So you’ve seen the dazzling costumes #lit…you’ve heard the infectious beats of the season’s best soca tunes #vibes…and you’ve been sold on the fact that Trinidad Carnival is #epic. Now you want in. You want to be a part of the hype, the energy, the bacchanal and give the performance of your life in the “Greatest Show on Earth”. If that’s the case, then this post is for you! Being a part of parade is as incredible as it looks, but it’s not as simple as you might think. This 12 step guide to playing mas in Trinidad Carnival is meant to help you navigate the process. One that begins almost a year in advance! It includes several resources that will be of great assistance along the way so happy reading and definitely bookmark for later!
Step 1. Confirm Your Budget
Carnival isn’t cheap. Even for someone living in Trinidad – who doesn’t have to factor in flights and accommodation – playing mas (and attending fetes) can become a pricey endeavour. So, before you even venture down this road, decide how much you can afford to spend. In the end, your budget will impact the type of experience you’re able to have – from how long you can stay, to the type/amount of parties you attend, to the band you choose to play with, to the type of costume you wear.
If you’re curious, here are a few estimates for some common Trinidad Carnival activities:
- Costume: US $900 (Female Backline) | US $1,200 (Female Frontline) | US $640 (Male)*
- Costume Accessories: US $150 (can be significantly cheaper depending on where you shop)
- Monday Wear: US $50-$300**
- Stockings: US $9 (Plain stockings from Micle’s) | US $52 (Sparkly fishnets from Carnivalista)
- Makeup: US $100 (One Day) | US $200 (Both Days)
- Fetes: US $50 (avg. cooler fete) | US $130 (avg. all-inclusive)
- Flight: Varies (recommend booking as early as possible)
- Accommodation: Varies (recommend using Airbnb)
* These costs are associated with the band I play with, Carnival Tribe. There are other options available at lower prices, which we’ll get to in Steps 2 and 3.
** This item will be dealt with in more detail in Step 5.
Step 2. Choose a Band
If you’re playing mas in Trinidad Carnival, you have to be part of a Carnival band. There are over 100 Carnival bands you can choose from, it all depends on your preference. Whether you love the sparkle and sass of “bikini and beads” mas or you’re partial to the theatre and drama of the more artistic presentations; whether you prefer an all-inclusive package or don’t mind a no-frills experience; whether you’re on a budget or ready to splurge; whether you want to get lost in a crowd of thousands or dance freely in a group of hundreds, there’s a band for you.
Here are some of the options to consider when it comes to choosing a Carnival band:
- Size: few hundred to 6,000
- Costume prices: US $200 to US $1,300
- Amenities: Inclusive of costume, drinks, meals, security, medics, pampering etc. OR costume only
Need help choosing a band? Global Carnivalist does a great job of breaking down the essence of each band in this post.
Step 3. Select a Costume
Once you’ve chosen a band and seen their “theme” for the next year, it’s time to select your costume. This might sound like a simple enough procedure, but it isn’t. Finding the ideal costume can mean anything – how the colors complement your skin to how the cut suits your body. At the end of the day, what is most important is that you have a costume that is compatible with your comfort levels – both financial and physical. Don’t allow yourself to fall in love with a frontline costume if you can’t afford it. And don’t agree to play in a section that doesn’t work for you simply because your friends are doing it. Regardless of your size, if you’re self conscious about your breasts, tummy or butt, that’s not going to automatically change when you don a skimpy bikini. Pay attention to details such the style of the bra, the thickness of the waistband, the cut of the bottom piece, and ensure that you’ll be comfortable rocking whatever you choose – in public…for an entire day.
Need help selecting a costume? Check out my detailed post on costume selection
Step 4. Register with your Band
Reserving your costume requires that you register with your band and make a downpayment. For some bands, this process is as simple as it sounds – you make a call, send an email and have someone make your payment at the mas camp. For others, particularly the more popular bands, it unfortunately may require super ninja skills. Or at the very least, a connection to a “committee member” or someone else directly involved with the band. Most of these bands facilitate online registration, however if you’re flying blind without any associates or acquaintances whatsoever in Trinidad chances are you won’t be able to access the necessary website links. If this is the case, I strongly recommend messaging these bands and/or costume designers directly via Instagram. If you’re still not making any headway, feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to assist. Once you’re “in” all that’s left is to pay off your costume by collection day and you’re good to go!
