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IF MUSIC IS PROHIBITED THEN TRINIDADIANS WOULD RE-INVENT IT FOR THE WORLD: A brief history of Trinidad and Tobago contribution to the world of music.

Written by Claudia Caponi on . Posted in General Information, Regions, Trinidad and Tobago

Few countries can talk about fast population growth as the one experienced by Trinidad and Tobago: in 1777 its population was less than 1,400 and by 1789, the population of the island reached 15,000.

While this fact leads to serious problems within the immediate economy, the purveyance and the environment, it is also true that the varied origin of its inhabitants, their different customs and traditions gave rise to a culture shock at first, but to a strong cultural enrichment through time. This enrichment has been noted particularly in music, the dominant art in Trinidad, with their different traditions, festivals, carnivals and even unique and indigenous instruments like the steelpan.

The global contribution of Trinidad and Tobago to the world of music is recognized internationally and very important, and it is due to its inhabitants diversity of origin and the capacity of recognizing the interesting points in another’s culture.

Several factors contributed to this rapid population growth: the distribution of a decree by the Spaniards, owners of the island until 1797, created for those who wanted to go to the island to sow and harvest and that would free the settlers from taxes for the first ten years. Also the French Revolution of 1789 had a strong impact on the exodus that took place into the island, resulting in the migration of Martinican Creole planters and their French slaves who would be established in Trinidad to create an economy based on agriculture, specifically sugar and cocoa plantations.

The famous, elaborated, traditional and very amusing carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago

Diverse cultures found themselves in one place in the Caribbean, away from their land but always with the country of origin in the heart and the will to keep the patriotic traditions and perpetuate them through the generations. One of these traditions is the carnival the French brought with them. And although workers and slaves also celebrated it, it was forbidden for them to participate in the same party as the masters and white Europeans; so they formed their own carnival called “Canboulay” which is the precursor of the Carnival currently being held in Trinidad and Tobago, an institution that has had an important impact on the cultural and tourist development of the island.

From 1845 until about 1917 the migration continued into the island, with different nationalities ranging from Indians, Syrians, Portuguese, Chinese and Africans who went to the island to work as laborers and brought their traditions and influences. It is especially remarkable the influence of the Indians who went to Trinidad and Tobago in 1843 as indentured workers to fill the labor void left by the abolition of slavery. The Indians brought to the island their folk music that fused with the local creating what is known as chutney music, a fast and lively rhythm that incites dancing and hence the origin of its name.

The Canboulay was actually an illegal party, in which all marginalized sectors of society were concentrated. For society in control these festivals symbolized the violence repressed by their workers and slaves, a potential revolt that had to be abolished at all costs. So to avoid the direct prohibition of Canboulay, drums were banned, a key element of the celebration. An ingenious substitute for drums and sticks was a local invention called tamboo bamboo: sticks of bamboo cut to different sizes and thicknesses that allowed different sounds combined together. The local and marginalized population could not only continue with their music despite bans, changing the musical elements to the extent possible, they even used the local material offered by nature to continue their national traditions. Three types of instruments were obtained from bamboo, and its use during carnival lasted for many years until it finally was rendered obsolete by new modern steel bands. According to Rafael DeLeon, a Trinitarian musician and historian internationally renown, when he was a kid carnival music was made with all kinds of found or everyday objects: garbage lids, pieces of metal, bottles hit with spoons, cooking utensils and any other object which produces sound when struck with a stick. After all it was impossible for the authorities to ban anything that made a sound when being hit!


   Group of the 40s, with their steelpan made by hand.  These groups are called Steelband nowadays.

Using these clandestine, handmade instruments, that hid the desire to celebrate the carnival in freedom as the masters did, gave rise to an interesting cultural mix, held in the hills of Trinidad, where the masters could not hear the drums, many times celebrated during the night and often combining other traditions learned through oral communication brought by the ancestors that came from Africa and were brought to the island as slaves.

One of these traditions is a dance called Belé: here the European tradition is mixed with the African. When the French came to Trinidad and Tobago they took their Creole slaves with them. Both were used to a lively lifestyle, with dances and concerts that always remembered the Grand European balls. Slaves, in their spare moments, imitated in the fields not only the European fashion but also their dances and movements. The rhythm of African instruments combined with the European tradition gave rise to a folk dance, usually danced by older women in the fields all night long, far away from the masters while they were having their own celebrations or were asleep.

The Calypso, probably the most internationally known musical movement derives from these clandestine musical forms, adapted slowly over time by the different socio-cultural moments that the island lived through. One of its predecessors is the Kaiso, a musical movement that emerged after the emancipation of the slaves and the verse duel sung that hid a political subcontext. Gros Jean has the reputation of being the first calypso singer in the days when calypso was sung in “patois” and with his lyrics he created an exchange of insults in verse that later developed into the “wars of calypso” or current verse duel song.


