Now that the feathers and the sparkles and the high-octane soca music have left the streets of the Trinidadian capital of Port of Spain for another year, what’s left is what is referred to as the feeling of “tabanca.” It’s a post-Carnival malaise that some say is only cured by more bacchanal.
Port of Spain may be best known for its exuberant annual Mardi Gras that ended Feb. 13, but even when the Trinidadian capital’s streets are not flooded with costumed revelers, it remains home to a vibrant arts scene.
Behind an unassuming middle-class house in the quiet midtown neighborhood of Woodbrook, lies a multifaceted arts center named Alice Yard. The “Yard,” as it is called by locals, is an important hub of contemporary art activity in the city.
Soon after walking through its always-open gate on a sunny morning last spring, I met a Scottish artist in residence, Joanna Helfer; a group of people filming boiling sugar as a comment on Trinidad’s colonial past; and others talking and laughing nearby. I complimented one of the women on her jewelry and she immediately showed me an Instagram account for the designer and told me about a range of local pop-up craft fairs where I might find a piece of my own.
When neighborhoods like Woodbrook came into being in the 1930s — Nobel Prize-winning writer V.S. Naipaul grew up in the area — the backyards of these houses were where Carnival bands evolved out of community workshops known as “mas camps” (mas being short for masquerade).
“Yards have always been part of our narrative, the kind of informal, non-regulated spaces where people have played, lived,” said Christopher Cozier, an artist and co-administrator of Alice Yard, along with the architect Sean Leonard whose grandmother had lived on the property, and the local writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin.
Alice Yard is part of an informal network of similar grass-roots arts organizations across the Caribbean, such as Fresh Milk in Barbados and New Local Space in Jamaica. The administrators of Alice Yard also manage an affiliated sister space, Granderson Lab, in Belmont, the city’s first suburb, initially populated by Afro-Trinidadians in the post-Emancipation 1800s. Granderson Lab, housed in a former family-run printery belonging to Mr. Leonard, is now home to projects that include carnival planning and installation art.
The post-bacchanal creativity extends to the literary scene in Port of Spain. Since 2010, Caribbean literature has received an elevated platform with the founding of the Bocas Lit Fest. Held annually in April,the festival is free and showcases some of the best writers in the region.
Literary stars like the Man Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James and up-and-coming writers speak to small audiences and mingle with attendees at a range of events, including workshops.
“It is a community that has changed and radically expanded over the past 10 years,” said Mr. Laughlin, who is the literary festival’s programmer. “It feels like there is a bubbling up of talent. Part of it is that, maybe for the first time, writers don’t have to leave Trinidad to make careers for themselves.”
The festival also hosts events like poetry slams, screenings and lectures. And there are monthly literary open-mic sessions held at the Big Black Box, another venue that offers a range of artistic and carnival-related activities.
Because Port of Spain is relatively small — it has a population of just over 37,000 — it is, according to Mr. Laughlin, “relatively easy to become connected to people.” When I asked about how to find out about other literary events, he simply suggested taking a trip to Paper Based Books, a local shop that specializes in writing from the region. “Just talk to the person behind the counter,” he said.
At the Bocas festival last spring, I admired a performance of moko jumbies, stilt walkers that are a traditional feature of Carnival. They were wearing flowing skirts of fabric and strips of newspaper, all carrying protest signs reflecting social justice and environmental concerns, denoting the political element of traditional “mas.”
While taking in the towering costumed characters, I ran into the artist and designer Richard Mark Rawlins. He told me about the 1000mokos project, a group that is working to get more people interested in the practice of stilt-walking. He encouraged me to visit an address just across the street from Alice Yard the following Sunday.
Arriving at the park I heard the loud rhythms of soca and witnessed Adrian “Daddy Jumbie” Young, a well-known local expert and instructor in stilt-walking, perform flowing movements on sky-high stilts that seemed like magic. His ease and ability to spin, hop and jump while nine feet off the ground was more superhero than human. I thought there was no way I’d be able to do this.
But after an hour of encouragement and instruction and lots of soca music, I made it up on a pair of two-foot stilts and walked around a park. I recalled Mr. Cozier talking about Port of Spain’s yards as spaces where people play. He could have been talking about the city itself.
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