The Culture of Trinidad

The culture of Trinidad and Tobago is focused on music and carnival

Photo credit: © Andrei Tselichtchev | Dreamstime.com

Trinidad and Tobago's Culture
 

The islands of Trinidad and Tobago have two very different tones. Trinidad is the upbeat, fun island, while Tobago is more laid back. However, both have similar cultural backgrounds, and their rich cultures create a wonderful country to explore.

Music and festivals are the most dominant means of cultural expression here, but arts are also important to the culture. Carnival is the most well-known cultural festival, and calypso and steel band music are both internationally popular.

Carnival

...Carnival takes place across the Caribbean, but it originated on the island...

 

The annual celebration of Carnival takes place across the Caribbean, but it originated on the island of Trinidad. Each year just before Ash Wednesday, this festival fills the streets where vacationers and locals mingle to watch parades and celebrate. Don't be surprised if you're invited to play mas' (short for masquerade).

Partygoers wear brightly-colored costumes covered in sequins and feathers and spend their days dancing and partying in the streets. In fact, it's recommended that you sleep a little extra the day before Carnival if you plan to take part in the festivities.

The original Carnival celebration was only for the masses. Members of the island's upper class would watch, but not participate in the festival. The Carnival on Trinidad and Tobago has given rise to a number of recurring characters.

  • Dame Lorraine is a well-endowed woman.

  • Jab Jab looks like a devil who wears horns and carries a three-pronged pitchfork; he may threaten you, but all in fun.

  • Pierrot Grenade is a character who speaks in rhyme on topical issues.

  • Midnight Robber continues the tradition of the African Griot storyteller in his own "robber talk" dialect.

  • Minstrels, black and white musicians in face paint, continue a tradition of the wandering minstrel.

Carnival Music

Trinidad and Tobago has a great history of music, which has been strongly influenced by the music performed by the Africans brought to the islands as slaves. But, in 1883, the wildness of the Carnival celebrations caused drums - a main element on Trinidadian music - to be banned during the festival. This forced islanders to develop new ways to incorporate rhythm into their celebrations.

Tambour-bamboo was a way of playing on cut bamboo. A five-foot stick of bamboo was used to create a bass drum effect, while foot-long pieces were struck together by hand to create a counterpoint, called a foulé. The third piece of bamboo, called a cutter, was long and thin, and was struck by a piece of wood. The tambour-bamboo was also eventually banned; the style eventually faded and is rarely played now.

Steel band music replaced the tambour-bamboo style, and has become so popular that it is well-loved outside of Carnival as well. String music with a Spanish flair known as parang was imported from Venezuela. However, it is rarely played outside the two months before Christmas. This style is most loved as an accompaniment to calypso singers among the upper classes.

The most recent addition to Carnival music is called Trinbagonian.  This new genre blends African and Indian music together in a calypso and chutney mash-up that can be heard nowhere else on earth.  Carnivals of late have been promoting the new sound by offering monetary rewards for the best use of the genre during the festival.  

Steel Band

Developed in Port of Spain in the 1930s, steel band music, also called steel pan music, came from the steel oil drums. Though they were originally used only as drums as a part of Carnival celebrations, developed as an alternative to other banned rhythm instruments, the different sizes and parts of the drums were used to create different notes, making tuning a true skill. Musicians may be particularly interested to note that the steel pan claims the distinction of being the only non-electronic instrument created in the 20th century.

This instrument, however, was not well-received by the people of Trinidad and Tobago, because it was initially perceived as a musical form for the lower classes. It was not until the 1960s that this art form was truly recognized. Prime Minister Eric Williams encouraged corporate and business sponsorship of steel bands, which helped to give disadvantaged youth a means of self expression. In just over 10 years, Trinidad and Tobago saw the rise of some 200 steel bands, averaging 25 members apiece.

Like the tambour-bamboo, these steel band instruments came in three tones. Tenor pan carries the melody, the kittle provides the harmony, and the boom creates the rhythm. Additional pieces of the band are the double tenor pan, which plays the harmony alongside the melody of the regular tenor pan. The alto, guitar, and cello pan all create rhythm, while the bass pan and tenor bass pan both carry a bass line. Scratches are added with drum sets, and iron adds drum brakes.

Calypso

Calypso was particularly popular worldwide in the 1950s. This type of music is more about the words than the music, and the songs' prior uses included slave communication. Even now the West African word "kaiso" is occasionally used for calypso, as it is a truly African-derived form of music on the islands.

Calypso has become an important part of Carnival festivities as well. The Calypso Monarch and Road March King are two important titles earned by singers during carnival, and are often political, featuring social commentary and humor as well.

Soca, chutney soca, and rapso are three types of music that have spun off from the popularity of calypso. Soca offers more powerful rhythms and simpler lyrics. Soca with an Indian musical infusion is called chutney soca, and rap- infused soca is called rapso.

Race and Religion

One of the most unique aspects of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago is their unusual ethnic breakdown. While most Caribbean islands are populated in large majority by the descendants of African slaves, Trinidad and Tobago are home to many immigrants from the East Indies, who came to the islands as indentured servants after slavery was abolished in the 1800s. This gave Trinidad and Tobago a distinctive culture unlike any other island's as these cultures blended.

The following statistics were derived from the 2000 census:

Ethnic Group Percent of population
Indian (South Asian) 40%
African 37.5%
Mixed 20.5%
Other 1.2%
Unspecified 0.8%

Similarly, the religions practiced by Trinbagonians are unusual due to their mixed population:

Religion Percent of population
Roman Catholic 26%
Hindu 22.5%
Anglican 7.8%
Baptist 7.2%
Pentecostal 6.8%
Other Christian 5.8%
Muslim 5.8%
Seventh Day Adventist 4%
Other 10.8%

Though these are not the only cultural elements you'll find on Trinidad and Tobago, they are some of the most important aspects of the island culture. Remember that Carnival originated on Trinidad and Tobago, and its development has been important among the entire region, as have the many musical stylings associated with the festival.

 

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