The Ultimate Guide to Carnival in Jamaica
If my Jamaican carnival experience was a song, it'd be Overdue by Erphaan Alves.
Can you believe that this year will mark my FIRST time jumping Jamaica Carnival? It honestly still baffles me. There's something unexplainable about experiencing carnival in your home country. This year is special - I can feel it - from the music to the overall vibes and the timing could not be better to find myself on the road!
For too many carnival Sundays, I have sat in the cold Canadian winter, feeling sorry for myself and trying to avoid social media at all costs. As a first time reveller in Jamaica, but many time observer, I wanted to build this guide to help any prospective revellers maximise the complete Carnival experience, or for professional bacchanalists to share their own tips.
While I'd be hesitant to call myself a veteran, I have jumped carnival twice in Barbados. Being able to experience Crop Over allowed me to have test runs for Jamaica (and hopefully one day, Trinidad). From these two jump ups, to the countless soca parties I've attended, to my general knowledge about Jamaica, I have managed to accumulate some tips and tricks that hopefully you will be able to refer to in times of need.
As I am a bit short on personal photos, I turned to my friends and Twitter followers. I wanted this article to be truly representative of Jamaicans and their carnival experiences. The road is a welcoming space, and we should continuously strive to make it a more inclusive environment.
Buckle in guys, this is a long one.
I'm going to be real here, Jamaican Carnival is a fairly recent concept. Most West Indian carnivals possess a deeper, more complex and historical meaning than we, Jamaicans, could even imagine. While you may hear us bawling out 'Savannah Grass' on the road- we simply do not have one. We don't even cross the stage- let alone any stage.
For many other nations, carnival goes beyond the one or two daily festivities. In Trinidad, carnival leads up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of lent. From the steel plan to stick fighting, Trinidadian carnival is one of the most renowned for a reason. In Barbados, the name 'Crop Over' represents slaves' celebrations marking the end of sugar cane crop. While I'll save the extensive history lessons to the professionals, some may say that Jamaica's history isn't as 'meaningful'. For a brief overview of our history, I love this article.
It may be possible that Jamaica's Carnival history and meaning is currently being written, but as of now...we love de wildness and getting on stink and dutty. A lot of our carnival culture is, quite frankly, not our own but influenced but other nations' versions. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with that as there are aspects which make our carnival unique. Dancehall is slowly (ok, don't come for me) making it's way into some amazing soca collaborations that are truly representative of the vibes that Jamaica Carnival has. Nailah and Shenseea?? Is that even a question??
Over the past two to three years, Jamaica's Carnival scene has visibly changed immensely. This change has significantly increased Jamaica's potential, not only in aspects of tourism or popularity, but also internally by creating job opportunities and supporting local industries. There's more band choices, nuff fetes and people are attending from all over the world. It's a completely different ball game to the one I grew up around.
Maybe one day, we will discuss how classism in Jamaica has historically favoured carnival and its practices whilst simultaneously shaming dancehall- but that would take a whole blog post.
Carnival in Jamaica occurs every year on the Sunday one week after Easter Sunday, but preparations start far in advance. Trust me, it isn't your typical last minute, 'wing it' event. Preparing starts early, and entails a lot more than you'd think, and that begins with band selection.
Get in Yuh Section!
Every year, around November, you're going to want to be on the look out for band launches popping up across the island. If you're jumping carnival, your band is your core. While I chose to jump with Xodus Carnival, there are many other options for revellers to choose from. Currently, these include Bacchanal Jamaica, Xayamaca International, and One World Rebellion. In the past, Jamaica Carnival has also been an option to patrons.
Make sure to do your research. There are multiple resources, from carnival vlogs on YouTube to testimonies from friends. If yuh craven, ask about their lunch. If you hope to see a specific artiste on the road, stalk their IG for an idea of where he'll be. Kes, aka di gyal dem 'I Shall Return', I'm coming for you this year. Play smart. Bands often provide benefits to their revellers, whether it be after parties or discounts on services from their sponsors. At the end of the day, you're investing your money into a band. Spend wisely.
