The British Caribbean celebrates 50 years of nationhood in 2012. Although most of the territories did not become independent until the years between 1966 and the 1970s, the age of ‘the Caribbean Nation’ is defined by the year 1962 when the first two islands gained Independence.
Trinidad and Tobago is at the peak of their celebrations this weekend, having become 50 last Friday, August 31. They are the second of the two countries referred to above, following Jamaica which led the island chain by breaking away from the British West Indian Federation and becoming independent on August 6, 1962. Like Jamaica, Trinidad celebrated with a carnival of events leading up to Independence Day, although in its case these will continue up until the end of the year.
Like Jamaica, also, Trinidad and Tobago can mark nationhood in much more than political status. They are a nation with a strong identity fortified by 50 years of cultural achievements. Their contribution to Caribbean cultures is an outstanding spectrum of cultural traditions, fuelled by the incandescent energy that created forms in literature, music, and other branches of the arts, like theatre, with a brand of Caribbean performance; forms of dance; indigenous acts; and a distinct identity in the folk and the popular cultures. Much of this store evolved in pre-Independence Trinidad, in the colourful post-Emancipation and colonial periods, but one can also measure the contemporary contributions of Trinidad and Tobago to the ‘Independent Caribbean’ since 1962.
Several of the important and influential artistic and cultural traditions in the Caribbean have their roots in pre-Independence Trinidad. In these the nation can celebrate social and cultural achievement, the shaping of its own national identity and its substantial contribution to the forming of the Caribbean and the outstanding achievements in the arts and culture of the region. Pre-Independence Trinidad was an extremely interesting mix produced by history, colonial settlements, linguistic background, African slavery, and the indentureship of Indians and other immigrants from Asia and Europe. The post-emancipation period was particularly significant with a society built as much by such groups as the French Creoles, the African proletariat, the indentured and Grenadian immigrants and the Spanish heritage, as by the popular culture, turbulence, resistance and conflicts caused by the socio-political colonial dynamics. Out of these sprung creativity, cultural and artistic traditions, literature and theatre that fed into what developed after Independence.
The greatest of these is carnival, a traditional festival that is not only celebrated in two days of street theatre each year, but is a culture. Its reach is extremely wide, covering a whole season between Christmas and Lent and a multiplicity of masquerades and theatrical acts. But carnival is a national sub-culture as it incorporates more than these performances, having created a way of life, a style and a rhythm which are intricately related to the nature of the festival and its traditions. Several of the actual acts belonged to the pre-Independence carnival and have faded out of existence, but the powerful cultural form that carnival is has influenced not only Trinidadian life, but is one of that nation’s greatest contributions to Caribbean culture. These contributions include the carnivalesque tradition itself, the multi-faceted satirical tradition, the culture of picong, the tradition of rivalry, the design and building of costumes, and the crowning of kings and queens as marks of recognition and achievement in several spheres of artistic and championship activities. Aligned to this is the stick-fighting tradition and the kalinda, another cultural form that has been associated with carnival. But it belongs strictly to the pre-Independence period and did not survive in its natural form up to the present time.
While the Trinidad carnival is the mightiest of them, there are carnivals in several other islands in the Eastern Caribbean which have been highly influenced by it. Most of these countries have shifted their carnival dates away from the traditional period in order to avoid a clash with the Trinidad carnival, with which they would have to compete for tourist arrivals. But the festival which has been called “the greatest show on earth” is a multi-million dollar industry and the shows, entertainment and masquerades that are a part of it have influenced other countries in which there is a Caribbean ‘diaspora.’ There are copies of carnival in Notting Hill, London; in Toronto, Canada; and New York. Costume building itself, has grown into a huge industry. It is to be remembered that this was the cultural form chosen by Spain as the design for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, for which they recruited Trinidadian Peter Minshall. He was also recruited for the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics four years later.
Trinidad gave the calypso and the steel pan to the world. These are two musical forms associated with carnival that survive and have lives of their own outside of the festival. They remained strong and held their own after Independence and, all along, have generated sub-cultures of their own. The calypso grew up with carnival from the late eighteenth century (post 1783) through the nineteenth century to actually come into its own in the early twentieth century. Trinidad gave to the world the all-time greatest practitioner, The Mighty Sparrow, and the legendary Lord Kitchener. This musical form, this brand of oral literature, this performance tradition, has been a part of both the folk culture and the urban popular culture to the point where it has been a tradition and a sub-culture, including the calypso tent. These have been replicated across the Eastern Caribbean but grew to their greatest heights in Barbados. Today, only Trinidad surpasses Barbados in the production and the culture of the calypso.
