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Trinidad’s Arts & Culture: An Overview

Fonclair performs at the San Fernando Jazz Fest. Photographer: Mark Lyndersay

Fonclair performs at the San Fernando Jazz Fest. Photographer: Mark Lyndersay

Trinidad’s Artistic & Cultural Landscape: A Melting Pot of Global Traditions

Every culture is unique, but Trinidad is doubly special because of the number of cultural traditions that have been preserved and cross-pollinated by generations of migrants from all over the world, all in one small island. This makes Trinidad constantly abuzz with artistic and cultural activity.

The small size of the local arts scene means that many artists are part-time semi-professionals. But there’s certainly no shortage of vibrancy or creativity. Artists draw on the classical and folk traditions of Europe, Africa and India, combining them in original ways or adding a creole touch to create new forms that are distinctly Trinidadian.

With limited audiences, events often have short runs, so if you blink you’ll miss them. Keep a close eye on ads and announcements in the local media and especially online. Facebook has become one of the most reliable sources for information about current arts and cultural events.

It used to be that most of the work not directly related to the Carnival arts closes down after Christmas, when Carnival shows and parties take over, resuming by Easter. However, that’s changed in the last few years, with theatre producers, music presenters, and artists all showcasing work almost right up to Carnival and soon after. Around September, look out for performances of Ramleela, an epic adaptation of the Ramayana enacted by villagers at open-air venues, mostly in central Trinidad.

Activity is typically concentrated in or near Port of Spain, with music and theatre taking place in venues from Chaguaramas in the west to the University of the West Indies (UWI) in the east. But San Fernando has its own arts scene, a long-established theatre tradition, and a new Academy for the Performing Arts in the works.

Government-sponsored events include the annual production of Best Village, a festival of the folk arts. The new National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) in Port of Spain has staged specially commissioned shows that include steelband concerts and musicals.

Music

Trinidad’s most popular musical exports are probably the steel pan (created in Port of Spain in the 1930s) and calypso. Classic old-time calypso is still a staple on the menu at the Nu Pub (formerly the Mas Camp) on Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook, and steelpan players entertain audiences at competitions, festivals and events year-round (but especially at Carnival time).

For indigenous Trinidadian music – calypso, soca, and steelpan – the best time of year is clearly Carnival, but increasingly these can be enjoyed year-round. Competitions are a great place to hear established and budding music talent.

Beyond our local traditions, there is an increasingly diverse music scene. There is a strong tradition of artists who grow their own “world music” from distinctly Trini roots: sitarist Mungal Patasar and his Indian-creole fusion music; Orisha chantuelle Ella Andall; the rapso of 3canal and Maximus Dan; Trinidad-born star Heather Headley; and local fusion bands 12theband, jointpop, and Orange Sky. There are small but vibrant pockets of rock, pop, reggaeton, R&B, jazz, and reggae musicians who are gaining prominence. Home-grown indie music, local rock, jazz and chutney can often be heard live at bars and restaurants.

Keeping both western and eastern classical traditions alive, choral groups like the Marionettes, Southernaires, Lydian Singers, and Love Movement; university groups like the UWI Festival Chorale, present concerts, sometimes accompanied by steelbands (which also stage occasional concerts of their own) including full-scale operas or musical theatre productions. They also present local music in non-traditional settings and arrangements. Budding and established solo vocalists also host recitals.

If you’re in the mood to party, look for shows by Machel Montano; Kes the Band; Destra Garcia and Atlantik; Shurwayne Winchester and YOU; Faye-Ann Lyons, Bunji Garlin and the Asylum Band; and other countless soca stars. Very popular gospel concerts are staged at larger venues such as the Jean Pierre Complex. Coming up to Christmas, parang groups take centre stage, playing Spanish-influenced seasonal folk songs.

