by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
When most people think of the Caribbean, they conjure up pictures of tropical beaches, lush foliage, colorful drinks that pack a wallop, and water sports. When I think of the West Indies, a few images come to mind-sun, surf, sand…and slavery. The sugar cane that sweetened the world’s palates were harvested with the sweat of slaves who were ripped from their roots in Africa. Tobago, a shimmering little emerald-colored island surrounded by coral reefs, subsequently suffered thirty one foreign regimes that included the French, Spanish, Dutch, Latvians, and even an aborted attempt by the USA in 1778. Then there were the Moravians, the Wesleyans, the Roman Catholic missionaries, the Presbyterian Kirks, and the Shouter Baptists. It seems as though from its first sighting by Columbus in 1498 until its joining with Trinidad in 1889 and becoming an independent republic, everyone wanted a toehold in tiny Tobago, which is in the Caribbean, off the coast of Venezuela.
The history of the island includes internal rebellions of every stripe. In 1790, French soldiers turned against their military leadership and went on a burning spree in the town of Scarborough. In the 1770’s and as late as 1876, there were slave mutinies and riots. The island became synonymous with pride, courage, adaptability, and a fierce desire to hold onto its own heritage no matter who the colonizer.
Today, tolerant Tobago embraces all of its past–the good, the bad and the ugly– during a two-week summer celebration called Heritage Festival. Each day, in different villages, there is at least one cultural event that has its roots in Africa, slavery, colonization or emancipation.
One of the most raucous happenings, called “j’ouvert” (a corruption of the French “jour d’ouverture,” or opening day) begins at 5 a.m., in the village of Plymouth. Visitors are warned to wear ratty old clothes and as the rays of sun come up over the horizon, they soon find out why. The main street is packed with rollicking party animals who coat themselves head to toe in mud and paint. And they just may embrace you, so you look like a Jackson Pollack painting as you go boogeying on down the road with them.
J’overt is, traditionally, part of pre-Carnival festivities, and it’s a joyous and sexy event. Clothes reveal or –more accurately-hardly conceal all the carnal curves and crevasses. It’s the bold, charismatic, proud, lusty life that even slavery couldn’t stomp out. As music blares from trucks with loud speakers, men snuggle up close behind their women, doing an island form of dirty dancing called “wining.” Eat your heart out Patrick Swayze-it’s just great! As the party winds down the street, vendors sell local delicacies like callaloo soup, mauby tea, tamarind balls, and lots of Carib and Stag brew (although the pitch of the latter is: “It’s a man’s beer,” plenty of women are imbibing). By eight o’clock, everyone is hosing down or jumping in the ocean to wash off or sober up.
In the village of Les Coteaux, there’s a very popular storytelling event that’s referred to as Folk Tales and Superstitions. Villagers who are amateur actors put on a show that rivals some of the best folk theatre in the world. The characters–like the commerce lady, the obeah man or sorcerer, the preacher, the teacher, the rich family and the poor family– come right out of plantation days or harken further back to Western Africa. The tales involve themes like comeuppance for bad behavior and reversals of fortune, so that those who are rich become poor, and vice versa. Best of all, the wacky, uninhibited stories are told in local dialect. American ears have to do a little adjusting before they pick up on the sly, satirical, ribald, racy humor.
In the village of Buccoo, the main event is goat racing. Barefooted locals hold their goats on a loose tether, and then set out from the starting gate, running alongside their animals with breakneck speed as the crowd goes wild. Since goat is a specialty in Tobago, one hopes the sweet-faced racing animals don’t end up too soon in a delicious stew.
Next to the goat racing are booths with local crafts, like wood carving and sculpture, that echo the arts of Africa. Down the road a piece is the Heritage House. It had been abandoned by the Dillon family when the kids grew up and dispersed to different parts of the island, but villagers insisted that it not be torn down. Visitors can now walk through the house, from the kitchen, with its rusted utensils, to the bedroom (with a narrow kid’s bed that eventually became an intimate bed when the kid had a wife or girlfriend), to the photo gallery with pictures of the parents and the ancestors.
In Tobago, locals and visitors are hooked on Calypso and pan. Pan-or steel drums-originated in Trinidad, and were made of oil barrel heads. Their unique percussive sound is high-pitched, exciting and insistent. At an outdoor theatre in Shaw Park, seasoned veterans and young hopeful bands and singers compete for prizes. In general, the pan players can’t read or write music so, remarkably, everything is learned by ear. Tobago Calypso is not just laid-back, lilting song, but powerful social commentary about issues ranging from the ravages of AIDS to women’s rights to bucking corporate culture.
The hands-down favorite event is the Old Time Wedding, in Moriah, a mesmerizing mix of European marriage customs and African musical rhythms. The mock-nuptials start with a wedding procession that is accompanied by tambrins (tambourine-like drums), fiddles, rasps or scratchers, and metal brake drums from cars. The toe-tapping music is an endlessly repeating round, almost as hummable and naïve as a children’s song. With great fanfare, the large wedding party (including parents of the bride and groom, bridesmaids, family members, friends and neighbors) struts and dances down the street. The women carry gifts for the betrothed couple on their heads: baskets, food, and even trousseau trunks and pillows. The men wear tuxes with broad-brimmed top hats and shield the ladies from the sun with huge black umbrellas. Everyone is costumed to the nines, with bright colors and fancy shoes that match party dresses.
The stars of the wedding are, of course, the bride and groom. He wears a stovepipe hat and tailcoat. She wears a long, white wedding dress. They listen attentively as the Bible-quoting preacher gives them marital advice, accompanied by jibes and jeers from the audience. And what wedding would be complete without family squabbles? In short, funny skits, kids and parents verbally duke it out and the village gossips roast everyone.
So what is this fabulous, fun-filled, friendly Heritage Festival all about? It is a celebration of the old ways, designed to remind the island kids of who they are and where they came from. All of these traditions existed across Tobago, but fifteen years ago they were formally grouped together into a festival to ensure their survival. Besides providing good times and an excuse to party, the festival gives locals the chance to vent about some of the negative aspects of plantation life and colonization-most often in a satiric or humorous way. During Heritage Festival, good and bad guys come in all colors and from all social strata. Gilding the lily is definitely not the Tobago style.
Locals were, at first, suspicious of the two-week, government-backed event, but now they seem to embrace it and support it. For visitors, it is a rare and wonderful opportunity to see West Indies folk traditions in an untouristy setting, while sunning, swimming, snorkeling, diving, hiking, bird-watching, and biking. It is the perfect prescription for extracting oneself from the cares of everyday life.
In terms of preparation and packing, think casual. Although it can be hot and humid in the summer, the average yearly temperature is in the mid-eighties, and nights are balmy and beautiful.
One more thing: you may want to learn some local dialect before you go.
IF YOU GO:
You can fly directly from Miami to Trinidad, and then take a l5 minute flight (on BWIA or Air Caribbean for about $30) or a five-hour ferry ride to Tobago. For information about Tobago, the Heritage Festival and other celebrations throughout the year, go to www.visitTNT.com or call 1-888-595-4TNT. Accommodations on Tobago are plentiful, and range from B and B’s to Stonehaven Villas for families or friends (1-868-639-0361) to the luxurious Tobago Hilton (1-868-624-3211 or www.hilton.com).
On the Windward main road, in Studley Park, don’t miss the First Historical café/Bar. As you sip beer or soda, you can read the walls which are paneled with fascinating information about Tobago’s colorful past and present.
One caveat: islanders don’t like you to take photos of them unless you ask permission. So ask, and they’re likely to say yes.
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