Culture and carnival in Tobago



It is generally accepted that change is an inescapable feature of culture, and these changes can be observed in every society over time, especially since culture is shaped by the course of history.

It is possible to identify some of the forces which have affected cultural practices in Tobago, which was colonised by Europeans and populated by Africans. The combined influence of these two forces resulted in the island’s cultural heritage.

In more modern times other forces stimulate change, and in the minds of some, these changes raise questions about what should be the best direction for the island: to hold on to its traditions or to surrender to new influences.

Central to the issue is the fact that the traditional practices have been passed on orally, which has caused the number of people with accurate knowledge of these practices to diminish over time. Consequently, there is a generation which is unfamiliar with some of the traditions and which has become more oriented to what is trending on the various media platforms.

Unfortunately, up to this time, it has not been deemed relevant to the island’s development to preserve its traditions for the empowerment of the population through the school system. It is ironic that an island which lays claim to its uniqueness for marketability as a tourist destination leaves its population open to the cultural erosion that could be caused by that very tourism drive. Those older folks remain steeped in the traditions with which they grew up, while the younger generation, which has little familiarity with the older practices, is more oriented to the newer and more modern global influences which are easily spread in the age of communication.

Tobago’s culture reflects inputs from the countries from which its population was drawn European religious and other influences have been merged with the African traditions of the majority to forge a distinctly Tobago cultural tradition.

Despite the purpose for which European-influenced practices were used at their home bases, cultural practices in Tobago were more than avenues for entertainment and leisure activity; they provided the means for a strong assertion of identity for the island’s oppressed African population during and after Emancipation.

They were also vehicles for community-building and strengthening which were recognised as essential for overcoming the mechanisms used to control and exploit the population. Above all, cultural practices were expressions of resistance to European subjugation.

An examination of Tobago’s cultural practices shows two characteristic community activities which were mixed with European religious influences and practices which were influenced by later population movements.

Reflecting the influences of the religious bodies, Christmas, Easter and Harvest were important events on the cultural calendar. Christmas was the foremost celebration during the post-emancipation years right up to the first part of the 20th century. Christmas season was family time, with activities such as kite-flying, visiting relatives and friends and house-to-house visits by carol singers, accompanied by brass bands, some of which were family bands.

It was also a time for community bonding, reflected in the communal cooking exercise which occurred around the village dirt oven. Easter was the time of the harvest festivals, which were community-building exercises. The result was the development of a very tightly knit society.

One important cultural practice, the speech bands, which reflect a European influence, was the house-to-house performance of a folk drama, entertaining the occupants with news, gossip, and jokes (usually directed at the ruling class) in rhyming format. The bands, complete with dancing swords, were accompanied by musicians playing the fiddle, flute and tambourines (cutters and rollers).

While humour was a dominant feature of the speech bands, there were coded messages about matters on the minds of the people: poverty, low wages and repression.

However, another feature of the island’s history, which exercised a major influence on culture, was migration. The limited employment and earning capacity stimulated emigration as the population sought better opportunities.

One major receptor of this movement of people was the nearby island to which Tobago was yoked, and as a result, the carnival culture was introduced to Tobago by returned migrants who had lived and worked in Trinidad and learned stick fighting, wire-bending, costume-making and steelpan-playing. At the turn of the 20th century, carnival became a fixture in Tobago, despite the strong opposition of some of the religious bodies and scepticism from some of the population especially the aspiring upper class, who initially, largely functioned as spectators.

But the island did attract participation from Venezuelans, who came by boat each year with costumes which depicted the indigenous peoples.

Then it became a village event, with each village putting out its own band, which paraded in Scarborough. The early Tobago carnival bands were very small and according to Shadow:

“Long ago in Tobago/The Carnival was not so/Was plenty jab jab and devil…”

Jab jabs were popular because onlookers had the opportunity to beat them and reward them for the privilege by throwing money on the ground, which the jab jabs would pretend to ignore until they thought no one was looking: then they would grab it and move on.

Other characters included moko jumbies, midnight robbers, black devils and wild Indians. The speech bands easily fitted into the carnival culture and formed bands of their own.

With the development of Carnival came the formation of steelbands which accompanied the masqueraders. One of the earliest was Lucky Jordan, which began in Scarborough, and was followed by Rhythm Tigers and the formation of steelbands in every community.

But migration also served to enhance African traditions. Migrants from Grenada and Carriacou during the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought with them traditional African practices which added to those already on the island. In particular, from the Temne peoples, who formed the dominant population of Carriacou, the well-known Saraka festival and the Nation dance were introduced.

It remains for the merit of traditions and the island’s heritage to be properly evaluated to determine their potential value to Tobago’s development, the maintenance of its identity, its role in the school curriculum and of course whether, and how, the culture should be preserved.


"Culture and carnival in Tobago"

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