The various musical styles that exist in Trinidad and Tobago are here because of the various cultures, representing peoples who have come over the centuries. These cultures express themselves in festivals.
Festivals serve to integrate with common elements, such as language, religion and custom. Music is basic to these celebrations and naturally this includes singing and dancing. Christmas celebrations in Trinidad before the arrival of the French sugar planters and their slaves, that is in Spanish times was of necessity a more modest affair. There were fewer people, less money and hardly any commercial or trading establishments. Churches were few and also quite modest. The Spaniards, as one historian put it, had lost both their intelligentsia and their imagination by banishing the Jews and expelling the Moors!
The French people, on the other hand, tended to be more vivacious, coming largely from aristocratic families. They leaned more towards life’s amusements and diversions. By the time of the British conquest of the island in 1797, there was considerable prosperity on the island, as John Crowley remarks in his authoritative book “Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso”. With virtually all of the early slave population having been born in the French islands, black culture also reflected this African-French-Caribbean bias. This included the establishment of Patois as a “lingua franca”. New slaves arriving from Africa did not alter the Frenchness of Trinidad’s culture and character.
Pierre Gustave Louis Borde, historian of a French Creole background of the late 19th century, has left for us a description of something of the social life of Trinidad’s plantocracy. He also makes the point that the well-off free black people, also slave-owning, had much the same manners and customs as the white upper class to whom many were related by virtue of having French planters as fathers or grandfathers, and slave women as mothers or grandmothers, during the formative years of the French colonisation of the Antilles. Borde writes:
“The pleasures of meals at the dining table and picnics were added to those of music and dancing. There followed nothing but concerts and balls. There were lunches and dinners, hunting parties and expeditions on the river, as well as carnival which lasted from Christmas time until Ash Wednesday. It was nothing but a long period of feasts and pleasures.”
The French lifestyle in Trinidad was very similar to that which obtained in Louisiana. In both places, both black and white danced the bamboula and contre-danse “side by side” on festive occasions. In Trinidad, this easy camaraderie changed however with the emergence of French Republicanism after the French Revolution of 1789, and the conquest by the British in 1797. Increasingly, the free coloured population was viewed with suspicion by the British, and an institutionalised discrimination was introduced. This was one of the several controls the British endeavoured to implement. Crowley remarks that “in their Protestant territories, Christmas and New Year revelries did not extend to Shrovetide, and there were unsuccessful attempts to demote the celebration of Carnival in Trinidad.”
Notwithstanding, the pursuit of Gallic gaiety continued to bubble to the surface. Mrs. Mavrogordato recalled that one Madame Emma Clarke, a free coloured woman, who ran a boarding house on Almond Walk (now Broadway), held a grand ball every year at Christmas time, to which all the most beautiful chabine, mulatto, octaroon and quadroon girls of the town were invited. They were introduced to the most handsome, aristocratic and well-off young men. Mrs. Mavrogordato went on to relate that many of these liaisons were not just passing affairs, but inspite of the young man marrying into his own class, some of these relationships lasted for years, producing dual families. This was much frowned upon by both Christians denominations; by the Catholics because of their highly developed sense of sin, and by the Protestants because it smacked of the sort of license and disorder that only the French could imagine and indulge themselves in such a shameless fashion!
There was the more quiet, the more family-oriented French styles of celebrating Christmas. Quesh, choral singing with harmony, cantiques de Noël, music for house to house visiting - these were really holy songs that were folklorised, traditional in nature, which recalled the small towns and the provincial lifestyle of these our local nobles.
The slaves, free black people, and some of the French women loved to dance the bele. It was danced to 5 or 6 songs, drums, chac-chacs, a chantwell and a chorus. The bele is a most elegant dance if well performed. Andrew Pearse described it as “music for secular festivals organised by neighbourhood groups and presided over by an elected King and Queen, the women wearing old fashioned dress. This for Christmas and public holidays. The bele was also performed in association with saraka or sacrifice to the ancestors.”
Pat Emmet Taafe O’Connor was the grandson of Gaston de Gannes, who had developed a vast cocoa estate at Arima and had built the great plantation house “La Chance” there. P.E.T. O’Connor describes Christmas in the grand style of the French Creoles of long ago in his book “Some Trinidad Yesterdays”:
“As children, we spent a great deal of time at La Chance. Any excuse took us there for days or weeks - the school holidays, the Santa Rosa races or when our water supply failed at Manzanilla were all good reasons to descend on La Chance. Grandfather loved to have his family around him, and La Chance had been built with that end in view. But New Year’s day was his special day. It was the accepted tradition, and as imperative as a royal command, that all his children with their respective husbands and wives and children, to say nothing of the nannies and the nurse-maids, should gather for the great day, and I doubt if there was a son-in-law or daughter-in-law who would have dared to be absent on any excuse.
Some families took up residence from before Christmas, while others came only for the day. For those of us in residence, the days before the great day were filled with excitement. A large Christmas tree could be seen through the windows of one of the ante-rooms which was kept securely locked as the grown-ups busied themselves decorating the tree and labeling the presents, and we tried to peep through the key hole to see which was to be ours. The boys explored the estate or ran races up and down the driveways and the little girls played house with their dolls.
Then the big day arrived. We were up at dawn to wish Grandpa a happy New Year. He would be standing in his bedroom near his huge wardrobe with its doors open, as on the inside was tacked a neatly written list of the grandchildren. As we all paraded in and out with our good wishes, he would consult his list and hand out the appropriate largesse. A golden sovereign to the eldest son of each family, a half-sovereign to the eldest girl and a silver crown or a half crown down the line to the younger children. The golden sovereign was soon to be a thing of the past!
Then to breakfast of hot chocolate and fresh bread and off to dress for nine o’clock mass in Arima. When dressed, the little boys in their stiffly starched white sailor suits, the older ones with their jackets and Eton collars, the girls in their bonnets and large hair ribbons, all were marshaled on the front steps to await the line of carriages and cabs for the drive to Arima. Leading the procession would be Grandpa and Grandma’s imposing carriage, drawn by its pair of imported matched bays, Nellie and Daisy. Old Dottin sat stiff and upright on the high driver’s seat, and it was a special honour for the two grandsons who sere selected to sit beside him.
Then followed the line of cabs supplied by the John Brothers of Arima. By some unknown feat of organisation and communication, the John Brothers always knew exactly how many cabs were needed at La Chance. Be it for mass on Sunday or holiday, for the Santa Rosa races or to take one or more families to catch a train, the Johns were there on time and in sufficient numbers.
On our return from mass, first the children were fed in a large marquee erected on the front lawn, and what a feast it was. Then we were turned loose as the grown-ups took their places at the long table in the dining room with Grandpa at the head of the table proudly surveying his brood. The red and white wines which had been imported directly from France in their casks and which had been carefully bottled and laid down in the cellar under Grandpa’s personal supervision, were now expertly served by St. Hill, the butler, who was as much of an institution as everything else in the household.
On looking back I can only marvel at how La Chance functioned. On New Year’s Day, 1912, which was to be my last before going off to school in Ireland, we were fifty-four grandchildren assembled and yet, as I recall it, the household staff consisted of St. Hill, the butler, a cook somewhere in the background, and dear old Jane, Grandma’s personal maid.”
And this was Christmas in good old Trinidad
Land of the Sugar Cane and Cocoa Pod
Where the Ganteaumes spoke only to the de Verteuils
And the de Verteuils only to God. (Particularly at Christmas, I am sure!).