Two weeks ago, a group of diehard pan lovers committed to their cause as they planted themselves on the Greens at the Queen’s Park Savannah (QPS). Sporting sneakers, shorts and face masks, and armed with chairs, coolers and eats, they commemorated Panorama semis Sunday amid a global pause on interactive activities due to COVID. Today, on this Valentine’s Day and on what would have been Dimanche Gras, it seems only fitting to extend the love tribute to the home of Panorama and T&T’s heartbeat of culture, food and recreation, the QPS.
Open your eyes and you’ve been transported there; to all 260 acres of the lush QPS or the Savannah, as it is fondly called. With a perimeter of some 3.5 km, at some points skirted by poui and samaan trees, and a paved path that encompasses the green space, it has been often called the largest roundabout in the world. Some would say you’re on hallowed ground.
All around, a 360-degree view engages. To the north, the majestic Northern range rises above the Emperor Valley Zoo, giving way to the undulating hills of the Royal Botanic Gardens and across the road, “the Hollows”. To the west beyond clusters of trees, are striking specimens of colonial architecture known as the Magnificent Seven. On the Southeastern side, a paved area serves as an outdoor food hub which mostly comes alive at night. The fare usually includes doubles, corn soup, burgers, wings and fries cooked on the spot, coconut water and an array of exotic juices. From this area, the entertainment and concert venue to the south of the Savannah can be accessed. Here sits the Grand Stand and for many years before, directly opposite, sat the North Stand. Between them, there is the “Big Stage”.
The Big Stage has forged countless stalwarts of Carnival, calypso and steelpan. Home of Panorama semis and finals, and the Calypso Monarch competition on Dimanche Gras night, it is the belly of the bacchanal on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. It is T&T’s epicentre of freedom and expression, jubilation and integration.
On this stage in the Savannah, Attila the Hun and Roaring Lion ravaged with their biting lyrics, Lord Kitchener and Calypso Rose blazed with tempo, and Mighty Sparrow; Black Stalin; Chalkdust; Explainer; Cro Cro and Gypsy schooled on political and social issues.
It was here that Crazy developed the art of dramatic presentations like swinging from ropes with a monkey on his shoulder and SuperBlue climbed atop music boxes to deliver high energy performances spurred on by appreciative crowds. Where else but at the Savannah were fancy cars wheeled on as dramatic props in a competition and a few driven off as prizes?
Calypso and soca veteran, Crazy (Edwin Ayoung)
It was in this Savannah that a man who sang about a pan man with a hammer and about a Bahia Girl forever changed the calypso dynamic in 1986, heralding a new socalypso of sorts with music and lyrics that transcended colour, creed and class, some said.
It is here that Machel and Natasha proved that being too young to soca was never an option and where the latest crop of calypsonians like Devon Seale and Karene Asche and Heather Mac Intosh and Terri Lyons keep guard.
It is here that George Bailey enthralled and Minshall dared to challenge, where King and Queen of the Bands costumes are majestically fanned and sometimes toppled by temperamental winds, and where at Kiddies Carnival many marvel at a sea of brilliant colours, textures and shapes, skilfully danced by tiny bodies.
Here is where steelbands in exuberant frenzy raise the Savannah dust in the faces of their competitors and critics alike.
At this place, it is not uncommon to attend a national mass on a special Feast Day or when the nation is in crisis, be bathed in fragrant poui flowers in April or attend Emancipation Day celebrations in July and August.
This is the Savannah where night-time brings gorgeous breezes and scenery set off by glimmering lights of all shapes and sizes from every angle. In this fairytale ambiance, apart from local concerts and calypso shows, many have been entertained by Jamaican dancehall artistes and US and South African singing sensations.
Long before it became a premier entertainment hub and public park for team sports and exercising, the QPS had been a sugar estate UWI Professor Emerita of History, Dr Bridget Brereton told Sunday Guardian via email.
“What became the QPS was originally a sugar estate called “Paradise”, and it was bought from the Peschiers, a French Creole family, by Governor Woodford in 1817. So it has been a public space for over 200 years. It became the main open green space for Port-of-Spain, sometimes described as “the lungs of the city.” When Queen Victoria came to the British throne in 1837 it was named for her,” Brereton said.
According to the professor, the Savannah served as a cow pasture, but it soon became the centre for sports and recreation. It was primarily used for horse racing, with the original Grand Stand having been constructed for spectators in 1853. It also became the main venue for cricket, football and other team sports, and kite flying in the dry season.
“In the first half of the 1900s, an electric tram ran around the QPS and it was a favourite trip to take. And the paved sidewalk around the edge of the QPS, which used to be known as the “Pitch Walk”, has always been the place for walking, jogging and strolling,” Brereton said.
The early 1900s saw the Savannah being used for King and Queen of the Bands and steelband competitions and the parade of the bands on Monday and Tuesday.
NCC Chairman Winston “Gypsy” Peters described the QPS as the largest recreational space in Port-of-Spain and “one of our city’s most bustling marketplaces.”
“Known as the Big Yard back in the day, and now called ‘Carnival City’, the Savannah has grown and developed over the years to become our nation’s premier cultural space and indeed the home of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival,” Peters said.
The pioneer of dramatic presentations at the Big Yard in the Calypso Monarch segment of Dimanche Gras, veteran calypsonian Crazy (Edwin Ayoung), reminisced on his exciting appearances at the Savannah beginning with his debut on the Big Stage in 1978.
