I just love Jamaica. I am also a proud Jamaican and visit there often, so it was an obvious choice for me to there for the Jamaica Bacchanal Carnival. I would, although, advise some serious pre-planning and book your flights and accommodation early for this event, as it almost peak season pricing. Thankfully, there are carnival concierge specialists who can create seamless packages for your carnival venture that includes flights, accommodation, fete tickets, wine down programs and costume collection. They are great value for money and take all the stress out of planning for your carnival! However, my initial reactions and the first thing I noticed was that the Americans & Canadians love Jamaica. It descends into an all-out US & Canadian invasion to the island for a long weekend of feting and partying. It is not surprising given that it is a short flight and relatively inexpensive to travel in from in the continent. Subsequently, everything in US dollars and you need deep pockets to fete here. Nevertheless, I did witness lots of representation from our European counterparts which included the Swiss Soca crew and the French Soca lovers; soca junkies even travelled in from Belgium, Germany, Hati and so many more countries. Whilst, Jamaica carnival seems to be efficiently reliant upon the support of the carnival tourists and sponsors, soca is still relatively a new concept to locals and not all understand or get the furore over this musical genre, the costumes, playing mas and the need to fete, hard. Several times I was asked, “..what is this carnival about? …you dance all day to just soca? …and you pay that amount of money for just those feathers and that little costume”?
The majority of carnival-goers had booked the local hotels around New Kingston. With choices of the Pegasus Hotel, The Four Seasons, The Courtleigh, Marriot and the Knutsford Court Hotel, which seemed to be the most popular hotels to stay in. More importantly, they were centrally located in the tourist, safer parts of Kingston and close to some shops and amenities. All are favourable hotels, but I had chosen the Knutsford Court Hotel and to be honest, I can’t really say anything bad about the hotel. It was clean and amenable. The only downside was the breakfast buffet selections that they had. It was quite poor but sufficient enough to line the stomach and start each day, but by day 6 no one wanted scrambled eggs again.
Kingston is split into two parts, New Kingston which is where the tourist and main hotel locations are and then there is downtown Kingston. The latter (downtown Kingston) is the one that has a has a notorious reputation for violence. New Kingston is safer, you can actually walk around in New Kingston but it not advisable and especially not at night unless you are with locals. Everyone also talks about the crime in Jamaica, specifically Kingston, so was given all the usual “be careful” talks. However, it had been relatively crime-free apart from someone snatching my phone, but it’s not dissimilar to what happens in London. As with anywhere you go, you should always be careful wherever you are. So please do not be afraid to travel the wonderful and stunning Jamaica.
Taxis are constantly available and it’s not that expensive to travel around Kingston. Prices range according to the driver and if you get a good one that does not overcharge you, then take the number, keep the contact and use them as your personal driver for the duration of your trip. There are some, that, unfortunately, will take your money and are known to double or triple the fare. So check with your hotel for the price range to your destination before you leave. Call taxis from your hotel also unless you have a driver or a local reputable contact. For example, it should cost anywhere between $400-500 JMD to travel from the Knutsford Court Hotel to the Bob Marley Museum in Hope Road. Taxis are consistently available around town and after fetes, so no worries about getting home, but, always try to use the official taxis which can you spot, by the red license plate.
You can also hire cars if you prefer to drive around and for as little as $800 US for a week with full damage insurance, so you don’t have to fork out any more extra cash if the car is damaged. Well worth getting as Kingston is not the faint hearted if you want to drive. Red light rules don’t seem to apply, as well as the non-use of indicators when terrorizing your lane. Kingston drivers have no time for passive drivers. It’s down and out war when driving in town.
The Jamaica Bacchanal Carnival
Jamaica is becoming a serious contender for the market share of the Caribbean carnivals, as the masses that are now descending upon this beautiful island every year, is growing and Jamaica is taking note. Unlike London, this carnival is heavily sponsored and Jamaica is also benefiting from the expert consultation from Caribbean fete promoters, key sponsors and the involvement of government-funded programs; all ensuring that Jamaica is putting in its successful carnival host stamp. Each band also has its own complement of sponsors and the results were phenomenal, as you were afforded a luxurious accompaniment of goodies, neatly packaged costumes, fully stocked bars on the road, excellent pit stops and free mas band fetes. Sagicor bank who was one of the main carnival sponsors also provided funding for paid student opportunities throughout the carnival season.
