Ancient but unbowed,
Slight and rigid,
Your actions, though frugal,
Present a generous statement of your love of the dance.
How many more times will you feel the life force?
How many more times will you dance
Your defiance of time?
My trips back to the Caribbean from Canada tend to overwhelm me, although by now I look forward to being overwhelmed, provided that I can grow from the experiences that overwhelm me. In the region of my birth I usually find myself in a state of near constant psychological arousal. I frequently feel a psychic connection, as if I have caught a fleeting glimpse of my eternity. Carnival in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago has, more than anything else, reminded me that despite only spending the first 15 years of my life in that region and even after 58 years in Canada, the ties that have kept me bound to the Caribbean are an undeniable part of my authentic self. The music of the Caribbean is an essential part of the psychic ties that still keep me bound. Of course the steel drum orchestras are the very heart of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. They give Carnival in these Islands a distinctive and inimitably attractive quality.
“The steel drum or steelpan is the only acoustic musical instrument invented this (19th)century. The steel orchestra is composed of instruments covering the full range of the conventional orchestra. Six categories of drums make up the orchestra: the tenors, the double second, the guitars, the cellos, the quadro and six pan, the bass, plus the rhythm section. These instruments are made from used oil drums and are extremely versatile. Steelpan music includes not only Afro-Caribbean music but extends to jazz, pop and classical with all distinctive rhythms and tonality of the steelpan instrument.” (from History of the Steelpan)
Homage to the Steel Bands
My first encounter with the steel bands, the Desperadoes Steel Band on Laventille Hill in Port of Spain, will probably remain the single most indelible impression of my two weeks of wide-eyed pleasure in Trinidad and Tobago for my first encounter with Carnival in February 2004. A diamond, it is said, is simply a lump of coal which did very well under pressure. That process, the miraculous transformation from a crude substance to its unrecognizable refined end product, seems to be an apt metaphor for my introduction to Carnival. That the Desperadoes Steel Band Orchestra had flourished in an economically depressed area presented a surprisingly appropriate, if counterintuitive context to the beauty and power of the Steel Band.
There was an undercurrent of violence in that area of Port of Spain at that time. We passed a roadblock composed, of Police and Military forces to get to the top of Laventillle Hill where the Desperadoes had their pan yard (club). This evidence of potential violence, of course pales in contrast to the systematic and long lasting violence in the environments of slavery from which the Steel Pan tradition emerges.
Despite the oppression and brutality of slavery, despite the attempts to suppress and eradicate the creative spirit, in the music of the Steel Bands, the Underdogs have emerged victorious. By a miraculous transformation, industrial detritus, discarded containers for petroleum have been fashioned into instruments that rival the celestial sounds of the harp. A sonorous alchemy has produced a transformation from enslavement to spiritual freedom through creativity, from industrial waste to a symphony. The irritation of a grain of sand causes the oyster to produce a pearl, pressures over time produce a jewel from a lump of coal, and oppression, suppression, repression, were the pressures prerequisite to the creation of the hauntingly beautiful, adamantine, lapidary polished, soft, sweet, metallic hardness of the steel band sounds in the concrete canyons between the rundown buildings of the inner city neighbourhoods of Port of Spain.
Two echoes still reverberate from my encounter with Carnival in Port of Spain:
- I was content that, now an old man, I have left behind the imperious dictates of libido and the tyranny of the hormones that feed it. I was able to appreciate with a certain dispassion the beauty of the spectacle, especially the part played by the female participants in a truly humanistic way without the scheming of the male ego
- I was grateful that I was able to find new, non-judgmental eyes to view this enchanting display of a people’s history. I was thrilled to witness through the many activities of Carnival, humanity’s revenge against oppression, not through the violence of war but through irrepressible creativity: a triumph of the human spirit. Old ways of thinking, eyes blinded by preconceived judgments and received ideas of propriety, just would not do, since a closed mind gathers no insight. “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” (Dr. Wayne Dyer, The Power of Intention)
Carnival in Port of Spain this year begins Monday and Tuesday March 3 and 4, 2014. Add Carnival in Port of Spain to your bucket list.
A Gallery of Photos from Carnival 2009 in Port of Spain
From the cameras of David Thom Dewdney, Norman Girvan and Deanne Girvan
(Click on a photo and use the arrow to move Carousel of Photos)