December 5, 2023

Jo Mai Asian Culture

Embrace Artistry Here

discover the traditions of Tobago

6 min read

‘Unspoilt’ is a word you’ll repeatedly hear if you ask visitors to describe Tobago — an island of roughly 60,000 people that sits near the southernmost end of the Caribbean archipelago, just north of its big sister, Trinidad. Connected millennia ago to the South American mainland, Tobago is gifted with a distinctive mix of continental and Caribbean island ecology. It’s now home to beautiful beaches, colourful coral reefs, 10,000 acres of protected rainforest — the oldest such reserve in the Western Hemisphere — and over 260 species of birds. 

The island’s cultural character is similarly diverse. Originally settled by First Peoples tribes, Tobago changed hands some 33 times during the colonial era. Yet, through it all, the island has maintained its own distinctive identity. And Tobagonians know it. Celebrating the natural beauty and rich history of the island is key to Tobago’s communities and is often demonstrated through music, dance and theatrical performance.   

Here, we talk to some of the island’s most well-known figures: award-winning, multi-disciplinary performers Lesley-Ann Ellis and Garvé Sandy; accomplished dancer and artist Shakeil Jones; and local musical legend Lawrence ‘Wax’ Crooks. 

When did you first fall in love with your artform?

Lawrence ‘Wax’ Crooks: I started to play music at the age of eight. I love to play pan [drum], I could play every type of pan. And I transferred from pan to bass guitar, to keyboard, to guitar, to cuatro, to violin, to clarinet, percussion — like tumba [drums], triangle, cowbell… I’m well-rounded!

Lesley-Ann Ellis: As well as play steelpan, my father used to do stickfight — a type of duel with specially carved sticks, dance and drumming, which began in West Africa. But my daughter [Garvé] and I are the calypsonians in the family. I started singing back when I was pregnant with her, at the Heritage Festival competition. Then she entered the Heritage competition this year for the first time — and won!

Garvé Sandy: I started singing at the age of six and I’ve been doing it ever since — 21 years. It’s a tradition I intend to keep. I grew up in Mason Hall and Buccoo. A lot of great musicians came from Mason Hall. In our music, we use our unique Tobagonian dialect in the lyrics. It makes us understand how important it is to preserve our heritage — to stay true to the authenticity of the culture.  

Shakeil Jones: I was born into a family of dancers. My mother, all my aunts, even some of my uncles danced. My mother’s side were all practitioners of traditional folk arts. Coming out of the Pembroke community — we are known as the cultural capital of Tobago — we dance the Saraka, a thanksgiving ritual that allows us to celebrate the community’s African heritage, as well as dance forms such as the bongo, Tobago jig and reel. 

What are your favourite events on the island?

Lesley-Ann: My mother lives in Buccoo, so the family comes together at events like the Buccoo Harvest Festivals and the Easter races — we race crabs and goats, a tradition very unique to Buccoo! I also love the Moriah Ole Time Wedding, where we re-enact one of the 19th-century weddings on the island. The men wear three-piece suits with top hats and coat tails and the women wear fancy dresses, gloves and wide-brimmed hats. Even in the heat! We come from the church and ‘walk de wedding’, doing Tobago’s famous ‘brush back’ steps. There are scripted parts that are like real-life drama. I was the ‘Maco’ for years, which is one of the main characters, who’s an uninvited guest and reveals scandalous secrets about the wedding. This year, I was the mother of the bride.

Garvé: The Tobago Heritage Festival takes me back to a place that I didn’t even know. It’s always an opportunity to learn something new, not only about Tobago heritage, but about yourself. Because you often feel connected in a special way to something you experience during the festival.

Shakeil: The normal man would categorise Tobago Heritage as a festival, but I see it as a cultural institution — that place and space where one can be engaged in cultural knowledge and history, get to experience the exuberance of the people. It’s also a space where we can venerate our icons — the people who brought the traditions from the motherland and who worked very hard to ensure those traditions remain, to remind us of who we are.

What makes Tobago’s communities so special?

Shakeil: The way we talk, the type of food you can experience when you come here, the traditions, folklore, heritage… And because I’ve visited several other islands, I think the thing about Tobago is that the people are so generous. It speaks to that idea of family, community — the experience that’s offered both internally and to the traveller that may come in. It’s very inviting.

Lesley-Ann: Our unique dances — our heel-and-toe, our congo bélé… dances that are only known here.

Garvé: Only in Tobago, you could come into a stranger’s yard on a hot Sunday, go from house to house, having a good time eating, drinking and being merry. That’s our Harvest Festival. 

Lawrence: Tobagonians are strong. Everybody came up eating the same roast corn, corn coo coo, corn porridge. So, we grow strong!

How do the island and its traditions influence your work?

Shakeil: In Pembroke, our ancestors had what they called the drum yard, where dancers, chanters, singers and drummers would all commune — and they would dance. It was a way to bring the community together that’s transcended generations. What events like the Heritage and Harvest Festivals do now is provide an opportunity for communities to re-enact these traditional practices, coming together and celebrating through food, music and dance. That’s what’s impacted me: this idea about sharing spaces on common ground. These things I’ve inherited have always been what inspire me.

Lawrence: I did a wedding once on the beach — the lady was from Haiti and the man from America. They contacted me to say they wanted drums in the wedding. But I said I’ll have to incorporate some dancers, too, so that when the music plays and the people dance, you say, “Oh, these are some of the steps to the music!” and you get more interested. You have to use wisdom in everything you do and help people along. Because they must know that if you play tambrin music, you must have people dance it. And when the people start to dance to it, others will watch and quickly copy — and they’ll soon be dancing, too. It’s for me to share these traditions.

Lesley-Ann: When I perform, I always try to capture Tobago. There’s no place like Tobago. That’s it. 

Shakeil: Anytime you see my work, you see an essence of Tobago. You see that idea of joy and expression — that earthy, organic embodiment of the island. I take my references from the history, culture and observation of the people — how we interact, how we celebrate, how we venerate. Those are the things that inform my work, and that’s who I am as an artist. It always speaks back to Tobago, to where I come from. 

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