Trinidad Pan

By Hill, Donald R. | Natural History, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Trinidad Pan


Hill, Donald R., Natural History


People outside of Trinidad call them steel drums, but Trinidadians call these tuned metal instruments, and the percussive sounds they produce, pan. For many Trinidadians, pan is a symbol of their Creole culture. For others, it evokes the warmth and joy of the Caribbean experience--the people, the sky, the sand, and the sea. But when I first went to live in Trinidad, I hated pan.

My complaint was not the same as that of proper middle-class Trinidadians, who, during World War II, began to resent the "brawling" young men from the slums of Port of Spain whose music and general behavior "gave fatigue" to respectable people. Mine was more selfish and practical. As an ethnomusicologist, I was interested in the old Carnival traditions, such as those that I experienced while living in nearby Carriacou, Grenada. (Like all New World Carnivals, those of Carriacou and Trinidad--and New Orleans's Mardi Gras as well--were pre-Lenten festivals influenced by both Catholicism and a great West African cultural heritage.)

When I arrived in Trinidad after leaving Carriacou in the early 1970s, only vestiges of the old culture remained. The steel bands and the modern fancy masquerade bands had, by then, almost put an end to the older Carnival, with its smaller masquerades, strolling musicians, and traditional skits that had evolved since the beginning of British colonial rule at the turn of the nineteenth century.

These older Carnival activities could be "read" for important cultural information and history. More importantly, they could be enjoyed simply for what they were: the stilt walker (moko jumbie), who danced on stilts starting at daybreak on Carnival Monday (Jouvay); the midnight robber, who engaged rivals in bold talk--a rap full of wonderful, alliterative speech; the "pierrots" who, like the robbers, would also speak in broad braggadocio as they fought one another with whips; and the glorious string bands--said to have come from nearby Venezuela--that played their old-time calypsos, waltzes, and castillians with great savoir-faire as they strolled along, sometimes fronting a group of masqueraders.

By the early 1970s, old Carnival could be seen only in managed, televised government competitions. On the streets, Carnival-loving Trinidad rushed headlong into the era of large, fancy masquerade bands and steel orchestras that played set pieces (road marches or calypsos for Carnival revelry) over and over again.

Eventually, I admitted that this modern Carnival, having shed any relics of British colonial society, probably best represented the society of the new nation of Trinidad and Tobago, which became a commonwealth in 1962 and an independent republic in 1976, after having had a long colonial history as, first, a Spanish colony and later, a British colony. Although Carnival evolved mainly under the British, some of its earliest features were brought by Roman Catholic French planters and their slaves from neighboring islands. Carnival changed greatly after the emancipation of the slaves in 1838 and again in the 1880s, when it was dominated by "jamets," or "diamettres" (those who lived "under the line"), and the working poor from the fringe districts of Port of Spain. This heterogeneous lot consisted of former slaves, immigrants from nearby islands, and formerly indentured Africans who--together with East Indians, a few Chinese, and others--had come to the island as sugar cane workers after slavery ended in 1838. Many had moved to towns, risking an uncertain future in order to escape rural poverty. Some lived in barracklike row houses; each had only one door, which led to a shared yard with a single standpipe for water. These yards became centers for social gatherings.

Ethnic groups, such as Yorubas, Congos, and Radas--all of West African origin--as well as trade groups, such as dockworkers and shop clerks, began to form their own "calinda" bands, not only for Carnival but also for other special occasions. …

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