A History of Carnival in Jamaica
The first signs of Carnival in Jamaica began in the 1940’s with the opening of the University of the West Indies. This happened when the students from the Eastern Caribbean, especially those of Trinidad and Tobago, recreated the festival on campus of the elaborate Carnivals they enjoyed from back home. A tradition that continues on the campus to this day. However, Carnival at the time was still viewed as a foreign concept for the rest of the Jamaican public.
In 1989, the late Jamaican music pioneer, Byron Lee, along with a small band of believers, conceptualized a plan to bring the music, energy and vibe of Trinidad & Tobago’s annual Carnival event to Jamaica.
Despite the numerous doomsday predictions of failure by many “established” critics, Sunday, April 22, 1990, marked the very first Mas festival which united Jamaicans musically, culturally and socially, as Byron Lee & Friends staged the first-ever Jamaica Carnival (which featured a week of activities from April 14-22, 1990), an event which has since evolved to become one of the biggest annual events in Jamaica, and undoubtedly, the Kingston Metropolitan Area’s premier festival.
Carnival is a relatively new thing in Jamaica, but it has become very popular and now sees a huge parade through Kingston annually. It is different from traditional Caribbean Carnivals in that it takes place at the end of Lent, over the weekend after Easter; but it does follow similar lines in other ways. There is a series of big parties or “fetes” culminating in a day’s soca driven revelry through the streets of the capital, Kingston. Soca is the rhythm of choice. Despite Jamaica’s strong and proud association with reggae, that rhythm doesn’t work that well for the upbeat dancing involved with Carnival. Soca originates from Trinidad and Tobago and is used in all the Carnivals in the former British islands.
The Jamaican Carnival season begins with a series of big “fetes”. Officially these start around the beginning of Lent, a couple of months before the main event. The main Mas Camp also holds an open house, so that you can go along and see the costumes that are going to be worn in the street parade / road march. If you want to be a part of the road march, you can buy one and join in. The premier Mas Camp in Jamaica is Bacchanal Jamaica. It was formed at the turn of the century when a couple of previously established bands, including Oakridge Boys, Raiders and Revellers, decided to come together as one entity. They have been at the forefront of Jamaica Carnival ever since, becoming the only mas band, with their events and street parade defining the season.
The road march itself is held on the Sunday after Easter Sunday and the Carnival Bands advance through the streets dancing and flailing in an explosion of colour and energy. They follow a standard route through New Kingston, which passes through many of the city’s delightfully named roads – Hope Road, Constant Spring, Half Way Tree – and then culminates at the National Stadium.
Many Eastern Caribbean bands and singers come across to Jamaica for the event and as such so you will see performances from artists from the islands such as Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. The most famous Jamaican band that plays calypso and soca music is Byron Lee; one of the creators of Carnival in Jamaica. Another band to look out for is Fabulous Five.
Carnivals do take place in the other Jamaican towns. They are smaller by comparison but fun to attend if you happen to be in town.