The soulful booming of drums. The intricate steps of the ‘brush back’. Folktales of Anansi. Superstitions galore. Pomp. Circumstance. And even a little romance. You’ll get all that and more, if you venture to Tobago for the Tobago Heritage Festival.
During the last two weeks in July, the destination hosts the annual Heritage Festival, and it is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Spanning the length and breath of the island, Heritage season is a shining example of community tourism. Villages from east to west claim a specific aspect of the island’s rich past and showcase it to residents and visitors alike.
While it would be ideal to see and do every single thing, it’s a very ambitious (read: virtually impossible) goal. Many of the village productions begin before dawn and end late at night. So I did some research to determine the events I should make it a point to attend.
I’m happy to say that I made it to quite a few. Some were hits. Some could have been missed. But here are the 6 Tobago Heritage Festival events I think you absolutely need to experience (in my humble opinion). Hopefully this can help you prioritise and plan if ever you visit during Heritage season.
Tobago Old Time Wedding – Moriah
If you like drama and don’t mind the heat, the Tobago Ole Time Wedding in Moriah is an absolutely must.
The blushing bride in her lily white gown. The proud groom in his shiny top hat and coattails. And a wedding party that stretches on for miles. Throw in an ostentatious ‘Massa’, a few ‘maux vais lang’ guests, a coal pot, a breadfruit and the bride’s trousseau and you have the very elaborate and incredibly entertaining spectacle that is the Tobago Ole Time Wedding.
As they spill out of the small village church and into the streets, the wedding party moves to the sweet twang of Tobago’s indigenous instrument, the tambrin. For every few steps forward, they move a few steps back, demonstrating the intricate footwork of Tobago’s famous ‘brush back’, a dance that remains one of the island’s trademarks.
A lesson in history, from the clothes to the characters, this re-enactment truly takes you back in time. So, if you’re on the island for the first weekend of the Tobago Heritage Festival, definitely make your way to Moriah to check this out.
- Time: 1 pm to (around) 5 pm
- Best Time to go: 1 pm
- Why: Every aspect of this event is worth taking in, from the church service to the reception so reserve your afternoon and make a point of witnessing it from start to finish.
Black Rock Sea Festival – Black Rock
If you don’t mind early mornings and have an appreciation for the ocean, you’ll want to make the effort to head to Black Rock from 5 am to be a part of this village’s morning activities.
The Sea Festival begins with the Wake Up Call procession that takes you through the streets alongside dancers, drummers, steelpan bands, and fisherfolk. Don’t worry about feeling sleep deprived because the rhythmic drumming mingling with the sound of the pan and the powerful lyrics of songs like Ella Andall’s ‘Bring Down the Power’ will certainly keep you moving.
The march ends at Black Rock Heritage Park where traditions such as the boat Christening and the popular seine pulling take place.
A perfect demonstration of the Tobagonian practice of ‘len’ hand’, the pulling of the seine is my personal favourite activity of the day. Fishermen catch fish by “shooting seine” (a large net) into the ocean. Villagers and visitors alike are then asked to assist in the very strenuous task of pulling the seine back into shore. Once the task is completed and the seine returns to land laden with fish, all those who helped are invited to share in the catch!
- Time: 5:00 am to 10:00 pm
- Best time to go: 6 am
- Why: The process never begins on time so treat yourself to some extra sleep. Be sure to stay on for the demonstrations of all the sea-faring activities after the walk, particularly the seine pulling.
Salaka Feast – Pembroke
If you love music, dancing and drama then Pembroke’s Salaka Feast is definitely for you. But, to be honest, even if you don’t love the aforementioned, you’ll still enjoy this village’s Heritage presentation. A soulful mix of energetic dance steps, hypnotic drumming, powerful singing and a detailed narration of the rituals taking place, the Salaka Feast delivers a seamless, rich experience that you’ll be hard pressed to find at any of the other village presentations.
The strength of the content in this show is mostly likely a direct result of the village’s strong cultural background. Pembroke is known as the ‘Culture Capital of Tobago’ and after you experience what they have to offer, you’ll quickly understand why.
Designed to demonstrate the importance of ancestral veneration, the stage production walks the audience through the process of honouring our ancestors. Practices such as cleaning of the Ancestral Yard, the preparation of the ancestral food, and paying homage to the ancestors through the dances of the various tribes, such as the Madinga and Ibo and all displayed with passion, power and precision.