Steelband of our days.

Calypso takes African and English influences, and it becomes the voice of the people. When English starts gradually replacing “patois” (Creole French), it also does so in music; a certainly advantageous fact for international recognition and subsequent acceptance by the local government. Although their mainly anti-colonial and outright opposition to the British lyrics made it become an anti-British underground communication method.

The year 1914 marks a milestone in the music history of Trinidad and Tobago, as this is the year a first album of Calypso was recorded in the island; the presence of American soldiers on the island due to the Second World War contributed to the worldwide expansion of the indigenous rhythm. The 1930’s are the Golden Age of Calypso, at this point contests for performers were organized in search of the “King of Calypso”, in 1939 Growling Tiger won it with his song “The Labor Situation in Trinidad,” which as can be predicted by its name, talks about the precariousness situation of the workers on the island. It is for this reason that singers of calypso are considered dangerous by the government and the elite in charge, because they know that these singers have charisma and can mobilize and especially create consciousness in a large part of the population that should be aware of their terrible and appalling working conditions. Elites always stayed away from the celebrations, and the Afro-Creole middle class, who tried hard to open themselves a place among the dominant white class, thought that keeping distance from the village celebrations could carve themselves a good social position.

The music in this case is used as an instrument of mass communication, to create awareness in a battered, illiterate and exploited population. Music is the best way to reach them and make them understand their situation in society and how they can change it; something that is not convenient at all to the oppressive and ruling class.

During the 70s the popularity of Calypso reaches all corners of the world, and also new rhythms emerged as the derived Soca music or Rapso, greatly increasing international sales. The Indo-Trinidadians popularized their chutney music throughout the world also during this period. It is also the time when women make their way into the local music scene, and in 1978 for the first time a woman won the competition to the “King of Calypso”, and because of Calypso Rose won the contest it had to be renamed as the “Calypso Monarch” competition.

The influence of the British settlers who brought to the island the only music well received and accepted by the elites in every society party must also be included in this musical melting pot: Western classical music. Initially used as the music in parties where the dances of European high society were represented and reproduced, was gradually introduced in the local society through music festivals that still exist today and that have been fused with the local rhythms.


  The steelpan, national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and the only percussion instrument accepted internationally that was invented in the 20th Century.

One of the greatest contributions to the world of music is the steelpan, an instrument invented in Trinidad and in fact, the only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century. Born as an instrument used by slaves, at first a drum made from empty oil barrels beaten with a bamboo stick, the performers realized that the hardest hit areas of the drum began to produce a pitch sound, so if the oil drum was modified they could also modify the sound that came from it. At first the steelpan was manufactured by hand, now, due to the high global demand, these instruments are made industrially. It is a concave drum on which the whole musical scale is present.

Initially the steelpan was associated with marginalized communities and its use associated with violence and lawlessness; until Dr. Eric Williams, leader of the People’s National Movement, and the man regarded as the father of the nation, worked and did everything possible so the upper classes will eliminate their prejudices about the instrument and it would be accepted as an important element within the local culture. Today the steelpan is used internationally and is considered the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.

Another interesting geographical influence is the one of Venezuela in the Christmas music played and heard on the island, called Parang. It is not only an interpretation done during the Christmas season, but it carries within it all the usual Christmas celebrations and traditions of the Caribean. Their interpreters usually visit the homes of relatives, neighbors and friends; playing these songs in Castilian, usually with instruments like guitar, maracas, mandolin, violin and even cuatro, the national instrument of Venezuela.

Currently Trinidad and Tobago remains a musical country with an ancient culture that has been the basis for a mix of ingredients brought from the whole world, giving a unique result and recognized worldwide. The music is still evolving but always from the base of the original rhythms. Currently rhythms like Rapso with their musical poetry are the communication tool for people to express their everyday experiences.

As we see the Trinitarian culture has perpetuated over time, thanks mainly to its ability to adapt to the changing of times and take the best elements of each culture. Everything depended on the ability of fusion that have had the different cultures that have passed through the island. Each nationality has been fueled not only by the local customs, but the customs brought by other people. Everyone wanted to leave in their children the footprint of their ancestors, orally recounting their experiences and express them through music. Music has been the unifying and pacifying element in many cases, thanks to it Trinidad and Tobago have been enriched from an accelerated population exodus that had taken full advantage of the coexistence of all the cultures of the island inhabitants.


