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A group of Black people outdoors in a street, all wearing white. Women and men at the center of the circle each hold wide, cut stalks of bamboo vertically.

The Claxton Bay Tamboo Bamboo Band performs in Trinidad. The pitch and tone of tamboo bamboo instruments are said to mimic the sounds of skin drums. Traditionally, they would accompanied by another improvised instrument made of common household items: an empty bottle and a metal spoon, used to maintain the rhythm for the bamboo. The bottle-and-spoon can still be found in musical ensembles in Trinidad today.

Photo by Avah Atherton

  • Tamboo Bamboo: The Rebellious Sound of Music in Trinidad

    “This is where it start from,” says Anton Barclay, sweeping his hands outward.

    He stands outside the Toby family home in Claxton Bay, a small village in the south of Trinidad, dotted with agricultural plots and residences where chickens and children run. Today, members of the Spiritual Baptist community have gathered for Ancestral Prayers, a ceremony meant to honor their loved ones, recently and distantly deceased.

    A pervasive sense of woe coats the tongue. It’s a sorrow so acute, it courses through one Spiritual Baptist, head to toe. Some worshippers sway in time with the beat. Others jerk and twist, tears streaming down their faces.

    Ancestral Prayers is also a time to remember those who fought against brutality, oppression, and prejudice. For some, these generational memories seem too painful to bear.

    A group of Black people, all wearing white, process up a street, with tropical green trees in the background.
    Spiritual Baptists come together for Ancestral Prayers, an important event paying homage to their deceased loved ones. During this time, members dress in white to invite and acknowledge the divine spirits among them.
    Photo by Rhonda Chan Soo
    Two women, both in white dresses and headwraps, clutch hands and face downward in prayer. One holds an open bottle of olive oil. Behind them, a crowd also dressed in white.
    In Ancestral Prayers, practitioners use pure olive oil in ritual anointments.
    Photo by Rhonda Chan Soo

    *****

    This tale is not for the faint of heart. It is a tale of violence, of death, and how it echoes and lives on through us. Proceed with caution.

    From 1526 to 1867, over ten million Africans were enslaved on plantations across the Americas. Throughout the islands of the Caribbean, from the mountains to the plains, runaways sought refuge and plotted revolutions. In unfamiliar lands, they defied all attempts of subjugation and carved a path to the freedoms enjoyed today. From then until now, there remains an underlying rhythm of a people forced to learn the art of rebellion.

    In 1802, after years of Spanish colonial rule, Trinidad was officially ceded to Britain. Despite calls to abolish slavery, Britain used the Atlantic Slave Trade to bolster the island’s sugar plantations.

    In the War of 1812, a group of runaway enslaved African Americans, or Merikins, were recruited into the British Army. When the war ended, these all-Black units of Marines were taken to British colonies like Trinidad and given acres of land for their service. They were left in the south of the island with limited supplies to build and develop infrastructure. The location was deliberate. These freedom fighters were to be kept separate from the enslaved populations whose lives and labor were still being exploited in the north.

    As news of the Merikins spread, however, so too did their influence. Their syncretic religion became a symbol of resistance and resilience. It combined elements of Orisha rituals from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa with those of Protestant Baptists, a sect of Christianity—the familiar disguised as the new. It was one of the ways enslaved Africans resisted cultural erasure.

    First, their loud adulations were ridiculed by the British colonial government with the pejorative term “Shouter” Baptists. Then their religious gatherings were criminalized from 1917 to 1951 using the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance. Yet still they persisted. Prominent members of society, including labor leader Uriah Butler and calypsonian Singing Sandra, helped create visibility and acceptance of the faith.

    Today, theirs is considered an Indigenous religion in Trinidad. A national holiday, Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day, commemorates the repeal of the Prohibition Ordinance. Members now call themselves Spiritual Baptists, proudly declaring their affinity with the supernatural.