Your decision to jump with a band could be affected by your friends' choices, costumes, costs, their vibes on the road or (let's be real) band loyalty. While choosing a band can kind of seem like a cult decision, or involve nuff politics, don't take it too seriously. Carnival is about happiness, love, positivity- and all the other words the thesaurus can provide. Getting caught up with the competitiveness, whether on an institutional or personal level, is not beneficial to anybody.
Once you choose a band, you're going to want to pick your costume as soon as possible. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing your favourite choice sold out. Don't let it happen to you. If you know that you're jumping, put that deposit down to secure your spot. You want your costume to make you feel confident, sexy and comfortable. It's a day of celebration, and feeling self-conscious on the road is the absolute worst.
There are multiple costume types to choose from. As the customer, you have the choice and bands are very accommodating. From monokinis to bikinis, to wire or regular bras, to full coverage bottoms to thongs. There's even the option of t-shirts or wear your own 'Sunday Wear' (a twist on Trinidad's Monday Wear). Be smart and true to yourself. You know yourself (and your body) better than anyone else. If your boobs tend to fall out, choose a costume which will accommodate that. Personally, I feel uncomfortable with my batty outta doors, so I don't opt for a thong.
Costumes range from backline to frontline (or even super frontline). While these terms can sound confusing, they basically break down what your costume offers. Prices increase based on whether costumes include feathers, headpieces, body pieces. Naturally, as frontline costumes include more, they cost more- you can figure it out.
While feathers and accessories are absolutely stunning, they can be a nuisance. Wanting these add-ons can determine whether you're paying nuff. If it's for a couple pictures, question yourself if it's worth it. Personally, leg and arm pieces tend to bother me. If I don't have to pay for them, I won't as I know they'd get fling off within the first two hours on the road. It's important to also take into consideration the style of feathers your costume has. Over the years popular feather choices have ranged from headpieces to collars to, now, backpacks. I highly prefer backpacks as I find them easier to tie, and they're not *as* obstructive as some others.
As your costume (is likely) the most expensive factor in your carnival experience, you need to budget! Determining how much you want to spend on a costume may vary based on which parties you want to attend- so think smart and save, save, save.
Fete (Out Money)
Over the past few years, the amount of soca fetes in Kingston alone have tripled. While they may start from after Christmas, in sync with Trinidad's Carnival, they tend to become more popular after Lent begins.
My favourite way to keep up with fetes in Jamaica is to consult the holy grail- Lucy and Vagabond. They are such a key resource and do all the work for you (thanks btw). Every year they release the ultimate Fete List which displays all feteing options. This is a perfect way to evaluate all yours choices, and prioritize parties. This will allow you to budget in advance, and be on the look out for early bird and presold tickets. Being on top of your game is essential, and after paying your costume's bill, you definitely won't want to pay for an expensive, last minute ticket.
For those who aren't jumping carnival, fetes are the perfect way to experience the energy and excitement of the season. Carnival Sunday is not everyone's cup of tea, but luckily one can have an equally amazing experience by solely attending parties. Attending multiple fetes can cost just as much as playing mas. For some it's an argument of quality versus quantity, but as the reveller you have the choice.
Unfortunately, I'm not a hype gyal yet and am yet to receive endless comp tickets. While I can't review every individual party for you, there are many which have established names for themselves. Whether it be organizations from other Caribbean islands, or Jamaican companies, it can be fairly easy navigating the 'hits' and 'misses'. I'd recommend trying to attend one of every 'genre' of party. For instance, try and focus on attending at least one breakfast party, day party, night fete, and J'Ouvert for the season.
There's nothing better than a good breakfast or day party- all the Fashion Nova goodies roll out and being able to go to bed early is a plus. For me, waking up for a breakfast party is like waking up Christmas morning. There's definitely a different kind of aura and vibe to the day, and I always make the best memories. For Breakfast parties, Sunrise Breakfast Party and Rum For Breakfast are notoriously known as go-to's. One of the most legendary day parties, no matter what island you go, is Private Ryan's Soca Brainwash. The line-up alone is some of the best DJ's available, and you'll have an amazing time guaranteed.
