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Caribbean Queen

A bright and relaxing Sunday morning. I sit at home, by the kitchen window. Nursing a coffee, looking out across the bay. In my own little world. Music from the radio provides a comforting backdrop.

Yet, this is no standard first movement offering of Moonlight Sonata. Rather, it is Beethoven as performed by a Trinidadian steel band. And it produces a raft of wonderful memories.

Flashback to November 1996. Teams from all across the globe enter the preliminary stages of Rugby World Cup qualification. And so, at long odds, I find myself in Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad, set to referee the national XV against visiting Brazil.

The actual game and immediate buildup are something of a blur. I manage a gentle morning run on “the Savannah”, a downtown greenspace of some 260 acres, bordered by the Royal Botanic Gardens and seven magnificent mansions of various architectural styles. Then, it is on to Queen’s Park Oval, not only the most famous of all the West Indian cricket grounds but the site for important soccer and rugby events. Here, the national XV, led by a trio of Irish ex-pats, sends a bullish home crowd into rapture, registering several impressive tries despite oppressive heat and humidity. Winning 41-0.

Post-match formalities soon complete, the evening beckons. Free time awaits, a chance to go out on the town, to meet new people, sample a different culture, gain new experiences.

First stop is for food. Joe, one of the local rugby officials, recommends a visit to Solimar. This popular restaurant proves to be an inspired choice, as I enjoy quite simply the best meal I have ever eaten. A huge fan of spicy food, to this day I can still taste the mulligatawny soup, the mouth-watering concoction of curried chicken, rice, peppers, onions, and tomatoes.

Dinner over, I wander the streets, conscious not to stray too far off course. Apparently, Port of Spain, like every city, has certain no-go areas at night. Suburbs such as Morvant and Laventille should be avoided, Joe informs me. Unless theft, muggings, drugs, and turf wars are my thing, he adds jokingly.

However, as I stroll along, near South Quay and Independence Square, there are no such issues. Just plenty of friendly locals, an eclectic mix of Creoles, Africans, Amerindians, Europeans, and East Indians, all milling about. Happy to chat, happy to share a drink. At food stalls along the sidewalk, enticing aromas, from barbequed meats and chickpea flourballs called pholourie, waft on the cooling breeze.

I first sense it, then hear it, then, as I round a corner, see it. An orchestra of sorts, perhaps 50 strong, giving an impromptu concert to the gathering throng. And it blows my mind. For this group of musicians is actually a steel band. Each member plays a finely tuned percussion instrument fashioned from such items as old frying pans, dustbin lids or discarded 55 gallon oil drums.

I stand transfixed. I learn that the steel drums, or pans, originate in Trinidad in the 1930s. Somehow, through trial and error, experimentation, creativity and necessity, sparked by innovators such as Winston “Spree” Simon, Ellie Mannette and Bertie Marshall, the bottom of the oil drum is first pounded into a bowl shape. It is then further shaped and tuned with hammers to form distinct resonating surfaces.

I worm my way up close, tuck in beneath the extended canopy. I watch the drummers closely, as they strike the various pans using rubber tipped sticks. The size and type of tip varies according to the size of the pan. One in the group even plays with two sticks in each hand, displaying remarkable dexterity. Indeed, nine different sized steelpans cover the same range as the piccolo to a double bass, quite amazingly producing a blanket of sound to rival a traditional symphony orchestra.

There is history as well. Though adapting some of the diverse styles and rhythms of both the African slaves who worked the original plantations and the Indians who migrated to the country in the 19th century, initially the steel pan sound is not taken seriously by Trinidad high society. Instead, it remains associated with the lower classes, with criminals, hooligans, and the ghettos. Yet, by constantly expanding their repertoire, by enhancing calypso, the classics and jazz, steel bands gain pride and respect, soon are held in high regard nationally and internationally.

And they deserve to be. I remain completely mesmerized by an astonishingly diverse and wide-ranging performance. Neil Diamond's Red, Red Wine follows Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ave Maria is part of a set with Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Mighty Sparrow's Jean and Dinah. And, after several encores, when signing off, the band plays Caribbean Queen.

This final piece is a tribute to R and B singer-songwriter Billy Ocean, one of Trinidad’s most famous sons. It sees the appreciative crowd go absolutely bonkers. Singing and swaying together, dancing up a storm in the street. Me so fortunate to be right in the middle of it all, as, far too soon, an electrifying, exhilarating, intoxicating few hours reach a conclusion.

I snap out of my reverie. My coffee is cold. Now back at the window, I ponder just how old oil drums can actually transform into such enchanting musical instruments. How something so stunning can emerge from seemingly nothing.

I surmise that beauty does indeed come in many forms, as, right on cue, the sun glitters and sparkles on the water below.


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