Arts and Culture

Caribbean Festivals and Events: Celebrate the Caribbean's Unique Culture

Filed Under: Caribbean

People in the Caribbean know how to throw a good party. Almost every island hosts an annual event celebrating its unique heritage with music, dance, food, sailing and pirates. Most island nations in the Caribbean host at least one such festival event a year, in addition to Caribbean Carnival, a tradition with roots similar to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro’s carnival but fused with local folklore, culture and religion.


Trinidad Carnival: Port of Spain, Trinidad
Caribbean carnivals are based on the original Trini Carnival, as locals call it, which was introduced to the island in the 18th century by French settlers and their slaves. Today, 2 days before Ash Wednesday, in the predawn hours of Carnival Monday, the rhythms of soca music signal the start of J'ouvert (from the French words, jour ouvert, or day open). Bathed in melted chocolate, oil, mud and paint, some 50,000 revelers take to the streets dressed up as devils, demons, monsters and imps. As the sun comes up, colorful bands of people wearing skimpy costumes with feathers and beads flood the streets doing the jump up and “wining” (gyrating hips) dance to calypso and soca music.

Tuesday brings the signature carnival parade. Each band and float interprets an annual theme with its own historical, mythological or tropical concept. Throughout the festival, groups host fetes (giant outdoor parties), steel drum concerts, calypso tents and community gatherings called panyards.


Reggae Sumfest: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Tens of thousands of fans of reggae and its variations -- ska, dub and dancehall -- flock to the birthplace of these music styles for a 4-night blowout each July. Top Caribbean bands have been joined in the past by international headlines such as LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige, Sean Paul, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. The Sunday beach party is held at the Aquasol Theme Park and Walter Fletcher Beach. Evening concerts take place at the Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex, an outdoor arena.


Other Music Festivals: St. Lucia Jazz Festival
Junkanoo: Nassau, Bahamas  
During the early morning hours before dawn on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Bahamians head to Bay Street in Nassau to join Junkanoo crews "rushing" the parade route. The roots of Junkanoo go back to the 17th century, when slaves, who were given 3 days off at Christmas, donned masks, played homemade drums and bells and danced in celebration of their temporary freedom. Today, crews comprised of family and community groups that can number in the hundreds dance through the streets beating goat-skin goombay drums and wearing colorful carnival-style costumes.


Crop Over: Barbados
In Barbados, a ceremony originally held in July to celebrate the end of the sugar cane harvest has turned into an excuse for a 5-week party, from July to August. The delivery of the season’s final cane crop and the crowning of a Queen and King of the Crop -- the most productive cane cutters -- signal the beginning of the fete. Over the next 24 days the island hosts parades, markets, concerts and lots of drinking. The celebration culminates with the Grand Kadooment parade, concert and party.


Pirates Week: Cayman Islands
Head to the Cayman Islands in the fall for Pirates Week Festival, when you can don an eye patch, down some rum and yell “Ahoy, me hearties!” at passersby. The only major pirate festival held in the Caribbean proper, the 11-day event in November is filled with music, street dances, treasure hunts, food, parades, sporting events, heritage days, costume competitions, even a “surprise” mock pirate invasion at George Town harbor. The last Saturday features a “trial” of the pirates (which bans the most grievous criminals of the high seas from the island), a street dance finale and an ultimately doomed cardboard boat race.


Sailing Week: Antigua  
Antigua’s iconic regatta has been a fixture on the yacht-racing calendar since 1967, when about 10 boats sailed from 1 beach resort to another propelled by steady easterly trade winds. The event now attracts the international racing elite, as well as amateur sailing enthusiasts, for a week-long competition and party each April. Most of the racing takes place off the south coast of the island. Crews gather at the Event Village at Nelson's Dockyard in English Harbour after the day's racing to share stories and drinks.

Other regattas: Grenada Sailing Festival, St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, US Virgin Islands International Rolex Regatta, and the BVI Spring Regatta.


Travel writer Trisha Creekmore has been to more than a dozen Caribbean islands, and has jumped up and wined at many small Caribbean parties and festivals.

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