Tobago's Arts & Cultural Scene
The island’s cultural scene ranges from traditions with strong roots in Tobago’s communities, to international events attracting talent and patrons from across the globe.
Tambrin (from tambourine) is quintessential Tobago music. It is driven by three shallow goatskin tambrin drums: the cutter (high pitch), roller (rhythm) and boom (bass). The drums provide an African basis for the lead instrument, the fiddle, and the added percussion of a steel triangle. Tambrin bands dominated village social events (processions, weddings, boat christenings, harvest festivals) and islandwide festivals right up to the 1960s and the advent of the DJ. Contemporary bands include The Professionals and Unity from Mt Thomas, Cateson from Mt. St. George, and Plymouth’s Royal Sweet Fingers. As there are no commercial recordings available, you should try to catch them live.
Meanwhile, clubs, hotels, bars and restaurants across the island present local performers as regular and rotating headliners, with nights dedicated to jazz, reggae, hip-hop, R&B, Latin and of course calypso, soca and steelpan music. April sees an explosion of local, regional and international jazz (and non-jazz) talent around the Tobago Jazz Experience, and the Plymouth Jazz Festival which preceded it. The events have drawn impressive rosters of international pop stars like Diana Ross; Elton John; Earth, Wind & Fire; Smokey Robinson; Shakira; LL Cool J; Diddy; Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. Other smaller events in April showcase local and regional jazz talent.
See our Tobago Nightlife section for the best things to do in Tobago after dark!
Tambrin was traditionally used for both adapted European dances like the quadrille, polka and waltz, and for the African-derived ritual dances, the reel and jig. These last two are evidence of Tobago’s African roots, traditions which survived colonial oppression by camouflaging themselves in the European form of British sailors’ dances.
The reel, jig and saraka (also called the salaka) from Pembroke, and even the bèlè, are dances invoking the spirits of the ancestors and dead, a tactic for survival, inspiration and resistance since slavery days.
The ceremony of pouring a libation of white rum and water in the road at the beginning of a reel, inviting the ancestors into the yard, parallels the ceremony for Papa Legba (also known as the Orisa Esu or Elegba), guardian of the gate, a prerequisite for any vaudoux ceremony in Haiti. As the dance progresses, spirits manifest themselves by possessing dancers through whom they reveal messages.
The reel is danced on many occasions: at the annual wake for the dead, a boat launching, during times of sickness or recovery, evil or hardship and on bachelor’s night before a wedding.
There is a small but impressive visual arts community in Tobago. German-born Luise Kimme (639-0257, www.luisekimme.com, reservations required) displays her dramatic, larger-than-life-sized wood and bronze sculptures depicting local characters at her atmospheric gallery/atelier in Bethel. The Tobago Museum (639-3970) at Fort King George in Scarborough exhibits local art. A number of locations offer art for display or sale, including Trinidad-born Martin and Rachael Superville’s The Art Gallery; Horizon’s; D’Art Yard; Tobago Fine Art; and Café Iguana. Other Tobago artists include Jason Nedd, Earl Manswell, Jim Armstrong, Kevin Ayoung-Julien, Edward Hernandez, David Knott, and Earl Manswell.
Folk Performance & Superstitions
African influences survive in other traditions: folklore, agricultural superstitions and bush medicine. There are the tales of Wawa Douglas and Conga Brown who, when beaten by the slavemaster, magically transferred the lashes to the planter’s wife; and Congo Ellis who, because he didn’t eat salt, was able to fly back to Africa. By contrast, there is the Witch's Grave in Golden Lane. The story goes that Gang Gang Sara was a wise witch (or a soucouyant, depending on who you ask) who flew from Africa to Tobago centuries ago in search of her family. In her old age, after her husband Tom’s death, she climbed a giant silk cotton tree (sacred in many indigenous religions) hoping to fly back to her homeland. But having eaten local salt, she was unable to fly, and fell to her death.
