The Tobago Heritage Festival: Preserving Folk Traditions

The Tobago Heritage Festival was first held in 1987. This festival was the brainchild of J.D. Elder, a noted anthropologist who was at that time the Secretary of Culture in the Tobago House of Assembly.  In the year of its inception there were three aims of this festival:

  1. To develop an event in Tobago by which the island could be easily recognised locally, regionally and internationally.
  2. To assist in the preservation of the islands indigenous art forms and the heritage which has slowly been disappearing.
  3. To sell Tobago as a holiday destination and to develop an event which would contribute to the islands social, cultural and economic development.

In this opening year, five villages participated: Bucco to the West, Charlottesville and Roxborough to the East, Moriah to the North and Les Coteaux located in Central Tobago. The contribution of each village in 1987 is still evident in their portrayals now. Let’s take a trip back to September 1987 to see how these villages performed in the first Tobago Heritage Festival.

     Synonymous to the village of Buccoo are the Goat Races. Usually occurring during Easter Tuesday, goat racing is also a part of the Tobago Heritage Festival. Often referred to as the “poor man’s substitute” for horse racing, goat racing was first introduced to the village of Buccoo in 1925 by Barbadian Samuel Callendar. This highly competitive sport is a staple of the Heritage Festival as only champion goats are allowed to race. The Goat Race was one of the events which was put on by the village of Bucco during the inaugural festival and since then has become increasingly popular.

      The village of Moriah is home to the Ole Time Wedding. This wedding represents the European influence on Tobagonians and is a re-enactment of what weddings were once like in Tobago. For this mock wedding the men are outfitted in black stovepipe/top hats, black and white three piece suits (inclusive of mandatory scissor tail coats), bow ties, white gloves and umbrellas to shade their female partners. The women are also a sight to behold as they wear bustle dresses, wide-brimmed hats adorned with flowers and as much jewellery as possible. The Ole Time Wedding is a cheerful event where both bride and groom are usually heckled throughout the ceremony by family members of either spouse or by a jilted lovers. To the sounds of fiddles, drums and tambrins, everyone makes their way from the church to the streets and finally the wedding grounds. At the wedding grounds, the bride’s godfather makes a speech using large words used in the wrong context. The Moriah Ole Time Wedding is one of the major draws of the Tobago Heritage Festival today.

     Les Coteaux is most widely known as the home of Tobago’s folk tales and superstitions.  Located in central Tobago, the physical setting of the village gives rise to the notion that there can be a possibility of the supernatural. Due to the rich oral tradition which is present is Tobago, many legends have been passed down from African ancestors, most notably so the stories of Gang Gang Sarah and the Anasi Stories. Common superstitious characters frequently heard of in Tobago include Mermaids, Fairy-maids, Soucouyants, La Diablesse, Duennes and Spirits or ‘Jumbies’. During the first Tobago Heritage Festival, the performance put on by the village of Les Coteaux was described as a time to, “Sit and be haunted as old villagers recount spine chilling tales which will haunt your nights and add a bit of mystery to your day.”

     The second largest town in Tobago is that of Roxborough. During the inaugural Heritage Festival, the village of Roxborough held a cultural show. This cultural show dealt with the Folk Dances of Tobago such as the reel, lancers, jig, heel-toe, bele, quadrille, cotillon and tango. These folk dances highlight the mixture of African and European dance traditions. J.D. Elder particularly noted, “The Tobago version of these dances show considerable transformation, the choreography of which to date has not been attempted by any scientific dance-analyst.” These dances were an integral aspect of Tobagonian social life and continue to be a highlight of the Tobago Heritage Festival.

     Charlottesville is a seaside village which is most notable for its fishing industry. The link between the sea and the villagers was represented during their presentation for the Heritage Festival of 1987. Charlottesville held a Water Carnival that year. This was a day which was dedicated to water sports such as swimming, diving, sailing, rowing and rafting. The importance of the sea and how it impacted this village was highlighted and continues to be a part of the Heritage Festival.

Today, the Tobago Heritage Festival is known internationally and is a large part of the tourism industry in Tobago. Being a repository for newspapers, the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago can be helpful in looking at the way in which this festival has evolved from having only five participating villages in 1987 to over seventeen participating villages in 2015. Visit the National Archives for more documentation on this internationally recognised cultural festival.

goat race


Corbie, Racquel. “Tobago Heritage Festival a Resounding Success.” Trinidad Guardian. 5th October 1987. Print.

Elder, J. D. Folk Songs from Tobago: Culture & Song in Tobago. London: Kamak, 1994. Print.

N.A. “Tobago Heritage Festival to become Annual Event.” Trinidad Guardian. 16th September 1987. Print.

Ng Fatt, Brian. “Festival to Celebrate Tobago’s Rich Heritage.” Trinidad Guardian 11th September 1987. Print.

Rampersad, Krishendaye. “Pregnant Tobago waiting to be Discovered and Enjoyed.” Trinidad Guardian 21st September 1987. Print.

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