Theatre & Drama

With several theatrical companies and venues, options vary from popular farces to lavish song and dance musicals (both local and foreign) or intimate solo shows and dramas. There is usually at least one play running on any given weekend, and sometimes there’s a play at every major auditorium in the country.

Theatre groups mostly stage local adaptations of metropolitan comedies, and sometimes original local work. Some popular production companies include Richard Ragoobarsingh and Ricardo Samuel (RS/RR Productions); Raymond Choo-Kong; Ha Ha Ha Productions (led by Penelope Spencer and Nikki Crosby); Funny Farm FactoryFirst Instinct; and others. University departments and community organisations produce excerpts or full productions of popular musicals (both local and foreign), while Lilliput presents children’s theatre. The Centre for Creative and Festival Arts at UWI, St Augustine and the emerging theatre programme at the University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) stage productions that have included local and regional classics, calypso musicals, and plays based on local history. There are also intimate dramas, solo shows, and experimental performances.

Popular venues for plays include Queen’s Hall and National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) in Port of Spain; the CLR James Auditorium at the Cipriani Labour College in Valsayn; Naparima Bowl and SAPA (the southern campus of the Academy for the Performing Arts) in San Fernando; and the newly reopened Central Bank Auditorium and Little Carib Theatre, also in Port of Spain. The revitalised, Belmont-based Trinidad Theatre Workshop, founded by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott in 1959, also produces Caribbean and international classics and hosts readings and workshops for new works, both in their small black box theatre and at external venues.

The island’s festivals produce both original and ritual drama. The annual Best Village competition runs each year, and is where many local actors and playwrights cut their teeth. The epic Hindu ritual of Ramleela is staged in central Trinidad annually before Divali.

For stand-up comedy with a strong local flavour, sample shows by Rachel Price and Learie Joseph.

Dance

The local dance scene spans regional folk dance (the most popular being the indigenous limbo, bongo, and bele), ballet, jazz, modern, Indian classical, and styles from around the world.

Dance schools and semi-professional companies present high-quality shows year-round, while smaller troupes present experimental multi-media productions. Larger companies often put on short annual seasons, usually at Queen’s Hall. The work runs the gamut from the experimental modern style of Sonja Dumas, Makeda Thomas and Dave Williams to the classical/European dance of the Cascade Festival Ballet, and Indian dance from the Nrityanjali Theatre. Other notable names: Noble Douglas, Astor Johnson, Metamorphosis, Carol La Chapelle, Elle Inc, and regional folk performing groups.

The Best Village competition keeps folk dance traditions alive in local communities, and groups like the Northwest Laventille Cultural Movement and Shiv Shakti dance company often guest at shows across the country through the year, particularly around cultural holidays.

Visual Arts

The seven galleries of the National Museum house some of the country’s best artwork, and a number of other fine galleries showcase new work. The Museum (623-5941) has a small representative collection of local art which is on show for most of the year, and a collection of watercolours by the country’s leading 19th-century painter, Michel Jean Cazabon.

The Art Society has an annual show in November of new work that includes paintings, drawings, and sculpture. The society also organises plein-air painting sessions in picturesque venues, mostly in the dry season of course.

Art exhibitions take place year round, and primarily between Easter and Christmas, at several established galleries and other venues that might include an artist’s home, a restaurant, or the lobby of a corporate headquarters.

There is a significant art market, and a number of notable local artists. Landscape features very prominently in a lot of local painting, but there’s also abstract and avant-garde work to be seen. Names to look for: MP Alladin, Sybil Atteck, Ralph and the late Vera Baney, Isaiah Boodhoo, Edward Bowen, Carlisle Chang, Leroy Clarke, Chris Cozier, Ken Crichlow, Jasmine Girvan, Jackie Hinkson, Paul Llanos, Dermot Louison, Che Lovelace, Shastri Maharaj, Wendy Nanan, Lisa O’Connor, Shalini Seereeram, Peter Sheppard, Irénée Shaw, Sundiata, Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, and Noel Vaucrosson, to name but a few; and the late Michel-Jean Cazabon, Pat Bishop, and Boscoe Holder.

