ll never forget.
Later years would see my appreciation for live bands grow, in places like Dominica, St Eustatius, St Kitts, St Maarten the Virgin Island and others where Live bands exists and are still a part of the Carnival I regard these places as a treasure.
The Music they produce and the energy that they bring to the road cannot be understated, today technology and economics imperils the survival of these Live Bands. But should we lose them the Caribbean as a whole will lose something rare and very valuable, it’s likely that I will never hear Flames play that way again, and I’m ok with that because the fact the performance was one of an endless string of unique performances that will continue into the future is satisfying ands adds value to the memory. I truly look forward to the next time I can experience Live Music on the road again and doubtless it will be another unique and enjoyable experience.
During my time on the Island of Antigua, I found an old Car Licence Plate that I put into my Suitcase and carried to Grenada for the second half of my unforgettable trip.
I managed to find a man in Grenada who was able to drill two holes in it so I could thread it with String and wear it around my Neck to let people know where I had just come from for Spice Mas Jouvert Morning (Grenada's Jouvert Morning)………But THATS another Story…………
Dedicated to Onika Bostik
R.I.P: 23/12/1979 - 19/12/2004