Music of the islands: A steel band in the fog

By Eva Murray | Jun 18, 2011
Photo by: Maury Colton

Do you remember that foggy spell of a couple of weeks ago, the misty mornings that turned into stretches of days that turned into week after week in a virtual white-out, the dense and swirling murk setting up the scenery for a cheap detective novel or some overwrought English romance on the moors? Here in the middle of the bay, in those days when mail came by boat roughly twice a week, appointments got canceled and milk went sour, we waited for the fog to clear. Day after day, it did not. Our hearts went out to the air service guys, grounded and pacing. A bush pilot could go crazy sitting around in an office that long.

We of the immediate coast and the islands had been “shut in thick” since (it seemed) about 1953 until word spread that rescue was coming. The fog is a force to be reckoned with. Here to do the reckoning, on the 27th of May at a half past six on the evening, was the Planet Pan steel band.

There’s nothing like the music of the islands.

Eighteen teenage percussionists from the Blue Hill area, and Nigel Chase the bandleader, filled the Maine Sea Coast Mission vessel Sunbeam with oil drums whole and part, each tuned carefully and made to sing — loud and perfect. You should know this: The sound of a good steel drum band can cut through fog like a ray of Caribbean sunshine.

This band was amazing.

In abject defiance of the moldering damp they set up on this island’s concrete wharf, many of them barefoot among the dropped steel hog-rings and rust and bits of trap wire and the remains of the dog’s breakfast, barefoot in the chill, barefoot in sheer denial of the refusal of spring to warm this place. They played and reveled and jumped and danced, and somebody made a crack about whether or not they’d had their shots, them hopping around gleefully barefoot in our workday mess. An observation was made about the value of intact 55-gallon oil barrels on Matinicus and how they might be advised to lock them up. All in fun, though, as we are a discerning and sophisticated concert audience. Nobody in Carnegie Hall ever appreciated the music more.

They played traditional calypso steel drum tunes, island music, the sounds we might expect. They played Rossini’s overture from the opera “Italian Girl in Algiers” while Chase stood on a box and conducted the sections of his orchestra. They played a march. They played Estonian techno. A couple of them played Happy Birthday.

The children of Matinicus scrambled around the wharf, hopping across onto and off the deck of the Sunbeam, cadging cookies from Pat the steward. As the band played, they chased each other around and danced and ran way too fast to be safe (but such is the way of island children). The littler boys, as usual, were inexplicably drawn to the very edge of the wharf, climbing on heaps of rope behind piles of traps, leaning on the pilings and giving some of the adults the heebie-jeebies; but again, such is a waterfront childhood. Sam grinned and kept on lugging his freight through the middle of the show, because work still had to get done. The band played as the captain of the Liberty Risk parallel-parked his boat on the other side of the wharf with a half a dozen barrels of salted bait and two small children, the latter (and thankfully not the former) handed across to waiting arms and into the community dance. Toddlers with their blankies danced. One young fisherman, clearly having been celebrating for some considerable time, danced with his buddy’s girlfriend’s mother.

Planet Pan was making the rounds of three islands in two days, scheduled to play both Isle au Haut and Little Cranberry the next day, with Rob the Sunbeam minister as chief roadie. Those sister islands downeast see weather no better than ours; an earful of Trinidad and Jamaica might just be good for what ails us all. The sound of 40-some-odd steel drums being expertly played in the middle of a fog-mull harbor is nothing short of psychiatric medicine.

The traditional remark is that the Sunbeam brings inclement weather, but our weather seemingly hadn’t changed in eons. The Sunbeam brought the oil barrels and the barefoot kids from Blue Hill, and the kids brought the music, and the music brought a respite to us all. We hopped and wiggled and rocked back and forth, most of us convinced of our inability to really dance. Every ringing, resounding, if-you-stood-too-close-nearly deafening note was a deep and sincere pleasure. Things had been too diminished, too muted for too long. Sound is weird in the fog, and we had grown sick of living within misty moist-y images of Scottish isles and San Francisco nights. We needed something that could slice through the fog, something to command attention and shout and revel. We needed a racket. We got a party.

Several of us would have missed Planet Pan’s most excellent music had we not been stuck on-island ourselves due to the weather. All good in the end; we remained to rock the dock and shake our dancing fists at the low pressure system. It was fairly hilarious watching a few of the neighbors, too. A few of us might just look with a new eye at the oil barrels around here.

Thanks, guys. We needed that.

 

Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Gosline Insurance Group | Jul 18, 2011 12:54

Thinking of you this Monday, July 18th. We are sure the whole community is sending their well wishes your way.



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