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Folk Traditions of Trinidad and Tobago Essay

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This research paper compiles primary and secondary data from interviews with violinists who work or have worked specifically in folk music in the Trinidad and Tobago. It seeks to investigate and document the reasons for and the importance of the violin in Caribbean music culture. The paper will also seek to notarise some elements of folk violin pedagogy. The report will form the basis of an electronic blog and will consist of a proposal, typed interviews, and a general list of interview questions, pictures, audio recordings and music scores.

Project Rationale:

1. Cultural information transmitted through written word and musical scores can lose much of their meaning and intent when read, because of the nuisances of both language and melody. For instance, when most ethnic musical styles are notated using the standard begun outside of their context, they are usually played without their correct ‘swing’ or ‘feel’. 2. In November 2011, St. Lucian folk violinist Joseph Ives Simeon died at 87, taking a rich violin pedagogy with him.

The player has many recordings, but much of his style died with him. This project is the beginning of this researcher’s (and classical string player from the Caribbean) attempt to preserve the pedagogical information inherent only in the different styles of Caribbean string folk playing, for use by Caribbean players.


1. To audio record the sounds and actions of violin playing in the Caribbean folk context. 2. To document the musical views and ideas of current exponents of Caribbean folk violin playing. 3. To define the role of the violin in varying Trinbagonian folk traditions 4. To chart the evolution of the roles of the instrument in Trinbagonian culture

General Interview Questionnaire:

* How did you learn to play the violin? (How did you learn to play the violin in folk music?) * What types of events do you play for? And what is the significance of your instrument in that setting? * Do you have any stories about your experience of folk violin playing as a spectator? (now and in the past)? * What were the most important lessons your teacher taught you? * Can you describe your holds for the violin and bow?

* Can you describe your bowing style? * Please describe your fingering style. * Do you admire any other players (now and in the past)? * Have you ever played classically? How do you feel this style differs in the way it feels OR Is it comfortable to play in this way for long periods of time, or was it ever more difficult to play for longer periods of time? * What are the different types of music that you play? Can you play an example of each? What are the differences among them?

The Violin and the Musical Folk Traditions of Trinidad and Tobago.


2012 marks the Centennial Anniversary of the first ever recording of Calypso music. Engrained in wax (a new technology in 1912), this first recording was ‘Mango Vert’, an instrumental composition by George R.L. ‘Lovey’ Baille (a melody known today as the folk tune Mangoes, with added lyrics by Olive Walke). The stylish, well structured, yet heavily improvised piece was recorded by Lovey’s String Band, a group lead by violins.

This paper hopes to explore the violin’s role in Trinbagonian culture in a holistic sense. Apart from the String Bands of yesteryear, we will look at the instrument’s role in Tobago’s Tamb’rin music and the Christmas season staple of Parang. At present, in all three areas, it must be said, the use of the instrument is almost non-existent. My interviews with modern violinists who have worked in and experienced our folk traditions for at least 50 years, highlighted similarities; between very different folk traditions; and to earlier scenarios that were previously thought to have been lost.

The violin is an unfretted bowed string instrument with four metal strings tuned in fifths. It is “capable of great flexibility in range, tone, and dynamics”.

The Violin in Calypso

The instrumentation used in Calypso is usually the last thing to be discussed, if at all. This tends to be because calypso music is usually seen to be about the lyrics, the story within the song. This is the case with much of Trinidad and Tobago’s music. However, the story of the instrumentation used in Calypso, is a story of a search for a collective identity in our music.

The 1912 recordings of Lovey’s String band are the first time that the violin’s importance to our music was archived. Lovey’s String Band was a typical example of Calypso bands of the time. The ensemble, led by him on the violin, consisted of another violin, flute, clarinet, tiple, piano, two guitars, two cuatros, an upright bass (although the Figure 1 picture of the group shows a cello) and a braga. With the exclusion and inclusion of a few instruments (e.g. trumpet, saxophone, oboe), this was the general instrumentation of a String Band.

