VIP partying and the cost of Trinidad Carnival
By Jabari Fraser,
reporting from Port of Spain
"I here with my friend and dem,
We partners straight to the end,
We have real money to spend,
So if you know who's yuh real brethren...
Let we pop a bottle!"
That’s one of Machel Montano's popular 2015 soca songs, celebrating the wild expenditure on food, drink and wine that seems necessary for an enjoyable carnival nowadays.
If you have any intention of enjoying yourself at Trinidad's pre-Lenten Carnival, get ready to spend big.
After liming at the pre-Carnival fetes (massive parties, sometimes with tens of thousands of patrons), then buying a costume and accessories to jump in one of the popular bands, you could find your personal finances winin' dangerously below the red line.
So is Carnival simply becoming too expensive and out of reach of the average person?
The all-inclusive concept
Over the years, the "all-inclusive" fete has taken over and become the most in-demand of the options on offer.
There are no longer any fetes that cost under TT$850 (US$134).
Many have already broken the TT$1,000 (US$158) frontier, with some "ultra-premium'' events listing their cost at US$500.
Wine bars, rum sections, beer stations and food stalls catering to any aspect of the Trini palate can be found with ease at the best "all-inclusives".
According to 2013 Central Bank of Trinidad & Tobago wage figures, the annual income ranges between just over TT$50,000 in the agricultural sector to just over TT$300,000 a year in the petroleum industry.
Yelenah Felix is an avid young masquerader.
"My costume cost nearly 5,000 [TT] dollars. On accessories... $450. And that is mas' alone. There's still the cost of the season leading up to Monday and Tuesday," she told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Like many other young professionals, she loves to feel the soca beat pumping through her body on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
That’s the drive that keeps her going – and makes her keep spending. She plays mas' with one of the biggest and most popular bands, Tribe.
"But that total does not include boots and Monday-wear, which for me is another, like, $600."
Masqueraders are willing to dive deep into their pockets for those two days of fun.
A man famous for writing about the fantasy mas', acclaimed Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace, believes the question of Carnival becoming too costly is multi-layered.
"A short answer could be yes. It depends on what the people want to do. If the people want to play mas', they can be inventive, creative," he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Wearing his "uniform" of white cotton pants and a white shirt, steel band banging away, with a flag woman winin' on stage, at the annual Panorama competition, he said: "I think that part of the problem is that whereas before, people lived in Port-of-Spain, you have very few people living in the city now.
“So Nelson Street, George Street, Duke Street [areas where Carnival started], these places used to be places where people lived. And so when you played a mas' there, you were playing it in your community."
Footsie in Carnival
Each year, there are new additions to the best parties, from make-up re-touch tents to wifi zones where partiers can upload colourful selfies.
Body massages are doing the rounds on fete promoters' "must-have" lists and patrons are even willing to fork out extra for them.
Lisa-Marie Laveau-Best is operating her masseuse table at the Panorama semi-final competition.
Her service is one that people do not mind paying for at Carnival time.
"A lot of people go to a spa where they have to pay $800 for a spa or a full-body massage. We're providing on spot service. It is not free, it is $45 for an upper body massage," she told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Despite global drops in oil prices and T&T's dependence on energy for nearly 45% of its GDP, fete-goers want to jump to foot-blistering, next-day-back-hurting soca, yet keep their bodies healthy too.
Ms Laveau-Best says oil-money woes do not get in the way of rum and fete: "Absolutely not. In fact, people are tipping very well. But what is happening is that coming closer to Carnival, people are saving their money to purchase their fete tickets and whatever."
Panorama - the final frontier?
Joan and Charmaine, two good friends and mature feters, have been attending the national percussion festival that is Panorama for more than two decades.
Tickets for the prime partying location, the North Stand, now change hands for $350 (US$55).
"I've been in the North Stand every year,” says Charmaine. “It has increased, but I don't mind paying it. This is unique, it is once a year, we are part of all of this. This is who we are, so why not?"
They are both willing to pay to hear Desperadoes, Renegades and Exodus – all bands that have plucked their names from classic 20th Century cinema epics. But they are not willing to give their money to bandleaders, or even fete promoters.
"I do not play mas' anymore. It is not worth it. Not to me," said Charmaine.
Joan said, "I have been to all-inclusive fetes until about two years ago. I do not think I want to participate in all-inclusive fetes anymore. I think they have become ridiculously expensive. The length of time you wait to get to the bars or whatever it doesn't compensate. The last one I went to was at Central Bank and I think I got value for money.
"I remember last time I played, when I got my lunch, I won't call the name of the band, it was sour. So it is definitely not worth it."
How much more?
