Located off the coast of Venezuela, the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago have a combined population of over a million people. Yet for a small country, "T and T" has an astonishingly rich musical culture that's had a major impact on the international stage. Well-known styles such as calypso, steel band and soca are just a segment of the rich musical mix found in the country. The music has strong roots in the islands' dominant cultures, a population largely descended from African slaves and indentured workers from India, along with influences from the succession of colonial control by the Spanish, French, and British.
The musical culture is dominated by a rich calendar of secular and religious celebrations including Independence, Emancipation, Indian Arrival Day, Hosay, Devali, Phagwah, Christmas and -- most important -- the pre-Lenten Carnival season. Carnival is awash in music, from the various roadside tents to the parades and "road marches," music blooms everywhere, and the music of Carnival ranges from calypso, pan (or steel drum music), to soca, rapso and more.
Over 100 years old, calypso is the most well known music to arise in Trinidad. Calypso is one of the Caribbean's classic African-derived styles, full of the sly wordplay and topical social and political commentary that marks much African and African-American music. Sung annually in the tents during Carnival season, the best calypsos often lampoon current events, international affairs and local gossip. Calypso has produced several international stars, including Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and Black Stalin, and the music has had a strong international presence, most notably with the Andrews Sister's hit version of Lord Invader's "Rum and Coca-Cola" and during the "calypso craze" of 1957.
In the 1970s, a new music called soca evolved from calypso (the name is a conflation of the words "soul calypso"). Soca is a more dance-oriented style that captured the youth market in Trinidad, with massive turnouts for leading artists like Machel Montano, Destra Garcia and Shurwayne Winchester. Soca has spread throughout the Caribbean as a popular music form. A few songs like Montseratian Arrow's "Hot Hot Hot" and Trinidadian Anselm Douglass' "Who Let the Dogs Out" have become international hits. Some artists like David Rudder have a unique style that incorporates both calypso and soca.
Barely two decades old, rapso, a mix of rap and rhyme with calypso, has evolved into a separate form. It has its own set of artists ranging from elders Brother Resistance and Karega Mandela to the talented Atakland and the most successful rapso group, 3 Canal.
Trinidad's greatest musical achievement is the invention of the steel drum, an instrument almost synonymous with the Caribbean. Steel drums evolved during the oil-boom period around World War II, from the work of many untutored musicians who started experimenting with transformed used, 55 gallon oil drums into a uniquely tuned musical instruments. By the 1950s, pan or steelbands had evolved into a highly complex set of instruments, and many bands had panyards that served as important cultural and community centers throughout the country.
The annual steel drum competition called Panorama is now one of the biggest events each year at Carnival. The steel drum's flexibility makes steelband music uniquely versatile, capable of playing everything from calypso to classical music. Steelband music has been exported all over the world. Outside of the Caribbean, there are significant numbers of groups in the United States, Canada, England and Switzerland. Hundreds of recordings of steelband have been issued and pan is not being used in settings from jazz to world music ensembles.
At Christmas time, the influence of the Spanish comes to the fore with
parang, a Venezuelan-derived Christmas music in which small groups of singers and guitarists go from house to house. In the last few decades, a hybrid form soca parang has grown up with new releases every year that rival the more traditional parang music.
Less well known are the many varieties of Indian music in Trinidad. There
is a rich heritage of wedding songs, religious songs, love songs and classical music. A unique form, unknown in India, is chutney music. This form has grown up in the last few decades influenced primarily by the popular film music from Bollywood soundtracks as well as calypso and soca music from Trinidad. It is sung in a mix of English and Hindi and backed by Indian and western instruments. The influence of soca became so prevalent that the crossover form chutney soca was born. The annual chutney soca competition held early in the Carnival season is commanding more and more interest.
An Indian form of social commentary song developed in the nineties called pichakaree. From both the African and Indian traditions come the rhythm and tassa bands, the popular drumming and percussion groups heard on the streets during Carnival. Ray Funk