While gardeners wouldn’t dream of planting if a funeral was taking place in the village, they would make sure to bathe before entering a yam plot, as these tubers are regarded as particularly sensitive. Folk cures include mat root for diabetes and snake bites; bamboo leaf for fevers, pneumonia or strokes; and lizard grass for gastroenteritis.
Almost every village has a performing or cultural arts group that preserves Tobago’s rich African-based folk traditions, hosting or guesting at performances during the year. Speech bands, tambrin music, and the reel and jig dances are native Tobago traditions. The midyear Tobago Heritage Festival is the signature event showcasing these arts.
Vibrant village harvest and fisherman’s festivals are at the core of community life, approached with a vigorous sense of togetherness and thanksgiving. From the first weekend of the year to the last, villages take turns hosting a harvest. It starts with a church service after which everyone returns home to cook. By late evening, friends and people from other villages go round to each house tasting meals fit for a king: stewed pork, stewed chicken, curried crab, dumpling, cassava and much more. Visitors are welcome to join in this community affair.
One custom which you’re likely to come across on a daily basis from Store Bay in the west to Charlotteville in the east is pulling seine, the communal retrieving of fishing nets cast close to shore. While there are fish in the sea, Tobagonians will pull their seines. This is one custom you’ll be more than welcome to join in, as every pair of hands is needed to pull in the hoop of fish-heavy net. Once they’ve spotted shoals of small fish like sprats, jacks or even larger bonito, fishermen in boats drop the net in a circle from the shore.
Any and everybody can help to pull in the catch, part of which can be claimed as payment for the effort. This is not only practical in terms of labour but part of the old tradition of “len han”, common throughout the Caribbean — directly descended from the cooperative work ethic of African villages, which the slaves brought with them and put to good use after Emancipation: building houses or boats, clearing land for cultivation, planting and harvesting.
- Moriah Wedding: signature Tobago Heritage Festival event, featuring groom in stovepipe hat and tailcoat and bride with trousseau on head, processing slowly with the distinctive three-step "brush back", accompanied by fiddler and tambrin drummers
- Plymouth Ole Time Carnival: featuring African stickfighting and masquerade characters with English titles like Duke, Valentine, Show Boy and Commander who parade and dance in decorated European top hats but whose origins lie in the street festivals of Nigeria. They are joined by Ju Ju warriors, Jab Jabs and devils dressed in satin, reminiscent of old English clowns
- Tambrin: quintessential Tobagonian music, driven by three shallow goatskin tambrin drums (high pitched cutter, roller, and boom bass), fiddle, and steel triangle. Accompanies social events
- Reel, Jig and Saraka: indigenous dances from Pembroke, with roots in West African rituals invoking the ancestors, and accompanied by tambrin music. Libations are still offered at the beginning of reels. Saraka feast held in Pembroke during Tobago Heritage Festival. While some Creole dances like the bèlè and piqué are found in both Trinidad and Tobago, the reel and jig and the accompanying tambrin music are uniquely Tobago
- Speech bands: Tobago Carnival tradition, featuring cast of costumed characters speechifying in rhyme. Bethel and Plymouth are home to these bands, where a cast of costumed characters including Creator, Sealey, The King, Hero Conqueror, The Duke of Wellington, The Doctor and My Boy Pompey speechify in rhyme, a form resembling old English Mummers plays and drawing heavily on the vibrant West African oral tradition.
Names to Remember
- Crusoe Gems Performing Company: 639-5997
- Hands of Rhythm (African & folk drumming): 639-9220
- Itsy Bitsy Folk Theatre (Mt. Pleasant): 639-9006, 681-8865
- Pembroke Folk Performers: 774-4683
- Royal Sweet Fingers Tambrin Band: 639-5634
- Rhythmic Vibrations (Scarborough): 639-7672
- Signal Hill Alumni Choir (director, John Arnold): 639-1103
- Youth Quake (Scarborough): 772-4440
- D’Art Yard (Crown Point): 631-8312
- Genesis Nature Park & Art Gallery (Goodwood): 660-4668
- The Art Gallery (Lowlands): 639-0457
- The Castle (Bethel): 639-0257
- Tobago Museum (Fort King George, Scarborough): 639-3970