CAROLINE TAYLOR: Tell us a bit about the island’s musical heritage, and the current musical landscape.
NIGEL CAMPBELL: With Trinidad & Tobago for centuries being a haven, temporary or otherwise, for Venezuelan revolutionaries, rural peasants and refugees; European colonisers and settlers, including the French with their African slaves; later indentured Indians, and myriad travellers, migrants and wanderers, the islands would absorb these many cultures and the content of their “global creativity” to hybridise or develop a new musical heritage that is both pioneering in the Americas and common in the Caribbean.
The African pulse has embedded itself into the various sounds existing in the late 18th century to create an original creole genre called calypso that can be considered as the musical response of African-Caribbean people to slavery, emancipation and colonialism. Later, once it was recorded for consumer uptake — as early as 1912, five years before jazz — this signalled the growth of the sound of the Caribbean, and ultimately the sound of Trinidad-styled carnivals all over the world.
This country’s ability to assimilate everything and everybody that lived and still live here has further allowed for evolution of music that drive island festivals, parties, and allow for a new direction in some popular music. Soca, a mash-up of Indian- and African-Caribbean musical impulses — named by one originator, Lord Shorty, as sokah — has for the last 50 years been the driving force of Carnival with faster tempos and a lyrical celebration of fun. A hodgepodge of variants use the soca base to energise musical sub-genre such as ragga, rapso, chutney and CDM (Caribbean Dance Music = EDM plus Caribbean rhythms). Sandwich between these two musics, calypso and soca, was the result of youthful innovation, “the audacity of creole imagination,” to make a sound that challenged and changed how we danced and moved at Carnival.
The steelpan, born during the War years in the mid-1940s, transformed “found” metal dustbins and later discarded oil drums into a family of polyphonic musical instruments and a sonic cliché of Caribbean idyll. That sound still welcomes tourists at a hotel poolside, and it drives fervent fans into a frenzy when performed at its orchestral best at carnivals and music festivals all over the world.
Today, fusion with Latin beats and Indian rhythms have enhanced what can only be described as the pool of musical forms unique in the Caribbean. That soca beat with the trademark two-drop snare, four-on-the-floor beat is now invading EDM and pop music being produced by the children of diaspora in cities in Canada and the USA. The islands’ musical evolution to this day identifies artists, musicians and soca singers either literally and figuratively marching to the beat of a different drummer or trying to catch that golden ring of global significance. Everyone wants to be the next Rihanna, but there are those independent souls who are carving careers in genres outside of Carnival music. Island folk, rock, calypso jazz, tropical pop, and CDM all have available commercial recordings and niche markets here in the islands and internationally to reinforce the case of the ubiquity of music in Trinidad & Tobago. State intervention to transform the musical landscape into an export-led industry is a continuing long-term exercise. The widespread universal availability of the music, and importantly the availability of the players to perform live, with minimal travel restrictions, remains the goal of the artists, audience and the avid fan.
CT: If people are looking for live music experiences, what are some of the names to look out for — across genres?
NC: Trinidad & Tobago has a few cities and locales that holistically can make the case of these islands being the Caribbean music capital. Because of the spread of genres, there is something for most — clubs, festivals, concerts both mammoth and intimate, and just a plain old limes with friends, a bottle and spoon and a cuatro all serve as must-do experiences.
Music in Trinidad and Tobago seems to be compartmentalised into “seasons”:
Effectively from Boxing Day until Ash Wednesday, non-stop, soca reigns. Specifically, Carnival fetes, all-inclusive affairs or the looser “cooler fete” where you bring your own drinks, are the launching pad for a number of new soca songs every year. The week before Carnival sees the most significant events; Soca Monarch competition; Machel Monday concert featuring the biggest soca superstar, Machel Montano; Tuesday On The Rocks starring Kes the Band with Kees Dieffenthaller — the ladies love him with his model good looks and perfect voice — and at last count, over 50 fetes in the seven days preceding Carnival. Listen out for Bunji Garlin, Fay-Ann Lyons (the soca First Couple); Voice, the new generation’s leading voice and three-time winner of Soca Monarch. Calypso tents, though greatly reduced in popularity in the Carnival, still holds a place for understanding the roots of calypso as social commentary and reportage of scandal, obsessions, and life here.
Post-Carnival (March until) or the “centre season”
Jazz festivals, reggae, opera festivals abound. Jazz Artists on the Greens kicks off the short jazz season four weeks after Carnival and culminating with the Tobago Jazz Experience in the last weekend of April. Elan Parle, Clifford Charles, Theron Shaw star among a recent generation of artists making a mark locally. Clive Zanda, a pioneer in kaiso-jazz fusion is still a standing icon. A lot of this music goes underground after as the competition for the limited attention of the masses awaiting a new season of Carnival music. Many musicians of note are now resident in the diaspora seeking a better bang for their buck: Etienne Charles, Leon Foster Thomas, David “Happy” Williams.
Christmas for choral and parang music and back to Carnival again
The leading choral groups deliver the annual Christmas shows — the Marionettes Chorale, the Lydians, the Love Movement. Caribbean voices singing from the traditional European songbooks of carols and seasonal songs. Parang, music from the old Spanish tradition with the select few ever-present melodies signal the Trinidadian experience of the season. Never to be outdone as masters of assimilation, we created the fusion genre of parang-soca with double entendre lyrics in English touch the heart of many and serve as the musical fuel for endless liming and drinking and conviviality. Scrunter, Crazy, Kenny J, and Relator are key figures with multiple tracks that stand out in that unique space between Christmas and Carnival.
CT: For locals or visitors looking for the best nightlife across the island, what are your picks for the best hangouts, and why?
