Trini in Europe: The steelpan blues

Carnival band headdress
Journalist and children's writer Natalie Williams writes about life in Europe
All my life, I have been saying to friends and family overseas that “January is different in the West than in the Caribbean”.
“But it’s the same time of year across the world,” they would reply.
But they just weren’t getting my meaning - my philosophy that this time of the year, which signals that a New Year dawns, just feels different when you are a West Indian living abroad.
I contend that January is harder to deal with for a whole host of fundamental reasons and that there is a difference between how someone in the West views January and how West Indians abroad contemplate its arrival... or at least for this Trini in Europe.
Here’s why.
January comes on the heels of considerable time, energy and way too much money spent chasing down a Caribbean Christmas in foreign lands, in which right-minded West Indians living abroad obsess over observing every single indigenous tradition centred on hard-to-find Christmas foods, goodies, drinks, family gatherings via Skype and Christmas soca music.
Carnival tabanca
For Trinidadians in particular, January marks the end of that once-a-year onslaught of the vibrant parang music season, a time when we recognise and honour how close we once were to Venezuela and our Latin American brothers and sisters.
And January also marks the beginning of the spectacular Carnival season in Trinidad, which many consider to be at the heart of the Caribbean carnival period and the greatest show on earth.
So like I keep saying, January is a different time of the year for us Caribbean people living in the West.
During our time posted to the eastern Caribbean, with its stunning beaches and idyllic islands of the Grenadines (Grenada and St Vincent), every January without fail, my personal pledge and subsequent routine involved starting off the New Year with my "Mother Earth resolutions".
January was the month I ended up chilling at the beach any chance I got and certainly more times than any other period in the year – after work, early mornings before work, stolen lunch hours, after school with the youngster and before classroom homework, if the Wise One didn’t object too loudly.
To the beach we would trek for deep, cleansing breathing exercises, quick swims and sand massages squishing between our toes.
I indulged in fewer pickled red mango and tamarind balls, ate tons more fresh mango and papaya (with lime), swam more, connected with elderly aunts and uncles more and generally worked toward filling my soul with more holistically nourishing rituals.
Pride in pan
But above all, January was the specific time of year I embarked on a re-connection with steelpan music and reaffirmed with the root of why I love, and have always loved the sweet sounds of steelpan – the music of my islands.
Wikipedia has this description: Steelpans, also known as steel drums or pans, and sometimes, collectively with other musicians as a steel band or orchestra, is a musical instrument originating from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It continues with: Steel pan musicians are called pannists.
We, dear readers, call them panmen (even the women - sorry).
And, for the technically minded, although this musical instrument is made from disused 55-gallon drums which once contained oil, it is actually not a drum, but a pan and as Wikipedia tells us, it falls into the idiophone family of instruments, as drums belong to the membranophone family.
Historians would remind us that it is the music of slaves – invented when they were stripped of everything, including their cultural identity and of course their music.
But as my mother would say, you are born with music in the soul and it will come out.
The BBC once wrote: Amid the electronica of 20th Century music, one new instrument stands out for its simplicity. The steel pan, possibly the only instrument made out of industrial waste, has become an icon of Trinidadian culture.
Ask any West Indian and they would simply tell you: "Steelpan? That is Trini music.”
I say, it is the music of my beloved islands – all of them.
I fill up with pride and joy every time I hear a tune flowing up from the shining dented metal surface, brought to life with two slim wooden sticks with rubber bands tied to the tops.
I can pick out pan notes in any song from any global artist brave enough to embrace it, and there are indeed many who choose to inject a little steelpan into their music, if you listen carefully.
I can spot pan notes in modern, adventurous jazz or classical compositions on any radio station worth its salt.
The pan soloists uplift me and soothe me and then whole steelband orchestras can move me – first my feet, then my waist, then my bumsie, my arms, my shoulders, my head and always my soul.
Competition time
Carnival for me has always been more about steelpan music, attending their fiercely fought competitions, and of course visiting the pan yards where it all unfolds every night in the months before Carnival.
It's that bustling, frenetic, sometimes harsh yard where panmen and women, young and old, locals and foreigners, rogues and gentlemen of all races come together every night to practise and "beat the hell" out of their 40-plus instruments to bring harmony and special arrangements to a fine tune.
I would take walking the drag or stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah over jumping up in a band any day.
Sure, I love the fun, the splendour and the colourful, sexy costumes - the sheer spectacle of thousands of masqueraders thronging onto a stage or along a narrow street as a complete carnival band dancing to music.