These groups were so called because stringed instruments were in the majority, with acoustic plucked stringed instruments forming the core of the sound (guitars, cuatros, tiples, bragas, bandols etc.). There were many other String Bands around at the time, including Belasco’s Band – founded by the renowned Lionel Belasco; Cyril Monrose String Orchestra; and Gerald Clarke and his night owls. These groups recorded and performed both as standalone instrumental groups and backing accompaniment for Calypsonians. In fact, the sound of early Calypso and what we now call folk music relied heavily on them.

Listening to the recordings causes you to realise that these bands had been honing their sound long before they were ever recorded. Lovey’s String Band followed Mango Vert a week later, with recordings of songs like Trinidad Paseo, Mari-Juana, Sarah and Manuelito (See Figure 2), staples of the Trinidadian dance scene at the time. This recording of Manuelito is the only example of foreign-based music archived by the United States National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, into that country’s National Recording Registry 2002.

Figure 1: Lovey’s Trinidad Calypso String Band
Lovey (George R.L. Baille – leader, violin), L. Betancourt (2nd violin), P. Branche (flute), W. Edwards (Clarinet), Louis Schnieder (Tiple), E.P. Butcher (Piano), Donald Black, L. Demile (guitars). F.A. Harte, C. Eugen Bernier (cuatros), Patrick Johnson (bass), Cleto Chacha (braga) (http://calypsoforum.wetpaint.com/page/First+Recordings) Figure 2: Lovey’s Trinidad String Band (Musical group)

Colonial-era Calypso?

Undeniably, all of the recordings from this instrumental era display a high level of musicianship and excellent tonal quality, which particularly for violins, is a sign of classical training. This initial instrumentation is also obviously similar to classical ensemble styles where violins, clarinets (and oboes) regularly duet. Figure 1 also shows Lovey’s band in military-style or marching band style uniforms solidifying the notion that the string bands were heavily ingrained in the activities of Trinidad’s colonial past. Apart from Calypso, the bands also played a variety of European influenced dance styles of music

The style and level of improvisation in the music also highlight the obvious influence of American small band New Orleans style Ragtime and blues. As found in those two American jazz artforms, Calypso String Band instruments have similarly set roles. * Guitars and other plucked string and low frequency bowed string instruments held the background rhythmic elements and chords and provided the foundation for all other instruments. * Violins and reed instruments, depending on the preference of the band leader layered on the melody or improvisational ornamentation and musical interludes (all layers always being present) * When vocalists were also involved, the violins tend to be used more often than reed instruments to support the melody line, with the reeds (and later trumpets) providing the musical interludes.

The recordings below (Figures 3,4 &5) demonstrate these different uses of the instrumentation with earlier recordings (1912 – 1930) displaying the preferential use of the violin, clarinet or vocal team.

Later recordings show tendencies toward more structured instrument interlude lines and trumpet leads and reed instrument leads. They also display the introduction of the saxophone to the lead line-up (See Figures 6).

Figure 3: Recording of Lovey’s String Band, ‘Mango Vert’, 1912 (double-click the icon below to hear the recording)

Figure 4: Recording of ‘Yaraba Shango’ by (Calypsonian) Tiger and Gerald Clarke and his Orchestra, 1936 (double-click the icon below to hear the recording)

This recording is still a few years before WWI. Here, the lead improvising instruments were obviously the clarinet and oboe, with the violin playing a secondary lead role – playing mainly the same musical line as the main vocal sings – and also supports the guitars. Both of these particular secondary roles are common to all of the recordings where the violin is present. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qA87Wl3dmA&feature=related)

Figure 5: Recording of the Congo Bara performed by the Kiskedee Trio (written by Attila the Hun), 1935 (double-click the icon below to hear the recording)

This version of Atilla the Hun’s (Raymond Quevedo) French patois/English tune relies heavily on the vocal trio to carry the melody. So much so, that the violin’s support of the voices, an octave above is almost missed. At this point, the addition of the marac and piano supplement the more sparse core instrumentation (possibly one or two guitars). A muted trumpet is used to provide the main musical interludes, supported again by the violin. Interestingly however, the trumpet is not used throughout the piece like the violin (and in previous recordings the reed instruments). This reveals the need for balance in the overall band sound in these live, one-track recordings and supports the authenticity of these recordings when compared to live performances. It also helps to clarify the use of the violin and the more dynamically-varied reed instruments in early calypso. The violin was prized in this setting for its ability to mimic the flexibility of the voice.

