The Art of the Quest: St. Lucia By Clarinet


This travel article by Richard Reid appeared in National Geographic.

Fake Elvis’s rose-colored shades are straight out of an old Starsky & Hutch episode. Behind him, a faded tapestry emblazoned with the real Elvis flaps in the breeze, while the King’s “Welcome to My World,” released in 1977 just months before his death, crackles through cranked boom box speakers. Soon Fake Elvis leans into a stance, then pumps his arms furiously to simulate a drum fill.

I couldn’t have predicted my trip to Saint Lucia would lead me to Laborie, a fishing village on the Caribbean island’s southern coast that’s off nearly every visitor’s radar. Or to Fake Elvis. But it wasn’t pure accident, either.

I’m a big proponent of having a quest when I travel, even if it’s random, which is why I’ve come to Saint Lucia with a clarinet named “Jeff.” My goal isn’t to learn scales—though that’d be nice—but rather to see what a hunt to find a music tutor on the island reveals about everyday life here.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to Saint Lucia each year to get their fill of beaches, sun, and rum. Most arrive on cruise ships, then check in to luxury resorts like Ladera, with its open-air rooms overlooking private plunge pools. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the lion’s share of visitors leave without learning much about the island nation, which gained sovereignty from the United Kingdom in 1979.

I begin my search for a clarinet lesson in Saint Lucia’s capital, Castries. When I arrive with “Jeff” at the city’s central market, I draw attention, and quickly. A man with long dreadlocks pushing a cart of bananas stops me—not to make a sale, but to ask if he can try out my instrument. Thelma, a one-handed vendor with a sing-songy voice requests a tune. And three guys in soft caps selling lottery tickets have another idea.

“You need to go to the police.”

On a side street a few blocks away I hear big band instruments blasting from a concrete complex that’s home to the Saint Lucia police department. I follow the sound up some back stairs and find a group of cops weaving through a waltz.

“We do some traffic duties occasionally,” Gregory Piper—who’s been with the band since 1969—tells me during a break. “But most of the time it’s just music.”

Turns out police bands are a common phenomenon in the Caribbean. Saint Lucia’s has been around since 1947, performing in parades and staging concerts after particularly rough storms to help “mend the broken hearts of the people.”

I manage to convince clarinetist John Louis, who’s played the instrument for 26 years, to give me an impromptu lesson. He’s impressed that I bought a clarinet—even a blue plastic number with gold-tone keys—along on my trip. “That you went out and bought one on your own tells me you have a real desire to learn,” he says. “That’s what we need.”

John pulls me aside and teaches me how to wax the cork, assemble the various parts, use the thumb rest, adjust the reed. By the end of our time together, I’m even able to pull off a few notes.

After my lesson, I cab across town to the hillside Saint Lucia School of Music. I discovered its existence ahead of my trip and have pre-arranged a drop by. A group of kids aged 10 to 16 are rehearsing a James Brown song for their next gig: opening for reggae star Jimmy Cliff at the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival.

I am introduced to 11-year-old Jelani, who is something of a clarinet protégé. We sit in a practice room that has old drums and brass instruments piled in the corners. Upstairs someone’s playing a Scott Joplin tune. Jelani, who has embarked on Saint Lucia’s national anthem, eyes my blue clarinet. Later, I offer him a chance to take “Jeff” for a spin. When he blows a bit of air into it, a grim shriek of a note comes out. “Not a good clarinet,” he says, shaking his head.

Though Saint Lucia has produced many notable personalities, the island’s biggest celebrity is poet Derek Walcott, winner of the 1992 Noble Prize in Literature. In his epic poem, Omeros, based loosely on Homer’s Iliad, Walcott describes the footsteps of local women carrying coal—“every load for one copper penny”—and his life’s work as giving “those feet a voice.”

In Castries, I make a point to visit Derek Walcott Square, but am more drawn to a fishing community several miles north of town. Gros Islet forms the heart of Omeros and is Walcott’s present-day home. It’s a Friday night and I’m pulled, spellbound, into the center of a “jump-up” street party. Music pounds from distorted PA speakers. It’s nearly all locals here who stand shoulder to shoulder drinking rum, cooking up barbecue on open-air grills, and dancing—quite explicitly at times.

It’s great fun, but Gros Islet isn’t exactly the quiet scene depicted in Walcott’s poem, so I drive the length of the island south to Laborie. For the next few days, I wander the streets with my clarinet, practice on the pier, chat with a guy in a Washington Redskins jersey while he chops the heads off fresh-caught fish with a cleaver, eat chicken from a shack while watching a beach soccer game, and buy a hot loaf of sweet bread from a bakery’s back window. Finally, I follow my ears to an elementary school in the midst of a raucous steel-drum session.

Laborie is far removed from Saint Lucia’s tony resorts and immaculate white-sand beaches, but it is the highlight of my visit.

And it’s here, on my last morning on the island, that I meet Fake Elvis, who builds concrete pillars for local homes in his yard and has been hooked on the King for decades. He asks about my clarinet, then volunteers a few Vegas-era Elvis moves. I return the favor by playing an impromptu song on the clarinet. The melody’s sparse, the notes fraying a bit as I wind my way around the few notes I now know.

But the song itself is hardly the point. It’s enough that Fake Elvis is encouragingly nodding along.

For the original report go to

Image: Derek Walcott’s The Marina at Gros Islet.

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