Ancil Lopez, employee at a local media network, says his company sponsored North Stand tickets for employees, who only had to pool money for food and booze. He does not believe some all-inclusive prices are excessive. "I think the price is reasonable, because of the cost of things these days."
A quick 10-person survey of patrons at the Panorama semi-final showed that guests there were not likely to pay more than TT$400-650 for an all-inclusive fete ticket.
This year, at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine's all-inclusive 25th edition jump-up was priced at a whopping $1,250 (US$197).
It is believed to be the best "affordable" all-inclusive, not in the price league of Brian Lara's slamming party or Hyatt Trinidad's "Lime".
Despite some people’s reported reluctance to hand over that amount, the UWI fete, by all accounts, was well-enjoyed.
Brass festival blues
Toting his trumpet at two or three shows a night, backing up Soul Train Award-winning artist Bunji Garlin, musician Demetrius Fraser laments that the fete is no longer what it once was.
He told Caribbean Intelligence©: "I'll have to say yes, it is becoming too expensive to fete. What I'll also say is: I wish a lot more of that money would come to the musicians and not the promoters."
These days, he makes most of his money playing with the Asylum Vikings – the band that accompanies Bunji and his soca star wife, Fay-Ann Lyons.
Their nightly task is to play one all-inclusive after another.
The needs of the people
In years gone by, each of the major public service companies could be relied on to host a massive party.
Some of them earned reputations for being very wild and even turning violent, with some patrons sneaking in weapons. That rougher element is something that better-off partygoers will pay to avoid.
"This market is driven by the need of people or the want of certain people to get away from a certain crowd, let's be blunt about it,” says Demetrius Fraser.
“Feteing is definitely out of reach. That's one of the topics that we've been talking about in small groups all through this season. Right now, there are no major public fetes. WASA [Water and Sewage Authority] less than 2,000 people, Fire Service Fete was less than 1,000."
The musician says those who cannot afford all-inclusive parties have few options at Carnival time.
"What's happening to the people who can't afford to play mas', with the big all-inclusive bands and the booths all around the Savannah and the people not making the kind of money they used to make?" he asks.
"They're there in their heels and nice clothes, just there to raise dey [their] hand and give you a little clap. Not like the true spirit of Carnival, where people come to sweat and scream and jump and run in their old shoes, we not seeing that anymore.
“It cuts us off from our whole source of inspiration, the place to feel what you're doing, your music. It's not there.”
One seasoned partier, journalist Sampson Nanton, has covered and reviewed a fete or two in his career. He believes that as some prices go up, the thrill and enjoyment levels go down.
"Now, you go to enjoy yourself in the general sections rather than the VIP, exclusive sections and there seems to be more 'vibes'," he says.
"In fact, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday was in Prestige [his alma mater Presentation College's all-inclusive party], he was up in the front of the stage. Machel Montano called out to Basdeo Panday and asked him what he was drinking and people were just gravitating to him. The exclusive sections of the fetes weren't bringing out the sort of vibes that you get in the general section."
J'ouvert band leader Vince Charles, a businessman, puts a different perspective on things.
"I think some of the band leaders jack the price up and it is not fair. Even though of course, it is an expensive gamble with security, food, drinks, it's expensive,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
China Syndrome and money
Stephen Deryck has been involved in the Trinidadian Carnival art of wire-bending for 52 years. This year, however, he has not designed his own range of costumes.
He is tired of wasting effort on creative, economical, locally-made costumes, while large-band leaders import most of their costumes semi-completed.
"I was watching some prices. Costumes have reached as much as TT$12,000 and $15,000 and it doesn't cover everything.
“I totally find that the price of costumes has gone out of the reach of the average Trinidadian and Tobagonian."
This year, after repeated requests from his children, he decided to make mas', but under another band's banner.
His fanciful designs and artful wire-bending, learned under the masterful Bailey Brothers, has earned him Medium Band of the Year titles for 13 years straight and seven Queen of Carnival titles.
Imports 'killing traditions'
From his "Mas' Camp" in Newtown, wire, glitter and shards of cloth all over the yard, he theorises that the importation of costumes is profit-driven and is destroying the mas'-making tradition.
"Let us get back to creating our own costumes, cut out this China, India, Brazil, Japan syndrome. The piracy and the copycatting, we not supposed to be copying costumes from any other carnival."
Very proudly, he asserts, "I never did a costume for over $2,000. Anytime I have to do that, then I'm totally out of carnival."
From the professionals, to the pan men, musicians, promoters and mas'-makers, Carnival is a merry time. There is no doubt that with each road celebration, having fun gets more expensive.
The fetes are becoming one-stop shops for over-indulgence, with price tags to suit.
Even so, there is still an element of Carnival for everyone. It’s up to you whether or not you are prepared to empty your wallet and your bank account just to "pop a bottle!"