Edsel was with us this last time – although he had been to Kingstown many years before it took a while to orientate him. On the first evening we went down to the city to find some food. Unfortunately Kingstown had an excellent selection of cafes that did buffet lunches, rotis and other snacks, but in the evenings there were only one or two rather pricey restaurants open and for the rest you were left with a handful of fast food joints. We had a reasonable pizza on the Back Street and then took Edsel on a quick evening walk around the centre of the city. Kingstown often seemed to close down at night – much of the daytime population head off to their towns, villages and suburbs along the coastlines or in the hills and there were only a handful of slightly shady nightclubs.
Which is why it was surprising to hear a rich deep beat of music as we walked back from dinner that night. We had sauntered past all the shuttered up shops along Bay St and turned inland before climbing the hill to our accommodation. The noise was coming from in amongst a bunch of old warehouses to our left. In a small car park, under a canvas awning, was a steel band. With one or two exceptions, the band were teenagers, directed by a skinny, tall energetic guy with dreadlocks. He sat in the centre surrounded by an extensive drum kit. Even sitting down he dominated the band and with the extensions to the hands in the form of drumsticks he seemed able to reach right across the whole troop whenever he needed to single someone out. And boy was he harsh. He would stop the play if he heard one note out of place and either sing the part, or beat it out with his sticks to emphasise the detailed notes he would give back. I thought it a bit harsh on young players, but they stood there absorbing it all in – looking rather bored and grey; very little reaction and certainly no resentment. But when he would go “One…Two..Three” and start playing the drums, the ensemble came together in one energetic cacophony of sound.
I love full steel bands. Not the tinkling little foursome playing “Moon River” while you eat your lobster at a resort hotel, but the energy and life of a full orchestra. A dextrous tune played out on the tenor instruments, the bass ones, literally oil drums bashed into form, thump out the beat with such ferocity it would make my ribs shake. With some drums, a few other percussion and a guitar or two, the range of tunes, harmonies, speeds and moods they could evoke was mind blowing.
It sounded fantastic to me, but the conductor would pull them up within bars of starting and give another minute long explanation of what was wrong, what he wanted. He was a perfectionist, and quite dictatorial. But you could see that the band respected his opinion and learnt from his direction so were obviously used to his directness.
The three of us stood on the roadside peering into the car park through a chain fence. No-one seemed to even notice we were there, the focus was all on the conductor and the music. After several attempts, they managed to play several minutes of the tune they were practicing, but you could see this was more about finessing the music for some competition or big concert, and we were not going to be treated to more than the sneakiest of previews that night. We could still hear the stop start of the practice as we headed up our own road to the house.