The culture lover’s guide to Trinidad
Every culture is unique, but Trinidad’s culture has been cross-pollinated by generations of migrants from all over the world, whose cultural traditions have been preserved and adapted, all in one small island.
The trifecta: calypso, soca & steelpan
Also known as just pan (from “steelpan”), this Trinbagonian invention, pioneered in Port of Spain in the late 1930s, is the only acoustic musical instrument created in the 20th century. It’s traditionally made from oil drums, cut, tempered and beaten into notes, as distinct from the more modern version, the G-Pan.
Calypso dates back to pre-emancipation times, when slaves created songs as a form of praise or derisive social commentary. Its up-tempo progeny soca — a distinct form born in the 70s and incorporating Indian instruments and rhythms — is the islands’ party music. Calypso and soca have spawned other forms that fuse both local and international sounds.
Calypso was popular on international airwaves between the 1930s and 50s; a few soca songs have gained international popularity since the 1980s. Artists including David Rudder, Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin have signed international record deals, and collaborated with international stars. Montano and Garlin have won Soul Train Awards, while Bunji and his wife Fay-Ann Lyons were the first to perform at the UK’s Glastonbury Music Festival in 2015. Member of the hugely popular DJ Group Major Lazer, Trinidadian Chris “Jillionaire” Leacock also works soca into the group’s performances and mixes.
The East Indian vibration
The most popular kind of local East Indian music is chutney, born of Hindi folk songs brought to Trinidad by Indian immigrants, and featuring instruments like the sitar and dholak drums. Chutney + soca = chutney soca! Tassa is a drum-driven music central to the Muslim festival of Hosay. Goatskin-covered tassa drums are heated over fires at the roadside in order to achieve the right pitch.
Trinidad’s traditional Christmas music features instruments like the cuatro, box bass and maracas, with lyrics sung mostly in Spanish. Once sung by roving bands of serenaders called paranderos, parang bands now dominate the Christmas party circuit and the airwaves in season, and are being positioned to move into international Hispanic markets.
Indigenous music is only the beginning. Some of the most distinctive music groups include fusion bands 12theband, jointpop, Orange Sky and Freetown Collective; the Indo-Caribbean music of Mungal Patasar & Pantar; the Orisha songs of Ella Andall; and the rapso of 3canal and Ataklan. There are also local rock, jazz, and raggae artists. Groups like the Mjanice
tes, Southernaires, Lydians, and Love Movement present western classical, opera, and Broadway, and are particularly popular at Christmas time.
Theatre & dance
With several commercial, university, and community theatre companies and performance venues, options vary from original plays to popular farces, lavish song and dance musicals (and operas), or intimate solo shows and dramas. There is usually at least one production running on any given weekend, and sometimes there’s one at every major auditorium in the country. Both foreign works (or adaptations of them) and local works are staged.
The local dance scene spans regional folk dance (the most popular being the indigenous limbo, bongo, and bele), ballet, jazz, modern, Indian classical, and styles from around the world. Dance schools and semi-professional companies present high-quality shows year-round, while smaller troupes present experimental multi-media productions.
Where to look
Popular venues for theatre, dance and some music shows include the Queen’s Hall (the island’s premier performance space), Central Bank Auditorium, Little Carib Theatre, and Trinidad Theatre Workshop (all in Port of Spain); CLR James Auditorium and University of the West Indies (UWI) in the east; and Naparima Bowl and SAPA (the southern campus of the Academy for the Performing Arts) in San Fernando.
The seven galleries of the National Museum house some of the country’s best artwork (see our Touring & Sightseeing section). Art exhibitions take place year-round, especially at spaces like 101 Art Gallery, Fine Art, Horizons, Medulla, Softbox Studios, and Studio 66, as well as the unique Alice Yard exhibition and artist residency/facilitation space. The Art Society of Trinidad & Tobago hosts exhibitions as well as sessions ranging from life drawing to ethics in art (artsocietytt.org).
Literature & books
The island has produced some stellar writers over the generations, including Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, and several award-winning writers who have published internationally. Their work spans fiction, plays and poetry to local history, culture and the environment. Book launches, readings and lectures take place at the National Library, UWI, the University of Trinidad & Tobago, the National Museum, at bookstores, and during the Bocas Lit Fest (see our Festivals section). Paper Based at the Hotel Normandie in St Ann’s is a treasure trove for local publishing; the RIK and Nigel R Khan bookstore chains are also good bets.
Twenty-five years of publishing
This year, Discover’s publishers — MEP — also celebrate 25 years of publishing, a landmark event in the local industry. MEP is best known for high quality culture, business and tourism magazines like Discover and Caribbean Beat, as well as a range of biography, natural history, art, and current affairs titles through book imprint Prospect Press. The Press’s most recent titles include collections by the late Dana Seetahal (Unbreakable) and Martin Daly (The Daly Commentaries).
Film & cinema
Film is a growing industry here, with several incentive and rebate programmes designed to encourage local and foreign producers to film on location in T&T. Several film-makers of Trinbagonian heritage are producing and showcasing their works internationally; many are screened at the annual Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (see our Festivals section). The UWI Campus Film Classics and European Film Festivals host special screenings of regional and foreign indie films. Mainstream box office hits are typically screened at multiplexes — MovieTowne (Port of Spain, Chaguanas, and San Fernando); Caribbean Cinemas 8 (Trincity and San Fernando) — and the Digicel Imax in Port of Spain. Some older venues still show the traditional “double feature”, with two films on one ticket.
Fashion & jewellery
Trinidad has produced bold and vibrant designers and fashion lines. For something distinctively Trinidadian, check out fashion by CLD, Ecliff Elie, Adrian Foster, House of Jaipur, Heather Jones, K2K, the Lush Kingdom, Meiling, Millhouse, Claudia Pegus, Pilar, The Cloth, and the Wadada Movement. Local jewellery designers create breathtaking hand-crafted jewellery in gold and precious stones, including Chris Anderson, Gillian Bishop, Janice Derrick, Akilah Jaramogi, Barbara Jardine, Rachel Rochford, Rachel Ross, and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan.
BONUS! Did you know?
Steelpan to the world
Steelbands exist all over the globe, from the US to Japan and Australia. Local ones have performed at prestigious venues world-wide. In 2015, a steelpan concerto (the second ever composed) was premiered at the Kennedy Centre in Washington by the US National Symphony Orchestra, featuring pannist Liam Teague.
Trinis to the bone
Multiple award-winning rap/hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj; Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Angela Hunte (who co-wrote “Empire State of Mind”, performed by Jay Z featuring Alicia Keys); Tony and Grammy winning singer/actress Heather Headley; and the late, celebrated performer Geoffrey Holder are all Trinidadian.
Long before Sam Mendes and Steve McQueen (both British directors of Trinidadian descent) won Oscars for American Beauty and 12 Years a Slave, Scottish engineer John Logie Baird is said to have produced the world’s first television set on a cocoa estate in Santa Cruz around 1920.