NC: Port of Spain, the capital city, has been targeted as a must-do in the Caribbean. Unlike those sleepy island towns, Port of Spain has an energy that resonates throughout the year. The Ariapita Avenue strip in the “urban suburb” of Woodbrook boasts a mile of bars, eating places, and a few live venues that come to life in a huge way on weekends. For a live music experience, Kaiso Blues Café, which has moved down to Wrightson Road close to the downtown hotels, is the premier space for intimate live performances from a wide range of genres. Upscale bars pepper the city, with the restaurants and bars at One Woodbrook Place offering an urban oasis of sophisticated nightlife. Increasingly, the casino, or members club as it is formally known, is showcasing a number of popular and prominent performers in the local scene. Island Club Casino in Grand Bazaar has become a new hot spot for live music outside of the capital city. Similarly, in the central city of Chaguanas and the southern city of San Fernando and its suburbs, the spectrum of Trinidad people congregate to lime and have fun in diverse ways. Woodford Cafe in Chaguanas offers live performances in music genres outside of soca, and Space La Nouba and Sting Nightclub in La Romaine in south are major hot spots for rubbing shoulders with the reality show set — a hybrid of nouveau riche and wannabe looking for an external frame of reference. Dancing and contagious fun never stops and drinks flow all night. Not to be left out, Tobago offers Jade Monkey and The Shade as all night spaces that revel in the energy that comes alive at night.
CT: Of course, there are many other festivals year-round. Which ones are the most special for you, and why? Which ones would you recommend people experience at least once in their lifetimes?
NC: Islamophobia is a new wave in Western countries, but in Trinidad, the Muslim remembrance of Muharram, or Hosay, is a celebration that all partake in. The Trinidad version is one of drumming, ornate tadjahs (mosque-shaped model tombs) and dancing of the handcrafted moons, which when observed, primarily in St James, becomes a manifestation of the Caribbean assimilation experience of far-flung peoples. The rhythms echo an African pulse, the detailing of the tadjahs follow a carnival design aesthetic. It is Trinidad from another perspective, and the accompanying food is a small celebration that is recommended at least once.
CT: There are so many traditions to explore within the Carnival season, from pan to traditional mas to stickfighting. How would you recommend someone compose their Carnival itinerary?
NC: “Trinidad Carnival is not a spectator sport but a participatory event, or a series of participatory events.” That dictum posited elsewhere is the first lesson to ingrain if one is to be a Carnival explorer. It is also a series of competitions, but that is another story altogether. Carnival is fun, and that is what matters most, learning fun and living fun. For starters, get here early, at least a week before the two big days of Monday and Tuesday. The first thing to dip into is the rite of passage of the panyard crawl. These practice spaces are alive with a moving audience sampling the sessions of performance and rote learning towards the Panorama Final competition. Drink in hand, and maybe a maxi taxi to travel with friends, gives one the taste of that steelband sound.
To discover the elements that went into the evolution of Carnival in Trinidad, trekking on the other side of the jam would be a wiser choice. Grab a bunch of friends and a local too, and make sure you have a car and designated driver. In between the parties, a quiet reflection on tradition is necessary to get a fuller understanding of why we do this thing called mas. These traditions are kept up by patriotic souls who carry on traditions handed down anecdotally. These traditions, as noted before, are the responses, musically and theatrically, by the African-Caribbean population in the islands to slavery, freedom and colonialism. Caribbean Beat magazine has many articles that offer a wide perspective on Carnival and how to go native. The January/February 2017 issue in particular has a series of stories called “Carnival is Mine” that offers a great first impression for first-timers.
A calendar of events to guide your discovery:
- Stickfighting finals typically happen on the Wednesday before Carnival in the southern town of Point Fortin. This combative display also showcases the precursor to steelband music, the tamboo bamboo bands, and the chantuelles chanting in the gayelle. On that same night, the traditional individual Carnival characters compete in Port of Spain. This is what mas was before the invasion of bikinis, beads, and feathers. These events are miles apart, so choose wisely!
- The re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots is a historical street theatre production early on the Friday before Carnival that approximates a critical incident that was the catalyst for the recognition by the society that Carnival was here to stay. The emancipated masses were cementing their stamp on the tradition of Carnival.
- On Carnival Monday morning, the ritual of J’Ouvert is performed. Mud, oil, and a pair of throw-away sneakers are necessary. And plenty water. Chipping to music until sunrise is not for the weak of heart, but a necessary elixir to understand the Carnival.
- On Carnival Monday evening, in the remote hills of Paramin above the environs of Maraval, the blue devils of the jab molassie mas have their parade. Walk with some dollars and prepared to get painted — or scared.
- Carnival Monday, one could opt to move away from Port of Spain and discover more traditional Carnival and their rituals in the more than 50 masquerades throughout the island that maintain traditions more than a century old.
CT: What are the must-do fetes on the Carnival calendar, and the best fete opportunities during the rest of the year?
NC: Carnival fetes come in three categories: the high value all-inclusive; the young people cooler fete and its event cousin the breakfast party; and the general mass-market public fete. LIME at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad is a pick for the all-inclusive set. Soaka in Chaguaramas is becoming the de facto standout breakfast cooler fete. Army Fete in the Queen’s Park Savannah, the safest party for the Carnival, effectively has all the best soca singers and serves all people as value for money. And did I say it was safe — the Army is literally the security! As a precursor to the Carnival, the bands are now launching the next year’s presentations as early as July. Among the best opportunities is the Festival of the Bands from TRIBE Carnival. Island Crashers Festival in Pigeon Point, Tobago is a secret no more, and a must do fete among a younger cohort.
About Nigel Campbell
I am a music businessman expanding the appeal of island music via new media, live performance production and distribution.
I write for newspapers and magazines including Caribbean Beat doing music reviews and covering the music business.