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TRINIDAD & TOBAGO

From Two by Three

By Jheri St. James


The Copper-Rumped Hummingbird

“Trinidad, one of the Caribbean Islands, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498. It was called by the native Carib people “Iere” or the “Land of the Hummingbird”. “The southernmost island of the Caribbean Sea, Trinidad is located off the east coast of Venezuela, the two countries being separated by a channel about seven miles wide. Trinidad and Tobago have a South American or neotropical fauna, as opposed to other islands of the Caribbean whose bird life is predominantly tropical North American. Its location also gives Trinidad the unique advantage of harboring over 400 species of birds, making it one of the richest birding countries per square miles in the world. In addition, it also has an advantage over its South and Central American neighbors of having most of its 1200 square miles easily accessible by good roads and forest tracks, making for an easy and attractive alternative to the mainland’s dense forests and inaccessible swamps. All the good birding areas are within a one to two hour drive from the capital city Port-Of-Spain or the Asa Wright Nature Center, which provides excellent accommodation for visiting birders . . . The Scarlet Ibis is the national bird of Trinidad. It breeds in neighboring Venezuela but spends a large part of its life feeding in the Trinidad mangrove swamps. A journey into the Caroni Swamp just before sunset presents the visitor with the never-to-be-forgotten spectacle of hundreds of Ibis coming in from their feeding grounds to roost and transforming drab mangrove bushes into a blaze of red-blossomed shrubbery

“One may observe a wide variety of birds . . . these may include exotic hummingbirds like the Copper-rumped, the White-necked Jacobin, the Black-throated Mango, the Tufted Coquette (Trinidad’s smallest bird: 2.75” long) and the Blue-chinned Sapphire. Walking along the well kept forest trails may reward the visitor with sightings of forest dwellers like the Chestnut Woodpecker, the Collared Trogon, the Green, Red-legged, and Purple Honeycreepers, the Golden-headed Manakin and perhaps most exciting of all, the white-bearded Manakins . . . or one of the 12 species of Tanagers that are resident in Trinidad, including the Speckled, Silver-beaked and Turquoise. You could expect to see many of the Flycatchers such as the Tropical Kingbird, Tropical Pewee, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher and the ubiquitous Great Kiskadee. If you are fortunate, you may run into some of the less common birds such as the Tropical Parula, and the Violacious Euphonia. On the way into the swamp, keep a sharp lookout for the Red-capped Cardinal in the mangrove bushes or the Ahinga. Migrants include Ruddy Turnstone, the Hodsonian Godwit and the American Golden Plover. After a long day of bird watching, it is nice to sit back and enjoy a beautiful sunset that is so distinctly Caribbean.” (Dr. Russell Barrow, March 1924-September 1997).

* * *

“The soil was collected from the southwestern tip of Trinidad near the seashore in a village called Bonasse in the district of Cedros. It was dug from a secluded beach virtually untouched by humans, but frequented by many birds, especially pelicans. Cedros is located in very close proximity to Venezuela. It is a fishing village, famous for its coconut estates, unspoilt wetlands, warm and friendly people, and various cultural activities that take place annually like the annual Hoosay festival, which draws thousands of people to its streets. It is a rural community that is currently under threat from the government that has agreed to allow an aluminum giant called Alcoa to build a billion-dollar aluminum plant in the community that is home to many endangered species of flora and fauna.”♪

* * *

This country is an archipelago consisting of two main islands, Trinidad and Tobago and 21 smaller islands. Unlike most of the English-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is a primarily industrialized country whose economy is based on petroleum and petrochemicals. People of Indian and African descent make up almost 80% of the population, while the remainder is mostly mixed race with small European, Chinese and Syrian-Lebanese minorities.

Trinidad is very fertile and mainly flat, rising to 3,000 ft. above sea level in the north. Tobago is densely forested and is dominated by a mountain ridge some 1,800 ft. high. Even though it was discovered by Christopher Columbus and settled by the Spanish, British rule was established in Trinidad in 1802. Tobago, once held by the Dutch and French, went to the British in 1803. Combined politically in 1888, Trinidad and Tobago joined the West Indies Federation in 1958, but left in 1962, and became a republic in 1976. The capital city, Port-of-Spain is currently a leading candidate to serve as the headquarters of the Permanent Secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA-ALCA), and once was the scene of severe rioting.

