Trinidad seeks new economic muse in culture

The word for the night was “heat”. With that prompt, spoken word artists delivered poems about love, gangs, street food, public transport and even a trip to the barbershop. The fashionable 100-strong crowd in this open-air performance space just off Ariapita Avenue, the bustling heart of Trinidad’s capital, snapped, clapped and cheered on the verbal dexterity. The monthly slam poetry event is one of several cultural offerings that have emerged in recent years to liven up the slack period between the annual Carnival celebrations that flood Port of Spain’s streets with costumed revellers.
Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural ecosystem still revolves around Carnival, hooked to Ash Wednesday in February or March.
But arts advocates, creative entrepreneurs and government officials are seeking ways to stimulate a year-round scene that could build an economic alternative for a country otherwise dependent on oil and natural gas.
“I see the creative sector as being key in diversifying our national economy,” said Calvin Bijou, chairman of state-owned cultural promotion enterprise CreativeTT.
Besides rich oil and gas reserves, the twin-island Caribbean country has a wealth of cultural talent.
It is the birthplace of steel pan, widely believed to be the only non-electric, acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century, and the origin of calypso.
Those musical traditions blend with folk crafts like wire-bending and costume design in Trinidad’s world-famous Carnival. Since 2014, it has brought an annual average of 36,000 visitors to the island, who spend some $48 million.
But spreading culturally driven economic activity throughout the year is a tough task, and has sparked debate over whether a small island state should focus on audiences at home or abroad.
The spoken word event, ‘True Talk No Lie’, began in 2013 to capitalise on the Carnival off-season.
It runs from March through November, when the cultural calendar heats up again, with parties showcasing the latest soca hits ahead of the next Carnival. Poets hit the stage at The Big Black Box, a re-purposed backyard in the former residence of a respected playwright. Multimedia production outfit 3canal renovated the space in 2014 as a simple ‘black box’ theatre with a mango tree soaring through the roof.
In the off-season, the venue hosts weekly live shows and rehearsals for annual productions.
It has also become an incubator for taking Trinidadian arts abroad.
“The convenience of having your own base out of which to explore, express and experiment can’t be beat,” 3canal’s artistic director Wendell Manwarren said.
“With our new album, we could luxuriate and take our time — as opposed to that Carnival pressure cooker.”
Carnival remains the centre of gravity for some activities like the #1000mokos project in Alice Yard, which teaches a new generation of stilt walkers — moko jumbies in Carnival parlance.
But as Trinidad’s cultural scene grows, it faces a key question: should it prioritise local audiences or export abroad?
For Rubadiri Victor, president of the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago and a former adviser to the arts minister, the answer lies overseas.
When in government from 2013-2014, he fought unsuccessfully to expand the mission of Pan Trinbago, the world body for steel pan set up by Trinidad, to “make pan and rhythm sections the festival music of Planet Earth.”-
He wanted the country’s best steel pan bands playing the world’s top festivals, including the dozens of Caribbean-style carnivals in cities globally, which he estimates generate some $2.23 billion in revenues per year.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation

Gregory Scruggs