Step 5. Select Your Monday Wear
Once your costume is secured, it’s time to think about what you’re going to wear on Monday. That’s right, despite having dropped a small fortune on a costume, you’ll only be wearing it for one day – Tuesday. Monday still needs to be sorted out. Gone are the days when you could throw on a pair of sparkly boy shorts with a tube top and be considered ready for the road. Now, Monday Wear as evolved into a spectacle in its own right with female masqueraders going above and beyond to ensure they shine just as brightly on Monday as they will on Tuesday.
Your options for Monday Wear are as follows:
- Purchase an original item from a Monday Wear designer who specializes in creating elaborate outfits specifically to be worn on the first day of the Carnival parade. Many of them launch their lines in September/October, following band launch season, and if you don’t act quickly, they’ll be all sold out before Christmas rolls around. So, once August comes to an end, start tracking #mondaywear on Instagram to ensure you catch all of the lines being released by the best in the business. Approximate cost: US $120-$270
- Purchase a bikini/monokini or anything else on your own. You can wear it as is or customize it with gems and beads if you wish. Approximate cost: US $20 & up
- Select a swimsuit design and have a skilled seamstress sew it for you. You can also customize this option with gems and beads if you’re so inclined: Approximate cost: US $60
NB: I’ve done all of the above at one point or another but my favorite option has been to select a design and have it custom made by JESwear. It’s a lot cheaper, you get exactly what you want, and its unlikely you’ll run into another person wearing the same thing on the road.
Step 6. Schedule Your Makeup
No, it’s not a wedding. If it was a wedding, you could probably get away with waiting a little, but when you consider that for Carnival a small group of skilled makeup artistes are being called upon by the masses…you know you have to act fast. I’ve had instances where makeup artists were booked up by October because their clients “don’t stick” as we say in T&T. As such, I strongly advise you to do your research early. Find a makeup artist that can deliver a fierce look that will slay and stay with you all day, and make that appointment.
A few pro tips for confirming your makeup appointment:
- Bands usually start at 10 am on Monday and 7 am on Tuesday. Give yourself enough time to get your face done (1 – 1.5 hrs), get home and get dressed without having to rush to meet the band.
- Some makeup artists only take appointments for both Monday and Tuesday, but there are many who will allow you to schedule a session for Tuesday only. Don’t feel forced into booking both days unless your budget allows it. Shop around until you find someone who is offering exactly what you’re looking for.
- Many appointments start as early as 2 am in the morning. Avoid those if you can. You’ll just end up laying on you back for hours until it’s actually time to get ready.
- If you have a group of friends who’re all getting makeup done, its best to book one artist. Request a house call – you’ll be able to get your faces done together in the comfort of someone’s home!
- Prior to your session, share photos of your costume, as well as a few looks you like so you makeup artist knows what she’s working with in advance.
Step 7. Purchase Fete Tickets
Attending fetes (parties) isn’t a requirement for playing mas in Trinidad Carnival but it is an essential part of building the hype. That being said, tickets for some of the season’s best fetes are usually sold out before the new year. You’ll want to get a jump on purchasing them. Luckily for foreigners, most fete tickets can be acquired online through services like islandetickets.com. Depending on the length of the season, there can be as many as 200 fetes between New Years Day and Carnival Monday. However if you’re looking for those that get top billing, check out this list of 7 fetes you should purchase tickets for by December. I also strongly recommend staying tuned to event sites like TriniJungleJuice.com to access the full Carnival 2020 calendar as soon as it becomes available so you can plan your schedule and book your tickets accordingly.