And, truth be told, I prefer the debauchery and rawness that is J’ouvert morning– that period of Carnival revelry that begins in the wee hours of Carnival Monday morning under a cover of darkness and then is all over before the sun even comes up.
But my days and nights, whenever I have been lucky enough to be "home" for Carnival, are always filled with hours spent hanging around a pan yard - enjoying, soaking up and "banking" the joy and merriment from listening to steelpan folk craft and hone their music.
And I have always wanted to learn the steelpan.
Pan stigma
As a child growing up in St James - a small town just on the outskirts of Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, which is famous for its frenetic night life, steelpan heroes and pan yards - I have always had a deep sense of this instrument’s significance, even if the society back then chose to ignore it.
I spent too much time with my head in books and climbing trees, so when time came for immersion in a musical instrument, my grandparents insisted their money be spent on learning the piano.
They were from a generation that did not fully embrace the steelpan, its history and significance to the country, and like many in their social standing in the community, they applied a stigma to this beautiful instrument.
Learning the steelpan would have meant you had to dodge gunfire, ganja dealers and "bad dogs" to get to classes and I could just hear that dissenting voice of my grandmother ringing in my ears.
And this is despite my childhood secret crush on David Rudder and this national legend being a dear friend of my late Grandfather Robbie.
But then I grew up and made my own musical decisions – all of which to this day largely centre around jazz and steelpan music.
Whether it was freezing cold temperatures or ridiculous heat waves outside, the music of steel orchestras, commandeering the sheet music of Chopin or David Rudder, had the ability to instantly transport me back to the Caribbean.
Sometimes, if it was arrangers Ken Phillmore or Len Boogsie Sharpe serenading me, I would be transported to sandy beaches with waves crashing against the shores, but many times my mind was simply taken back to a rough and ready pan yard, with a peppery corn soup filling your nostrils (ok, and herbal plants too).
Thumping my foot to the tune playing, an overwhelming profoundness would wash over me with the realisation that people from all walks of life could damn well come together to break down barriers – class, politics and race - creating musical harmony for the good of the community and society as a whole.
When yuh coming home?
In January, people save money to join gyms, to hire a tennis instructor or to engage in something new and creative.
In my household, January is when we seriously contemplate mortgaging the house to fly ourselves and closest friends back to Trinidad for Carnival, just to give the gift of real, "live and direct" steelpan music and Carnival in all its glory.
In reality, we tend to consider the remortgaging pain to instead buy the most advanced state-of-the-art music system, from which steelpan music will flow for hours.
The Wise One and I bought our first beloved internet radio one January years ago, because of course it meant we could live stream, courtesy of modern technology, sweet steelpan music from all the local radios stations in Trinidad and Tobago – and stream every one of these radio stations we did (no matter how horrid the pseudo-American accent of the radio DJ)
Flash forward many years and we are living in Washington.
Against a magical backdrop of cherry blossoms and heavy snow, Phase Two and Desperadoes Steel Orchestras battle it out in my living room on the (then) CD player, as their tremendous tones belt out from my windows, floating past perfectly manicured lawns and hydrangea gardens, into the open spaces of this affluent American suburb.
This as the Wise One and I got in to the groove for an evening of steelpan magic later that night at a concert hall in the US Capital, including meeting the legendary Ellie Manette - inventor of the double tenor pan.
These days, my distance from live steelpan music and my beloved pan yards is made worse by Facebook and Twitterati friends who ask every five seconds in status updates and tweets whether you "coming home for Carnival?!"
They mean well, but it is pressure you could do without when it’s minus degrees outside, no vacation days in sight and the stress of the teens’ A-level workload is driving you into a depression by proxy.
And now that we find ourselves with a short carnival season in Trinidad and in the throes of the national panorama competition, when steelbands large and small beat their hearts out for big money prizes, I find myself craving two things: airline shares in Virgin Atlantic (or Richard Branson’s private numbers) and yes, the latest piece of technology that will make me feel as though I’m sitting in the best seats back in the Queen’s Park Savannah.
These days, my old internet radio has a mind of its own and tuning in to steelpan obsessed radio stations back in the Caribbean is almost akin to finding a solution to the Gaza conflict.
I am not sure what’s going on with the people who manage the airwaves back in Trinidad and Tobago or what is going to happen to me this January, but keeping up with Carnival 2013 and with my love of steelpan music from overseas, is really shaping up to be a recipe for the January blues.