Trinidad’s love affair with music from the 1980s – more to it than meets the ear…

It happens at any party – the house party, the club, the political party, even at church harvests, this return to music from the 1980s.

I left Trinidad as a teenager to live/study/work abroad and never really went back until Valentine’s Day 2006, returning with adult eyes eleven years after. One big experiment, with me being a variable as well! I wouldn’t give away all the juicy details of my re-adjustment (or lack thereof in some cases) to the most southerly isle of the Caribbean, since this is about what I observed…at almost every single party or gathering throughout the islands of Trinidad & Tobago.

The music begins contemporary – be the pick of the moment pop, rock, R&B, soca, calypso, reggae, soul. Everyone mingles in tune with the 21st century, with a bit of hodge-podge here and there. OK, nothing too different. The music ensemble may even get creative and throw in some Salsa/Meringue or reggaeton.

However, once the party has been in full swing, the alcohol has flowed like an eternal river, and especially counting down to the “fête”* finale, it begins. First it starts off with the ‘80s pop (Expose, Company B, Miami Vice Soundrack and the Doug E Fresh genre etc.), and then moves into ‘80s reggae, the songs that only Caribbean peoples may remember, then ‘80s calypso music. Faces turn nostalgic. Phenomenal. As I had been trained for 11 years to consider last month’s music as “so five minutes ago,” I am astounded. I have visited various gatherings all over the country, and this is the common theme that rings through.

Understand, it’s not necessarily a specific CD compilation. Every demography kept music from the ‘80s and play such as treasured memories for a communal gathering….a fete, any fete. And in economic growth terms, Trinidad is now a considered high income country, filled with all the luxuries and communications one could desire, so it’s not for lack of receiving trend updates.

So, of course it is natural to ask, what is it that occurred in the 1980s, especially the mid years, which have Trinidadians and Tobagonians so spell bound? And this is my supposition….it’s political.

Of course many will argue with me, and that’s okay, it’s just a supposition. But if one looks at the country’s political history that is extremely skewed based on tribalism, the election of 1986 was based on something totally different. It was the first time that a political alliance based on unity won, truly epitomizing their slogan, “One Love.” I was under 10 and I still remember the energy that filled the country. It was beautiful…the political process worked. Finally, after the pain of Trinidad’s early ‘80s recession, there was hope. And the energy continued working, until the 1990 Coupe d’état
(,_1986). And while Trinidad has gotten richer financially, developing rapidly, we as a people began suffering emotionally the day this political alliance fell, and the suffering has festered.

Unconsciously, Trinidadians have kept the spirit of alliance alive through the music of the 1980s, and have passed it on to the new generations as well…to remember a truly, pure, happy time in the nation’s history. I say unconsciously since most Trinidadians do not consider this habit…no, ritual…to be quirky. Quite frankly, had I not left the country both physically and culturally, I may not have taken note of it either.

Thus, symbolic anthropology interests me, since, in my humble opinion, Trinidad & Tobago lends itself to numerous facets for cultural interpretation of the micro and macro. And I, having become an interesting human experiment, half daughter of the soil, half expat, have tales to tell as observer and participant.

* Fete – a party. Almost all parties are called fetes.

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Comment by Astrid Franchiska Kowlessar on July 23, 2009 at 9:09pm
Thank you Keith for the comment and for being key to starting this site - I'm very lucky to have found it. I agree with you - maybe "historical" instead of "political" is more apt. I love how people respond to music on both a cellular and energetic level - how one genre's music can keep hope alive through memories.

Thanks for the tip on adding a URL. I have much to learn and to share here.


Comment by Keith Hart on July 23, 2009 at 7:39pm
Thanks for this great post, Astrid. I believe the historical relationship between music and society is universal, even if the example you give of Trinidad & Tobago is a powerful one. I spent the years 1986-88 in the Caribbean, mostly in Jamaica, but a month at St Augustine. I found the cultural vitality of the place enthralling. I published my only piece of literary criticism there, a comment on Earl Lovelace's The Dragon Can't Dance. I think your thesis is basically right, but maybe your use of the term "political" is too narrow for what is at stake. When a people lives through important moments in their history, musicians express it and this becomes the most tangible way they have of recalling and living, through song and dance, that memory. Thus songs from the first and second world wars (It's a long way to Tipperary,Colonel Bogey, We'll meet again sung by Vera Lynn) still move British people and not just the old. I had a friend in New york who believed that the blockbuster pop hits of a given year somehow expressed our collective experience of world history then. My older daughter and I lived through Thriller together when she was maybe 8 and this all came back when Michael Jackson died. popular music captures moments in the history of society and allows us to relive them. In the end, all we have against death (humanity, that is) is song and dance (and that other more private celebration of the possibility of birth).

PS You can embed a link by highlighting a phrase and clicking in the chain icon then inserting the URL.


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