A special brand of homesickness

Feb. 5, 2019, 12:30 a.m.

It’s that time of the year again: “winter” in California and party season back home in Trinidad and Tobago, a contrast that evokes in me a special brand of homesickness which Trinidadians have dubbed “carnival tabanca.” While I’m at Stanford sloshing through the rain in my Payless boots and oversized blue poncho, my parents are at home getting glammed for a Carnival fête.

“Tabanca” is a Trinidadian slang word used to describe a sort of “love sickness.” I think of it as missing something or someone so badly it’s like going through a breakup, but it can be applied to more than just romantic relationships.

For example, Trinis love curry so much a calypsonian once sang about missing curry: “Ah have a tabanca ha, curry tabanca.” And yes, I’ve experienced curry tabanca — I began googling pictures of Trinidadian roti — but today I’m talking about Carnival tabanca.

If you aren’t familiar with Caribbean Carnival celebrations, they’re essentially nationwide parties in the streets. In Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival represents a time to let go of your inhibitions and be free. During our main Carnival celebrations on Monday and Tuesday, revelers don bright, colorful costumes and parade through the streets in bands, dancing to the most popular soca music hits of that year.

In addition to the parades, we have a host of shows, events and competitions like Kiddie’s Carnival, Calypso and soca monarch competitions, costume competitions, fêtes every weekend and my favorite, Panorama — an annual steelpan competition where the best steel bands around the country gather to battle it out on stage.

It’s amazing if you’re there to experience it, but not so great if you’re away from home battling homesickness. Carnival season directly overlaps with Stanford’s winter quarter. While Stanford students buckle down for a quarter of hard work and gloomy weather, Trinidadians are living it up. It’s hard to fathom that these two realities coexist.

When the Carnival tabanca hits, it hits hard and I truly cannot function.

There are sad winter weekends when I think about the excitement happening back home. I spend hours listening to soca, watching Panorama videos and pretending that I’m at home instead of stuck in my dorm room trying to stay warm and motivate myself to work.

It’s impossible to find motivation for school work when your heart is aching to be somewhere else. Homesickness is really like any other sickness: Something hurts (your heart), it affects your regular functioning and you have to deal with it in order to move on with your life in a healthy way.

There are days when I spend hours listening to the latest soca music. Instead of pretending that I can study despite my feelings, I embrace the tabanca ache and deal with it by turning my soca sadness into a jamming joy — I dance in my room as if I were having a fête of my own.

Soca is fast-paced, rhythmic and addictive — syncopated beats and catchy refrains tell you to “wave your hands and let go” or “jump up, jump up, jump and put your hands up.” You can’t escape the energy of it, and I’ve stopped trying to. This year, my favorites are Nadia Batson’s “So Long,” Erphaan Alves’ “Blaze in Love,” Voice’s “Alive and Well,” Farmer Nappy’s “Hookin’ Meh” and Patrice Roberts’ “Into You.”

There are other days when I watch my favorite Panorama videos on repeat. I grab my pan-sticks and air-pan because I want to pretend I’m at home performing on stage. I’d rather actively participate in my tabanca than let it rule me.

Like I said, Panorama is a steelpan competition, the main attraction for many pan-players and pan-lovers during Carnival. I’ve been playing for years and continue to play with Stanford’s steelpan ensemble, Cardinal Calypso, but nothing compares to performing for Panorama.

Imagine being surrounded by nearly a hundred other people playing steel drums for eight minutes straight, at a tempo so fast you’re relying solely on muscle memory. Your hands are flying. Sweat is gleaming on your skin. Your entire body is humming because the music is both around and inside you. It is exhilarating.

Playing for Panorama is easily one of the top 10 moments of my life.

As I watch videos of Panorama performances — especially ones that have a special place in my heart — tears well in my eyes. Pan tabanca is like a subset of Carnival tabanca.

Pan tabanca isn’t just about distance, though. My mom lives in Trinidad, and though she stopped playing years ago, she still goes to Panorama, loves listening to the music and visits the steel bands as they prep for competition. Being surrounded by the thing you love and not participating hurts just as much.

“Oh gosh, yes!!! Astrid, do it!” She said when I told her I wanted to write about Carnival tabanca. “I was there once … couldn’t even go to Panorama. Yuh feel an ache in yuh belly … in yuh soul! I always tell people that man doh cause a tabanca like pan.”

So there it is. Carnival tabanca can be worse than the pain of a breakup. And even while this homesickness and yearning works against my productivity sometimes, in a larger sense, it’s motivating. I’m fueled to work hard at Stanford knowing that there’s something beautiful and meaningful waiting for me at home. I look forward to the future, when I’m reunited with the music and culture that I love.


Contact Astrid Casimire at acasimir ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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