Today, one day before Ash Wednesday, marks the end of the two-day celebration of revelry and musical explosion in what has been called the greatest show on earth, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. For years I witnessed thousands of paraders donning costumes fashioned around social commentary, political satire, global issues of the day, history, folklore, flora and fauna of the islands. All the happenings of the past year could be themes for new calypsos and large costumes and I can imagine overwhelmingly orange costumes, referencing the virus and Trump. Many decades of wire bending tradition goes into creating some of the worlds most intricate, flexible and magnificent costumes for the Kings and Queens of the bands. The followers usually frolic in simpler costumes; lighter, more flexible versions of the king and queen. In recent years some mas bands have relied on cheap, made-in-China headdresses of colorful feathers on sequenced, barely-clad bodies. In social media Trinidad Carnival looks very much like the plumed bikini pageantry of Rio de Janeiro. However, the atmosphere surrounding competing calypsonians presenting their original tunes each year and the rivalry and camaraderie among the multitudes of steel band groups keep Trinidad and Tobago Carnival spectacular and dynamic.
The pandemic has placed a hold on Carnival this year. The streets will not vibrate with thousands of bodies dingolaying and shuffling behind large steel band formations, performing in front of judges across the stage in Queens Park Savannah. Nor will there be revelers chipping down the road in towns across the country. There is no Panorama steel band competition, no J’ouvert, Dimanche Gra and no winning Road March this year. Today the celebration of freedom and a tradition that grew from defiance and rebellion against French and British colonial oppression is present and in the air and in the form of looking back.
The Steel drum is an invention which first took root in the 1940’s in poverty-riddled hills of Laventille, Trinidad. Through the innovation and Winston “Spree” Simon and later talents of greats like Ellie Mannette, pan evolved into multiple multi-note instruments. With no amplification, a tremendous range of notes resonates on indentations portioned into the circular end of oil drums, hammered into a shallow concave form. Trinidad exports billions of dollars worth of oil and gas to the US and globally each year. Most early steel pans were made from discarded drums. What began as a simple 4-note instrument evolved into various drums that come together to form orchestras with over one hundred players. Large bands are divided into groups of players on the tenor pan (1-2 pans), guitar pan (2 pans), the cello pan (3 pans) and the bass pan (4-6 pans, fashioned from full length oil drums). I have been mesmerized by the sweet melodies emanating from steel played by men, women and children, moving with lightning speed, their bodies swaying with each beat while celebrating their craft. In the words of the calypsonian Maestro, "Hot like fire!"
New York subway riders may be treated to steel pan music from a single tenor pan or a double guitar pan. Caesar Passée is a musician who plays the pan with skill and passion. One particularly bad performer prances around while pounding out the first couple lines of Beethoven’s Für Elise. It is quite difficult to stand on the platform when he is doing his thing and I often want to pay him to stop playing.
Regardless of which side of the equator we West Indians live during winter, Carnival season is the time of year when our spirits are infused with rhythms born of hybrid African and western traditions that make for unique and vibrant people. Come rain or snow or shine we lime, Trinidadian style. ‘Lime’ is a noun and a verb in Trinbago dialect. The word means a hangout out, party or any informal social event and also used to describe hanging out or socializing. I hope that we can meet for a lime in the very near future and celebrate life and hope for the future. Below is an invitation to walk down memory lane and to be introduced to some favorite oldies in the form of traditional calypsos and steel pan.
Calypsonian Lord Relator and Andy Narell Steel orchestra performing in Germany. Relator sings a medley of some popular calypsos by the super talented grand master, the Lord Kitchener, who passed away in 2000. Kitchener was a genius in composing music that was well suited to explore the range of tones of the steel drum. Enjoy!
The brilliant Maestro said in his 1976 funky soca tune “Savage”
"…Especially in the winter
Temperatures lower than ever
Yankees looking for shelter
West Indian on the road, taking over
Taking Over, Hot like fire.
Savage! They say we West Indians Savage......."
Or you may like Bunji Garlin’s “Savage”, 2012
Trinidad All Stars - “Woman on The Bass”, 2014
Shadow - “Dingolay” (frolic wildly and move to music)
Pigeon peas (Cajanus cajun) is a favorite Trinidadian crop that is usually harvested around Carnival time. We cook it with tiny pieces of salted meat and coconut milk. Or with rice and meat in pelau. Delicious!
I am really glad Shadow decided to sing calypso rather than become farmer. How lucky we were to have him. Hopefully he still had time to enjoy planting pigeon peas, sorrel and okra when the bass man allowed him.
Shadow -“Bass Man”, 1987
"I was planning to forget Calypso
And go and plant peas in Tobago
But I am afraid ah cyah make de grade.
Cuz every night I lie down in mih bed
Ah hearing a Bassman in mih head
Ah don’t know how dis t’ing get inside me
But e-ve-ry morning, he drivin’ me crazy
Like he takin’ me head for a pan-yard
Morning and evening, like dis fella gone mad.
Pim pom – an’ if ah don’t want to sing
Pim pom – well, he start to do he t’ing
I don’t want to – but ah have to sing
Pim pom – an’ if ah don’t want to dance
Pim pom – he does have me in a trance
I don’t want to – but ah have to prance to his:
pom pom pidi pom, pom, pom pom pidi pom, pom… "
Lastly, Kitchener – “Pan in A Minor”