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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
INTERESTING SONGS AND RHYTHMS
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4acONMykrb4
The worldwide famous Harry Belafonte, with his song Matilda, that talks about a woman that steals all his money and runs to Venezuela: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C-DShN82mc
Mighty Sparrow: “Congo Man”. Talks about the situation of Africans brought into Trinidad to work as slaves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5zWruGDqo0&list=PLDF4F63C7D8325F92&index=4
Sundar Popo: “Nana & Nani”. International representative of chutney music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73FVMjfXFGE
Lord Shorty or Ras Shorty: “I watch out my children”. Big experimenter and fusioner of all island rhythms, from calypso to indian music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3EbqXTNjK8
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuPNK59kQI0
Samples of Parang music, the christmas music of the island: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QrfieDZgA4&list=PL37D8A3D50CD17B06
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”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzZ2GkZbBTM
Lancelot Layne: “Get off the Radio”. The father of Rapso: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrVrvVk4MZU
A list of 20th Century Calypso greats: http://www.nalis.gov.tt/Research/SubjectGuide/Music/Calypso/tabid/104/Default.aspx?PageContentID=76
Belé Dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wz_3f_5VnpI