Entrepreneurial learning journey: steel bands of Antigua

The Caribbean is made up of over 5,000 islands, reefs and cays, each with its own unique attractions, local cuisine and culture, the perfect destination for a relaxing break. Boasting picturesque white sandy beaches, charming villages and friendly locals, Antigua is my favourite Caribbean destination. It has intimacy, simplicity – and coconut ice cream in abundance wherever you go.

So I recently set off to spend a week in the Antiguan sun, and like my visit to America back in November, aimed to build upon my research and unearth new insights from local entrepreneurs operating in different cultures. I am curious to learn from practitioners and share their experience, and I am just downright nosey too!

The seductive steel pan sounds hang in the air and hit you long before you see the brightly coloured gazebo and the ensemble beneath it – an animated crew of musicians in perfect harmony, arms flailing everywhere, united by a single passion. Here in Antigua, something magical is afoot.

The intoxicating sounds and rhythm of steel pans reverberates through your body, it stirs the emotions and engulfs the mind. This is food for the soul and you can’t help but be entranced.

Concentration is etched on the musician’s faces, the performers are lost to the effort, arms whirring, brought back only by the jubilant applause. Boy, are they having fun, laughing and swaying, it’s a spectacle of sheer human enjoyment, simple in its creation but such a richness of acoustics, an uplifting, epic sight.

Once dubbed the devil’s music, a ghetto pastime with instruments as rudimentary as hubcaps and scrap metal, traditional Antiguan steel bands are today as much part of Antiguan culture as Carnival, goat curry and fried dumplings.

The steel band originated from French planters and their slaves who emigrated to Trinidad & Tobago during the French Revolution. The slaves formed their own celebration called canboulay, taken from stick-fighting and African percussion music that was banned in response to the Canboulay Riots.

They were replaced bamboo sticks beaten together, which were themselves banned in turn. In 1937 they reappeared in Trinidad, transformed as an orchestra of frying plans, dustbin lids and oil drums. In 1941, the US Navy arrived on Trinidad, which began the international popularisation of the steel pan sound.

Today, the modern pan is a chromatically pitched percussion instrument. The pan is struck using a pair of straight sticks tipped with rubber, the size and type of rubber tip varies according to the class of pan being played. Some musicians use four pansticks, holding two in each hand.

Pythagoras calculated the formula for the musical cycle of ‘fourths and fifths’, and steel pans follow this configuration, designed by Anthony Williams, in an arrangement of notes known as the ‘cycle of fifths’. Williams is one of the great pioneers of the steel pan, along with Winston “Spree” Simon, Ellie Mannette and Neville Jules. These four innovators have lead the development of the instrument in terms of design, sound and craftsmanship, true entrepreneurs, and revered by every band.

The standard form of note placement for lead pans enabled tuning of harmonic overtones in individual notes, a key feature in the orchestration of the instrument and the sounds we have today.

Today’s steel pans are built using sheet metal with a thickness between 0.8 mm and 1.5 mm, no longer the traditional build from used oil barrels. In a first step, the sheet metal is stretched into a bowl shape (this is commonly known as ‘sinking’). This process is usually done with hammers, manually or with the help of air pressure.

The note pattern is then marked onto the surface, and the notes of different sizes are shaped and moulded into the surface. After the tempering, the notes have to be softened and tuned (initial tuning). The note’s size corresponds to the pitch – the larger the oval, the lower the tone. There are lead pans, double tenors, double seconds, double and triple guitars, four cellos and various bass pans. Some have as many as 36 notes.

The world’s oldest, continuously operating steel orchestra is Hell’s Gate, based in Antigua, with this year marking its 70th anniversary. Founded as Housecoat Band in 1945, the instruments first used were automotive clutch housings, hollowed piped, biscuit cans, pieces of solid iron. They were obtained from Townsend’s Blacksmith shop on Mariners Lane, St. John’s.

The name Hell’s Gate was given to the band by the people of the local area, chosen mainly because of the local noise and variety of rhythmic beats produced by the then instruments used. I suspect they are more accomplished musicians today, notwithstanding their moniker.

I enjoyed talking to and learning from the players about the history of their instruments and their culture, but my biggest takeaway was their passion for their band. The team spirit they showed was infectious, togetherness and sense of community was awe-inspiring. Benjamin Franklin said We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately and the sense of kinship and shared identity was poignant.

So what lessons did I take from the steel pan bands for entrepreneurs to consider in their businesses?

1. Build a team based on camaraderie and trust Shared experiences over time build relationships and friendships. The bands I saw played with a collective responsibility to make the song sound good. If someone faltered, the rest of the band noticed it, and rallied to make it right. They seemed to say ‘We sound as good as our weakest link’, but there was no stopping, no blaming, they played through and figured it out through eye contact, facial expressions, and sometimes wild gestures and cries of encouragement – followed by laughter.

Every part of a team is important. Every part contributes. There is amazing satisfaction in coming together with a team, working hard to perform a show. The teamwork in a steel band is about individual and group self-improvement, underpinned by trust, competing with self, comparing results with self over time, but recognising success is as a collective.

2. It matters who you take on your journey with you I was taken by how the bands had come together. They were strangers when they first met together as a band, and some players have played for a handful of months, others for over twenty years – different ages, ethnicities, personalities, life circumstances. Yet all were supportive and kind to the other, with a common goal of making music together and having fun.

It matters who you surround yourself with. It was almost tribal. Is your team positive and optimistic? Or toxic and pessimistic? Choose kind, sincere, warm, compassionate, fun people. Remember also that it’s more enjoyable going through life, and gigs, with a tribe rather than going it alone.

3. As a team, do hard things that scare you Showing up where people see you – in life or on stage – is both hard and scary. Trying new things is hard and scary. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to be critiqued or judged, is hard and scary. Do these things anyway. The bands seemed to playing as complex music as they could in creating their unique sounds, they didn’t sit back and just play the tunes they knew well.

We don’t get a choice to show up to life every day. Every day that you wake up, there are opportunities for people to judge you, to critique you. So your choice then is to either build walls around yourself to try to minimize these hard moments in life, or you can accept that life is hard and scary, and that you can do hard and scary things. The applause at the end shows the effort is worthwhile.

4. Ensure the team lives in the moment It flies by. Time is a blur. So when I stood watching the performance behind their steel drum kits, I was mindful as I looked around and breathed in the lights and sounds and smells. This was my moment. I was not going to walk away not remembering this. I made every moment count in the spectacle. And so did the players.

It did fly by, but I know I lived in each of those minutes, and it was glorious. Life speeds by too. Don’t get caught up in a future that may not occur, or stuck in the past that you can’t change. We can’t slow life down, but we can savour every moment of it.

5. Make it your own, and own it Some of the bands had fantastic individual musicians, with years of experience. Several times I say younger players asking them for advice, if she could play certain chords this way or that way. The answer, after giving them guidance, was always the same, decide what you’re going to do and make it your own. If anyone questions you about it, tell them it’s your style and you’re sticking to it.

Simply put, do what you’re comfortable with. Do what you’re capable of. Be proud of that. And you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone else. Above all else, enjoy yourself. Things will happen that we can’t control. You lose a drumstick. Bad things happen on stage and in life. But have fun anyway. This is the one life you have. Make it a good one before you exit stage left.

For an effective team in any endeavour, there are two truisms: Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us; not one of us could be as good as all of us playing unselfishly. No one can play the steel drum sound alone, it takes a whole band to play it and it’s the same in any business or organisation where team spirit, collaboration and togetherness create success.

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