• The Spirit of Carnival

    Booking a trip to the Caribbean may not be within your holiday budget this year, but there’s a way of experiencing all that Caribbean culture has to offer from the comfort of your very own city. What’s more…you can do it for free.

Origins & Meaning

The word ‘carnival‘ comes from the Late Latin expression ‘carne vale‘, literally meaning ‘farewell to meat’. It was given this title due to the Catholic tradition of giving up meat during the period of Lent. Hundreds of years ago, Italian Catholics held costumed festivities right before this period of fasting and, through the colonisation of other countries, these actions were passed down, eventually making their way across the oceans and merging with Caribbean culture. Somewhat ironically, you’ll find more meat than you could ever imagine at your present day carnival, with the best of Caribbean cuisine being showcased in what can only be described as ‘healthy’ portions.

The well-known parading of the streets comes from an ancient African tradition, passed down through many generations, in which inhabitants in costumes and masks would march forwards through their villages and move together in circular formations in a bid to bring good fortune, heal problems and calm angry spirits.

The first recognised Caribbean Carnival started in Trinidad and Tobago, but it now has a presence everywhere; especially in the UK. With over 15 different cities across the country celebrating the event and upholding the olde worlde traditions, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing which one to watch.


In the run up to the event, you will notice that the entire community come together in unison to support and celebrate the creation of Carnival – and they always do so in a magnificent fashion, spending weeks (sometimes months) of their own personal time preparing. The sharing spirit and charitable nature of the festivities really help pull people together and thus, make the carnival truly what it is.

In most cases, the costumes are hand-made by locals who are often amateur designers. Everything – from the costumes to the cuisine – is usually self-funded by the community and when each person in a troupe (usually containing 20 or more) needs to be dressed, the prices can really start to rack up. The outfits mainly consist of feathers, ribbons and wood for the bases of big adornments,  and are decorated with a selection of materials. Bold and bright shades such as reds, yellows, blues and greens are used most often, as they represent the colours of all Caribbean flags.

Parade & Performance

By far the most vibrant and energetic part of any carnival is the main procession, where dancers and troupes parade along the streets in their multi-coloured, specially selected attire, moving to the lively mix of music blaring from various trucks and vans. There is always an infectious vibe and, whether you’re experiencing it for the first time or the hundredth, you will find yourself instinctively joining in with the procession as it passes through.

You should always expect to see a variety of performances and performers at the carnival, as singers and dancers take to various stages to showcase their impressive talents. In the Caribbean, where genres such as Soca, Calypso and Dancehall are more popular, leading artists from those genres will take to the platforms to perform in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. In the UK, you are more likely to hear the likes of R’n’B and dance music, with tracks carefully chosen to keep the upbeat attitude of carnival goers moving into the wee small hours.


Food is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a Caribbean carnival. It’s also the one time of the year that Caribbean dishes (that are otherwise hard to get hold of) will be readily accessible for all to enjoy, so consume as much as you possibly can! Our visual guide below will help to familiarise you with the foods you should be making a beeline for…


Last but by no means least, we come to music – the heartbeat by which carnival’s pace is set. In order to get to know carnival inside out, it’s important to understand the musical influences from which it draws so much of its eclectic and unique sound. Below, we’ve put together a little compilation of tracks that help to give you an insight into what makes the cut on a real Caribbean carnival playlist…


Calypso can trace it’s roots back to Trinadad & Tobago in the early 20th century. Originally a form of political expression, it drew influence from both African and French styles and sounds as vibrant and lively as the costumes dancing to it.


Originating in Trinadad and Tobago, Soca is essentially the ‘Soul of Calypso’. You’ll find troupes of dancers with beaming smiles parading through the streets dancing in time to fast paced, energetic rhythms.


Three genres that need no introduction, Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae. They’ve conquered the world through various decades and you’ll hear them on the corner soundsystems blaring out low frequency basslines and distant percussion. (For the sensitive ears, be sure to bring earplugs!)

Modern Styles

Carnival has evolved over the last 30 years, with Soca/Calypso evolving into Dancehall and Bashment as well as UK styles such as Garage, Dubstep and Drum n Bass taking influence from the original reggae sound and song structure. Specific soundsystems feature these styless to entice younger crowds into the traditions of carnival and you’re likely to find one or two after-parties taking the energy late into the night.

So there you have it – your complete guide to the spirit of carnival. Now all that’s left to do is to find your nearest one. Whistles at the ready!

Carnival information:

UK Carnival dates
Notting Hill Carnival Documentary