Take in the show while enjoying a pork sandwich made from the dirt oven bread and I promise you’ll leave 100% satisfied.
- Time: 6:00 am to 11:00 pm
- Best time to go: Salaka Feast stage show @ 8 pm
- Why: The night time stage production is flawless and full of life with energy that will keep you going long after the last dance.
Natural Treasures Day – Charlotteville
Gossip and camaraderie; meaningful processions and ritualistic dancing; delicious food and soulful music. The volume and variety of activities taking place in Charlotteville during the annual Natural Treasures Day celebration is more than enough to keep you entertained. From the engaging display of idle chatter and daily chores by the “Washerwomen” at the river; to the intriguing tradition of “Dancing the cocoa” to make the beans look more attractive at the market; and the hilarious demonstration of the “batty” mill to extract juice from the cane; this extensive showcase is enough to wake up the otherwise sleepy village as thousands fill the streets, creating a party-like atmosphere.
Enjoy a leisurely tour of the village as you move from station to station, taking in different Tobagonian traditions. Sample some of the hearty, local meals on sale, including but not limited to dumplings, provision, callaloo and fried fish. Do a little souvenir, or jewellery, shopping to patronise the crafts vendors. And of course, pay attention to the rich history being shared every step of the way.
- Time: 9:00 am till…
- Best time to go: In the morning to see the Dancing of the Cocoa
- Why: This ritual is the highlight of the Charlotteville experience with hundreds converging on the cocoa house to take in this centuries old ritual.
Folktales & Superstitions – Les Coteaux
Even if you were raised to believe that obeah is bad, douens don’t exist and superstitions are silly, you wouldn’t want to miss Les Coteaux’s theatric presentation of Folktales & Superstitions. The dark drive along the winding country road helps set the mood for a night of mystical tales. Luckily, the comedic element softens the delivery so there’s no need to be afraid…or is there?
If you’re not very au courant with Tobagonian dialect you will have to pay close attention. However, if by chance some of the words confuse you, the tone and expressions of the actors will get you back on track.
Here, comedy and folklore combine for an entertaining and edifying evening that could actually teach you a thing or two. Like how to kill a soucouyant, how to call on your ancestors, and how to prevent jumbies from entering your home. Here’s hoping you never have to put any of these theories into action but it doesn’t hurt to know. Just in case…
- Time: 6:00 am to 11:00 pm
- Best time to go: Folktales & Superstitions stage show @ 8 pm
- Why: The stage production is a riot with comedic acting and insightful depictions about the beliefs and customs of our ancestors that many continue to practice to this day.
Miss Heritage Personality – Roxborough
If you’re not big on pageants (like me) you’d be tempted to skip this particular production. However, I’d advise you against it. Pageants are a big part of Tobago culture, and the Miss Heritage Personality pageant is the biggest of them all. So, if your goal is to get a true Tobago Heritage Festival experience, ditching this event is a no-no.
Truth be told, the show is quite long, but on the upside, it doesn’t objectify women. This pageant is all about Tobago’s culture. On this stage the delegates’ only goal is to embody the true Tobago spirit. From their introductions – laced with the signature Tobago twang and turns of phrase. To their gowns – elaborately designed to represent very specific aspects of Tobago’s landscape and heritage. To their talents – unleashed in the form of dance, song and spoken word.
Throughout the event the young women are judged solely and wholly on their interpretation and representation of the island they call home. The ladies go to great lengths to put on a good show, but the audience does its part as well. Between their over-exuberant support of their delegates of choice and their hilarious running commentary, you’ve got a night full of cultural enlightenment with a healthy serving of laughter on the side.
- Time: 8 pm until…
- Best time to go: 8 pm
- Why: This show comprises various segments, none of which you should miss. So get there early, secure a good seat and buckle down for a long but engrossing night of pageantry.
If you have the time (and energy) to take in every single Tobago Heritage Festival event, you should. However, if you don’t have two whole weeks to kill, then the aforementioned are my recommended ‘must-experience’, ‘can’t-miss’ events. Check out the full calendar of events courtesy the Tobago Festivals Commission.
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