On Dominica, a Carnival Celebration as It Was Meant to Be


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There are no plain Janes in the magnificent splendor that is the Caribbean. But there are lesser-known islands whose virtues are perhaps unsung. These essays feature three such islands, celebrating the homespun Carnival in Dominica, the local legend of the mermen of Tobago and the old-soul goats in Anguilla that have ruled the craggy land for centuries.

I was in Dominica. So why did everyone want to know why I wasn’t in Trinidad?

Because it was Carnival time. And for me — a member of that unofficial clan for whom the annual bacchanal is not a casual holiday but an imperative high holy day — this generally means traveling to the biggest, baddest Caribbean Carnival of them all, in Trinidad and Tobago.

Instead, about a decade ago, I changed course and hopped a flight to one of the littlest, lesser known Carnival celebrations in the region, in the Eastern Caribbean eco-tourism hub that is Dominica. “Mas Dominik,” as it’s called (“mas,” for “masquerade”; “Dominik,” the French Creole name for the island), is promoted as “the real mas”: If Trinidad is the Bloomingdale’s of Carnivals, Dominica is your homespun mom and pop store. I would trade in brand-name for boutique.

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That trade-in has been on my mind lately, ever since Tropical Storm Erika wreaked havoc on Dominica in August, leaving 20 people dead. I tried to block out the grim headlines by summoning memories of a joyful Dominica — and of the day I landed, on Carnival Tuesday, in a sea of sensays.

Sensays are traditional Dominican Carnival costumes, resembling ragtag Bigfoots: Made from strips of frayed newspaper, garbage bags, rope or banana leaves, the get-up is crowned by a headpiece of cow horns and a vivid, demonic-looking mask. Like ceremonial regalia worn in Ghana (the West African country to which a good many of Dominica’s inhabitants trace their roots) —“sensay” is said to come from the word in the Twi Ghanaian dialect for a bird boasting spiritual properties — the costume’s omnipresence in Dominica vindicates the “real” in “real mas.”

The island prides itself on a Carnival that stays true to its 18th-century roots: a European pre-Lent bacchanal, co-opted by slaves mimicking their French and British colonizers and infusing the festivities with West African folklore.

So while many Caribbean Carnivals are dominated by armies of revelers sporting made-in-China beads-and-bikini ensembles, in Dominica modern mas is overshadowed by a different cast of characters. Behold the bwa-bwa, stilt dancers in blindingly bright outfits, arms outstretched to the sky, as if to touch every Creole-style balcony along the charming streets of Roseau, Dominica’s capital.

The Red Ochre gang, coated in dark soot or molasses, evokes slave-era sugar estates. Devils roam freely, painted head-to-toe in every imaginable hue; “tourist” bands ape visitors who began arriving in the early 20th century, sporting outsized parasols and grand hats.

I tipped my cap to the Negre Mawon, marching through town in shackles and broken chains; this “Black Maroon” costume is a homage to the runaway slaves who built communities in the verdant, rugged island’s nooks and crannies. Not for a moment did I stand on the sidelines; in this parade, divisive ropes and naysaying security guards are few and far between. I exuberantly danced my way through the streets from morning to night, joining a simple T-shirt band that made outré costumes beside the point; the rhythm and the dance and the magnificent spirit of Carnival was more beautiful than any garish costume could be.

And oh, that music. I love Carnival’s calypso; I adore its modern-day, studio-produced descendant, soca. But in Dominica, Carnival is really about the ecstasy of dancing under the moon at j’ouvert — the predawn street parade marking the opening of Carnival — to the beat of lapo kabwit, traditional goatskin drums. No electric music truck was needed; slathered in paint and mud like almost everyone else, I was entranced for hours by the acoustic rhythms of drums, cowbells, tambourines, horns and maracas.

When daylight took over, there was bouyon, Dominica’s very own “gumbo” genre: a vigorous mélange of colonial-era forms and modern sounds that to my ears seemed equal parts Cajun and Caribbean. When the sun was firmly overhead, I did not go to my rustic, bed-and-breakfast-style hotel to clean up. I drove to one of the island’s many pristine hot springs, found a waterfall and gleefully began scrubbing.

Then, when I thought it was all over, came the bonus. Ash Wednesday is on many islands a solemn day, ushering in a whole year of what Trinidadians call tabanca: irrepressible melancholy and longing induced by the conclusion of Carnival. But in Dominica it calls for a scenic drive through lavishly ripe banana fields to the island’s ultra-rural northeast, home to the official territory of the indigenous Kalinago, the people Columbus erroneously called “Carib.”

There are some 3,500 of them, still calling the island by its original name, Wai’tu kubuli, and I arrived in their territory in time for a joyous mock funeral procession, Tewe Vaval, during which a coffin containing the effigy of Carnival is paraded through the town and finally burned in a grand bonfire. There was music. There was dancing. There was rum and local Kubuli beer, and more dancing and more music.

Above all there was a beautiful irony that inspired me to wax philosophical, as life-affirming rituals like Carnival are wont to make one do: The official death of Carnival was itself a mini-Carnival — in an ending a beginning, in death a new life.



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