Trinidad and Tobago is a relatively new country, with a fresh and unique culture that is a novel expression of its diverse population and interesting history. Culture is measured by how well a society is able to incorporate its unique art into daily life. In T&T, we are losing ours because we don’t value expressions of it until they are celebrated abroad first; we desperately need validation from outside. Contrast this against the richness of Cuban culture for example.
As a country, we are like a six-year-old child genius, lacking confidence in our abilities, and trust in our own judgement, despite having churned out a series of masterpieces in art, music, literature and sport.
Our genius seems to be in the form of savant syndrome, a type of autism that is as much a blessing as it is a curse, leaving us unable to appreciate for ourselves the beauty and greatness in all of the works that we constantly produce.
Unfortunately, we must rely on the encouragement and taste of the cultured adults in our milieu to confirm for us, that our work is valuable, so that we continue to produce it. Without which, we are inclined to give up our unique style and instead seek to make shoddy copies of whatever is popular.
There are so many examples throughout our history of our inability to appreciate our own creative genius for what it is, until it is appreciated elsewhere first.
Charles, the internationally celebrated trumpet player, and a fellow Trini can attest to this truth. He recently reminded me of this as he recounted the story of Aldwyn Roberts, the calypsonian commonly know as Lord Kitchener.
It was only after Kitchener spent years performing at three London clubs per night with a different band in each place, in the 1950s, that word slowly trickled back to Trinidad of this famous Trinidadian musician in London. From a Trinidadian perspective, Kitchener had to be celebrated by the English before we could appreciate, claim and embrace him as ours. It wasn’t until steelpan was recognised internationally that we realised what we had given to the world and proudly claimed it as our own.
This trend continues today, we couldn’t recognise and appreciate the brilliance of our own Anya Ayoung-Chee until she was celebrated internationally as the winner of Project Runway. This also applies to the writings of VS Naipaul and the art of Christopher Cozier, to name a few of the many examples of us needing validation from outside.
Fortunately we came to recognise our own greatness in the aforementioned examples, but regrettably, there are elements of our culture that have already been lost. There are old black and white photographs of Port-of-Spain early in the 20th century that showcase gorgeous buildings with long eaves, and luxurious decorative wrought iron balconies.
The buildings are reminiscent of the French Quarter of New Orleans, the cultural heart of the city that is still there today, preserved, appreciated and celebrated; while in Port-of-Spain we have replaced our beautiful cultural heritage with eye sores in the form of tasteless edifices.
Even in Shanghai there remains today in the middle of square miles of high rise buildings, the “French Concession” where buildings of this antique style, with their priceless history can still be found today.
They say architecture is the highest form of art and we are losing our unique expression because we are unable to appreciate it for ourselves, and so we continue to make poor copies of another culture’s expression such as Napa.
This backward way of thinking isn’t limited to our views on culture. I am sure every local, qualified professional will be able to relate with frustration to our innate tendency towards the assumption that a foreigner from the developed world must be superior to a local that holds equal or even better qualifications.
We are struggling with a colonial inferiority complex, a legacy of our unloved upbringing by our parent across the Atlantic. When it comes to sport, if we are unable to appreciate our own local talent and genius for ourselves, by the time it’s appreciated abroad first, we would have lost the opportunity to claim it as our own.
Anthony Nesty, the first black Olympic Gold medalist in swimming ended up competing for Suriname, despite being a born Trinidadian. This is one example of us not recognising what we have until it’s too late. It would be a shame to see more Trinbagonians winning medals for countries such as Qatar, that are just waiting to recognise and nurture talent where other countries fail to.