From the initial CFP, #SEMSEC2016 has offered productive formulations for thinking about music and musicians both in cultural context and across time and space. SEMSEC Vice President Michael O’Brien‘s work on our meeting theme, “the Engine Room” reflected careful thinking with Elizabeth Clendinning and the other officers, and presenters responded by generating a range of fascinating thought. Sunday’s presentations continued that trend with a session from Caribbean scholars Maarten Manmohan, Ngozi Liverpool, and Meagan Sylvester (hear more from the latter two here); and concurrent sessions featured topics ranging from Christian rock concerts of epic scale and cost to physical geographies of steel pans. So many good papers, so little time!
Meanwhile, the conference afforded opportunities to consider how these sounds and thoughts map onto the fascinating social textures and physical topographies of Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela’s Orinoco River Delta, and beyond. One highlight was to hike San Fernando Hill with Dale Olsen and his wife Diane. Dr. Olsen’s work with the Warao people of Venezuela earned him the 1997 Alan P. Merriam Prize for the most outstanding book in ethnomusicology (a brief introduction to that work for a general readership appears here). The Warao call San Fernando Hill “Naparima,” and it represents the northernmost extremity of their cosmology. Making this trek with Dale and Diane reminded me that understanding people’s belief systems often means not only listening carefully to their music and examining their folklore in detail, but also experiencing their foodways and their pathways in the world. To that end, just as eating bake and shark, Thai cuisine, roti, and dubbles helped me understand the demographics and overlapping histories of this place, walking Naparima Hill with a distinguished senior scholar contributed to a deeper understanding of Trinidad’s distinctive topography. Its compelling links to the indigenous Warao of Venezuela generated a powerful view of the valley below and the sea beyond it.
San Fernando’s coastal valley moves from a distant Venezuela on the horizon to the left–just 11km away from the southernmost tip of Trinidad–to an industrial coastline, to a well-populated western littoral, to oil refineries, all of which contribute to the physical and cultural atmosphere of the city. To stay in San Fernando is to live and breathe this atmosphere. American and Trinidadian laborers file into restaurants and hotels for their meals and some short-term lodging.
The pace of the city adheres to the distinctive working rhythms of daily life. Visitors can palpably feel Trinidad’s overthrow of the plantation economy, British class society, and the Indian caste systems here. Yes, histories of slavery and indentured servitude shaped land tenure and continued to inform post-colonial economics, but this city has erected monuments to progress. One example is the University of Trinidad and Tobago‘s Southern Academy for Performing Arts (SAPA), where we held the #SEMSEC2016 annual meeting.
Yes, the sweeping interiors of this building and its breezeway are as gorgeous as the treble clef-inspired architecture we see from this view. So thanks also to local arrangements co-chairs Mia Gormandy and Kayleen Justus, this meeting took us from the Engine Room to the gorgeous landscapes of Trinidadian culture and physical topography and back.