SKIFFLE BUNCH AND ART IN NEW YORK
By Yvelle Lazare - Basement Press
Amidst the unseasonably cool temperatures of early June, a tropical breeze made its way through South Street Seaport at the Gala Charity Preview Night: Caribbean & Latin Fine Art by the Sea. Held at the posh “Bridgewaters” restaurant, the gala previewed several paintings and sculptures crafted by Caribbean and Latin artists such as Ernest Circhlow, Glenn Roopchand and Glenn Martin to name a few. The event benefited several organizations such as the Caribbean Tourism Foundation which provides academic scholarships for financially challenged students interested in tourism-related areas of study, and Morris Heights Health Center which provides affordable healthcare in Caribbean and Latin communities. Tickets were priced at $100 and guests varied from curators to public officials. At first glance I assumed such an event to be uptight or snobbish. However, it was quite the contrary.
Upon entering I was greeted by the scents of curried and jerked meats, fresh fruits and gourmet cheeses. The servers’ silver platters offered island influenced delicacies such as fried sweet potato shrimp balls with a carrot juice dip. The guests danced and swayed and walked around with plates of rice, beans and oxtail. The steel pan tunes ornamented the evening and truly set a festive mood. Thirty-two Caribbean and Latin nations were present that night, Trinidad and Tobago being amongst the more heavily represented. Therefore it was only natural for soca singing group 3 Canal and calypso singer Black Stalin, both accompanied by Skiffle Bunch Steel Pan Orchestra (whose coed musicians were coordinately dressed in their home country’s flag colors of red, white and black) to serenade us through the night.
Steel pan, native to T&T, is only about 50 to 60 years old. According to Darren Greenidge, a tenor base player of the award-winning, 27 year-old Skiffle Bunch, steel pan is the only conventional instrument invented in the 20th century. Even with its varying complexity, Greenidge explained that “as long as a child could walk, he could play... as young as a year old.” “It isn’t a difficult instrument, as long as you know the notes”. Reading music is helpful but not necessary to learn how to play pan, since it is mostly learned by ear.
Steel pan is most closely associated with T&T’s carnival. When I asked TATIC’s (Trinidad and Tobago Independence Celebrations) Horace Morancie about the importance of carnival in Trinidad, he replied “How important is carnival? You must be joking!” “It is indescribable; it is something you’d have to experience for yourself.” “Carnival isn’t a holiday, but everyone is involved”.
Despite its origin, Steel pan has been assimilated by other islands and has been adopted in countries such as Barbados, St. Lucia and Antigua. It has also been accepted worldwide; Skiffle Bunch has traveled to countries in Asia and Europe– “We even played in East Germany when the Berlin wall was up!” Greenidge exclaimed. Steelbands are not limited to playing T&T calypso music, “We can play everything” said Greenidge. At the gala, they played several Latin and Indian pieces as well. The Indian pieces were accompanied by Classical Indian dancers dressed in traditional and colorful Indian garb called saris, accessorized with gold necklaces and bangles that clanged to the beat of the music as they danced. The band’s cultural choice in their music can be attributed to T&T’s diverse population.
The French, British, and the Spanish have all helped to mold T&T culture and peoples. However, Indian and African influences have had the most significant impact. T&T is about “40% African, 40% Indian, and 20% mixed race” said Morancie. “Relations between the races in Trinidad are good, with the exception of some elected officials (which are mostly of Indian decent) who keep bringing up the issue of race”.
Race certainly was not the issue Tuesday night. Everyone enjoyed and appreciated their flavorful taste of island life. Increasing interest in traveling in the Caribbean was also a major goal on the gala’s agenda. Helping to promote the cause was 11th District City Councilwoman, Una Clarke. Originally from Jamaica, Clarke represents a district with one of the largest Caribbean and Latin populations in Brooklyn and is an advisor to the CTO. She supports any cause that supplements traveling to the Caribbean. “The CTO is an organization that promotes traveling throughout the Caribbean as a whole. Persuading those who have yet to vacation there is the key. We have to let them know that the Caribbean is the best place to go” said Clarke.
Besides promoting tourism in the Caribbean, it helped others learn about
its rich culture. Gail-Yvette Davis, a Trinidadian said “this is
just a slice of the pie, it’s a good event to present Caribbean culture to
New York, and it opens doors and opportunities”. Morancie commented that this
event “benefits not only the Trinidadian community but the Caribbean
community... it gets them (people) to understand what it’s all about”.
Andrea Danser an invited guest was “thrilled to be here”. “The
beautiful art and music were just wonderful”. Danser who bopped and swayed to the
music as we spoke had only traveled to St. Maarten and was totally
convinced to open her Caribbean horizons. “This event definitely makes me
want to visit more of the Caribbean, starting off with Trinidad and