Fellow yaHighwayer, recent high school graduate and newly ordained backpacker Emilia’s recent post on her first grand adventure asked readers – what was theirs?
I think about mine pretty often, as it not only marked the start of my love of travel but solidified my love for my favorite percussion instrument. And I’ve thought on more than one occasion that it was too bad blogging didn’t exist back then, because it was quite an experience to blog about.
But it’s never too late, right?
Trinidad. (This trip was pre-digital point and shoots. Affordable ones, at least.)
As a music major, I was a member of tons of ensembles and performing groups. My favorite was steel band – I’d been obsessed with the instruments (the only family of acoustic instruments invented in the 20th century, by the way) since high school. The instructor was a doctoral student named Jon Kellis who happened to be a pretty sick steel pannist himself. Just before winter break of my freshman year, he showed us a few videos of when he’d traveled to Trinidad, the nation where steel drums and soca were born, and performed with one of their competitive bands, the Desperadoes. I immediately latched onto the idea of doing this too, and promised myself I would someday.
A month later, Jon and his wife were out to see a movie. He stepped into a street without looking and a woman driving the speed limit (30mph) hit him. His head hit the curb and he was pronounced dead later at the hospital, at the age of 27.
It’s probably unnecessary to say that his death had a huge impact on his students, colleagues, friends and really the entire College of Music. My way of dealing with it was to scrap the idea of “someday” and go for “now.”
About one year after his death Josh and I left for Trinidad, where we spent nearly half of the spring semester of my sophomore year. This wasn’t a study abroad program or anything sponsored by the university. We stayed with a woman and her adult son who used their home as a B&B of sorts, we found the Desperadoes panyard at the top of the hill in Laventille, and we went to rehearsals every night hoping to become members of the band.
I’ve been to three versions of Carnival – New Orleans (Mardi Gras), Brazil (Salvador, largest street party in the world) and Trinidad, which is the most raw and in many ways the most beautiful. The main event during Trinidad’s Carnival is the Panorama Competition, held annually since 1963. Dozens of bands meet year-round, each with up to 120 members, and each with an arranger. For Panorama, each arranger chooses one of the island’s current popular calypso tunes and arranges it into a ten-minute composition for a full steel orchestra.
And it’s very much an orchestra. The average Panorama steel band has up to 20 tenor pannists (melody), 10 double tenors (counter-melody) and 10 double seconds (harmony/counter-melody/strumming), guitar pans, cello pans, tenor bass and often two or three different types of bass pans that use anywhere from six to twelve drums per person. There’s also the “engine room” – drumset and various hand percussion accompaniment. At other competitions throughout the year, these steel orchestras perform full arrangements of Beethoven, Bach and other classical compositions. Like the Bartered Bride:
Every evening starting a few months before Carnival, 100+ band members and hopeful members arrive at the panyard to start learning the tune. All this is done without written music – players learn by rote.
In the panyard
Steel bands in Trinidad started as gangs, something that sounds amusingly West Side Story-ish. While not as violent as it used to be, we were advised not to go wandering into other panyards in our Despers garb.
Practice was “scheduled” to start around 10pm every night. Josh and I would arrive at 8 to work on our parts, taking breaks every hour, eating oranges and drinking 7up. The rest of the band usually rolled in by midnight. Sunrise often signaled the end of rehearsal.
I’d been apprehensive about just waltzing in and trying to join the band; it’s not unheard of at all for foreigners to perform with Panorama bands, but the vast majority of each band is made up of locals. But in general, Trinidadians are incredibly proud of the instrument and music they’ve given the world, and the members of Despers were very welcoming to anyone who traveled to their home just to learn more about the drum. I mean, we’re talking about a country that has its indigenous musical instrument on its currency.
The first day was the hardest. Learning a complex, 10-minute piece of music entirely by ear, measure by measure, starts out feeling like an attempt to climb impossibly high mountain. But Panorama is serious business and every band member who worked with us was incredibly patient.
And we were teachers too. After a few weeks of rehearsal, a 12 year old girl named Yvette arrived with her tenor pan. She strung it up next to me and asked me to show her the latest section, which happened to start with a pretty fierce lick. I played it once and she played it back immediately, perfectly, then gave me a bored “so, what’s next?” kind of look.
The travel part
I grew as a musician in Trinidad, and I didn’t know it at the time but I grew as a traveler, too. My pockets were picked for the first time. I saw poverty for the first time. I learned that toilets aren’t a given, and I learned the art of the squat (for the first time, but certainly not the last.) I started to develop that second sense for when you’re turning on the wrong street. I celebrated my 20th birthday competing in the Panorama semi-finals, I learned what happens when you eat too much roti and I learned that machetes are useful both for hacking the tops off coconuts and scaring the shit out of someone at a gas station.
More importantly, I learned that it’s no cliche to say that music and art can supersede other cultural differences.
The Desperadoes won Panorama that year with our arrangement of “Picture on My Wall,” which (if I remember correctly) was the band’s 10th Panorama win, tying them with the Renegades for most overall wins in the history of the competition. The arranger, Clive Bradley, died a few years ago – he’s the one in the tux, alternately smacking a woodblock/”conducting”/grinding with the flag girl. It’s pretty much impossible to see me, but I can tell you just where I am – at 2:34 is a shot of a very nice double seconds player by the name of James, and I am behind the person directly behind him. (I was well hidden.) At 4:47 you can see Ursula in the zebra hat – she was the first member to start teaching me the tune, and weirdly enough I ran into her son in Texas years later. At 6:30 you can see Yvette.
That was my first “grand adventure.” In a lot of ways it was more than I could handle or comprehend at the time, but of course I don’t regret a moment of it.
What was your first adventure? I’d love to hear about it!
Any trip that revolves around music is bound to be a good one, whether it’s Trinidadian soca, Brazilian samba, or flamenco in Spain. Check out these holidays to Majorca to book your own adventure.