Heavy Metal

By William Booth
Sunday, March 7, 2004

At the newsstands, the Trinidad Guardian was filled with stories about the current crime wave -- 228 murders last year. Bodies in trunks. Headless torsos on the beach. Drug transshipments and arms caches. "Kidnapping seems to be a bit of a fad right now," a fat man from Malta said as I sat sipping red rum with lime at his restaurant by the Queen's Park Cricket Club. He was thinking of leaving.

I had just arrived. Trinidad is about as far south as you can go in the Caribbean before you hit Venezuela. It's a big square island filled with oil refineries and sugar cane fields, with steep cloud forests and empty beaches battered by brown surf. The night before, with the air warm and moist, I had rolled down the windows and sucked in smells of diesel and curry as we drove into Port-of-Spain from the airport. "Your first visit to Trinidad?" the driver said. "So ask me any-ting." I like music, I said. The driver spun the dial on his radio. Take your pick. Trinidad creates perhaps the greatest indigenous musical variety on the planet: parang, raga, calypso, soca, reggae, sitar, chutney, rap.

"Where are we?" I asked. Traveling down the Churchill Roosevelt Highway, he said, an honor that acknowledged the deal struck between the two statesmen during World War II. The United States got military bases. Trinidad got a paved road, and something else: discarded 55-gallon drums, dumped by the thousands by departing GIs, which, we shall see, changed everything.

It rained 10 times a day on the island. The sheets of water pulled a soft milky curtain over Port-of-Spain. It slowed everyone down. On a drizzly morning I went looking for one of Trinidad's master drum-makers. I found him at a warehouse east of town, sitting on a broken chair. His workbench was two car tires, his toolkit a mallet, a hammer, a wooden wedge and a pair of ears.

Outside, the drops fell onto a dumpster's lid. Plink-ploink. A wet rooster crowed. At 63 years, Bob Thomas wore an old, faded T-shirt. You could see the cut of muscle and sinew through it. That's what a lifetime of beating on metal cans will do.

Thomas laid down his hammer. On an electric coil, we boiled up some native bark said to be good for the nerves and hangovers. Arawak aspirin for the soul. Thomas sipped from his plastic cup and told a story. The father of the steel drum, which the Trinis call the pan, he explained, was the skin drum, imported with the slaves from Africa. "But the white man, he didn't like the drum." Across the Caribbean, and in the United States, too, the drum was an instrument of fear and loathing, and the French planters and the British crown forbade its use, wary of its telegraphic powers to incite insurrection, revolt. That, "and the dancing," Thomas said. Early colonial accounts are filled with recoil against the beat of the drum; in a corseted age, when the European overlords in the tropics wore wool and wigs, the drum's rhythm, the sway of hips -- it was too much, too sensual, too dangerous, too African.

Columbus discovered the island in 1498, but the Spanish didn't leave much behind. Trinidad had no gold, only pirates. Fearing they would lose the colony, the Spanish in 1783 invited their fellow Catholics, the French, to settle the island with their slaves and cocoa. The great-great grandchildren of the slaves are still here, of course, and so are the cocoa and coffee fields, but they are overgrown now by tropical forest, back to a wilder nature.

French Catholics brought to Trinidad something else: the tradition of Carnival, the days of merrymaking, parading and masquerading before the privations of Lent, much as they brought Mardi Gras to New Orleans. The gentry had violins and casks of madeira wine and house parties. The masses had the street. But without skin drums, the revelers needed something to make sound, to bang out a beat for the marchers down the street, to get the crowd following them to "jump up," to dance and grind.

So Thomas said his predecessors cut pieces of large, full-throated, thick bamboo, which they struck on the ground. Thomas mimics the sound: Bum-biiim-pooom. A good beat. "But in the Carnival, you want the noise," he said. And from the slums, the younger men brought to the parades biscuit cans, dustbins, hubcaps, bucket lids, and a metal sound was born on the streets.

The American GIs came to Trinidad in 1941, and the pan men found their inspiration: the 55-gallon steel drum, the ubiquitous portable industrial conveyance filled with oil and diesel and gasoline.

Someone -- no one knows who; it is a subject of great debate and myth -- cut the first barrel in two, and banged the bottom with a sledgehammer into a concave bowl, and what happened was magical. The metal could sing. Transformed into what Trinidadians today claim was the only truly new instrument invented in the 20th century.

"Ping-Pong drum, that was the name we called it," said Thomas, singing pinnnng-pooong. The first drums were crude. Two notes, then three and four. Winston "Spree" Simon, a member of a band then called John John, may have been the first to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the steel drum. Only four notes, but it showed that the pan was no longer just a drum, no longer just an instrument of percussion, but a melody maker.

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