“Yuh can’t do that!” my boyfriend said when I told him I was to sing in Trinidad’s Rapso week. Ignore him, I thought, but my man then was a member of 3Canal, Trinidad’s most well-known rapso group. Maybe he was right. A British, white woman experimenting with a Trinidadian art form? Was I mad?
The late Lancelot “Kebu” Layne established rapso, the rap of soca, in 1970. Unashamedly political, it uses local dialect and African rhythms to create music that aims to increase political consciousness. In the musical wilderness for years, one man, Brother Resistance, now known as the father of the movement, kept the rapso fire burning. In 1990 Resistance and colleagues established National Rapso Day in Trinidad. This developed into a week and then, as the art form blossomed, a month-long celebration. A staple of the annual festivities is the Breaking New Ground concert, a forum for new talent. It was this I wished to appear in.
To take part I had to attend workshops held in the old premises of Trinidad Theatre Workshop in Port of Spain. Established by Derek Walcott, its venue alone was intimidating, never mind the 30 Trinidadian faces that greeted me on arrival. I was the only foreigner and white woman in the room. As the audition began, I wondered whether I had any right to be there, but it was too late.
My legs shaking, my skin whiter than usual, I stood in front of the founding fathers of rapso. Would they laugh at me, dismiss me with, “white gyal go home,” or worse still, would I be ignored by those I admired? I sang of my frustration. Imprisoned in a color historically associated with prejudice. Fighting against “white lies,” with a call for racial unity. As I rapped, suspicious glances turned to welcoming smiles. Afterwards, fellow performers shook me by the hand. “I thought you’d come to steal our music, but I see you’re one of us, gyal. Respect,” said one.
Over the following weeks we were taught performance techniques. Most of us were new to the scene. Rapso for us was a method of empowerment, a way to use street dialect to voice our fears and concerns. Fellow performers sang of the African/Indian divide, the devastation of AIDS, incest and child abuse. In a country where foreigners are always regarded as “outsiders,” I was accepted because of the message of my rap.
The big day arrived. The Little Carib Theatre in Port of Spain, established by Beryl McBernie (a pioneer of Caribbean dance), was the venue. The stage was decorated with a red, gold and green banner featuring Africa and a raised black fist. The irony of my appearance in front of such a backdrop did not escape me. I was the lone white woman in a lineup of predominantly Rasta rappers. As the audience of 200 entered, my mouth became dry, my legs weak and my stomach nauseous. Trinidadian audiences are notoriously difficult to impress. It is not unknown for performers to be pelted with rotten tomatoes and toilet rolls. I cursed my risk-taking tendencies.
Too soon it was my turn in the spotlight. Wolf whistles and a thudding heartbeat accompanied my walk center stage. I launched into song, painfully aware of my shaking legs. The stage
| Travel notes|
American Airlines runs daily flights from most U.S. and Canadian cities connecting through Miami and San Juan to Trinidad and Tobago. Air Canada flies directly to Trinidad from Toronto three times a week. BWIA offers daily flights at competitive prices from New York and Miami. Holland America and Windjammer are the only cruise lines that regularly serve Trinidad and Tobago. No visas are required for U.S. citizens (for up to a two month stay), but there is a mandatory TT$100 (U.S. $17) departure tax, which must be paid in local currency.
Where to Stay
Most accommodation in Trinidad is located in Port of Spain and the larger towns, while in tourist-oriented Tobago most hotels are found in the Crown Point area on the island's western tip. Expect to pay U.S. $20–70 for a room in Port of Spain and slightly more in Tobago. There are no high and low seasons in Trinidad, but rates may rise by up to 70 percent during Carnival. For the three weeks before and after Carnival (held annually in March, on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), rooms must be booked months in advance. Most hotels, guesthouses and host homes offer special Carnival packages. High-season rates operate between December and mid-April, dropping by 25 percent in low season.
For those looking for an alternative to standard hotels, guesthouses are small-scale properties with fewer facilities (expect a shared bathroom and fan instead of A/C), while private host homes are an excellent and inexpensive option, giving you greater insight into the local lifestyle. They normally cost around U.S. $35 per person. For host homes in Trinidad contact the Bed and Breakfast Co-Operative Society (tel & fax 868/663-4413); in Tobago contact Ms Miriam Edwards of the Tobago Bed and Breakfast Association (tel & fax 868/639-3926, firstname.lastname@example.org).
What to Eat
One of the highlights of Trinidad and Tobago is the fantastic cuisine, a unique blend of African, Indian, Chinese and European influences. Although you may be offered insipid tourist-oriented fare in larger hotels, local cooking—meaning anything from Indian curry to