Caribbean sound drums out London (Canada) winter

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A report by Mike Maloney for Our London.

Parading down cold, wind-swept streets on the back of a flat-bed truck is a far cry from jamming under palm trees swaying in a Caribbean breeze,but it’s all in a day’s work for members of the Golden Harps Steel Orchestra.

Founded in 1992 by Terry Greene and his friend, Joe Soloman, the band is set to mark its 25th year in the Forest City.

Making the Steel Harps unique among the multitude of groups plying their art in London is the instruments they play. “It’s a steel drum band,” explained Greene while taking a break from preparations for the group’s recent Christmas concert.

The steel drum, better known as steelpan, traces its roots back to the island of Trinidad.t\They are fashioned primarily from discarded oil drums where the base is hammered into a bowl shape and tuned to create all the notes on musical scale.

Like the steelpan, Greene is also from Trinidad but ironically he only learned to play the instrument when he moved to London. A welder by trade, the now retired Greene had no musical experience at all before starting up the band. A quarter-century later, “it worked out pretty good,” said Greene with a smile.

Life-long Londoner Krys Anton started playing with Golden Harps two years ago after attending a concert. A pamphlet in a door prize mentioned the band was looking for new members. Despite always having played music in one form or another, her first instinct was there was no way she could possibly play in a steel band, but curiosity got the better of her. “I thought why not give it a try,” said Anton.

Her biggest challenge originally wasn’t the music, it was more managing the layout of the bass drums she plays. “Because they’re arranged in kind of a circular fashion as opposed to the more traditional linear instruments like the piano I’m use to, I found it a bit difficult.”

With parents who are both originally from Trinidad, Sherene Dyson is no stranger to the steelpan sound. The band’s newest member, she was looking for a way to get out and meet new people after moving to London from Windsor earlier this year. She decided to try it after seeing an online post by the Golden Harps looking for new members. “I thought, hey, they’re recruiting people so why not come out and give it a shot.”

Like Greene and Anton, she had no previous experience playing the steelpan starting out, but was quick to add it’s easy to learn for anyone willing to put in the work.

“What is hard is that every song has a different strum. Yes, the notes are the same and the music all looks the same but it’s the strum that really makes each song different. Sometimes you can read all the notes okay, but if you don’t know the strum or how the song really flows, you can’t play it.”

With a repertoire that includes everything from traditional Caribbean to classical and top 40 selections, Greene said the band often finds itself playing at a variety of events throughout the year. In the past, these have included Canada Day celebrations, weddings and various private functions, as well as the Santa Claus parade, of which they’re now closely associated.

One problem the Golden Harps have had almost from the beginning is recruiting new members. Greene noted that’s likely because the steel drum isn’t a part of Canadian culture and also, the time needed for practice. It’s not an instrument one can learn simply by reading sheet music. The only way to learn is to play it as often as possible.

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