Carnival Comes Alive in Jamaica


Carnival time in Jamaica is a time for revelry in beautiful costumes through the streets of the city. Carnival in Jamaica started in 1989 and has grown throughout the years to be one of the most anticipated carnivals in the region. Over the eight weeks leading up to the big parade, weekly soca parties light up the night skies as revellers and party-lovers prepare for the big day. The costumes have evolved over the years from the first-time sketches of modest ‘garments’ and a few professional designers to where that dramatic and characteristic glitter-covered pieces to the grand costumes of today.

The Early Costume Days

Michael Ammar, one of the original “Oakridge Boys” who first organized Carnival in Jamaica in 1989 described the first year of carnival costume design as a group of carnival enthusiasts working with a store designer to bring their very rough ideas to life. The group bought materials and did all the manufacturing of the costumes in the various bands themselves. After that learning experience, the experts were brought over from Trinidad who left their mark on the pieces, showing Jamaicans the nuances of carnival costume design and build.

The costumes since then have been impressive over the years. Themes continued to follow storylines drawing from controversial topics, popular culture and fantasy themes. Cultural costumes drawing on Jamaican folklore were a common feature in the past. The devil, the “pitchy patchy,” and “the horsehead” were staples on the road. Costumes also reflected earth elements and scenes from the sea, as well as cartoons and other fictional characters. Nudity is a big part of carnival all around the world and this is no different in Jamaica. The costumes get skimpier each year as costume designers push the envelope of nudity, some leaving us to wonder “how’d she fit all that in there!”

Week-Long Celebration

Carnival is now celebrated under the moniker Bacchanal Jamaica with its home located at Mas Camp in Kingston. Here, the weekly fetes of Carnival counting down to the big day see hundreds of revellers coming out to learn the new songs for the season, see the new costumes and watch their favorite soca artistes perform. These fetes usually give way to a weeklong party beginning during the Easter Weekend with Beach J'ouvert on the north coast.


The following Friday explodes with multiples of the usual J’ouverts under several different bands that see revellers covered in paint or chocolate, marching through the streets in the wee hours of the morning having a wildly good time.

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Saturday is another night of partying with various ‘fetes’ all over the city before the big day of “Pretty Mas” where costumed revellers line up from as early as 8 a.m. in their respective bands in their beautiful array of colors while onlookers and those who prefer to party with the bands on the sidelines will begin to gather in crowds along the route.


The biggest names in soca music flock to Jamaica for Carnival and the likes of Machel Montano, Destra, Skinny Fabulous, Kes, Bunji Garlin and Fayann Lyon, Shurwayne Winchester, Kerwin Dubois, Lyrical and 5 Star Akil are all expected to perform during the season or participate in the parade in some way. Michael Ammar sums up what Bacchanal Jamaica stands for in this way “Bacchanal Jamaica is good wholesome entertainment. Our success has a lot to do with what patrons feel about Bacchanal and how they feel when they participate. Carnival brings out the true fellowship when all races and classes come out and mingle in a clean way. Gone are the days when Bacchanal was viewed as this ‘uptown thing’ as nowadays there is no one demographic for Mas camp.”

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If you missed out before, start planning now for next year. The season opens early in January with the first big party at Mas Camp and previews of the costumes for the season. Most go on sale online immediately and are soon sold out so plan ahead! Come down to Jamaica and join in the biggest street jam in one of the most amazing and colorful displays in the Caribbean.


- by Monique Solomon