The Art of Island Living

Creative expression is a way of life in Trinidad & Tobago


Port of Spain, Trinidad. In the world of art, tiny Trinidad and Tobago stands among the giants. The twin-island nation is home to two Nobel Prize-winning writers, a respected theatre community and a gallery of renowned painters and sculptors. In addition, the Caribbean islands have given birth to three distinctive styles of music: pan, calypso and soca. 

Born in Trinidad in 1932, V.S. Naipaul gained international acclaim for novels such as Miguel Street, A House for Mr. Biswas and A Way in the World. He took home the Nobel for literature in 2001. Other respected island writers include Shiva Naipaul, the laureate’s brother, Samuel Selvon, C.L.S. James and Nobel-winning poet Derek Walcott, a St. Lucian who has lived in Trinidad for most of his adult life. Best known for his epic Omeros, an island-flavoured allusion to Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, Walcott is considered by many critics to be the most important poet in the Caribbean today. Rich in elegant imagery, his works often explore the conflicts between European and West Indian cultures.

Walcott has also been instrumental in developing theatre in Trinidad. The Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which Walcott founded in 1959, has produced some of the West Indies’ finest actors and plays.

It’s not surprising that the islands’ natural beauty and multicultural charms have inspired a number of painters, many of whose works are displayed at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port of Spain. The Trinidad Art Society, founded in 1953 by water-colourist Sybil Atteck, has shepherded the careers of many island artists. Today, collectors the world over covet the works of masters such as Germany-born, Tobago resident Luise Kimme and the late Pat Chu Foon.

But it is music that has brought the most fame to Trinidad and Tobago. In these balmy islands were born the distinctive sounds of pan, calypso and soca. Half a century ago, percussionists invented pan by hammering out the ends of discarded oil drums. Today you’ll find musicians practising at pan yards throughout Port of Spain, especially in weeks preceding the island’s world-famous winter Carnival. Steel bands also compete at the Pan Ramajay Festival in May. October heralds the World Steelband Music Festival and Schools Steelband Festival, and in November the Pan Jazz Festival unites the country’s leading pan players with international jazz stars.

Calypso, a lilting medium for political and social satire, began with slaves, who made up patois songs to mock their colonial overlords. The Mighty Sparrow, long-time King of Calypso, is a Trinidadian native, as are many of the Caribbean’s best-loved performers. Calypso, in turn, has given birth to soca, characterized by saucy lyrics and wickedly infectious rhythms.

Also gaining popularity is chutney, a genre based on the rhythmic music imported by workers from India. And at Christmas, the islands resonate with the sweet sounds of parang, carols brought from nearby Venezuela and sung in Spanish.

When you visit Trinidad and Tobago don’t leave your imagination at home. These magical islands have something to say and they say it well.

For more information on the literature, art and music of Trinidad and Tobago, call 8008167541.

# # #