The Trinity Reporter Winter 2005
destination Trinidad

Academic work and internships give Trinity students new insights into island culture 

By Dorothea E. Hast
Photography: Jeffrey Chock, Pablo Delano, Elizabeth Clark


The Caribbean Republic of Trinidad and Tobago lies seven miles off the coast of Venezuela. This twin island nation is home to a diversity of cultures that is reflected in its music and festivals, including calypso, steel band, soca, chutney, Ramlila, Divali, and most famous of all—Carnival. The overlays of culture include European influences: the Spanish governors who invited French planters, followed by the British who governed the islands between 1797 and 1962. The two largest segments of the population today trace their ancestral roots back to India and Africa. Included in the overall mix are also smaller groups of Portuguese, Venezuelans, Chinese, Middle Easterners, and people of mixed heritage. 

   Within this rich multicultural environment, Trinity set up its Global Learning Site in 1998 for the purpose of giving students a unique one-semester cultural immersion that reinforces course work with internships and fieldwork. According to International Studies major Nicole Brown ’04, who attended the program in the spring of 2003, students are urged to get involved in the culture as a whole:

    They told us in the beginning that the island was our classroom. We had our structured meetings and our structured class times, but we also had so many opportunities to really explore and go out there and experience it on our own.

Origins of the program: One faculty member’s move from Shakespeare to Carnival


Milla Riggio, James J. Goodwin Professor of English, is the program coordinator for the Trinidad site. During her first trips to Trinidad in the early 1990s, she was struck both by the island’s diversity and by its strong festival culture:

    It still shares with some early European, African, and Indian cultures the notion of living from one festival to the other. Living, as one historian put it, in the memory of one festival and the expectation of the next. We’re talking about an island that has active working communities that include strong elements of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity of many varieties, including Pentecostal Protestants, Catholics, a strong spiritual Baptist religion, and a very strong Orisha or Shango African-based series of religions. Each one of these religions has its own festival structure, and on the island, people cross over to celebrate each other’s festivals so that it is a myriad of cross-cutting cultures and celebrations that absorb tensions even when they acknowledge them.


Riggio admits she was hooked by the culture and began to shift her research focus from medieval drama and Shakespeare to Trinidad, and especially to the performative aspects of Carnival:

 I suddenly found myself interested in studying actual living festivals—festivals that have their origins in the great religious and medieval feasts of the past or in cultural celebrations from past cultures, but that are celebrated currently. And that led me to Carnival and kept me in Trinidad.

   Riggio’s work in Trinidad led her to bring the Trinity-in-Trinidad Global Site to fruition. The first version of the program was a course she taught at Trinity in 1997 with Academic On-Site Director Tony Hall called “Festival and Drama.” During that first class, they took 25 students to Trinidad for Carnival in the middle of the semester. The following year they began sending students for the spring term with the idea that the program would focus on Carnival. Since then, the curriculum has expanded to six tracks, including music, Caribbean civilization, theater and performance, community arts and media, and two Indo-Trinidadian tracks—one focused on Hindu Trinidad, and the other on Muslim Trinidad and gender studies. Because of interest in Trinidad’s unique tropical flora and fauna, a new track in ecology and environment is currently under development. Students from many Trinity majors, including biology and engineering, as well as the arts, humanities, and social sciences, have participated in the program and done extraordinary work and internships.

   On-Site Director Hall, a highly respected Trinidadian playwright and filmmaker, has helped shape the curriculum and the media- and Carnival-related internships in which many of Trinity’s students have participated. Along with Hall, Lloyd Best, one of the foremost economists and cultural analysts of the entire Caribbean region, and Ravi Ji, director of the Hindu Prachar Kendra and a leading cultural activist of Hindu Trinidadian culture, have been driving forces of the program. Students take core classes with Hall, Best, Ravi Ji, and other faculty mentors and attend classes at the University of the West Indies. Through their academic work and internships, Trinity students challenge the myth that studying on a Caribbean island is “all fun in the sun.”

Student internships encourage hands-on engagement with Trinidad life

Student internships have ranged from work with NGOs, such as Working Women and NUDE (National Union of Domestic Employees), to service in a wide gamut of civic, cultural, and governmental agencies. Mark Witt ’05, an engineering major, found work with a civil engineer and was able to travel throughout south and central Trinidad, learning about road construction and maintenance. Maggie Griffith ’03 did fieldwork on the Hindu festival of Phagwa, which resulted in a thesis and film. Nicole Brown ’04, a native of Jamaica, had an internship with the Association of Caribbean States in the Tourism Department. Her project was to study sustainable tourism within the Caribbean, “working with making tourism beneficial to the tourists and to local people so it’s not just tourists who are benefiting from the tourist experience.” Her work was so rewarding and successful that she applied to graduate school in Trinidad and is now in her first year of a master’s program in international relations. 

