Car­ni­vals and music

Antigua’s car­ni­val is a cel­e­bra­tion of music and dance held annu­ally from the end of July to the first Tues­day in August. It is a cel­e­bra­tion of hap­pi­ness. On 1st August 1834 when slav­ery was abol­ished peo­ple took to the streets to cel­e­brate their free­dom and express their joy and hap­pi­ness. This was an infor­mal cel­e­bra­tion every year until in 1957 the first Antiguan Car­ni­val was organ­ised. Since then instead of one day it has devel­oped into ten days of music dance and rev­elry with street marches, jump-​ups and for­mal evening shows, calypso, pan and Car­ni­val Queen pageants. It is con­sid­ered that the most impor­tant day is that of the j’ouvert (or juvé), in which brass and steel bands per­form for much of the island’s population.

It is a won­der­ful time for vis­i­tors to get an insight into the cul­ture of the coun­try and to under­stand the sheer joy that peo­ple still feel at this time of year. The Car­ni­val takes place in the streets of St.John’s and in Car­ni­val City or the Antigua Recre­ation Ground. Thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple attend the shows every evening. There is of course, along­side the Car­ni­val City, a fes­ti­val vil­lage set up where you can buy locally pre­pared food and drinks.

Barbuda’s Car­ni­val, held in June, is known as Carib­ana. The Antiguan and Bar­bu­dan Car­ni­vals replaced the Old Time Christ­mas Fes­ti­val in 1957, with hopes of inspir­ing tourism in Antigua and Bar­buda. Some ele­ments of the Christ­mas Fes­ti­val remain in the mod­ern Car­ni­val celebrations.

It is an amaz­ing fes­ti­val of col­or­ful cos­tumes, beauty pageants, tal­ent shows, and espe­cially good music. The fes­tiv­i­ties, which cel­e­brate eman­ci­pa­tion, range from the Party Monarch and Calypso Monarch com­pe­ti­tions of Calyp­so­ni­ans, the Panorama steel band com­pe­ti­tion, and the spec­tac­u­lar Parade of Bands to the Miss Antigua Pageant and the Caribbean Queen’s Com­pe­ti­tion. In addi­tion to these major events, the non­stop rev­elry of this, almost two weeks long, car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tion, includes innu­mer­able smaller fes­tiv­i­ties, includ­ing local con­certs, food fairs, parades, and cul­tural shows.


Dur­ing Car­ni­val in Antigua there are many dif­fer­ent and excit­ing musi­cal forms to hear. The old­est, Calypso, has its roots in slav­ery and it is said that it was used as a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for slaves for­bid­den to speak in the fields. It is an impro­vi­sa­tional form of music that is largely depen­dant upon a soloist, (the calyp­son­ian) who weaves the sounds of many cul­tures into a beau­ti­ful lyri­cal whole. One of the high­lights of the Antigua Car­ni­val is its Calypso com­pe­ti­tions, some­thing that, if you are in Antigua at the time, will be well worth experiencing.

Steel Drum Music appeared first in Trinidad after the gov­ern­ment – British Colo­nial Rule – out­lawed their bam­boo bands. This brought about the for­ma­tion of the iron bands where any object that could make a dis­tinc­tive rhythm was used to cre­ate ‘music’ (most of which was made of iron or some form of metal). It was by chance in the late 1930’s that some­body dis­cov­ered that a dented sec­tion of a bar­rel head actu­ally pro­duced a tone. From these small begin­nings came the ham­mered steel pans, cut from oil drums, replac­ing the bam­boo per­cus­sion instru­ments, tra­di­tion­ally used to back up Calypso. Indis­putably the devel­op­ment of the steel pan stems from Trinidad but is now to be found all over the Caribbean and in many other parts of the world. Antigua is in fact home to many of the Caribbean’s finest steel bands.

Soca began in the 1970’s and by the mid­dle of the 1980’s had become an intrin­sic fea­ture of the car­ni­val in Antigua. It is a musi­cal form that entwines the slower beat of Amer­i­can soul music and the upbeat tem­pos of the calypso. This music has evolved over the last 20 years pri­mar­ily by musi­cians from the Caribbean islands. Reg­gae is another musi­cal form very pop­u­lar in Antigua. Although orig­i­nat­ing in Jamaica it has been an inte­gral part of the Antiguan music scene for years.