There are only three mas bands that participate in Jamaica Carnival
- Xodus Mas
- Xayamaca International
- Bacchanal Jamaica
However, with just three mas bands, approximately 10,000 revellers took the streets for the Jamaica 2018 carnival.
Xodus Carnival Mas Band Experience and Costume Review
The demand to play mas is unprecedented and this reflects in the current costume prices across the world, including Jamaica. However, let’s not make the price a major distraction, as all the bands displayed a fabulous selection of good quality costumes before the carnival and it was a hard decision on which costume to select. I decided on Xodus Carnival Mas Band, as many people had written reviews about playing for Xaymaca and wanted a different experience to bring to my readers. I selected the Viktoria frontline section costume at $580 US dollars – the costume was amazing. In terms of the costume collection, the sheer number of costumes that Xodus had, warranted a daily schedule for costume collection, which worked well. However, if you had to pick up your costume on a Friday when the t-shirts were being sold, then you were being sent into chaos heaven due to the t-shirt packages being released and sold at the same time. Let’s just say, that some costume revellers were not happy. Also, very important to note is not to make the mistake of trying to arrive to pick up your costume before your scheduled day – you will not get your costume.
Xodus Mas ‘on de road’!
The ‘on de the road’ experience was fantastic with Xodus mas band. I am told that Xodus had improved upon the previous years, paid attention to comments and I think I counted 3 music trucks and two bar trucks on the road. It was all very well organised and executed perfectly, with excellent facilities. Fully stocked drinks bars, with premium branded alcohol and separate travelling ice carts, was a more than a decent addition to the package. There was no bartering for drinks, they had plenty of staff and a bar that never ran out of drinks. It is important to note, that I am a solid red wine drinker – and find it extremely difficult to get when travelling, but Jamaica embraces red wine and it was easy to obtain. I was too happy! For those who wanted that little bit more, you could order the VIP treatment and have your own drinks cart right upside you all the way on the road, without even having to leave the road.
The feathers dilemma – To feather or not to feather?
My feathers were amazing, the largest I have had and I loved them but there is a dilemma? To wuk up or walk and look pretty? You just can’t do both with feathers (personally). As, if I was not poking someone’s eye out, I was poking out mine. I mean I had to walk sideways for most of the time I had them on. Feathers look good, they really do, but they are a nuisance to some, especially if you do not have them on, want to dance and everyone else is poking you with their feathers. I am personally at a crossroads with feathers, as they do exceptionally enhance the costume, but it’s not always ideal for the bacchanalists amongst us. It is amazing how many are discarded after carnival and why would you pay so much money for something that may be ever be used again? I can’t keep every carnival feather and I don’t have a special carnival storage unit. Alas, whilst they are both attractive and flamboyant, they are getting bigger, heavier and more cumbersome to me. I had to send mine home in a taxi during the carnival, I just could not wait for the pit stop, relax or dance without them!
The Pit Stop
I have found that carnivals in the Caribbean tend to have what is called a ‘pit stop’. That is a rest stop, where you can sit down, have lunch, relax and then get back on the road. I have experienced this with a number of carnivals, but the Jamaica carnival set up will put many to shame. As I stepped into splendid glory, there were ornately designed logos and other branded visuals that were displayed along the walkway. We had superb amenities, with a selection of a variety of foods, bars, toilets and a ‘feather stop’. Yes. There was a tent where the masqueraders could ‘check in’ their feathers, for a rest or leave them there and collect after the carnival. The backdrops, artwork, food and the general first-class setting had truly added to the value for money spent.
Being that it was Jamaica, dancehall was played extensively and believe that the first truck played predominately dancehall on the road. Split in the middle, dominated Jamaica carnival road and is as popular as it was last year. It is one of those tunes I feel will go to soca heaven and be heralded as a signature tune for years to come i.e we will hear it ALL the time. However, we were treated to a selection of DJ’s and I never felt bored on the road. I had to say I was entertained from start to finish. I also extremely pleased to see a female DJ on the road, rocking the masquerade vibes.
The carnival was still going when I came off the road at 8.30pm and getting home was not as arduous as I thought. Once you got away from the closed-off roads, taxis could be flagged down with ease. Just remember to use red plate taxis!