   Many students have worked on music and media internships, especially in the areas of television, photography, and documentary film.  Two students, Elizabeth (Eliza) Clark ’05 and Keli Ross-Ma’u ’05, returned to Trinity this fall after spending the spring semester in Trinidad where they were both interns with the Pamberi Steel Orchestra.

   For Eliza, a Caribbean studies major, this was her second trip to Trinidad through the Trinity program. Although she says that she didn’t have a clear motivation for going the first time, she soon became enamored with all aspects of the steel drum (or pan as it is commonly called) through her work with Pamberi. She learned how to play the tenor pan, the highest instrument in the orchestra, and competed with the group in Panorama, an annual Carnival competition in which steel bands play complex arrangements of current Calypso songs. In order to learn the competition piece, she had to practice eight hours a day. She describes the intensity of learning the piece and getting it in performable shape with a group of 90 or more players:

The song you play is eight to ten minutes long, and they try to cram as much music in that time frame  as possible, so you have to play it fast! You have to know the song backwards and forwards, every which way, because it has to be in your body. You know, when you go to sleep, you have to be closing your eyes and watching your hands move the way they should go because there are so many notes and they’re so randomly arranged that it has to be a manual kind of thing . . . It has to be automatic. So, practice is military, disciplinary; just practice, practice; go over it and over it and over it.

   Even with all the pressures of learning a new instrument and performing, Eliza loved her internship so much that she applied to go back the following year. This time, she had a clear project in mind, to begin documenting the history and social structure of Pamberi. She did her fieldwork through active participation, playing with the orchestra and competing in Panorama, interviewing many of the musicians, and filming the activities of the panyard. She plans to use her research to complete a thesis this spring and then hopes to return to Trinidad in order to turn her thesis into a collaborative book project.

 “It brought tears to my eyes while they were playing.”

Ross-Ma’u, a music major from San Diego, had already played tenor pan in his father’s band during high school. Like Eliza, he planned to play in Pamberi for his internship, and as soon as he arrived in Port of Spain he began intensive rehearsals with the group in order to get ready for the first round of competitions. 

   Keli also began working on his music project for the semester, composing two pieces that would be performed by Pamberi in a concert. He wrote one of the pieces in memory of a friend:

    I wrote “Dancing Ashes,” trying to give the feeling that someone has died and then the ashes rise and start dancing. I was inspired by the death of a friend and musician in San Diego named Eddie Sanft. He passed away during the time I was writing the song.

    Keli taught his compositions to the group note by note, phrase by phrase, since the method of learning is through imitation and repetition rather than through notation.

   After working hard through these rehearsals and teaching by note, versus handing out music, you develop a connection with the players, an intimacy. This oral tradition of teaching creates a unity that’s really special.

   For the performance, Keli conducted his two pieces with Pamberi and performed some of his own music with his father, who flew down to Trinidad for the concert. Keli was thrilled with Pamberi’s performance of “Dancing Ashes.”

   It brought tears to my eyes while they were playing. It was a powerful time. They just nailed it. It was amazing after all that hard work, an amazing night, a huge success.

   One of Keli’s plans after graduation is to introduce steel drums into the South Pacific. Because of his father’s background (he is part Tongan and part Fijian), Keli has family and connections on those islands, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. On a trip with his family to New Zealand last summer, he gave steel band lectures at universities, high schools, and primary schools, which sparked a lot of interest in the instruments. At this point, he is working with Pamberi’s director, Nestor Sullivan, to bring pans to New Zealand, and he is contemplating living there at some point, playing music, teaching, and composing.

   The Trinity-in-Trinidad Global Learning Site has helped create a whole new generation of scholars and artists working in the rich cultural environment of Trinidad and the Caribbean. According to Riggio, 80 percent of the students who go on this program contrive ways to return to the island. She credits the uniqueness of the place and the expertise and generosity of the people as core reasons why students get so involved in Trinidadian culture: 

    Our students are given opportunities to meet and study with people who have significantly contributed to, and continue to contribute to, the development of culture. These are extraordinary artists, scholars, and intellectuals—people who go far out of their way to make our experiences in Trinidad rich and rewarding. I can only be astonished at the generosity of the island and its people in opening its arms to our students.

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