Mr. Robert Montano First Chairman of Naparima Bowl

Ms. Grace Abdool, 
First manager of Naparima Bowl

'Cultural soul of the South'
50 years of Naparima Bowl...

By Louis B Homer Trinidad Express 
South Bureau
Story Created: Aug 12, 2012

When the National Academy for the Performing Arts South Campus in San Fernando opens later this year, it will replace the iconic Naparima Bowl as the centre for the creative arts in South Trinidad.

But the Bowl will remain close to the hearts of southerners, who consider it more than a concert hall. It is a centre for the embodiment of creativity, art, music and drama, says James Lee Wah, cultural activist.

Lee Wah said, "For the last 50 years it served as South Trinidad's ambassador in the field of culture and has brought on the international stage such performers like Hedy Fry of Pointe-a- Pierre Road, who had moved from drama to politics and had successfully unseated Canada's Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, in a national election."
Dr Fry was an active member of the San Fernando Drama Guild and had performed in Derek Walcott's play The Charleton.

August 27 will mark 50 years since it was opened to the public. But the vision for a concert hall goes back to 1948 when the first ever music festival was held at the old Borough House building on St Vincent Street, San Fernando.

Lee Wah, speaking about the Bowl, said, "The single receptacle that has kept culture alive in South Trinidad for the past 50 years, and while many see it as a cultural centre, it is more than that, it is the cultural soul of the South."

The Music Festival of 1948 was a forerunner to the development of the arts in San Fernando. But it was in 1955 that modern dance classes came on stage when Canon Farquhar, an Anglican cleric, and Beryl McBurnie, a leading choreographer, began classes at St Paul's Anglican School on Harris Promenade.
Not to be outdone, those in fine art soon started their own classes in an old wooden building on King's Wharf.

It became clear then that what was needed for the promotion of the arts was a building to bring all the cultural practitioners under one roof.
That challenge was taken up by businessman Robert Montano and musicologist Grace Abdool.

With much agitation from a wide cross section of the southern community, a portion of land at Paradise called the "Tray", an old building called the "Drill Hall", and $138,000 were donated in 1956 by the government to erect a community centre.

The sod to start construction was turned on April 22, 1959, but construction was delayed because of differences by stakeholders in the proposed design.
Eventually the differences were settled and construction started, and on August 27, four days before Independence, the long-awaited concert hall was opened by Dr Patrick Solomon, then minister of education and culture.

The first management board was headed by Montano and Abdul. The first operations manager. Kevin Barcant, a young architect, was responsible for the design, which included an open amphitheatre to seat 2,500 patrons, a covered auditorium to accommodate 600 people, a stage 80 feet by 40 feet, and a 2,500-square-foot all-purpose area for events.
The estimated cost of the building was $370,000, but on completion the cost had escalated to $450,000.

The formal opening was a grand affair, with performances by cultural groups and other stakeholders. Topping the list was a dramatic presentation called One for the Road, written by Neville Labastide of Sangre Grande. The opening marked the beginning of a sudden surge in the development of art and drama in the South.
Fifteen years later, the Bowl fell on hard times.

In February 1977, disaster struck. Fire of an unknown origin destroyed the auditorium and other parts of the building, bringing a sudden halt to theatrical performances at the Bowl.
In the meantime, all activities were confined to the all-purpose room and the outdoor amphitheatre. Calypso competitions at the amphitheatre became an annual feature before moving to Skinner Park.

Many groups were then forced to find alternative accommodation in places not designed for drama, but they had no choice but to wait until the Bowl was repaired.
The groups were becoming stagnant and frustrated, but in 1988 when the Natinal Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government came to power, it approved $10 million to reconstruct the damaged portion.

New features introduced in the reconstruction included a fire-proof curtain, improved lighting and air-conditioning system and improved acoustics.

On March 23, 1988, Prime Minister ANR Robinson visited the Bowl to mark the start of construction by installing a wooden steel beam (Symbol of the NAR) on the stage.
Construction was carried out by builder Sajeevan Mathura of the firm of Secon Ltd and the project was supervised by Gary Nobbie of the Ministry of Works.

The formal opening of the refurbished Bowl took place with an exhibition and performances by various groups that were largely dormant from 1977 to 1988.

Earlier this year, an announcement was made by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar that the Bowl would be converted into classroom facilities for training doctors and nurses attached to the South West Regional Health Authority.

The proposal was stoutly resisted by cultural activists and practitioners in San Fernando. Torrance Mohammed, chairman of the Arts Council, and Lee Wah headed a group determined to ensure the Bowl remained the exclusive provider of cultural opportunities for southerners.

The decision of the Government was rescinded, and an application before the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago to declare the Bowl a heritage site is expected to be announced before August 27, the date when the Bowl was originally opened.
Mr. Robert Montano
First Chairman of Naparima Bowl 

As a young man growing up I was always very involved in culture and the arts. I used to sing in the choir at St. Paul's Church Anglican School, and was also a member  of the Southern Amateur dramatic Society. In those days we would have our performances at cinemas and this would entail building our own stage and a lot of other hard work, which was very inconvenient. We were constantly asking for assistant with this matter, but to no avail. 

 By the early 1950s the need for a concert hall could no longer be ignored, and I along with Grace Abdool and some others made a petition to the Government. In 1958, the then Minister of Education Dr. Patrick Solomon asked me to head the original steering committee.  At the time the Minister of Education also included Culture. Of course I accepted and became the first Chairman of the Bowl, and Ms. Abdool the first Secretary and Manager of Naparima Bowl.

​What many people do not know is that when the Bowl was first designed, it was done in such a way as to accommodate both art and sports.  There use to be a lot of wrestling matches at the Bowl because sports raised more revenue that we needed minimum financial assistance from the government.

The first architect, Mr. Keith Barcant, did a fantastic job with the design of the building.  

History of Naparima Bowl
Naparima Bowl then...
and Naparima Bowl now, August, 2012

Ms. Grace Abdool, front and centre with staff when the Bowl opened its doors in 1962.
Anyone who visited the Bowl before the fire could testify that there was no need for microphones and the like. The theatre and amphitheatre were build based on an ancient Greek design, which allowed for perfect sightlines at any angle, as well as excellent audio. Naparima Bowl was the first real theatre in Trinidad and Tobago.

I have many fond memories of the Bowl. I remember when we ran a competition to decide what the Bowl should be named. One person suggested BoBowl, which, when said quickly should sound like 'bobool', and another person volunteered the name Sin, Fun and Ozone. Needless to say we went with neither. The name Naparima Bowl was the natural choice because of the location, and also because of the shape of the land. It has been known as such ever since. 

This experience has been truly amazing. It is always wonderful to see hard work and dedication pay off. There have been many ups and downs along the way but the Bowl has persevered in the end, and I am honoured to have been part of it. I wish the Bowl many more years to come.