The most exciting introduction to the vivid, cosmopolitan culture of this Republic is, of course, Carnival, or ‘De Mas‘, as locals refer to the annual ‘celebration of the senses’. Background reading is a help for a visit at any time of the year. Some authors to investigate are CLR James, Samuel Selvon, Shiva Naipaul, all now deceased, as well as Shiva’s more famous brother, VS Naipaul.
Also, the historian and past prime minister Dr Eric Williams, Earl Lovelace and newcomer Valerie Belgrave (whose Ti Marie has been described as the Caribbean Gone with the Wind). Although the tradition of performance poetry is not as strong here as in, say, Jamaica (calypso fulfils some of its role), the monologues of Paul Keens-Douglas, some of which are on album or cassette, are richly entertaining and a great introduction to the local dialect or patois.
Alongside a strong oral/literary tradition goes a highly developed visual culture, reflecting the islands’ racial melange. The most obvious examples are the inventive designs for the carnival bands, which often draw on craft skills like wire bending, copper beating, and the expressive use of fibreglass moulds. Fine painters and sculptors abound, too, although the only good galleries are small and commercial and located primarily in Port of Spain. Michel Jean Cazabon, born 1813, was the first great local artist (an illustrated biography by Aquarela Gallery owner Geoffrey MacLean is widely available). Contemporary work to look out for, often on the walls of the more enlightened hotels, restaurants and banks, includes paintings by Emheyo Bahabba, Pat Bishop, Isaiah Boodhoo, Francisco Cabral, LeRoy Clarke, Kenwyn Crichlow, Boscoe Holder and the fabled, controversial Mas’ designer Peter Minshall, who designed the opening ceremony for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games (thousands twirled silk squares in one sequence) and the Atlanta Games in 1996.
Jewellery and fashion designers also figure strongly in the life of these islands, with exceptionally high standards of work demonstrated by jewellers like Barbara Jardine, Gillian Bishop and Rachel Ross. The doyenne of the fashion business is the gifted Meiling, but attractive original clothing by a growing number of native fashionmakers can be found in boutiques and shopping centres.
This extraordinary fête (see Festivals for dates, etc.) is considered by many to be safer, more welcoming to visitors and artistically more stimulating than its nearest rival in Rio de Janeiro. Commercialization is undermining many of the greatest Mas’ traditions, but some of the historical characters like the Midnight Robber and the Moko Jumbies can be glimpsed at the Viey La Cou old time Carnival street theatre at Queens Hall a week before Carnival and often at J’Ouverte (pronounced joo-vay) on Carnival Monday morning and in small, independent bands of players. But it’s a great party, enlivened by hundreds of thousands of costumed masqueraders and the homegrown music, calypso and steelband (usually referred to as ‘pan’).
(or kaisonians, as the more historically-minded call them) are the commentators, champions and sometime conscience of the people. This unique musical form, a mixture of African, French and, eventually, British, Spanish and even East Indian influences dates back to Trinidad’s first ‘shantwell’, Gros Jean, late in the 18th century. Since then it has evolved into a popular, potent force, with both men and women (also children, of late) battling for the Calypso Monarch’s crown. This fierce competition takes place at the Sunday night Dimanche Gras show at the Queens Park Savannah, which in turn immediately precedes the official start of J’Ouverte at 0400 on the Monday morning, marking the beginning of Carnival proper. Calypsonians band together to perform in ‘tents’ (performing halls) in the weeks leading up to the competition and are judged in semi-finals, which hones down the list to six final contenders. The season’s calypso songs blast from radio stations and sound systems all over the islands and visitors should ask locals to interpret the sometimes witty and often scurrilous lyrics, for they are a fascinating introduction to the state of the nation. Currently, party soca tunes dominate although some of the commentary calypsonians, like Sugar Aloes, are still heard on the radio. There is also a new breed of ‘Rapso’ artists, fusing calypso and rap music. Chutney, an Indian version of calypso, is also becoming increasingly popular, especially since the advent of radio stations devoted only to Indian music. Chutney is also being fused with soca, to create ‘chutney soca’.
Pan music has a shorter history, developing this century from the tamboo- bamboo bands which made creative use of tins, dustbins and pans plus lengths of bamboo for percussion instruments. By the end of the Second World War (during which Carnival was banned) some ingenious souls discovered that huge oil drums could be converted into expressive instruments, their top surfaces tuned to all ranges and depths (eg the ping pong, or soprano pan embraces 28 to 32 notes, including both the diatonic and chromatic scales). Aside from the varied pans, steelbands also include a rhythm section dominated by the steel, or iron men. For Carnival, the steelbands compete in the grand Panorama, playing calypsoes which are also voted on for the Road March of the Year. Biennally, the World Steelband Festival highlights the versatility of this music, for each of the major bands must play a work by a classical composer as well as a calypso of choice. On alternate years the National Schools Steelband Festival is held, similarly in late October/early November. A pan jazz festival is held annually in November, with solos, ensembles and orchestras all emphasizing the versatility of the steel drum. TIDCO organized a World Beat festival for the first time in October 1999, featuring Caribbean and international artistes. It plans to make it an annual event.
Other musical forms in this music-mad nation include parang (pre-Christmas). Part of the islands’ Spanish heritage, parang is sung in Castillian and accompanied by guitar, cuatro, mandoline and tambourine. For the Hindi and Muslim festivals, there are East Indian drumming and vocal styles like chowtal, which is particularly associated with Puagwa in early March.
Throughout the year, there are regular performances of plays and musicals, often by Caribbean dramatists, and concerts by fine choirs like the Marionettes Chorale, sometimes accompanied by steelbands. There is a lot of comedy but some serious plays too, see press for details. Theatres include the Little Carib Theatre (T6224644), Space Theatre (T6230732), the Central Bank Auditorium (T6230845) and Queen’s Hall (T6241284).
In short, Trinidad and Tobago boast some of the most impressive artists to be found anywhere in the region, and visitors can enjoy that art throughout the year, although many of the now internationally recognized performers tour abroad during the summer months.