Art in Trinidad and Tobago
Theatre in Trinidad and Tobago covers a very vast array of entertainment mediums. Throughout both islands, there are many theatre companies and venues, with many different kinds of performing arts that qualify as “theatre.” Performance pieces can vary from intimate dramas, to song and dance musicals, to stand-up comedy, to experimental theatre, and even solo shows. Many local playwrights utilize these contemporary and modern styles while touching topics unique to their own culture, such as Derek Walcott did in “Pantomime.” In the introduction to the play, Harry and Trewe are describes as being “adept at modes of popular theatre, which they use to play out their personal conflicts,” as theme which I think really encompasses modern theatre stylings in Trinidad and Tobago.
Surprisingly, there aren’t too many modern theatre traditions in Trinidad and Tobago that drastically vary from mainstream theatre, besides the difference in musical stylings and of course country relevant topics. Aside from more experimental pieces, the plays written in Trinidad and Tobago are relevant on global scale. For example, in “Pantomime” by Derek Walcott, while focusing on certain aspects of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture, the play is about the relationship between Jackson and Harry. For me, the play had a very mainstream resemblance to the common comedic partnership in modern story lines. The play was very easy to visualize in a literal sense while, content-wise, it deals with issues specific to the Trinidad and Tobago culture. So, the plays from the country work globally in style, while in topic, they deal with the country specific struggles of traditional African cultures’ continuing mesh with the culture of the Europeans since they settled there around 500 years ago.
Other renown playwrights from Trinidad and Tobago, besides Derek Walcott, include:
-William Archibald, who wrote a play called The Innocents, later adapted it to film with Truman Capote, and co-wrote the script for the Alfred Hitchcock film I Confess.
-Errol Hill, whose worked as a playwright and a faculty member at Dartmouth College in the United States, later going on to write many non-fiction books.
and Mustapha Matura, who wrote many plays, and eventually ended up writing for a 1983 TV sitcom.
Steel drums are definitely the most well-known instrument and sound to come out of Trinidad and Tobago. They were really refined around the beginning of the 1930’s by the younger generation of African heritage. They started out very much like african drums, just made from biscuit, oil, and dust bins. They had a very metal tambour, but the earlier steel drums never had tuned single pitches. Eventually, after years and years of experimentation, the natives discovered how to fix the surfaces of the drums to different depths to created different pitches and ranges.
Modern drums have been refined now to the point where small tenor pan drums may have up to 32 different pitches. The drums are usually so unique to the music of Trinidad and Tobago because the tuning of them isn’t standardized, and is never organized chromatically. While there are some very expensive “American” steel drums, they actually offer a much different sound than the authentic drums of Trinidad and Tobago.
To sort of get an idea of how unique and organic authentic instruments can be, understand that steel drums made in Trinidad and Tobago are made by first finding the desired metal material, cutting it and shaping down to the bowl size, hammering it personally to tune in certain pitches, and then tempering it by filling it with burning oil over a fire. The traditional and ritualistic idea around the making of the steel drum is that the tuner “pounds the metal until its notes respond to the tonal pattern deep in the recesses of his soul.”
Way before the pitched steel drum, natives would dance to the sound of unpitched percussion. It was actually considered very dangerous to dance or drum in native gatherings because of the constant oppression of this culture by the white European leaders. Drumming was outlawed in Tobago in 1798 and, in 1797 Trinidad, required to only occur after 8 p.m. The “noise” was considered to be “primitive” and the ritual of dancing to the sound of drum was considered a “barbaric custom.”
By the 1850’s, laws and curfews came into effect to restrict live music to certain times and areas, but interestingly enough, the laws of course did not apply to European instruments. Native would evade these laws by creating different instruments, like bamboo bands, and pounding on empty milk tins with cooking utensils, which many years later led to their own pitched percussion: steel drums.
While even today it is considered an issue that steel drum bands parade streets sometimes without permits and sometimes steal dust and garbage pans as percussion, the music coming from such rituals and performances, now called “Calypso” music, has become a staple of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture and musical heritage.
While dance in Trinidad and Tobago, as with many other cultures, is now a great recreational tradition for the people and a great part of the countries’ culture, the dances of the country come from a much deeper and historic essence. A lot of the dances of Trinidad and Tobago were greatly changed, adapted, and meshed with the white Europeans’ culture. Because of the kind of mix of the two, many classical dances resemble more grounded forms of the polka and waltz. The reel and jig for example, is considered a traditional dance, but really is of European origin, being a British sailors’ dance.
More traditional dances show strong African roots, especially because of the ritual aspect of them. The saraka and the bele (accents over both e’s), both ritualistic dances, hearken back to the shamanistic aspects of traditional african and early tribal religions. The natives believed through the sound of drumming, certain dances brought the dancers into a shaman-like state resembling a ritualistic trance, where they could interact with the spirits of the dead, bringing back messages for their living relatives.
Of course, today, there are many forms of dance, especially the reel style, which is done very commonly as a simple celebration dance style.
In Trinidad and Tobago, because the national population isn’t very high compared to most other nations, talented artists often rise to national attention very easily. There are seven art galleries as part of the National Museum which is in Trinidad, and the national art society holds many shows and art exhibitions year round with paintings, drawings, sculptures and even celebrates some street art festivals.
-Born in West Indies on 1/23/30
-Highly influenced by the works of T. S. Eliot and William Shakespeare, Walcott is a very strong playwright, poet, and essay writer
-Recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature
-Founder of the Trinidad Theater Workshop and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University
-Received the MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, a Royal Society of Literature Award, and the Queen's Medal for Poetry in 1988.
-Honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
-”His poetry reveals an acute anxiety over his positioning as ‘heir’ to two conflicting cultures, though he was later to see this background as a necessary crucible for his art, and more generally, as typical of the region’s cultural plurality.” (his work reflects the cultural makeup of Trinidad and Tobago as a people)
Aho, William R.. "Steel Band Music in Trinidad and Tobago: The Creation of a People's Music." Latin American Music Review. University of Texas Press, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/948067.pdf?acceptTC=true>.
Discover Trinidad and Tobago. "Discover Trinidad & Tobago Travel Guide." Discover Trinidad & Tobago Travel Guide. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. <http://www.discovertnt.com>.
Dixon, Bobie-lee. "McBurnie Lived to Dance." Trinidad Guardian Newspaper 4 Jan. 2012: n. pag. Trinidad Guardian. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.tt/lifestyle/wednesday-january-4-2012/mcburnie-lived-dance>
MacLean, Geoffrey. “Introduction to the Art of Trinidad and Tobego.” Araneo Trinidad and Tobago. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. <http://araneo.info/trinidad-tobago/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=135&Itemid=38>
Poets.org, “Derek Walcott.” Poets.org. Web. 17 Sept. 2012 http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/220