Now, there's endless night fetes that you can't really go wrong with. If I have one piece of advice for you, it's to attend I Love Soca. Honestly, I wish this was a #sponsored #ad but it's not. For years I prioritized many parties over I Love Soca. WELL. Let me tell you, that I attended my first one in December 2018 and I am yet to stop talking about it. It is not as expensive as many other parties, and it definitely is a quality fete. Catch me on the cooler top at the front of the stage April 24th. One party that I'm looking forward to attending for the first time is Xodus' Tailgate. It's always exciting to attend parties with a unique twist- and Tailgate is just that. If anyone has a horse you can lend for free admission...hit me up.
One of the most pivotal moments leading up to Carnival is J'Ouvert. There's nothing like being pelted with paint and powder in the early morning. While the traditional J'Ouvert dates vary on the island, Jamaica's J'Ouvert typically happens Friday Night/Saturday morning before Carnival Sunday. The most popular J'Ouverts to attend include Caesar's Army: A.M. Bush and Bacchanal J'Ouvert. Bacchanal's event happens in town, and is a guaranteed good time- no extra effort included. However, if you want to fight up yourself to have a good time (like me, boo boo the fool), Caesar's Army is for you. To participate, you have to go through an application process, which isn't guaranteed, and pay a bit more than a typical J'Ouvert. However, it is an experience of a lifetime and highly acclaimed across the Caribbean.
If you are unable to attend these traditional J'Ouverts, there are other alternatives such as Cocoa J'Ouvert and Bacchanal: Beach J'Ouvert. Cocoa J'Ouvert typically occurs a month before carnival, and locations can vary across Kingston. Instead of paint and powder, a cocoa mix is used. While it is a somewhat strange consistency, considering its warm, it's just as wild and festive (and the cocoa is moisturizing...you can @ me for saying this). Bacchanal, additionally, hosts Beach J'Ouvert one week before their town staging. This day J'Ouvert takes place in Ocho Rios, and brings out the duttiest behaviour you've ever seen. A classic.
While not as well-known, I would also like to collectively include boat cruises in this list. Listen, I am not sure why they are yet to become a popular go-to in Jamaica, but we are fumbling the bag! While I've seen a few events pop up, I'm yet to see everyone come out in their numbers. I've been to boat cruises in both Trinidad and Barbados and they were the absolute highlights of my trip. Maybe some people go Maiden Cay too much and not phased by going on a boat- but if you've been on the Harbour Master you'd understand.
For many, UWI Carnival is a large component of the season. It's an alternative if you want the carnival experience but on a smaller scale. It occurs about a month and a half before the 'main' Jamaican carnival, on the University of the West Indies Mona campus. It truly is a mini, condensed version of carnival with their own array of bands, costumes, fetes, J'Ouvert and more. For students, this is a completely viable option to consider regardless of whether or not you plan to attend to the 'main' carnival.
With your parties, you want to make sure to preserve your energy and not tire yourself out too much in preparation for Carnival Sunday. Since J'Ouvert is Friday night/Saturday morning, I stay my ass inside all day Saturday and start my prep in advance. It's nice to relax before the madness, and treat yourself to a self-care day.
Attention all hot gyals, if you know then you know that carnival prep starts far in advance. There are many logistics that go into looking tun up that may seem menial but are very crucial on the day-of.
Firstly, if you want your makeup, hair or nails professionally done, it is optimal to book these appointments as soon as possible. Not only will this ensure a good day and time, but it will relieve a lot of stress. I have heard of mad head people who reserve their slots for the following year from the minute they take off their costume. However, some services open their carnival bookings during certain time periods so keep an eye out. Your favourite MUA, hair stylist or nail technician is also someone else's favourite. Fight for that slot, gyal.
If you do not opt to get these things professionally done, and prefer to do it yourself: practice makes perfect. Watch YouTube tutorials, stalk Pinterest boards, and attempt to replicate looks in your free time. Not all expectations will be a reality, but you will learn what looks good on you. Perfecting your look, in advance, will speed up your routine on the morning of, and reduce *some* anxieties. Trust me, as someone who does my own hair and makeup, you will only feel carefree once you're on the road. If it brings any comfort, everything looks mash up by the end of the day anyways.
Some pro makeup tips? Waterproof makeup is your friend. Climate change is real, and the weather is unpredictable. Jah kno, maybe you're a drunk crier. Runny mascara is not cute. Setting spray, however, is your best friend. That shit will hold your face through hell and back; whether its sweat, rain, or someone spilled a drink on you when Palance (#cancelled) came on.