The steel band is much younger, having been invented in Lavantille under depressed conditions in the 1930s. The sub-culture of the pan was a renegade one, accompanied by communal bonding, fierce rivalry, territorial demarcation, border clashes and much violence just as it
was with the stickfight. But it has been the same with other diverse forms such as the Hosay, carnival bands in Grenada and Carriacou, and in the dancehall culture of Jamaica. Yet the steel pan has been accepted by the world as a respected musical instrument with industries growing in Europe and the application of modern technology to its manufacture.
Another of Trinidad’s major contributions to Caribbean culture is the soca, a twentieth century development out of the calypso. There are various theories about its origin, exactly when and by whom it was created. A few notable names have been mentioned (Kitchener, Lord Shorty, Maestro) without any being undisputedly acknowledged, but like forms of this nature, it evolved out of various contributory sources beginning in the 1970s through experimentations with the calypso. It was developed by calypsonians and became the up-tempo, faster, and more light-hearted party music version of the older form. The soca has been claimed by the entertainment industry of the Caribbean, turning over several millions a year. It has been increasingly influenced by the popular culture and is, except for dancehall, the leading party music. As an industry it is making much more money than calypso has ever made.
Although the origins and development of chutney are as much Guyanese as they are Trinidadian, Trinidad has done more with it in post-Independence times than Guyana. Chutney has always come out of and reflected its ethnic and social background in the East Indian community, but in post-Independence Trinidad and Tobago it has ‘come out’ to a wider audience to join soca as a major form of entertainment. It has not lost its Indian constituency, but it has taken on hybrid forms with soca-chutney being the most popular, particularly with its current themes of the rum culture and men as lamenting deserted lovers. The Trinidadian contribution is prominent even in other forms of folk culture. It has preserved the Ramlila (Ram-leela) as the greatest extant folk drama, unsurpassed in spectacle and grandeur. It is Hindu pageantry, a dramatic play telling the story of Lord Ram performed outdoors and lasting for nine or ten nights. Trinidad is the country of the Parang, a musical tradition with Spanish and Roman Catholic derivations emerging from rural districts in Trinidad, associated with Christmas and performed with its own cultural setting. Parang has not been exported, but as performed in Trinidad today, it has wider popular reach and has a recording industry. There is even soca-parang!
The traditions in literature, the theatre and drama can only be mentioned briefly here, as the works and the directions they have taken are varied and substantial. The pre-Independence theatre, of course, included several of the traditional acts and the street theatre such as carnival. It included the calypso tents which retained many of the old traditions of satire, picong and ribaldry, but although taking on more of the stand-up comic routine, has grown less popular.
The more formal drama may be distinguished by what might be regarded as its most prominent pre-Independence contribution – the backyard theatre, the first concentrated drama reflecting local life, the society and the characteristics of the backyards of proletarian Port-of-Spain. Primarily the playwrights highlighted the humour, but soon began to seriously examine the environment. This was a major contribution to Caribbean drama. While post-Independence drama was for a long time led by Derek Walcott and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, from the 1960s to the 1990s, there were other influential functionaries like Errol Hill, Freddie Kissoon and Mustapha Matura. The current contemporary directions have included studies of the traditions, cultural and religious forms as well as a new brand of Caribbean performance led by Rawle Gibbons and Earl Lovelace. There is, however, a thriving industry in popular theatre built around Richard Ragubarsingh and Raymond Choo Kong, as well as a form of satirical performance for which Paul Keens Douglas is best known.
Similarly, perhaps the most significant movement in the colonial period was the work of writers belonging to ‘the Beacon Group‘ including CLR James, Albert Gomes and Alfred Mendes. They advocated the social realism in fiction earlier driven by HG de Lisser in Jamaica and pioneered the great tradition in Trinidadian fiction on which later writers could have built. VS Naipaul rose to prominence after 1962, as did Walcott, followed by Lovelace and several new contemporary writers with confidence in a variety of styles and preoccupations of their own.
Of course, contemporary Trinidadian literature is similar to what has developed across the Caribbean. One thing that may be singled out about it is the way it has moved closer to and is drawing on the traditions. In fact orality and performance are included in the literature in their own right while the more scribal types are shaping themselves more and more to reflect the influence that indigenous traditions now have over the formal national literature of Trinidad and Tobago 50 years after Independence.