Literature & Books

The island has produced some stellar writers over the generations. Among the best-known are Michael Anthony, Lloyd Best, CLR James, John La Rose, Earl Lovelace, Ian MacDonald, Nobel Laureates VS Naipaul and Derek Walcott, Elizabeth Nunez, Sam Selvon, Julian Kenny, and former prime minister Eric Williams.

Monique Roffey and Amanda Smyth are among local writers who have published internationally successful books recently: Roffey’s novel White Woman on a Green Bicycle was shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize, and won the 2013 Bocas Prize. Both visited Port of Spain to launch their books.

Book launches, readings and lectures take place at the National Library, UWI, the University of Trinidad & Tobago, the National Museum, and at bookstores.

Look for fiction, plays and poetry from Lisa Allen-Agostini, Robert Antoni, Tony Hall, Earl Lovelace, Ian MacDonald, Shani Mootoo, Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul, Elizabeth Nunez, Monique Roffey, Sam Selvon, Lawrence Scott, Amanda Smyth, and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, to name but a few. For writing on local history, culture and environment, see Michael Anthony, Lloyd Best, Anthony de Verteuil, Bridget Brereton, Gérard Besson, CLR James, Kim Johnson, John La Rose, Julian Kenny, Eric Williams, and Discover’s sister organisation Prospect Press.

Their work is available at libraries, and fine book stores like the Readers Book Shop and Paper Based in Port of Spain, and Nigel R Khan and RIK nationwide, and a great time to experience some of the finest Trinidad & Tobago and regional literature is during the annual Bocas Lit Fest (the Trinidad & Tobago Literary Festival).

Film & Cinema

Film is a growing industry here, with several filmmakers of Trinbagonian heritage producing and showcasing their works internationally. The two-week annual Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival in September/October screens local, regional and international films at MovieTowne and other venues. Trinidadian filmmakers Horace Ové, Yao Ramesar, and Frances-Anne Solomon have had notable releases in the last few years, while the festival runs community screenings, workshops and other industry development initiatives year-round. There is also a European Film Festival which screens some of the finest releases from Europe.

For more commercial entertainment, there are several cinemas across the island. Some older venues still show the traditional “double-feature”, with two films on one ticket. There are also three multiplex cinemas (MovieTowne in Port of Spain and Chaguanas, and Caribbean Cinemas 8 at Trincity Mall) and a newly opened Imax Cinema in Port of Spain.

Fashion & Jewellery

Leading designers take part in Trinidad & Tobago Fashion Week in mid-year, and present their own shows, often at year-end. Prominent local designers include Heather Jones, Meiling, Karen and Kathy Norman, Claudia Pegus, Anya Ayoung-Chee, and Robert Young.

Local jewellery ranges from the shells and seeds strung together by Akilah Jaramogi (sold, along with other local craft, at the Hotel Normandie), to the works of art wrought from gems and precious metals by Chris Anderson, Gillian Bishop, Barbara Jardine, Rachel Ross, and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, all renowned for their handcrafted jewellery.

On the Fringe

Alice Yard in Woodbrook is the backyard of a house that once belonged to architect Sean Leonard’s great-grandmother. Now it hosts performances and installations by local and visiting artists who work in the visual media, dance, music, and literature. Recently it’s been the site of a pop-up store selling clothes and bags designed by Robert Young of The Cloth.

Erotic Art Week, in mid-year, features painting, drawing, photography, readings and cellphone films, among other things. The organisers say it’s “open to any contemporary artistic exploration of our erotic ethos.” It’s staged simultaneously at venues that include a rumshop, a wine bar, and the offices of an advertising agency.

The local version of the Red Earth Festival, presented in June to coincide with World Environmental Day offers poetry, music, and clay sculpture workshops as well as environment-related activities.

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