Monday, June 15, 2009

Dragon Boats And A Great Steel Band

Summer. Summer's back again in Muskoka. A bit late getting here and on the heels of the most dismal Spring we've had since oldtimers can remember. The good news: cold days and frosty nights knocked the blackflies and noseeums from a 6 week vacation down to about a week about 2 weeks ago when we had a warm spell.

Cottagers still came early, but it didn't help their humor much. Too blasted cold to do anything but complain. A disaster too for gardeners who planted early and found their flower beds burned by regular and nasty cold snaps.

Now you'd never know. People are smiling, flowers replanted, kids out of school and the cottagers back in action on their seadoos and power boats. A close shave though for the Annual Parry Sound Dragon Boat Festival which looked like it would have been a bust just the day before with thunderstorms brewing that never showed.

Turned out to be a great weekend, well better say an okiedokie Friday for the first day of the Festival and a really great Saturday for the races. Beach weather and ice cream, plus hundreds of folks showed up from the town and as many from out of town, and a few Dragon Boat Diehards from Toronto.

Up until this year it seemed it would have been just a local thing. Suddenly it's the big thing with more boats, more teams and more races. Can't say there was a lot of excitement because you had to be rowing for that, knowing whose time you had to beat. Not a conventional race, but boats going out and circling and coming back and teams changing at the dock and the new teams heading out in the same boats. Best time wins. And various races for various classes, from high school kids racing each other to corporate races for the big box stores and local larger stores and businesses, the newspaper, the radio station, the big drug store. But you couldn't tell who was going out and who was leading, unless you were at the dock asking questions or following the action with binoculars and some guy at your elbow telling you what's happening. Though there were was a big network of pro equipment PA boxes barking out the action, that didn't seem to help. A printed program would have been an idea and maybe somebody had one but you couldn't find anything except the big board for the races that looked Mesopotamian.

No one cared anyway. It was the local color that counted. Being out on a great day at a big event with a lot of people where you could get something to eat for a change at Waubuno Beach, wow, even get a $5 beer at the beer tent and listen to some free live music.

That was the other big thing going on, a gigantic steel band from Sprucedale, the Northern Lights Steel Orchestra. Boggling after seeing little enough live music anywhere. Fiddlers at the Canadian Legion Hall or a rock band at a pub for under 25ers. Suddenly there's 60 guys playing on fancy chromed steel drums from batteries of giant bass drums to small snare steel drums with congas and a drum kit for the beat.

A tinkling and rather mellow Sunday Concert In The Park experience. None of the hi jinks and whistles from the steel bands you might have seen in Jamaica or Trinidad. More like Broadway Show music and old faves translated for a giant steel band. La Bamba was about as far south as we got, but it was still mesmerizing.

With so many drums and so many musicians it cut across expectations and the people at the adjoining beer tent were having fun. Those in the band were concentrating eyes closed, playing without sheet music, so they had to be in on the vibe or they'd get lost, especially when there wasn't a band leader with a baton to wake you up. Yet they put out a professional sound and nobody got lost and nobody wandered from the melody. Kind of inspirational, with a wide cross-section of people from a few youngsters to old folks and everybody in between, few of them with any steel band experience except for the few black guys playing, and most with no musical background either.

So how did they do it? Well they learned on the job. About 10 years ago Mervyn Jordan in Sprucedale started up the Northern Lights Steel Orchestra. With a place to play, some steel drums and free classes on how to play, it grew from there. Not commercial, not subsidized by government, not a charity either as it's a real charity where everyone kicks in their own time and money to make it work. A few private sponsors do the rest. The Northern Lights Steel Orchestra plays for free too. If you want to have them over for a public or private event in Ontario they'll come if you cover their travel expenses and renting a truck. The Orchestra supplies their own tent and equipment.

I should have told Larry Shepard who runs the show that they ought to record and sell CDs. They're that good. I did say though I thought they should expand their repertoire towards the calypso and reggae scene,

but then he shrugged saying it would be a big departure from what they've been doing and it seems that most of their musicians aren't into that sort of rhythm being from white Anglo easy listening backgrounds where you don't build up a sweat if you can help it.

They've been invited every year to play Toronto's Caribbean carnival, Caribana. So far they've declined. Not what you would call a strictly family event, with the music loud and raw, and the crowds at a hot million partygoers, sometimes raunchy and rough. A flashy and electric spectacle, to catch every summer if you don't stick out like whitey's sore thumb and make a habit of treading on toes.

What makes the Northern Lights a formidable experience is you can join. Members come from across Canada and the U.S with some from the Carribean. If you showed up at your local symphony without a horn and no musical experience, how far would you get? You can check out their website on how to join and drop Larry an email at Sponsors, private and corporate are welcome. Check the NLSO website for a bit of 'steel pan' history and scheduled concerts happening about every week throughout Ontario during the summer and into fall.

What you need to join the Northern Lights is just the time you want to invest in taking free classes at Sprucedale, Ontario which run year 'round and when you're good enough you can play with the Northern Lights as they travel around Ontario during the summer through October. All you do is cover your own expenses, meals and accommodations. It's
like a music camp that goes on tour.