Trinidad: a melting pot of global traditions
Every culture is unique, but Trinidad is doubly special because of the number of arts and cultural traditions that have been preserved and cross-pollinated by generations of migrants from all over the world, all in one small island. This makes Trinidad constantly abuzz with artistic and cultural activity.
The small size of the local arts scene means that many artists are part-time semi-professionals. But there’s certainly no shortage of vibrancy or creativity. Artists draw on the classical and folk traditions of Europe, Africa and India, combining them in original ways or adding a creole touch to create new forms that are distinctly Trinidadian.
With limited audiences, events often have short runs, so if you blink you’ll miss them. Keep a close eye on ads and announcements in the local media and especially online. Facebook has become one of the most reliable sources for information about current arts and cultural events.
It used to be that most of the work not directly related to the Carnival arts closes down after Christmas, when Carnival shows and parties take over, resuming by Easter. However, that’s changed in the last few years, with theatre producers, music presenters, and artists all showcasing work almost right up to Carnival and soon after. Around September, look out for performances of Ramleela, an epic adaptation of the Ramayana enacted by villagers at open-air venues, mostly in central Trinidad.
Activity is typically concentrated in or near Port of Spain, with music and theatre taking place in venues from Chaguaramas in the west to the University of the West Indies (UWI) in the east. But San Fernando has its own arts scene, a long-established theatre tradition, and a recently opened branch of the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA South).
Government-sponsored events include the annual production of Best Village, a festival of the folk arts. NAPA North in Port of Spain has staged specially commissioned shows that include steelband concerts and musicals.
Trinidad’s most popular musical exports are probably the steel pan (created in Port of Spain in the 1930s) and calypso. Classic old-time calypso is still a staple on the menu at the Nu Pub (formerly the Mas Camp) on Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook, and steelpan players entertain audiences at competitions, festivals and events year-round (but especially at Carnival time).
For indigenous Trinidadian music – calypso, soca, and steelpan – the best time of year is clearly Carnival, but increasingly these can be enjoyed year-round. Competitions are a great place to hear established and budding music talent.
Beyond our local traditions, there is an increasingly diverse music scene. There is a strong tradition of artists who grow their own “world music” from distinctly Trini roots: local fusion bands 12theband, jointpop, Orange Sky and Freetown Collective; sitarist Mungal Patasar and his Indian-creole fusion music; Orisha chantuelle Ella Andall; the rapso of 3canal and Maximus Dan; and Trinidad-born star Heather Headley.
There are small but vibrant pockets of rock, pop, reggaeton, R&B, jazz, and reggae musicians who are gaining prominence. Home-grown indie music, local rock, jazz and chutney can often be heard live at bars and restaurants.
Keeping both western and eastern classical traditions alive, choral groups like the Marionettes, Southernaires, Lydian Singers, and Love Movement; university groups like the UWI Festival Chorale, present concerts, sometimes accompanied by steelbands (which also stage occasional concerts of their own) including full-scale operas or musical theatre productions. They also present local music in non-traditional settings and arrangements. Budding and established solo vocalists also host recitals.
If you’re in the mood to party, look for shows by Machel Montano; Kes the Band; Destra Garcia; Shurwayne Winchester and YOU; Faye-Ann Lyons, Bunji Garlin and the Asylum Band; Iwer George; and other countless soca stars.
Very popular gospel concerts are staged at larger venues such as the Jean Pierre Complex. Coming up to Christmas, parang groups take centre stage, playing Spanish-influenced seasonal folk songs.
Theatre & drama
With several theatrical companies and venues, options vary from popular farces to lavish song and dance musicals (both local and foreign) or intimate solo shows and dramas. There is usually at least one play running on any given weekend, and sometimes there’s a play at every major auditorium in the country.
Theatre groups mostly stage local adaptations of metropolitan comedies, and sometimes original local work. Some popular production companies include Richard Ragoobarsingh and Ricardo Samuel (RS/RR Productions); Raymond Choo-Kong; Ha Ha Ha Productions (led by Penelope Spencer and Nikki Crosby); Funny Farm Factory; First Instinct; and others.
University departments (and new theatre companies founded by recent graduates) and community organisations produce excerpts or full productions of popular musicals (both local and foreign), while Lilliput presents children’s theatre. The Centre for Creative and Festival Arts at UWI, St Augustine and the emerging theatre programme at the University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) stage productions that have included local and regional classics, calypso musicals, and plays based on local history. There are also intimate dramas, solo shows, and experimental performances.
Popular venues for plays include Queen’s Hall and National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) in Port of Spain; the CLR James Auditorium at the Cipriani Labour College in Valsayn; Naparima Bowl and SAPA (the southern campus of the Academy for the Performing Arts) in San Fernando; the Central Bank Auditorium and Little Carib Theatre, also in Port of Spain. The Belmont-based Trinidad Theatre Workshop, founded by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott in 1959, also produces Caribbean and international classics and hosts readings and workshops for new works at their black box theatre.
The island’s festivals produce both original and ritual drama. The annual Best Village competition runs each year, and is where many local actors and playwrights cut their teeth. The epic Hindu ritual of Ramleela is staged in central Trinidad annually before Divali.
For stand-up comedy with a strong local flavour, sample shows by Rachel Price and Learie Joseph.
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. Larger companies often put on short annual seasons, usually at Queen’s Hall. The work runs the gamut from the experimental modern style of Makeda Thomas, Sonja Dumas and Dave Williams (the last two of whom are also some of the people behind the annual COCO Dance Festival) to the classical/European dance of the Cascade Festival Ballet, and Indian dance from the Nrityanjali Theatre. Other notable names: Noble Douglas (NDDCI), Astor Johnson, Metamorphosis, Carol