The modern Calypso

As unmuted brass instruments became more common because of their sharper, louder and more penetrating sounds, the musical lines in calypso became more structured and simpler. * Guitars continued to be used as core instruments, though fewer (possibly one or two) and usually exclusive of other plucked string instruments * Core instruments accompanied the vocals with simpler chord progressions followed by musical interludes in which the brass instruments would play, to the continued guitar accompaniment. * Clarinets and violins ceased to be used, except in Calypsos written in the style of early calypso * Vocal Calypsoes became the standard form, with instrumentals of the calypsonians compositions done by other instrumental groups, particularly steelpan. Figure 6: Recording of ‘Royal Tour’ by Roaring Lion (1978) (double-click the icon below to hear the recording)

As such, the music is very different to the “jazzy” sounds of earlier calypso. It is in this era (1944) that my calypso-based violinist Stanley Roach was born. Roach was the violinist for Kaiso 2: Happy Days, with Phil Dobson’s band and for the recording for which he is best known, Calypsonian Shadow’s ‘De Hardest Hard’. However, Mr Roach has and always will prefer classical music and so is dedicating the rest of his days to that form, with the hope to produce an album of some challenging works. Roach was classically trained to ABRSM grade 8 (for which he received a Merit) by his father.

He continued on to win the televised talent competition Scouting for Talent, in its second year of existence with challenging Romanian dances. His proudest moment however, was being called to play for the prestigious opening concert of the Music Festival many years ago. He has always valued his father’s style of teaching and his opinions. Roach notes that his father “taught a philosophy behind the music, to do with your mind and spirit”. In building sound technique, his father advised him to “take it one note at a time (step at a time) and put your mind and your soul and your heart into it”. In this area, he has much in common with the original string band players.

With regard to calypso, for Shadow’s “De hardest hard” he notes that he used a technique of improvising that he calls “cross-phrasing”, where you improvise from the latter half of the initial phrase to another halfway through the next phrase. This allowed the music to breathe, something that was rare to the New Orleans-style filled sound of early Calypsoes. Roach admits readily that like his father before him, he disliked the way that classical instruments were used in Calypso. However, he was a fan and admirer of the work of Trinidadian parang fiddler Saltero Gomez of the Papa Goon Parang group. Apart from Gomez, his influences are jazz violinist Stephane Grappeli and classical violinist Menuen.

Although, like Roach my second interviewee was also taught the violin classically, Lawrence ‘Wax’ Crooks has a genuine love of folk music and always intended to use his skill to play Tamb’rin Music. The Violin and Tamb’rin Music.

The violin is the preferred melody line instrument in Tamb’rin music. This traditional folk music from Tobago, also has its roots in our colonial times. The handheld goat skin frame drums, called the cutter, roller and boum, are accompanied typically by the triangle and violin / the mouth organ (See Figure 7). Frame drums were used because they could be easily hidden from colonial masters who had a great fear of the drums. However, similar frame drums can be found in Martinique, the Dominican Republic, Mauritius, Morocco, Brazil and even among the Native Indian population of North America. Additionally, the spiritual dance styles that Tamb’rin music accompanies were derived from a mocking of the dances of the colonial masters during slavery and as such, the types of songs and the dances accompanying them are the reel, jig, pasea etc.

Figure 7: Picture of Mt. Saint George Tambrin Band (1995)

56 year old Lawrence ‘Wax’ Crooks, is the violinist and leader of the Royal Sweet Fingers Tamb’rin band. He surprised me by first saying that he was taught to play classically by a classical teacher 7 years ago and joined the band immediately. Wax was a part of a 3-month workshop teaching Tobagonians to play the violin. It was the only formal training he ever received. He notes that it has made him a more precise player than his predecessors, and he has been noted by articles to have a classical bowing technique.

