Carnival is just around the corner, but the mood in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city is somber.
Merchants throughout the city just aren’t seeing celebrants and partygoers come in droves to buy costumes and decorations for their famous carnival fetes (parties).
Without a doubt, the duo island nation’s pre-Lenten carnival is one of the biggest street parties in the Caribbean. While not as famous as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the fetes are a major focus for celebrants. Patronage can easily run into the thousands.
But some are wondering if the seasonal bacchanalia is going to be replaced by a more puritanical fragility.
“People are worried about what’s on the horizon. No one seems to be dishing out a lot of money,” one bar owner tells me from his near empty establishment. “I’ve seen (Friday) receipts fall from TT$55,000 to TT$15,000. Things are getting tough.”
It’s easy to understand the apprehension on the streets.
The islands, smack dab in the middle of regional drug smuggling routes, have been hit by a crime wave.
Guns have been flooding into Port of Spain, fueling an alarming rise in gang violence and homicides.
Trinidad and Tobago borders troubled Venezuela. The two countries coastlines are separated by a narrow body of water.
But Venezuela has been wracked by food shortages. That’s led to gangs in that Latin American nation smuggling firearms to Trinidad and Tobago to swap them for victuals and other hard-to-get food stables in Venezuela.
That means the murder rate is spiking in a nation of only 1.3 million. According to the Gazette Review, the twin island nation is among the Top Ten most violent countries. With a sky high murder rate of 30 per 100,000 inhabitants, epidemic gang violence has hit the nation’s youth the most.
But there is a bright spot on the otherwise stormy horizon.
If there is a soundtrack for carnival—it is played by the steelpan. In fact, the steelpan, sometimes called a steel drum, was created on the twin islands.
Winston “Spree” Simon is the music pioneer and inventor most credited with creating this percussion instrument from oil drums.
But he and other steelpan investors were building on a tradition that stretches back to the nation’s brutal colonial era when African slaves played drums during carnival, which came to the islands with French plantation owners.
Today, the carnival season is also known for the high octane steelpan competitions leading up to the big day.
“Used to be that parents worried that their kids were going to be getting into rum and marijuana in steelpan orchestras,” explains Pancho, who works at Gill Pans, the business founded by steelpan enthusiast, arranger, and manufacturer Merlin Gill (Mutt).
Located in Curepe Village, Saint George, Trinidad And Tobago, Pancho is showing me how the drums are cut, heated, stretched, beaten and turned to perfection in the steelpan fabrication yards.
“But now a lot of people see what good (playing steelpans) does for their kids. It teaches them discipline and commitment. You can’t beat that.”
For more of Tom’s “micro bios,” follow his adventures on our Change Seven Instagram account here.
Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and non fiction have appeared in the Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Hobo Camp Review, Roadside Fiction, Blue Hour Magazine, Synesthesia Literary Journal,and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas where he tells his children that he has done worse things for less money.
More work by this artist:
- You Can’t Build a Wall on Common Ground
- Rebel with a Cause
- Kosher in Corsicana
- The Bookbinder of Bogota
- We Are Spectrum
- Manager’s Special
- Five Photographs by Tom Darin Liskey in Issue 2.1