* * *

“My country is a twin-island republic famous for its Calypso music and carnival and steelband and beautiful beaches and our cosmopolitan population of approximately 2 million.”♪

Trinidad and Tobago is famous for its pre-Lenten Carnival and as the birthplace of steelpan (widely claimed to be the only acoustic musical instrument invented during the 20th century), calypso and limbo. Other indigenous art forms include Soca dancing (a derivate of Calypso), Parang (Venezuelan-influenced Christmas music), chutney, and pichakaree (musical forms which blend the music of the Caribbean and India) and the famous Limbo dance. The artistic scene is vibrant. Trinidad and Tobago claims two Noble Prizewinner authors, V.S. Naipual and St. Lucian-born Derek Walcott. Master designer Peer Minshall is renowned not only for his carnival costumes, but also for his role in opening ceremonies of the Barcelona Olympics, the 1994 Football World Cup, the 1996 Summer Olympics and the 2002 Winter Olympics, for which he won an Emmy Award. Sports in Trinidad and Tobago include Cricket, Football, Rugby, Volleyball, Hockey, Golf, Olympics contenders (12 medal winners), and the “unofficial national sport” All-Fours, a card game. The national motto is “Together we aspire, together we achieve,” a motto that seems evident in the long list of aspirations and achievements of this tiny dot on the landscape of the earth.

* * *

“We are also creating history by being the country with the smallest population to qualify for the World Cup—Yes we are going to World Cup 2006 in Germany!” ♪

* * *

“Everything in the last analysis turns on color. It is the subject that everyone avoids but it is at the back of every social and political issue. To understand the B.W.I. [British West Indies], you have to understand how the situation stands in the British Islands . . . In the West Indies . . . the completely white man is as much as exception as the black man is in Europe. These islands have been colonies for three hundred years; there has been a long tradition of irregular relationships. Slavery was abolished over a hundred and twenty years ago. Emancipation created a depression and the old families one by one went back to England. In very few islands now are there any remains of the old feudal aristocracy except the names. Nearly every family has some trace of colored blood. You would think that this would result in a classless society, but that is not case. Each class is graded according to the percentage of dark blood in its veins . . . In almost every island there is a club that colored men cannot join and another that is barred to white man. All those who pass for white try to make out that they are completely white. In most families a dusky aunt or cousin is kept out of sight on the far side of the island. Everyone has a secret. That is the key to island life: everyone has something to conceal. . . In every issue, social and political, color is the deciding force; it inspires jealousy, malice and distrust. It is a malady that you cannot cure by legislation.” ♫

* * *

Aspiring together, the people of this miniscule dot on the globe have created the enormously famous pre-Lenten celebration known as Carnival. “The Carnival well reveals the contradictions of race and class segregation in the all-encompassing vortex of bacchanal, counter and mixing that is Trinidadian space,” says Burton Sankeralli in his article on www.trinidad-tobago.net, which includes this picture:

He goes on to say “Carnival is the soul of Trinidad. Yet simply to say this really conceals a great deal. The distinctive recognizable Trinidadian Carnival was begun during the period of emancipation from enslavement (1834-1838) when the formerly enslaved surged into the streets, claiming the land as their own. Now this contradicts an interpretation of Carnival that has been promoted in some circles. That Carnival (carne-flesh; vale-goodbye) represents the farewell to pleasure as the Catholic Church enters the period of fasting and penance that is Lent,” and indeed in Trinidad, the Catholic French used to have pre-lenten Carnival balls, some of which are still in evidence. “But if this were the essence of Trinidad’s Carnival then it would never have reached Jamaica and the rest of the world. Hence, the root of the distinctively explosive Trinidadian Carnival is undoubtedly located in the African claiming of space in the process of the struggle for liberation. And old name of this Carnival is Canboylay (cannes brulee), which has been viewed as a reference to the burning cane characteristic of the ‘slave revolt.’ . . .” In addition, Trinidad’s powerful Indian presence also reveals the essentially volatile immigrant nature of this society. Indians have long participated in all aspects of mainstream Carnival and have themselves contributed the defined it, as well as the African youth of the region. “Carnival is a cradle of our society and not the other way around . . . Through all the confusion here is the radical affirmation of a force, of the Spirit of a people that will never be defeated.” Carnival begins on Friday the 4th of March and represents the raw energy of Mother Earth . . . the opening of the gate for that living vibration that is the ancestral Spirit, our very soul.”

The rhythmic vibration and musical accompaniment to life and carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is “pan”, the rhythmic steel drum heartbeat of this nation. The raw materials for the first pans were indeed pans and biscuit tins. The vital transition to a multi-note melodic instrument came with the manipulation of the “dustbin”, which could have been part of a discarded caustic soda drum. These drums, together with the larger oil drums, among others, were available but not that easy to get, and once you got them, either by bargain or theft, you had to learn how to craft them into an instrument.