However, he relied on his childhood memories to play tamb’rin. With this in mind, he plays with the instrument against his upper arm, so that it is easier to talk while playing in the relaxed settings of the events Tamb’rin music is usually played at. He also noted that it is more comfortable to play in this way and so playing can be done for the many hours of the traditional dances, weddings, christening (now replaced by djs), birth nights, illness (reel dance between 12-12:30 would help, as it would definitely cause a manifestation of the spirit to take place). At more formal events though, he admits to moving the instrument up to the classical position with his chin placed in the chin rest.

Wax notes that violin was always the preferred instrument in Tamb’rin music, because: * The long hours of traditional ceremonies would lead to vocalists tiring * Mouth organs were limited in the notes they could play. They could not play the fully correct melody. The more modern push-key mouth organs have greater flexibility and with less need for training, they are starting to become more common than violins. * The violin has flexible notation.

Many traditional ceremonies are long because when the spirit manifests itself in the person (Ride), the music must continue until they regain consciousness. “If you stop playing, you will leave them in another world”. The spirits also dictate the other aspects of of the culture of playing in Tamb’rin. Alcohol is liberally dispensed, as this “quiets the spirits”. Wax sprinkles rum on the back of his violin for the same reason. Also, tambrin is always played by a group of musicians, as the spirits can overpower one. Wax has seen instances of violin strings bursting and entire drums being lost when conditions are right. Even the music must be appropriate to the situation, or again instruments are scarred or lost. “When everything is right, the atmosphere is cool…soothing”.

Figure 8: Scored Example of a reel “Call me Mama”


Interviews and archived material have confirmed that the violin as a solo instrument or in small numbers is a versatile member of a band that was perfectly suited for more traditional, acoustic arrangements. However, owing to changes in culture due to historical experiments with louder instruments (brass and saxophones), they are no longer common in at least two traditional artforms, parang and calypso. With the reinvention of the mouth organ and the lack of another generation interested in traditional forms, the violin is also slowly disappearing from Tamb’rin music. Its use in our music is a result of both classical training and the ingenuity and good ears of of Trinbagonian musicians. For this reason, although there are fewer exponents of each traditional form, there is a wealth of violin students and recordings of the music to spur another generation on. This project has enabled me to find many recordings and has started my interaction with older musicians who have a wealth of anecdotal information on traditional music forms. It is my hope at this point that I will be able to solidify information on traditional violin pedagogy to pass on to future generations.

What is parang? Nalis Library archives. Last accessed 16 April. <http://www2.nalis.gov.tt/Research/SubjectGuide/Music/Parang/tabid/233/Default.aspx?PageContentMode=1> The Stringed Instrument Database. <http://stringedinstrumentdatabase.110mb.com/t.htm> The National Recording Registry 2002, National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, <http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/registry/nrpb-2002reg.html> History of Trinidad and Tobago. 2012. Wikipedia. 16 April 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Trinidad_and_Tobago> ANDREAS MEYER. “THE OLDER FOLKS USED TO FIDDLE AROUND THE NOTES.” PLAYING THE VIOLIN
FOR TAMBRIN BANDS IN TOBAGO (WEST INDIES), 2006, <http://www.llti.lt/failai/05%20MEYERIO.pdf> “Frame Drums and Tambourines” in Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 2: Performance and Production. Edited by John Shepherd, David Horn, Dave Laing, Paul Oliver, and Peter Wicke. New York: Continuum, 2003, 349-350, 362-372]. http://www.nscottrobinson.com/framedrums.php Discography

Calypso – Best of Trinidad 1912-1952. http://www.rhyners.com/proddetail.php?prod=0508

Calypso Pioneers 1912 – 1937. http://www.amazon.com/Calypso-Pioneers-1912-1937-Various/dp/B0000002QV/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1334700896&sr=1-1

Calypso Carnival 1936 – 1941 http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0000002SC?tag=ubriacowinerevie&link_code=as3&creativeASIN=B0000002SC&creative=373489&camp=211189

Victor Discography: Lionel Belasco Orchestra, http://victor.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/talent/detail/16409/Lionel_Belasco_Orchestra_Musical_group; Victor Discography: Lovey’s String Band, http://victor.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/talent/detail/44453/

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