The Speech Bands of Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


The Speech Bands constitute one of the defining features of the culture of Tobago. The villages best known for the speech band culture are: Culloden, Les Coteaux, Mt Thomas, Parlatuvier and Plymouth.

This tradition is a New World adaptation of an English folk drama which is demonstrated by the names of courtly characters in the band and their appearance, which also reflects the court hierarchy. The typical characters are Commander, Robins, Pupule, or Devil, Creator, Sealy, Norway, Hero Conqueror or Hero and Conqueror, Lord, Duke and the King.

First to appear are the Show Boy and Clown, followed by the members of the King’s court- knights, conquerors, warriors, the Prince of Wales, Duke of York and then the King himself. The King, who is commander of the band, determines who speaks and when.

The accompanying music reflects the combination of British influence, with fiddle and flute, triangles, Tobago tambourines, cutters and rollers. The songs were usually heroic, persuasive and highly exaggerated to impress the audience and were dependent on creative but not necessarily accurate speech making.

Although they draw on older traditions, the more modern bands write their own songs, which are based on topical issues. Traditionally, all members of the band were male, but modern Speech Bands are no longer male-dominated, nor confined to the older generation, for boys and girls are formed into bands in their schools and communities.

The Speech Band evolved as a dramatic presentation which occurred two weeks before Carnival Tuesday, when villagers were entertained every night in a bamboo hut thatched with coconut branches.

On Carnival Tuesday the characters of the play emerged as a Carnival band going from house to house entertaining the householders with speeches which included news, gossip and jokes, presented in rhyming couples. The play included sword-dancing, in which one of the dancers was attacked, “killed” and brought back to life.

Each character is introduced by a speech and the group includes a comic doctor whose role is to restore life to the dead man. The play is introduced by the Show Boys. who are followed by four Robins. who are mainly dancers who perform in their own humorous version of the language. During his routine each character makes a speech and at the end of his routine calls on the fiddler to “Drag your bow, Mr Fiddler,” for the music to stop.

In the next stage of the presentation, the warriors stage mock battles in which they challenge each other with their swords, and speeches which include a mix of heroes and folk legends.

Then appears the Devil, one of the main characters, who comes from hell kicking his feet high into the air breathing fire and challenging his opponent.

The Creator then comes on stage and with a shout of war, he challenges the Devil, who is ultimately beaten, and every other challenger – all of whom assume the names of conquerors – is finally beaten off stage by the King, who is the leader of the band and director of the play.

At the end there is a grand finale in which the audience participates with the performers.

This is repeated every night until on the final night, Carnival Monday, the third segment is added- the killing of Valentine and the crowning of the King.

Other characters include the Bushy Dragon, who is dressed in dried banana leaves and on whom is thrown a flammable substance to set him on fire. His has to put out the fire before it gets to his undergarments, which he does by rolling on the ground, to the amusement of the onlookers.

The other characters are Punch and Judy, who with enlarged abdomens (appropriately stuffed for the occasion) dance for the entertainment of the other characters.

Then enters the Valentine character, for whom the pace of the music is significantly slowed. He issues a speech challenging the King, who responds by encouraging him to pray because his end is nigh. In response, he swears at the King, and in the ensuing battle, Valentine is killed.

The King sends for the Doctor, who enters with his assistant, whom the King sends to fetch medicines with the most ludicrous names and combinations, which concoction is rubbed onto the dead man until he shows signs of life. When he does, in song, the doctor urges him to dance if he is alive, which he does. The doctor then demands his fee, the hand of the King’s daughter, but when she arrives – a man dressed as a woman – she is snatched by the King, who had no intention of giving her away.

The doctor then challenges the King, is killed and the King is crowned Lord Creator.

The group then forms a Carnival band, in which the characters are dressed in Elizabethan style with satin pantaloons, frilled satin shirts, gloves, stockings and alpagatas. Their faces are covered with wire masks and their heads with handkerchiefs, over which are placed elaborate headpieces, with the King’s being the most elaborate of all.

Except the Robins and the Show Boy, each member of the band carries a sword. In the parade the Show Boy appears first and is followed by the Robins, who dance and sing without music until the rest of the band appears and the King brings greetings in song.

When two bands meet, a challenge line is drawn in chalk which none should cross until the questions posed by the commander is satisfactorily answered in the ensuing speech battles. Beginning with the Robins, each group makes three speeches; then it is determined which band is victorious.

The Speech Band was more than an avenue for entertainment. Despite the rivalry between the bands, the Speech Band culture was an important agency for community-building on the island because it promoted co-operation within and between communities.

The organisation of the Speech Band illustrates the contribution that each individual role must make to the operation of the unit within the clear lines of authority, which have to be respected, and it underscored the need for effective leadership for the success of the unit.

Across the island, bandleaders were well respected and usually served long periods of duty. Speechmaking was important for all functions in Tobago, and the Carnival arts permitted the development of different types of speeches: oratorial calypsoes, picong and performances accompanying masqueraders. Mastery of the arts earned respect for the speechmakers.

In this culture, the use of standard English alongside the vernacular was permissible. This helped to preserve the language of Tobago and established its acceptability for use at public events.


"The Speech Bands of Tobago"

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