Culture & music in Tobago

Few countries as tiny as Trinidad and Tobago can boast of having played such a starring role on the world stage when it comes to culture. As well as the epic carnival celebrations – which are the basis for London’s annual Notting Hill Carnival – the islands have exported their music and dance around the world, putting them right up there with Jamaica and Cuba in terms of cultural influence.


The steelpan is considered the only new acoustic instrument to have been invented in the 20th century. Its upbeat sound may make most people think instantly of sunshine, smiles and swaying palms – but the history of the pan is much less sunny. In the 1800s, the British government banned one form of local music after another. Eventually, all that was left were everyday items such as cooking pots, dustbin lids and discarded oil drums – which the innovative population soon realised could be tuned by hammering flat ovals into the metal. In the backstreets of 1930s Trinidad, the steelpan was born. The original pannists were viewed as troublemakers – a girl would get in trouble if she was caught hanging around with a boy who played the steelpan. Today, the instrument is a symbol of national pride; schoolchildren join steel bands, there are nationally renowned artists and its jangling, joyful sound can be heard across both Trinidad and Tobago.
Even more local instruments include the tamboo-bamboo. This can be viewed as evidence of the islanders’ absolute devotion to their music and percussion, even when virtually all their means of making it were removed. Wide lengths of hollow bamboo were cut several feet long, and pounded against the road to create a deep boom. Smaller pieces were hit with mallets. Rustic as this may sound, it’s surprisingly effective – and folklore festivals still proudly showcase the tamboo-bamboo today.

Calypso originated here in the same era as the steelpan. Influenced largely by the music brought over by the West African slaves, the harmonious singing was led by a kind of wandering storyteller-musician. Originally sung in French Creole, it is thought the singers used the songs to communicate and discuss the plantation owners without them being able to understand. Once it began to be sung in English, calypso was – like so much folk music around the world – used to express discontent with the government and living conditions, as a form of cultural protest. Today, calypso remains popular and is still used to tell stories – though these days they tend to be fictional. Witty snippets of gossip, neighbourhood scandals, innuendo and insult are common themes – the lyrics are every bit as important as the music.

On Tobago, more popular music includes chutney – of East Indian Caribbean origin – and soca, which grew out of calypso and is heard widely on the radio, in bars and at most events and parties. Most curious to foreign visitors, however, is the dance – known as wining – that accompanies it.


Yet another of Trinidad and Tobago’s international exports, the limbo dance was originally a spiritual dance performed at wakes. The lower the dancer could go, the higher the deceased could ascend. Today it may be a performance in itself or part of a competition – though put aside any hopes you had of joining in. The bar is dropped just inches from the floor, and – frequently – set on fire. To a soundtrack of African-influenced percussion or other traditional music, the dancers shuffle along the floor with their knees in front of them – if that still sounds too easy, they may be blindfolded or balancing objects on their hands or heads, which do not touch the bar. The world record is believed to be just 21.5cm!

Where to see the music

The famous Sunday School is a weekly bacchanal that kicks off in Buccoo with steelpan music, food and craft stalls at around 9pm each Sunday. The first couple of hours are laid back popular with tourists of all ages. The party gets wilder from around 11pm as the locals begin to roll in – this is where you’ll catch the soca and wining and the rum punches start flowing. The party spills over onto the beach and continues until everyone has gone home to recover. Beware: Tobagonians have stamina when it comes to parties, so you could find yourself crawling back to your guesthouse just before sunrise.

Cheno’s Coffee Shop, in Castara village, has steelpan bands each Saturday evening, from around 9:30pm. There’s a barbecue and a welcoming vibe for visitors and locals – you’re bound to make some new friends over a rum punch or three.
Cheno portrait
Cheno, manager of Castara Coffee Shop
Cheno talks about the food, atmosphere and music at Castara Coffee Shop. [00:34]

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Cultural festivals

Tobago has an impressive calendar of events, which you can read more about on our Festivals & events page. Most notable for music are, of course, Carnival – though much calmer than its Trinidadian cousin, it’s a wonderful immersion in the island’s folklore, with parades of masquerade bands, floats, some ear-splitting percussion and dancing.

The annual Tobago jazz Experience takes place for a week at the end of April. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of jazz – there is plenty of Trinbagonian music showcased here, and over the years, headline acts have included Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Randy Crawford and Erykah Badu. One or two of the days will have an entry fee, with the rest being free – making this wonderfully inclusive, for locals and visitors.

The Tobago Heritage Festival, held in July and August, has several steelpan performances as well as a calypso competition held in Plymouth. Though humour plays a big role in many of the songs, the event is taken surprisingly seriously – and entrants are judged on originality, performance, storytelling and lyrics.

Visual arts

Tobagonians may love to party – but not all of their culture is riotous and lively. Painting and sculpture is growing in popularity, and there are a number of renowned local artists, as well as those from overseas who have come to regard Tobago as their creative home.

One of Tobago’s most famous “adopted” artists was Luise Kimme. Originally from Germany, Kimme lived in Tobago from 1979 until her death in 2013 and her unusual, figurative wooden sculptures can be found adorning various places in Tobago – including Kariwak Village – as well as in her Sculpture Museum – which was also her house – in Mt Irvine. Here, you can view exhibits of her bronze figures, plus colourful, Caribbean-inspired paintings, drawings and embroidery. The museum is open from 10am-2pm.

The National Fine Arts Centre can be found at Fort King George – although it is currently closed. Smaller art galleries and shops can also be found around Store Bay and Buccoo, showcasing the folk as well as more modern arts and crafts of Tobago.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Visit Tobago for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tobago Tourism Agency] [Intro: Tobago Tourism Agency] [Music: Tobago Tourism Agency] [Limbo: Tobago Tourism Agency] [Carnival: Tobago Tourism Agency]