You're going to be jumping up nuff on the day of carnival. Think of your hair type and texture and decide on the most comfortable hairstyle for you. If you have a headpiece, and plan on wearing it, you will want a hairstyle that will complement it while securing it in place. You won't want something tugging at your hairline or sticking to your back, especially in Jamaican heat. My thick hair is usually in braids, a bun or high ponytail. I tend to prepare my hair the night before to save time in the morning. For example, if I need to flat iron my hair for a style. They are all versatile, can be styled appropriately to fit my costume's vibe and allow for a sweet breeze to lick my back. Honestly, if you wear your hair loose I commend you. You are braver than I could ever be.
As a woman, I experience major anxiety surrounding my bikini area. While I wish I could be powerful and embrace my body hair, I am dead insecure and personally feel confident when I'm embodying a Brazilian goddess- if you get what I mean. You know how your body operates better than anyone else. If you plan to get a waxing appointment, book it based on how your skin reacts and how fast your hair grows. While some may prefer the weekend of, some may need a week for inflammation or bruises to chill tf out. If you plan to shave, getting the cleanest shave is a skill that many of us have mastered over the years. For those who experience ingrown hairs, razor burn or bumps, Tend Skin is a God-send. It's best to start using it in advance, and incorporate into your daily routine by applying it to dry skin every day and night.
Now to a very important category: your NAILS. If we're speaking aesthetically, I'd take into consideration whether or not you're doing J'Ouvert and whether your polish type will be vulnerable to being damaged. Go wild, match your nails to your costume- it's a statement piece. However, if we're speaking logically, the soca angels have sent me to tell you cut your toenails as low as possible. You will be on your feet all day, and filing them down may prevent a few toenails from going missing. It's such a key preventative measure that you will be so grateful for. Simple and straight to the point advice that I hope you do. not. ignore.
On the topic of ~feet~, a proper choice of footwear is key. At multiple points during the day, you will feel as if you're carrying the world on your feet. You're going to want to decide on your type of shoe, in advance, in order to break them in and mould them to your foot...and make sure they're not dry rotted. There's nothing cute about waking up with blisters the next day. Very popular choices include boots or sneakers, while the daring may go for heeled boots or sandals. Additionally, shoe insoles are always an option for those seeking a luxury experience of walking on clouds (whilst stepping in potholes).
If you choose to wear tights on the road, you will want to ensure that they're comfortable with your footwear of choice. For example, if your fishnet or bedazzled tights itch your feet, put on your socks first then your tights over. While tights are protective, there are also a form of aesthetic. No matter what, your ballet stockings will not be it. Scout out some appropriate skin tone tights that will blend perfectly into your skin. Carnivalista is a go-to shop for those looking for the perfect find, and they have endless choices. To prep for the road, it is important to adequately adjust your tights. Seeing the tights' band on the road deteriorates your overall look. The safest bet is to stitch the waist of your tights to your bottom piece in order to prevent any slips.
For some, a bag is necessary on the road. I know many who arrive solely with their cup, and others who grip onto their phone whole day. It is a tricky road navigating wanting to have your essentials on the road, while not ruining the look of your costume or comprising your safety. Finding a bag that can be incorporated into your costume's colours is important as you want it to add to your costume, not take away from it. Whether it's rocking a fanny pack, cross-body bag, pouch, or sticking everything into your boots, your bag should be able to withstand unpredictable weather conditions. If unable to find a waterproof bag, find a plastic sandwich bag and use it as a lining within your bag. Most importantly, always prioritize your security and never take things for granted. People have sticky hands and target revellers on the road. For those who opt to bring items on the road, it's best to keep it light: phone, adequate funds, sunblock, keys, lipgloss, emergency tampon. The last thing you want to be doing is lugging around extra weight all day. Five pounds will feel like 100 by lunchtime.
Preparation can also entail things money can't buy (to a certain extent), such as your carnival body. There's undeniably a heavy burden and pressure to look like a band launch model- and it's unrealistic. Every body is a carnival body, and feeling comfortable in your own skin is the best way to prepare for carnival. Some people choose to gym it, and some choose to panic a week before carnival. Nevertheless, carnival is a celebration and if accepting diverse body types on the road is a means of doing so, count me in.
