Island Beat (May/June 1996)

People and events making news around the islands


Tobago’s Heritage Festival

In the early 1980s, while other islands promoted carnivals and crop-overs, Tobago decided to be different. It already had a traditional (Lenten) Carnival — albeit small change beside big brother Trinidad’s extravaganza — so it made sense to concentrate on the island’s own cultural heritage rather than compete against other destinations on a purely hedonistic basis.

The re-establishment of the Tobago House of Assembly in 1980 had given the island some measure of autonomy. One of the Assembly’s nominated members, Dr J. D. Elder, a noted anthropologist and authority on Tobago culture, argued that there should be a strong emphasis on Tobago’s history: the new festival should not become just another grand party, but a means of reviving customs, ceremonies and traditions which were in danger of being forgotten or diluted into tourist attractions.

Elder’s arguments struck a chord with his fellow assemblymen, and with Tobago’s villages. The response was so enthusiastic that it took some time to settle competing claims to particular events: many villages felt more “authentic” than their neighbours. Instead of a lifeless display of memorabilia, artifacts and photographs, the Heritage Festival was to become an exuberant re-creation of life in Tobago “then” by descendants “now”: an act of self-education and self-realisation, not simply a lure for tourists in the low season.

In the decade since its inception, the Heritage Festival has become hugely popular — and complex. Today, some items are presented only in alternate years, otherwise the full programme would not fit within the scheduled two-and-a-half weeks. Established events – the traditional “old-time wedding” in Moriah, the Plymouth “old-time carnival”, Les Coteaux’s “Tobago folk tales and superstitions” — are performed annually.

Tobagonians being a generous and friendly people, more and more visitors are sharing this “private” celebration with them. There are a few occasions for a little “jump up”, but the celebrations are largely in the form of street theatre or staged presentations, especially of traditional local dances (the bélé, bongo, reel and jig) and music (the Tobago Speech Band, the Tambrin Band).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Tobago around Heritage Festival time, you’ll have a chance to see this proud, friendly island at her best. And to understand her motto: Pulchrior Evenit (She becomes more beautiful).

 


 

The Shape of Jamaica – Caribbean Architecture

Travel through Jamaica, and you can travel through time as you watch the different building styles left behind by different waves of people.

Spanish Town was the administrative capital of Jamaica for over three centuries, from 1534 to 1872: it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the Americas. Originally laid out by the Spanish, it boasts one of the finest Georgian squares in the hemisphere. The four structures on the Square were erected on the foundations of Spanish buildings between the 1750s and 1819; one of them, the former palace of the Governor of Jamaica, Old Kings House (c.1762), was gutted by fire in 1925, but its outer frame survives. Old Kings House was described in 1774 as “the noblest and best edifice of the kind, either in North America, or any of the British colonies in the West Indies”.

When the British captured Jamaica from Spain in 1655, they moved into many of the Spanish buildings, and carried out their own conversions. Many 18th and 19th-century buildings survive in towns and villages across Jamaica, including plantation great houses and their associated dwellings. The interaction of pre-Columbian Indian styles with European and African fashion and technology produced a creole architectural style, “Jamaican-Georgian”, typified by steep-pitched hipped roofs, sash windows and wide piazzas or verandahs enclosed with jalousie shutters. This became common-place among all economic groups, and survives in many ways today.

After Emancipation in 1834, a new architectural style emerged which became widespread from the late 19th century. Termed “Jamaica-Vernacular”, it glorifies the Jamaican master-craftsman tradition: you see it in the smaller multi-sided hip and gable roof houses with their profusion of ornate decorative fretwork and open colonnaded verandahs. It lasted until about the middle of the 1950s, although the later buildings became less ornate. Fretwork, termed “gingerbread” in Europe and America, is one of the contributions made to world architecture by people of African descent.

The disastrous Hurricane Charlie in 1951 heralded the mass production of slab or concrete roof houses. The 1950s and 1960s also witnessed the return of Jamaican architects who were trained overseas and were influenced by the emerging “international” architectural style and town planning concepts.

With Independence in 1962, the Jamaican architectural landscape inevitably became very modernistic, projecting the sense of a new independent nation. High-rise offices, commercial shopping arcades, apartment buildings, townhouse and condominium developments as well as pre-fabricated concrete housing schemes have become the norm today.

These days, there is a world trend towards what may be loosely termed “heritage style”, looking back to traditional and vernacular architecture to express a contemporary idiom. In Jamaica, this has been taking place since the 195Os in the resort architecture of the hotel industry. Buildings have incorporated the features and decorative element of an earlier heritage: holiday villas use natural materials such as Iocal timber and field stones, with steep pitched roofs, jalousie windows, verandahs, and natural ventilation. Resort architecture is perhaps the most significant construction activity taking place on the island, particularly with the advent of all-inclusive hotel packages.

– Patrica Green