Growling Tiger: “Money is King”. A song from the 30’s that talks about the big economic gap the different classes of his period suffered:

The worldwide famous Harry Belafonte, with his song Matilda, that talks about a woman that steals all his money and runs to Venezuela:

Mighty Sparrow: “Congo Man”. Talks about the situation of Africans brought into Trinidad to work as slaves:

Sundar Popo: “Nana & Nani”. International representative of chutney music:

Lord Shorty or Ras Shorty: “I watch out my children”. Big experimenter and fusioner of all island rhythms, from calypso to indian music:

BP Renegades: “In De Minor”. A steelpan group or steelband. In this video it is possible to appreciate the influence of European music in the island:

Samples of Parang music, the christmas music of the island:

Calypso Rose: “Fire Fire”. The first woman that won the “King of Calypso” contest in 1978. After her the contest changed its name to “Monarch of Calypso”:

Lancelot Layne: “Get off the Radio”. The father of Rapso:

A list of 20th Century Calypso greats:

Belé Dance:



Trinidad and Tobago

Written by Claudia Caponi on . Posted in General Information, Publications, Trinidad and Tobago

Following an introduction to Trinidad and Tobago, its history, present and close  future.

These twin islands, Trinidad and Tobago, are located off the northern edge of South America, lying just off the coast of northeastern Venezuela and south of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles.

Due to its strategic and privileged position in the middle of the Caribbean, it has always been the port of entry to Latin America, either from the point of arrival of the conquerors or the commercial standpoint.

Trinidad’s name refers to the Holy Trinity, the name given to the island by Christopher Columbus when he discovered it on his third voyage of exploration to the “Indies”.


It is said that when the Spaniards saw the small neighbouring island of Trinidad, which had an elongated shape, reminded them to the shape of a cigar (Tobaco), and hence comes the name of Tobago. It can also come from the fact that the island’s Dutch and Courlanders planted not only cotton but also tobacco.

Christopher Columbus arrived in Trinidad in 1498 and from that moment the island becomes a Spanish colony until the British invasion of 18 warships happened in 1797, forcing the Spanish governor to capitulate in favor of the English.

During this period, the neighbor Tobago changed hands in several occasions: Spain, England, France, Holland and the Courlander colonizers, whose colonization of the Americas was held by the Duke of Courland, it was the second smallest nation (today Latvia) to colonize the Americas, after the Knights of Malta. Their colony on the island of Tobago extends from 1654-1659, and intermittently from 1660-1689.

Trinidad and Tobago finally unite as one country in 1889, being a British colony from 1802 to 1962 and gaining independence in 1976 becoming a Republic.

During the French Revolution the French landowners and their slaves and free colored people of the neighboring islands migrated to Trinidad where they established an economy based on agriculture, mainly sugar and cocoa, and tobacco at some points.

The population of Trinidad suffered at this time a very rapid growth: from 1,400 people in 1777 to 15,000 in 1789.  By 1797 the population of Port of Spain had increased from less than 3000 to 10422 people in just five years, and it was made up people of different races: Spaniards, Africans, French republican soldiers, retired pirates and French nobility.


Petroleum was discovered on the island in 1857, this fact together with the decline of cocoa in the market because of the Great Depression, converted oil and its derivatives in the main base for the country’s economy as well as to make it one of the richest countries in the Caribbean.

The largest cities and most densely populated are in Trinidad, Tobago still remains an island apart whose economy is mainly based on tourism.  Its tropical climate, fertile soil and rich vegetation make it an island of very pleasant weather. Unlike other Caribbean islands,

Trinidad and Tobago have managed to escape the hurricanes that have hit the area, this is because they are located in a geographical point that escapes for a few miles the routes that usually follow hurricanes and storms. But vulnerability is palpable when we consider the consequences that triggers climate change: tropical storms, earthquakes, floods, droughts and rising sea levels could cause very serious problems in the islands.

Because of this vulnerability, known by the government, the country strives to increasingly apply measures to help ensure their survival in a possible radical climate change, one of the key bodies governing this development is controlled by SIDS (Small Island Developing State), which Trinidad and Tobago belong.

In the latest report from the government to the SIDS Conference 2014, participants expressed concern about the lack of awareness that young people had about climate change and its consequences; also emphasized the need to develop synergies for good waste management, which the country has not yet implemented.

One factor of concern to the government and the economy driving change is the fact that in August 2007 was predicted that oil reserves would last only until 2018.

Although presented as a disadvantage in the short term for the national economy, it must be looked on the positive side as it will be the catalyst for not only create awareness among the population and businesses, but also a boost to move the economy to more sustainable and renewable basis.

Among the major environmental problems still present in Trinidad and Tobago are: the improper disposal of waste, deforestation, overfishing, marine pollution and its great gas emissions per person: although the country accounts for less than 1% of absolute Global Greenhouse Emissions gas, it is the second largest producer of carbon dioxide  emission on a per capita basis in the world.


One of the commitments that the government currently has with the various international treaties, is to implement the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by developing the use of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as an alternative fuel.

There is also a green fund that provides financial support to groups and organizations that carry out activities related to reforestation, environmental education and public awareness of the problems of environment and conservation.