The early steel drums had only a handful of notes, tuned to whatever upper pitch could be gotten and were known as ping-pongs. These later became known as tenor pans. Eventually the scope of the instrument was broadened to include mid-range and bass instruments. Now the categories include conventional steel bands, traditional steel bands, iron bands, and junior steel bands in the Panorama Competition, held each year on Saturday night prior to Carnival Monday. This competition was initiated in 1963 and is the premiere competition of the islands, though not the only one. About 4,300 hand-crafted, finely tuned, unique steel drum instruments cross the stage accompanied by 1,350 hyped up musicians, propelled and encouraged by 1,300 equally hyped up helpers and devoted followers (with another 5,000-8,000 enthusiasts left outside). All these drums are contained in panyards, wire-barricaded structures used to practice and protect the instruments from theft. The diversity in panyards is enormous. Some have areas where drums are cut and the tops are sunk, scribed, hammered and tempered on open wood fires, then teased by the tuners where an insignificant steel drum rises like a phoenix through fires and hammering to become an instrument of charming purity.
What is not directly apparent is that in Trinidad and Tobago the steel drum instrument has matured into an ordinary musical instrument. It is used much as a saxophone or guitar might be used. Playing the instrument is taught in some schools; players learn to read music. It can be found in some homes and on street corners. Young and old musicians alike go to the panyards and play and practice. Jam sessions evolve, talented solo players are recognized, admired and sought after. Some bands play tunes from a music score. Composers for steel band music, both written and more traditionally directed by example or by vocal-delivery, abound. The sound it makes has been copied with great precision but without its dissonant heart in the electronic brains of such popular synthesizers as those manufactured by Casio, Roland and Yama, to name a few, and imprinted within the electronics of nearly every sound-card the world over. On the site www.seetobago.com 135 steelbands are listed, with names like Angel Harps, Birdsong, Blue Diamonds, Humming Birds Pan Groove, the Magic Stars, the Pan Pipers, and the Thunderbirds.


Pans in the Panyard

“My name is Roanne Rampaul, and I’m a 29-year-old banker employed with Scotiabank. I live at San Fernando, Trinidad, West Indies. I come from a family of six: my parents and my sisters. I’m born on the 30th of the third month on the third day of the week, at the third hour under the Arian constellation, which is made up of three stars. I’m the third child and I’ve got three sisters! On November 17, 2005, soil was collected in Cedros, Trinidad & Tobago, West Indies, an unspoiled and isolated area in the southwestern tip of Trinidad on a cliff near the beach. This was accomplished after two days of heavy rains from Tropical Depression #27 created flooding. The soil looked like clay.”♪

* * *


Trinidad and Tobago Landscape

“It was less than 30 hours since Maxwell and Sylvia had driven into town, but already the shuttered house carried a damp smell. Jocelyn wrinkled her nose.

“’Do you wonder that nothing lasts here? Worms eat through books and furniture. It’s not worth having a good piano. They eat the felt. Let’s let in some fresh air, quick.’

“They moved from room to room, opening windows, throwing back the shutters. In five minutes a transformation had been effected. The fusty, frowsy atmosphere had been dispelled, sunlight was streaming through open windows onto rosewood and mahogany, onto silver and Venetian glass; onto family portraits in dull gilt frames. From the windows you saw the fresh green of the cane fields and the cotton crop.

“’In the tropics all you need is a roof supported at the corners, and a floor to stand beds and chairs and tables on,’ she said. ‘You don’t need any decorative furniture or pictures. Look at that.’

“She pointed toward the windows. The series of views seen through them made the walls look like the corridor of a gallery lined with pictures.

“’Perhaps that’s why these people have produced no art,’ he said. In the north you had to have pictures on your walls; nature gave so little; you had to create beauty in protest against the niggardliness of nature.” ♫

Trinidad and Tobago is a country of contrasts: breathtaking plant and bird life contrasted with the dangers of “progress”; slavery and discrimination contrasted with the rhythms and festivities of carnival, pan and steel drum music; untouched soil from the beach at Bonasse in the district of Cedros contrasted to championship World Cup participation. As on much of the planet today, these are the contrasts of local and global interests. Our task here at Common Ground 191 is to find that delicate place where the contrasts disappear, where timeless Mother Earth reigns—the Mother Earth celebrated in Carnival—the fount of at least three blessings: beauty, birds and beaches in Trinidad and Tobago. That conceptual place will be the armature for the building of a creative museum of soil, the first in the history of man, using the ground of the country of Trinidad and Tobago, among 190 others, as the art. Thank you Roanne Rampaul for your contributions to our project, and special thanks to Doreen Virtue whose newsletter was the vehicle for your participation. You are Number One (not Number Three) in our book! “Peace”, “One Love” or “Nuff Respect” (three ways of saying peace in Trinidad and Tobago).


♪ Quoted from Roanne Rampual, San Fernando, Trinidad West Indies.
♫ Waugh, Alec. Island in the Sun. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. 1955.

Update: We received these photos on August 4, 2009 from the collector.



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