    *****

    Album cover with title: Bamboo Tamboo:  Bongo and the Belair. Generic Afro-Caribbean rhythms and forms. Recorded in the hills of Trinidad. Watercolor painting of power lines crossing a field, with trees and hills in the distance.

    “Today we are celebrating our ancestors. It’s a celebration of their freedom fight,” Anton explains.

    A low, thumping bassline lays a path up the hill to a stone altar. Musicians hit lengths of bamboo against the ground, beating time to the songs. The music they make is called tamboo bamboo. Tambour is taken from the French word for drums, and bamboo is the material used. The Tobys and other relatives, including Anton, form the Claxton Bay Tamboo Bamboo Band, one of the country’s few tamboo bamboo groups.

    Tamboo bamboo consists of four basic percussion instruments, each cut from lengths of bamboo: the bass, the foule, the cutter, and the chandler. The width of the bamboo determines the tone of each instrument. Thick and heavy pieces are used to create the bass or boom. The foule, three inches wide, represents the tenor pitch. The cutter, held across the shoulder, is used for the soprano pitch. Finally, the chandler provides the alto pitch. Each piece measures between four and five feet in length. They are thumped against the ground and hit at various points along their length with a stick to produce the desired note. Lavways, songs made up of Creole, French, and African-language lyrics, accompany the tamboo bamboo rhythm.

    With a ready supply of bamboo across the island, these bands flourished in the late 1800s. Once the standard musical ensemble, tamboo bamboo is now relegated to annual cultural celebrations.

    Members of the Claxton Tamboo Bamboo Band, the Toby family, and friends gather to sing lavways and play tamboo bamboo. A family tradition, the practice has been passed down through the generations informally, resulting in varying levels of skill and involvement from the family members. For informal performances, cousins, sisters, and brothers swap in and out, keeping the rhythm organic and energetic. | Video by Avah Atherton

    At fifty-one, Anton is the youngest of the Claxton Bay Tamboo Bamboo group. A group of ten, they trace their experience with tamboo bamboo back to their childhood.

    “The person who kept this alive was my uncle,” says Ray Toby, a skin drummer. “We used to listen to the elders play, and then we would pick up the bamboo and play with it. A lot of people don’t know about tamboo bamboo. Trinidadians! They don’t know. We don’t want this legacy to die.”

    “The whole process of learning is listening,” states Bertrand Toby, head of the group. He talks about his family’s involvement in music and cultural arts in Trinidad, naming relatives who are singers, instrumentalists, or both. “I was age nine when I first performed,” he says, reminiscing about his experience at Best Village, the country’s annual traditional cultural festival. At age sixty, he worries about the continuity of this practice. “We have to keep these things alive to always let our children know where we came from, where our ancestors came from, our struggle. These things must not be hidden.”

    Through their rhythms and prayers, as both Spiritual Baptists and tamboo bamboo musicians, they continue a tradition of resistance that began with their ancestors.

    *****

    When slavery ended in 1836, Afro-Trinidadians celebrated their freedom with Canboulay, a three-day event. It incorporated African skin drums, dance, costuming, and rituals similar to the traditional Yoruba festival Egungun. It also mocked and parodied the colonial powers, with incendiary lyrics and outrageous masked characterizations. As historian J.D. Elder wrote, Canboulay was “a duel between the European moral codes and the African canons of freedom.” It was a mutiny disguised as pageantry. Canboulay laid the foundation of what would become one of the most famous festivals in the world: Trinidad’s Carnival.

    Canboulay soon became the target of colonial persecution. In 1860, the Trinidad Sentinel newspaper described Carnival as an “orgy of every species of barbarism and crime.” Apprehensive of the power of a unified African people, the British banned masking and singing, key African cultural expressions. A heavy-handed police superintendent, Captain Arthur Baker, declared publicly his mission to eliminate Canboulay, which he considered a threat to public order. The power of a united African people made itself known. In 1881, after a year of silent plotting, a group of Canboulay revellers, composed of men, women, and children, ambushed the superintendent and his men. It is now immortalized in Trinidadian history as the 1881 Canboulay Riots.