Here are the main fete options available:
- Cooler fetes:
- DJs with live performances
- Price range is usually US $50-$80
- Bring your own drinks in a cooler
- Dress code: Casual
- DJs with live performances
- Price range can be anywhere from US $120-$280
- Food and drinks are included in cost
- Dress code: Ultra trendy
- Artiste concerts:
- Live performances
- Price range is usually US $60 (general) – US $200 (VVIP)
- Anything from all-inclusive to patrons having to pay for all drinks/food
- Dress code: Whatever you want it to be
Step 8. Learn the Music
Costumes aside, playing mas in Trinidad Carnival comes down to one thing – the music. The quality of the songs and your familiarity with them can make or break the experience for you. So, before you even set foot on the plane, you need to make sure you know the songs of the season. The best way to do that (in my humble opinion) is to follow DJ Private Ryan and listen to his soca mixes religiously until you can sing every tune word for word. Trust me, it makes all the difference being able to cross the stage, and chip behind a truck, to a song you can sing along to versus a song you’ve never heard before.
Popular artistes you can also follow:
NB: This list is based on my preference and taste. Feel free to explore beyond these names to discover many other soca artistes who are dutifully delivering amazing tunes year after year.
Step 9. Gear Up
Yes, you’ve paid a small fortune for a costume and possibly dropped a notable amount on Monday Wear, but that doesn’t mean your looks for Carnival Monday and Tuesday are complete. Nope. You’ll still need accessories to enhance your costumes, along with a few more practical purchases to ensure you’re prepared for the road. If you’re flying in, I strongly recommend purchasing most of these things before you land in Trinidad to save some money. However if you can’t get them before you arrive, stores like Micle’s and Wonderful World are open everyday (including Carnival Sunday) for all the last minute shoppers and they’re stocked to the ceiling with everything you could possibly need.
Here’s a sample Carnival Shopping list:
- Sunglasses (I strongly recommend getting a cheap pair since the chances of losing them are quite high)
- Stockings (2 pairs, glittered up fishnets are currently trending)
- Face gems
- Costume jewellery (earrings, bangles, rings – as much as you need for your look to feel complete)
- Bag (I recommend a small wristlet or crossbody bag with zips to keep your items secure)
- Dr. Scholl’s insoles
- Hand sanitiser
- Oil absorbing sheets
10. Collect Your Costume
Costume collection is my third favorite Carnival experience, after the parade and fetes. The excitement of opening that box and seeing your costume for the first time is inexplicable. However, if you’re not based in Trinidad, chances are you may not be on the island early enough to collect your own costume. In this instance, your best bet is to have someone collect your costume for you – all bands facilitate this once you provide the name and ID number of this person. If you somehow don’t have someone to collect on your behalf, contact your band directly to make alternative arrangements.
11. Make Adjustments
As soon as your costume is in hand, try it on. Try it on because you’re excited to see how it looks, but also to identify if there are any issues with fit or form. If there’s a gem missing here or a fallen feather there, fret not. That comes with the territory. However, if you have pieces that don’t fit or that are actually broken, this is the time to contact your band so they can make the necessary adjustments or repairs. If sizing is your main issue, another option is to hop on websites like fineahband.com. Many people use this medium to exchange difference pieces of their costumes with persons who need the size they have and have the size they need. Believe it or not, this is a very important step in the process so whatever you do, don’t wait till Carnival Tuesday to put on your costume for the first time.
12. Enjoy Playing Mas in Trinidad Carnival!!!
You’ve expended a lot of time and energy and spent quite a bit of money. Now the only thing left for you to do is enjoy the fruits of your labor and have the best time possible on the road! Embrace the vibes of whichever band you chose, bask in the glamour of whatever costume you selected…and just live in the moment! Carnival is one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had and it can be the same for you. Decked out in your gorgeous costume, you feel like Superwoman and a Princess all at once. Dancing to the pulsating beats of the season’s best soca tunes, you feel like you’re conquering the world. Crossing the stage is a high that can’t be replicated. Soak it all in. Take all the pictures. Freeze these memories to look back on later. Because in two days, it’s all gone and you’ll be counting down the days until you can feel it all over again next year. So make it count.
I’m a certified Carnival addict and a self-proclaimed Carnival Jumbie. I’m the first person to start the countdown to Carnival and the last person to recover from Carnival Tabanca. I wrote this post to help anyone who’s hoping to indulge in this next-level epicness even once. I hope it’s useful, and of course if you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments or email me directly. That being said, I can’t possibly know everything, so if you’re a pro at playing mas in Trinidad Carnival and have any resources you can share be a gem and drop them in the comments as well. We’ll all be eternally grateful!