While I try not to pressure anybody, I am an advocate for working out to build stamina for the road. You will be walking, chipping, bruking down all day and you don't want to be panting one hour in. Your friend wants to back it up on di people man, and she will leave you to back it up on di people man. It's inevitable that your legs will feel like they've left your body, but practicing some forms cardio can help you survive. For some, that may mean running on the treadmill or spinning. For me, that may mean attending more parties and being a monster winer.
Closer to carnival, you will receive your costume. Trying on your costume is essential to ensuring proper fit. You will be able to shape wire bras, pull in waistbands, add gems to sparse areas, and do what needs to be done. Usually, I'll do the full bend over, squat and jiggle test and note whether I find it necessary to fashion tape areas of my costume or wear nipple pasties. Knowing these minute details will avoid a lot of last minute adjustments on the morning of.
When I seh carnival preparation takes a lot of labour, it truly is no joke. But at the end of the day, when everything falls into place it becomes worth it.
Good Morning Bacchanal, How'd You Do?
The moment that alarm goes off in the morning- everything suddenly feels real. Usually, I have no issue waking up as the excitement, and anxiety, jolts me out of bed. As someone who takes long to get ready, I try to wake up hours in advance to do my hair and makeup. Hypothetically, if I want to leave the house for 9:30, I would wake up at 6:00. Fight me, but I'm extra. Being stressed about the process and wanting to look perfect, it's very easy to forget to eat breakfast. Eating a starchy (no running belly), filling breakfast is necessary. It won't change your body's appearance, Becky. It'll ensure that you don't drop dung on Trafalgar Road.
Make sure you take quality pictures before you leave, and factor in having enough time to do so. Being upset will translate through your face, and you will regret it when choosing your next IG picture. Meeting up with friends to have a mini-photoshoot at someone's house is always an amazing idea. Be confident, be yourself and know that you look good yf! Embody this fierceness and act like Tyra Banks has six envelopes- and your photo is in one of them. As menial as this sounds, make sure you have one photo that you love before you leave. You look amazing, be as nuff as you want, you deserve it. You'll have a chance to take pictures on the road, but it's always nice to have a 'before the madness' shot.
Running late will ruin your day. Factoring your prep-process and mini-photoshoot, alongside the journey to the band is crucial. Traffic is wild on Carnival Sunday, and knowing all of the road blocks is key. Before you leave the house, you're going to need to make sure that you have your essentials. Yeah, you'll want your cup, phone, flag, bag (if necessary), but under any circumstance, do not leave the house without your wristband. I don't need to explain why, it should be common sense. Hell, put it on the night before if you have to. If you forget your wristband, you will receive multiple cut eyes. Also, never forget to apply sunblock. The sun isn't prejudice and she will bun up ya ass. Reapplication throughout the day is vital, but becomes forgotten once a few drinks are in. While that first application in the morning may not be enough, it makes a difference.
Being dropped off is always easiest, as you don't have to struggle for a parking spot. For those who drive, firstly, don't drink and drive. Secondly, do your research and scope out which shopping plazas or public parking lots you can leave your car at. If you are chill with paying a fee, gwan wid it. If you want to finesse the system, think fast and arrive early. While I'm a gyal who always wants to start with the band, I understand that (many) people are different. Consult your band's schedule, and know their route incase you have to meet up or run down the band. Some Jamaican's tend to run on island time and will reach the band around 10:30/11:00. In other islands, where people are on the road from 8:00 in the morning, this can be a shocking adjustment.
Once you're on the road, you're going to want to pace yourself. It's not a race, it's a marathon. You may see Bolt on the road, but this is not the 100m. Balancing your drinks, with water and a proper lunch is essential. No matter how much of a badman you may be, you will be dehydrated and hot. Trust your gut and know your limits. On Carnival Sunday, water and food will taste like it's straight from heaven. No matter how 'fine' you feel at lunch, make sure you eat. Pacing yourself also means acknowledging that you can't go full extreme all day. This does not necessarily mean yuh vibes bruk, or yah boring gyal. Just take it slow and chip when necessary.