    Front page of a newspaper: Evening News from Tuesday, February 25, 1941. Main headline: 1941 Carnival in Pictures. Smaller headlines: 'Tamboo Bamboo' Band. 'Old Mask' on City Street. Four photos of performers and crowds in the streets. Black and white.
    A 1941 newspaper coverage of Carnival in Trinidad references tamboo bamboo. Although the instruments were not as durable as skin drums, they functioned sufficiently as a replacement.
    Image from the Evening News

    The colonial government declared a further ban on drumming in 1883. In 1884, the police killed twenty-two indentured Indian labourers and injured many others who were taking part in Hosay, a religious ceremony that included drumming. The Canboulay Riots and the Hosay Massacre formed part of a decade-long resistance to these stringent measures.

    The percussive culture of African instruments refused to be silenced. To circumvent the colonial authorities, Afro-Trinidadians developed tamboo bamboo as a new way to create the rhythms vital to their culture. The British wouldn’t immediately recognize the bamboo stalks as musical instruments, yet they bear a similarity to traditional African drums in both usage and variety, according to historians Stephen Steumple and Errol Hill. Despite its humble appearance, tamboo bamboo is an art form derived from equal parts desperation and ingenuity.

    In the 1930s, tamboo bamboo musicians began experimenting with sturdier metallic substitutes, leading to the development of the steelpan drums. Although stories surrounding the origin of the early steelpan remain dubious, tamboo bamboo undoubtedly paved the way to steelpan. “There are continuities with tamboo and the steelpan,” local ethnomusicologist Kim Johnson says. “The same tripartite sections that tamboo bamboo has—the lead, the midrange, the boom or bass—the steelpan has.”

    Over time, many tamboo bamboo bands changed their instrumentation, musical approach, and names. They became the steelpan bands most Trinidadians know and love today. The Hell Yard Bamboo Band settled on the name Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra, the oldest steelband in history. The Dead End Kids became the Desperadoes Steelband Orchestra and have since performed at Carnegie Hall as well as alongside opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. The presence of steelpan in Carnival is now undisputed. It became a singular representation of the efforts of a people rising from the ashes of colonialism to be born anew in their own image.

    Outdoors, several Black men play steel drums painted bright blue for a crowd.
    The Trinidad Steel Band performs at the 1977 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Beatrice Strong, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    *****

    Under colonialism, creative expressions became dual-purposed: cultural preservation and insidious rebellion. Enslaved Africans, generations removed from their ancestral homes, found elements of their heritage deeply coded in their collective memories. Memory provided an anchor to a cultural birthright that colonial oppression tried to erase and deny.

    Both tamboo bamboo and Spiritual Baptists have influenced the cultural landscape of Trinidad. Together, these two cultural practices have endured persecution and prejudice to become part of a heritage founded on resilience as much as it is on resistance. Through the annals of history, from the hills of Claxton Bay, across the ocean, back to Africa, and around the world, the rhythm of African percussion echoes still.

    This is a story about violence. It is also a story about endurance, of death, and of life—about the music of hope and the voices behind it.

    Obatala Festival, Woodbrook, Trinidad

    Posted by Tillah Willah on Saturday, January 28, 2023

    The 2023 Obatala procession in Trinidad showcases the magnitude of the impact of Yoruba culture on the country. This procession is meant to honor the deity or Orisha Obatala who is believed to have created the Earth. | Video by Atillah Springer

    *****

    “The Art of Rebellion” is a series that examines Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, one of the most influential street festivals in the world, through an exploration of key traditional characters and rituals.

    Part 1: The Baby Doll Masquerade in Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival

    Avah Atherton is a storyteller, educator, and former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. With a background in journalism, linguistics, and cultural enterprise management, she is focused on documenting traditional culture that offers a deeper perspective on Caribbean history and society.


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