Blue Ventures, a big band, had a team of six roadies in torn T-shirts and shorts who moved their 20ft-high speaker stacks from venue to venue so they could blast their shattering beat all around Port of Spain. Everyone in the band except me took the precaution of wearing earplugs or airport ground-staff headphones, something I had never seen musicians do before. Now finally I had procured some earplugs for myself, product of the latest silicon technology, but they had not arrived in time. The ringing had set in for good.
Carnival is the zenith of the Trinidad year, two orgiastic days during which, psychologists claim, the island's suicide rate drops to zero. Soon two million people, twice Trinidad's population, all in lavish costumes, would be dancing in the streets to the music of steel bands, DJs, and soca bands (soca is short for soul-calypso, Trinidad's modern up-tempo music). The carnival season was in full swing. So even though the opposition party, the PNM, was still reeling from the loss of all but three seats in the last election, they were determined to party in style. They had hired two soca bands and filled the car-park of their headquarters in downtown Port of Spain with 5,000 supporters ready to rock till dawn.
Calypso and politics have always gone hand in hand. It was the Mighty Sparrow who kept the Prime Minister Eric Williams in power for 20 years, by repeatedly singing his praises. There was even a time when the news on the radio was entrusted to a singing calypsonian and the first thing the rebel leader Abu Bakr did in his ill-fated coup of 1990 was to broadcast videos of calypsos hostile to the government. And every year the political parties vie to host the best fete.
When two or more bands play at the same party the night becomes a battle for the crowd's applause. The PNM had hired the Blue Ventures and Shandileer to fight it out. Shandileer, a 12-piece outfit, relied heavily on their drum machine and the athletic antics of their front-man Ronnie MacIntosh, whose hallmarks were a trilby hat and an over-size mac. But this year they had a hit of their own, 'Jump and Break Away', a song that had been stirring up a storm.
Half of the Blue Ventures' 18 players beat percussion - the predictable congas, timbales and drum kit, but also five 'iron men' who played old car brake drums hit with two little rods. The members of the five-man horn section, known in the Caribbean by the baroque nickname of the 'Angel Music', were all ex-orphanage players, the best in Trinidad. (Orphanages buy up all the island's brass instruments to keep their wards occupied.) We began every song with a rousing riff, fanfare-like, and had 'breaks' in which to display our virtuosity. The three vocalists, not to be outdone, approached their job like athletes, wearing singlets and trainers and feeding themselves on royal jelly, malt drinks and vitamins.
Shandileer played first. Their set went well. One measure of a crowd's response is the intensity of its wining. Wining, Trinidad's national dance, consists of an encyclopaedic display of lovemaking hip actions. There are different degrees, from the basic move where you stand facing each other, to 'jamming' up close, to leaning back with your legs interlocking. Shandileer had induced several women to drop to all fours and grind backwards. A few had even draped their legs over their partner's hips, one of the hottest moves.
They finished with two encores, and we were into our second number before the crowd even deigned to look our way. But gradually the deafening live beat drew them in. The band seemed to be playing well, but sounded to me like a cheap cassette-player in the next room. That was the fault of my earplugs, which by some mysterious law of acoustics sent every sound a semitone sharp and turned my notes into metallic gurgles. But my biggest problem was that I still never knew what song came next and couldn't ask, speech being useless.
The band had its own semaphore. Bunny the sax-player would frantically point to his behind, or tug at the chest of his T-shirt. Tonight, at last, I was working it out: the T-shirt tugging indicated 'The Bus Conductor', a song with the chorus, 'I wanna work on woman bus, not man bus' (the word bus also meaning 'bust' in Trinidad); the behind signalled 'Bump and Wine', which calls for bumping of behinds; a finger twirled at the temple meant a song by the calypsonian Crazy.
Our percussionists never stopped between songs. Instead they would subtly nudge on the beat a pulse or two. By the end of a set we would be playing the songs at double speed. It was a ploy that never failed to get the sea of faces below us rocking up and down. But today something threatened to foul it all up.
We were halfway through the set and the wining was beginning to hot up when there was a sudden commotion in the crowd. I looked round to see an enormous blue Fifties Cadillac pressing through the throng. Unwilling to be upstaged, Bobby Kwan, the Chinese Trinidadian who led the band, promptly waved his guitar neck and brought us to a discordant standstill.
The Cadillac pulled up beside us. A thin old man wearing a Stetson stepped out and clambered up on to the stage. The crowd was cheering, but I was astonished and dismayed at the disruption. It was ruining our act. Then I noticed the man's buck teeth and bulging eyes, his ambiguous smile. There was no mistaking him; it was a man I had seen on countless record sleeves - Lord Kitchener himself. A deafening roar rose as he took the mike. Bobby Kwan nodded, the percussion clicked back into gear, and we crashed into the opening bars of 'The Iron Man', Kitch's current hit.
Lord Kitchener, the greatest living calypsonian, had his first hit in 1937. Since then his career has been a blaze of glory. From the proceeds of just one song, 'Rainorama', written in 1975 when carnival was postponed by rain (a brilliant case of turning a lemon into lemonade), he built a lavish ranch-style home outside Port of Spain, naming it after the song with 4ft-high plastic letters on the front lawn. But he is one singer who has kept out of politics recently, preferring to stick to light- hearted songs rich in double entendre, like 'The Iron Man'.
It is a song about an American woman wbo comes to Trinidad to learn the steel drum but gets waylaid by the iron man. 'Your lovely iron instrument really put me in a zeal,' Kitch sang, bending low to the girls at the front, who shrieked with delight, a calypsonian apparently never being too old to be sexy, 'Won't you please permit me to touch? Then she grab hold de iron . . .' He shuffled about and rocked his hips, and the crowd went wild. They wouldn't let him go till he had sung it through three times. There could be no doubt: the night would be ours after all. He had arrived like a deus ex machina, and it was our good fortune to have been on stage at the time. The party looked like an orgy now, except that everyone was fully dressed.
He left as mysteriously as he came, driven away by his chauffeur. At the end of the set I asked Bobby what Kitch was doing at an event like this. He shrugged his shoulders. 'Maybe he change his mind and becomin' a PNM boy. Maybe he have a new friend who turnin' a minister.' He didn't seem to know or care. He shook his head and added happily, 'We bad tonight, boy, bad'.
The crowd was euphoric. The next election might be two years away but with the blessing of no less a figure than Kitch they couldn't lose. Silver-haired shadow ministers wined intently with their wives. I was pulled off the stage by two women, one Indian, one black, both eager to celebrate. They sandwiched me between their behinds and taught me how to wine, rolling my hips back and forth while I turned into a rag doll. 'Everyting inside yer head,' one of them shouted, 'let de music blow it out. Dat is what yer here for.' But I was skeptical. No amount of decibels was going to blow the ringing out of my ears.
Henry Shukman is the author of Travels With My Trombone (Harper Collins)
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