Feting in Jamaica
This year, in particular, saw the biggest range of fetes on offer. There were a good 2-3 fetes on per day – a mix of day and night fetes and am told the prices jumped up significantly from last year, which proves the popularity of this carnival. It was a hard choice on which fetes to go to but the main fetes to be at were Ceasar’s army, Soca brainwash and the Sunrise Boat Party. I didn’t make to the Sunrise boat party but you just could not find one negative comment. However, I did make it the following parties:
Frenchman’s party was $8500 JMD for the ticket and was a stunning event, set in the vicinity of private gated residents, so security was tight. This fete is very ‘uptown’, that is you sport your heels and outfits and come to drink and enjoy the music. It is not an energised wuk up, more a beautiful lime. However, don’t let my comments fool you, we were treated to PAs from artists such as Bunji, Faye Ann Lyons and dancehall artist, Chiching Ching all of whom smashed the party. The energy on the stage definitely got the crowd partying and we were chi ching chinging with everyone else! It felt like VIP treatment even if it wasn’t as there was a surreal amount of drinks bars serving the beautiful and plenty. You didn’t have to haggle for a drink, bar staff and drinks bubbled all night.
Much like Trinidad, this was one of the fetes that you had to go to, but was a hassle to get in. Over an hour’s queuing time due to the large crowds. Once in, you were ready to fete but it admittedly it took a while to warm up and get the crowds in but the fete did not disappoint and one that you must go to.
Soca brainwash cost $110 USD and was on from 1 pm to 9 pm. At this event, you were given you cup which you used as your drinks cup. Big up to Jamaica – you surely know how to host a party, drinks bars were always fully manned, with no crazy queues or a lack of choice. A top DJ line-up which included Young Chow and Puffy who as usual, performed on point. Unfortunately, the event was not packed. The Soca Brainwash franchise may be popular, but it is still building up its popularity in Jamaica and judging by the increase in numbers attending each year, this may become a sold out event in the future. However, it was the dynamics of the fete that also was a little strange, as you had your straight up feters and your bacchanalists at the front, ready to bruk out at the hint of a track. The well-heeled stayed to the side and sipped their rum and the middle section consisted of the people having a great time but not bruking out. The vibe was mediocre anywhere away from the front.
Starting out at the Bacchanal Jamaica mas camp we jammed there before we set off on our J’ouvert journey around Kingston. Paint was the order of the day, it was thrown around like water. Pinks, blues, yellows, and greens flowed like an angry frenzied painter and left J’ouvert looking like a parade of colourful street revellers wuking up to pulsating soca tunes. Again, J’ouvert is a relatively new experience to Jamaicans and believe that it will exponentially grow in the next few years. As only one truck took to the streets and played music all morning to the loyal band of a few hundred followers. The road experience was fun and stayed on the road with them until around 4 am, then heading on to the Soaka Street Festival.
Soaka Street Festival
Straight after Bacchanal J’ouvert was the Soaka Street Festival. Promoted by Xodus mas we were given discounted tickets at $4,000 JMD and as we arrived it was in full flow, with water everywhere. They commissioned an entire water truck for the event so we could enjoy a wet fete! This was my highlight and loved this fete, a must for Jamaica carnival. We wet feted until morning and were the last to leave.
Xayamaca Beach Lime
Now, this was a highlight of my holiday. I enjoyed all the fetes and the carnival, but I absolutely loved this beach lime. Xayamaca masqueraders were given free access and anyone else was charged $4000 JMD. It so happened to be the windiest day in Jamaica and it was hard settling down at first into a spot, but as the day moved on we pitched up near the dancefloor, drank rum and for me, red wine and then the music started to settle in. By 6pm the music was flowing and the vibe was in full force. Soca is all about pure love and the beach lime reflected that. Arms up in the air, sexy bodies gyrating to the soca riddims played by the top DJ’s at dusk. Xaymaca beach lime was ardently the ultimate fete for me.
A carnival wine down and a chance to enjoy Jamaica’s dancehall scene. Set a small precinct backyard, it is the place to go every Monday night and $500 JMD you may even see a number of top artists and DJ’s pass through. I was lucky to have Movado, Chi Ching Ching, and Bounty Killer there when I went.
Jamaica Carnival Roundup
What more can I say? I loved Jamaica Carnival, it is a vibe fest and a culmination of soca and the Jamaican dancehall vibes, From breakfast fetes to beach parties, the carnival in Jamaica is the ultimate place to experience energetic, soca fun-filled events. I managed to attend a few of the fetes for my short stay, but can honestly say that Jamaica has surprised most first-timers, including myself and believe next year will be even bigger and better. It is truly a unique expression of the island’s spirit and showcases Jamaica carnival to the world. You just have to experience Jamaica Bacchanal Carnival.