“I was the first person to come out of any object at the Savannah. I was the first calypsonian to ever go on a Dimanche Gras stage bareback. You remember with “Dustbin Cover” in 1978? Rose won the crown and I run second. A fella named Oscar from Sesame Street used to come out of a dustbin and I did it in Dimanche Gras and when I come out from a dustbin, the crowd roar because they never see anything like that,” said the kaiso bard who also invented parang soca.
“In 1983 when I was singing a calypso called “Soca Tarzan”, I swing down from a rope in the Grand Stand with a monkey on my back. And when the people roar, the monkey get frightened and run underneath the stage. When I say where meh monkey, the people in the Grand Stand start to roar. Is the biggest roar people say they ever hear in the Grand Stand.”
The dedicated artiste whose latest offering, “The Awakening”, explores a meeting with the man who created the COVID virus, said he was also the first to drive vehicles on stage as he made his entrance in a limousine for his calypso, “To be a Man”, also in 1983.
A section from Rosalind Gabriel’s 2007 presentation, “Many Faces, One Nation” on the Savannah stage
Crazy also shared fond memories of when his 1985 Road March hit was played at the Savannah when Pope John Paul the second came to T&T.
“Pope John Paul II was in Trinidad when I won the Road March in 1985 with a song named, “Suck Meh Soucouyant”. In those days the police band used to play the Road March when any dignitary came down here and the Pope was in the Savannah and the band started to jam. The Pope start to tap his feet because the song infectious eh. But if he did know the words to the song, he woulda never tap his feet,” Crazy laughed.
As many look forward to a return to a normal Carnival season with activities at their favourite venue next year, tonight the culmination of what would have been Carnival 2021 will be marked by a scaled-down virtual version of Dimanche Gras called, “The Carnival World: Beyond Virtual”.
But the Savannah will always hold a special place in the hearts of many, even beyond the borders of this country, Peters said.
“For us, at the NCC and in T&T, we consider the Savannah our crown jewel; a precious resource that we must preserve, protect and promote in equal measure for this generation and countless others to come,” he added.
Q: What does the Queen’s Park Savannah mean to you?
Calypso veteran, Crazy (Edwin Ayoung): I used to go to Nelson Boys’ RC where Chalkdust used to teach. That was in 1954 when I was ten years old. We used to be in the Queen’s Park Savannah playing cricket and also football. I was the captain of Nelson Street cricket team and we used to play against other schools. I used to go and fly kite, yeah. I have been involved with the Savannah sixty-something years. I also played with a senior grade, champion club called Crompton Cricket Club. A lot of old fellas will know that. In the Savannah, I played against men like Andy Ganteaume, Alvin Corneal, West Indian players yeah.
Whenever they having events like calypso, extempo I always in the Grand Stand. Whenever TUCO having elections and ting, I does be there.
One of my favourite tunes is “Savannah Grass” by Kees. Kees and I took out a photo and everybody say I am his father (because of the resemblance).
I used to play mas too. I play mas at the age of ten with Trinidad All Stars. I was in the Savannah crossing the stage as a big King Sailor. (As an adult) I used to play mas with All Stars. I was All Stars all the way.
I used to play pan with Highlanders. I have 64 pan songs. I sing for Boogsie Sharpe, Ray Holman, Clive Bradley…for all the bands in Trinidad. I and Kitchener on par with (number of) pan songs. So is long time I involved with the Savannah.
Rosalind Gabriel, prolific Kiddies Carnival bandleader, TTCBA President and NCC Commissioner:
The earliest memories I have of the Savannah are real happy ones associated with what was then called the Zoo Pavillion. Every Sunday meant a visit to the zoo and ice cream. In my early years, the Savannah meant running free in the Hollows, up and down the gentle hills, lots of fresh air and endless happiness.
Upon the birth of my first child, it meant the opportunity of proudly pushing a pram round the Savannah, thereby introducing my son at first, and then two daughters after him to the wonders and happiness of the Savannah.
The Savannah also meant boiled corn, coconuts, pholourie, oysters and snow cone. Any drive from home meant that we inevitably would reach the Savannah and the treats that we knew awaited us there.
When my lifelong career and love affair with mas began, the Savannah took on a new meaning for me. The creation of mas began and ended with, “How will this costume look on the Savannah stage?” The Savannah stage has taught us all that when we thought a costume was perfect, the stage proved us wrong. Many a time after the first appearance there, we went back to the drawing board.
There is no place in the world for us Trinis like the Savannah. It is part of our daily lives, a walk; a run; football; kite flying; rugby; cricket, and best of all, it is the “Home of Carnival."
Owner of JuiceMe, John Washington, left, serves a customer at the Queen's Park Savannah.
John Washington, sole trader, “JuiceMe”:
For the last 12 years I have been coming down to the QPS to serve the public. My business entails the selling of 64 different flavours of fresh local juices. From plying my trade at this savannah, from my older customers I have learnt various fruits and vegetables that bring medicinal value to juices when mixed together. Customers return to my table as they say my blends heal their ailments. The two most popular sellers are my mixture of local kale, rough skin lemon and cucumber which has been known to lower blood pressure and provide a natural detox for the system, and my blend of pink grapefruit, rough skin lemon with slight ginger and turmeric. This rids the body of inflammation.
In serving my customers here, I meet many people across different economic, religious and racial backgrounds. My blend of juices represents the mixing of all Trinis in the Savannah which, to me, is like our national living room.