Always be aware of your surroundings and try to stick with one friend at all times. You may show up with your group, but people will get lost in the masses. If you're alone at any times, just keep chipping. I can guarantee that you will find someone you know. These bands invest so much money into their security detail, you are in safe hands. At the same time, don't be naive. As I mentioned, people are targeted on the road and peoples' hands get sticky. Always keep an eye out.
Throughout the day, try to be mindful of others. You probably don't like it when a gyal lick you in the face with her feathers, so be considerate that you may be potentially doing that. If you have wide feathers, try to walk sideways while sliding through crowds. When disposing of costume pieces- when that leg piece keep scraping you too much- dispose of them properly. Nuh Dutty Up Di Road is a motto to live by. When in doubt, ask children on the road if they want some of your pieces. There's nothing cuter than seeing a child parade around in your feathers. It'll make their day.
It's a long day, vibes will bruk at a certain time and you will feel and look mash up. But so will everyone else. If it rains, don't complain. Be grateful for the water and a break from the sun beating on your back. Take a break if you need to, but never take off your shoes. You will never want to put them back on and, with the amount of construction in Kingston, you won't want to be barefoot.
If you're not jumping, you can still have an amazing Carnival Sunday. For many, it's a tradition to watch the bands pass. Popular spots to watch and observe the madness are mainly Hope Road and Trafalgar Road, as all bands' routes pass through there. Additionally, Truck Stop and Big Wall are options for those who want to fete throughout the day, while keeping an eye out for friends on the road.
On the road, you can leave some of your morals at home but not all. While it's easy to get taken away in the madness, be respectful of people's boundaries and prioritize consent. This applies to everybody on the road, regardless of gender. Just because someone is half naked or bubbling, does not mean that you are entitled to their body. Whether it's physical or verbal cues, take the hint and try again next time (with someone else). As Kerwin Du Bois puts it, I may not be right for you but I'm right for somebody. There are thousands of revellers on the road, avoid the shame and move on.
Whether you're on the road or the sidelines, my best advice is to have fun. You've been waiting for this day all year, and odds are that a lot of time and money have been invested into this monumental day. Take advantage of the moment and live your best damn life; there's no better time to do so. You have every right to get on as stink and dutty as possible. All wutless behaviour is encouraged, and there's no better space to feel welcomed to do so. Mind yuh funky business and pass no judgement on others, and it will be reciprocated. If you want to split in the middle, do it. If there's a voice talking in your head that tells you to pick up something and run wid it, do it.
Memories of a lifetime are made at carnival; make them.
Real Carnival Tabanca
I'd like to add tabanca as a serious medical condition in the next DSM. The term originates from Trinidad and essentially means feeling love sick or heartbroken. This is the perfect description for your post-carnival recovery. For some, tabanca hits hard; worse than a breakup or death kinda hard. For others, and I've been a victim, you just want to listen to anything other than soca. Machel's voice becomes annoying, and Spice begins to take over the AUX again.
The first day, or few, after jump up will be tough. It's inevitable that your body will be sore, your skin will peel, and those credit card bills will start to roll in. There are a few fetes available to those who want to continue on with the festivities, but the best advice that I can give for post-carnival recovery is a #deep one.
Carnival follows this cyclical journey across the Caribbean. There's the excitement of leading up to carnival, but then the emptiness that follows. It's often challenging to know what to do with yourself once this anticipated moment peaks, and everything afterwards begins to feel boring and mundane. The habits and attitudes we pick up over the season, suddenly disappear. Smiles begin to fade, and gym memberships begin to get cancelled. Now I'm not saying that I have a problem with the timeline of soca season in the Caribbean, I just get annoyed at how drastic of a difference 'post-carnival' feels.
Soca produces such a joyful feeling across the Caribbean, and we should replicate that atmosphere throughout the year. Beyond many of the songs about whining and flinging it up, soca preaches messages of love and unity. These are the mindsets we should adopt to progress as individuals and nations. The hype and thrill of carnival isn't a distraction or diversion from our realities, but a wake up call to the potential that we all possess to change them. Being from the Caribbean, and being able to claim this as our culture, is a privilege.