The current president, Anthony Carmona is searching the best tools in place to develop the country towards sustainability, the National Climate Change Policy is an example of a recent policy that speaks to climate change adaptation as an issue of environmental sustainability.

One of their top priorities is to resolve the fact that hunger, malnutrition and lack of food security works against sustainable development, this is one of the reasons why the nutrition for children in public schools is guaranteed by the government.

Regarding their educational system, in Trinidad and Tobago children start mandatory school at age 5, primary school comprises seven years and secondary five years, education is free for all; as well as tertiary education which is financed via GATE (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses).  Even some master programs and scholarships are subsidized and are given to gifted or needy students. In the country, 89% of all Pupils complete primary school.

The country has placed a priority on education with support measures including free transportation, book grants and free meals through a School Nutrition Program.

One of the major challenges that the country is faced with changing economic base is not having skilled labour for a new economy, which could result in lower production levels.  It is therefore necessary to obtain a greater percentage of students continuing with their professional studies, this could be possible sowing the necessary awareness among the population and favouring the possibility of studying for the general population.  Also creating awareness about the new needs of the country, the new ways to develop towards sustainability in order to create a new labour capable of working in more sustainable ways.

We can conclude this article by saying that in Trinidad and Tobago the government is well aware of the environmental situation and it shows by its international interventions that they are doing their part to remedy the damage already done and promote sustainable development in the country.  It is a high priority also to create awareness among the population, especially the younger ones, so that everyone can participate not only on the change of economy, but to bring the country to a self-sustaining, respectful towards nature terrain. It is critical that the first learning of this occur in schools, this would create an excellent basis for educating future citizens.

  • Trinidad & Tobago: National Report for the 2014 SIDS Conference. Available from: PHOTOGRAPHS:

Democratic Election in Fiji

Written by Claudia Caponi on . Posted in General Information, News

DEMOCRATIC ELECTION IN FIJI   After years of waiting for the possibility to vote, the next 17th of September, Fijians will finally have the opportunity to choose their president. This re-introduction to democracy comes after years of the military being in power, since the coup of 2006. The voting day has been declared national holiday in order to facilitate the whole process.   Since its independence in 1970, the Republic of Fiji has searched for an electoral system that would adequately serve its multi-ethnic society, which is predominantly indigenous Fijian or Indo-Fijian. There has been an incessant political struggle between the two main ethnic groups, leading to several coups in the past years, the first one in 1987 continuing until 2006. The first coup was a result of the opposition to recent election results. It was lead by indigenous Fijian nationalists. They were also against the level of government power held by Indo-Fijians, in 2000 Fiji had its first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister: Mahendra Chaudhry. After the coup of 2006 Fiji has been under the control of a military regime, led by Frank Bainimarama.   The military Bainimarama has stepped down of power a few months before the elections, in this way he has the possibility to be elected as a democratic president.   Several parties run in the election as candidates:  
  • Fiji First Party
  • One Fiji Party
  • Fiji Labour Party
  • Fiji United Freedom Party
  • National Federation Party
  • Peoples Democratic Party
  • Social Democratic Liberal Party
  However there is some concern regarding the results of this election, since, according to some the process hasn’t been facilitated for some part of the population. The document available to vote will have no party symbols, just numbers. The political parties are not happy with this system because they assure this will be confusing for voters, especially older and less educated people who would have to pick a number and wouldn’t see displayed the electoral party of their choice. Candidates may not advertise on a party, but they must do so on a number. For some parties this regulation will favour the party that is already in command and also has the benefit of taxpayers.   Already the country has more than half a million voters registered, in a population of nearly 900 thousand people.   Despite all the problems of the recent past and the present, Fiji currently has an excellent opportunity to design an electoral system that is thoughtful of the country’s unique ethnic and cultural mix, and which maximises the ability for parliament to be a true and accurate reflection of the wishes of the Fijian people.   While Fiji has previously experienced higher levels of women’s representation than its Melanesian neighbours, this is a poor comparison, as 11 percent representation, as occurred at the 2006 election, remains well below the generally accepted level of 25-30 percent where a critical mass of women is achieved to bring about positive change. It would be an opportunity lost if some measures were not taken to ensure a higher proportion of women in parliament. Such measures would not only be beneficial to Fiji, but would provide leadership on this issue for the other Melanesian countries.   Education is regarded in the country as the most important thing the community can provide for their children, since the change of power between the different ethnic groups, education is the one thing that offers security through financial independence. Although attendance was decreasing due to security problems and the high cost of transport, the Ministry in charge was concerned about all the aspects of education, efforts are being put in allocate educational resources available to everyone. Hopefully these efforts will be put especially in the primary enrolment and the subsequent continuing school and the accessibility to universities to everyone.   Our hope is that the new government will put all these intentions into action, looking into the future and giving the importance to sustainability that is urgently required.   Related links of interest and source of bibliography for this post: