Wednesday, 25 November 2009:
Liming was pleasant enough, the dancing was so-so, the food court quite pathetic, but the National Steelpan Symphony Orchestra was fantastic. Despite the erratic power supply.
The People’s Space, a public fairground mainly for the host country to showcase its culture, has in the last decade or so become a fixture of Commonwealth summits. Since our last session of the Commonwealth People’s Forum ended early today, I had time to wander over the the People’s Space to see what I might find.
To be frank, there wasn’t much. Located in a corner of Queen’s Savannah, a large expanse of open field just north of downtown, where locals play football on Sundays, it consisted of seven or eight large tents corralling a paved central space. Leading up to the corral from the main road was supposed to be a broadwalk lined with stalls selling traditional handicrafts or interesting local manufactures. However, by the time I arrived, which was slightly short of 6 p.m., all the stalls had been locked up and the vendors gone home. As far as I can see, there is simply no tradition in Trinidad of keeping a shop open past sundown. Some downtown shops start shooing away their last customers at 5 p.m., the hardest-working ones stay open to 7.
The locked stalls at the People’s Space don’t give a good first impression. Did no one realise that conference delegates are unlikely to have time during the day to go sight-seeing; they can only do so in the evening? Didn’t any of the organisers think to insist that stalls myst remain open into the evening?
In the corral, a documentary film was playing in one tent to fifty empty chairs. In another tent, a four-man percussion group, Indian-style, was busting people’s ear-drums. They had a heroic audience of six.
To the food tent. Perhaps there are local specialties to try? Nothing looked particularly interesting (some stalls were closed altogether), nor was I hungry after having had a late lunch. I just tried some corn soup and I am not writing home about it. It looked and tasted like diluted pumpkin soup with some Indian spices and three hard chunks of maize in the bowl. It slurped up TT$12 (about S$2.75) from my meagre supply of Trinidad and Tobago Dollars.
There was some activity in the Pan Yard – the name given to the tent for steelpan performances – but no sound. Looking in, I could see the newly arrived group arranging their instruments. I asked one of the performers, “When are you scheduled to start?” She didn’t know, and had to ask her friend. The friend said 8 p.m.
That meant I had over an hour to kill. It would also mean that I would have to walk the 20 – 25 minutes back to my hotel past 9 p.m. Would that be safe?
To pass the time, I looked into the Limin’ tent. I’m guessing that liming means a certain kind of singing, for on stage were a group of twelve, doing a series of very rhythmic songs in Spanish. It reminded me of music from Cuba.
They had a pretty good audience – about 30, including some children, who took to imitating the rhythmic swaying of the performers. Here’s a little girl who went up to the stage.
Over to the Vintage tent. I don’t know why it was called Vintage, but it was a space for dance performances. Tonight’s program featured winners of various school and village dance competitions, which sort of explained its quality, something I’d describe as ‘good amateurs’. Some of the groups had very colourful costumes, though.
I left before the full program finished in order to get a good seat in the Pan Yard tent. Starting promptly at eight, the first half hour featured a virtuoso solo performance by a grey-haired master of the art. Imagine a gifted guitarist playing a melodic line, accompanying himself with running arpeggios. A metallic version of this was what the master produced. At places, he was was producing a torrent of about 16 notes per second; his arms and hands flying from one pan to the next.
Halfway through, the power failed. The tent was plunged into darkness, with only a soft glow coming in from outside. The music sounded even better when all you had was the sense of hearing. Power was never fully restored. The emergency generator could not produce the same amount of electricity as the mains, and so for the second half of the program, lighting levels surged and faded erratically.
But the music was just as great. It was free performance by the National Steelpan Symphony Orchestra. Excluding the conductor, I counted 34 musicians, almost of whom were rather young. About one in three were female.
They played Rossini, Bach, Johann Strauss and some others, before moving on to a modern Brazilian piece, a jazz number, and then to energetic Caribbean works. They were wonderful, managing as well as any traditional orchestra to live up to the complex orchestration of the classical works. As for the more dance-y Caribbean pieces, they performed them with such effortless ease and vivacious gusto, you’d think they had all been born ready to play.
But of course, discipline, sacrifice and painfully hard work had been put in by every single one of them. To make it to the national orchestra, I’d imagine they’d have to practise several hours a day for many years to qualify.
Here are some photos I took. They’re not good pictures. The lighting was insufficient and the musicians were constantly moving as they played. The first shows about half the members of the orchestra and the conductor:
The bass section uses oil drums:
To capture this guy took more than ten tries. He was dancing to the music as he played and all the pictures except this one was horribly blurred. As you can see, his lips suggest that he was singing too:
We tend to associate guys with rastafarian hairstyles with calypso and a certain off-mainstream, laid-back lifestyle. Yet the middle guy in the picture below is a member of the orchestra, with all the conventional training and self-discipline it implies. At the moment that the picture was taken, the orchestra was playing classical music and very softly and delicately too. He’s closed his eyes, thrown his head back, the better to feel the music:
By the time the performance ended, it was 9:45 p.m. rather later than I had planned. Fortunately, this being the summit week, there were police cars parked every 300 or 400 metres along the road and the government had also made sure that all streetlamps were working properly. I felt no sense of danger strolling back to my hotel even though the route took me through quite quiet areas.
It was also very pleasant temperature-wise. My guess was that it was about 22 or 23 degrees with a slight breeze. If only all Singapore evenings were like that.