Lost Rum             


Yonatan Bar Rashi 


Copyright 2016 by Yonatan Bar Rashi   



Photo of a conga drum being played.

The writer, a life-long percussionist, served 3 years in the U.S. Peace Corps in Saint Lucia, West Indies, from 1982 to 1986. Part of this experience is reflected in the following account.

The beads on the horn player’s face did not rise for fear. They fell from the heat and the drink.
Rum strong night hot enough alone to break his sweat. Only a sputtering wall tube gave the flat silver blanch to his coal blackness.

So thought the conguero as he slowly queried Shaps, the sax man, about a missing instrument.
They sat for a time in explosive silence in a tiny hovel rum shop on steep tropic mountainside.
The mountain rose straight from the sea. Night sounds rose from the mountain, with the smell of green woodsmoke and burning sugar.

The conguero’s drum was lost since the night of their last show, nearly a week before.

He’d loaded it into the wooden-backed transport but sat by the driver that night, not in back as usual with the rest of the orchestra. Since he lived farthest down the mountain, the conguero was dropped last, and only then found his drum was gone. It was likely stolen from the transport, still in town down the mountain’s other side, while they’d returned to the hall for another load. That a member of the orchestra would steal another’s instrument was untenable. But the conguero came to Shaps after suspecting signs from the other players.

The Follow Me Orchestra was a nine-piece dance band, one of the last old double sax bands in the Eastern Caribbean.

 Most of the musicians were middle-aged laborers, wielding the cutlass by day, their rum and song by night.  

All were proficient and spirited players, some exceptionally so. The weakness was their collective tuning but the emphasis rhythmic, and crowds would dance from early evening to early morn.

Shaps’s given name was Winston. The nickname derived from an earlier one, Sharps, an allusion to his musical prowess. Besides being one of the best saxophonists in the island, he was by far the ensemble’s most colorful character. On rides to and from the shows his lightning chatter kept the orchestra high, be they already charged or not. His stories, in the Creole, could wax bizarre, the humor a riddle, then a secret. Always they were capped by his high staccato blast of a laugh. For he knew most of the players from boyhood, and would laugh for them when they didn’t.

Aminous, the second saxophonist, was also the leader, doling out twelve dollars to a man at night’s end. 

As manager he was the worst player, but only he wore a suit. A pale aqua plastic affair, but three full pieces.

And by day he drove a taxi, and he got the gigs. He went only by “Mr. Aminous”, his sour control of the money precluded calling him otherwise. His authority was challenged, and defeated, but once, when he’d announced that the band’s title would change to “Aminous and his Orchestra”. No outcry had followed, just a quiet shaking of heads, with unanimous depth enough to quash the idea.

For all suit and taxi, Aminous would not risk losing the orchestra.

Alpheus of the steel pan was one of the more sensitive ears, fine-tuning the notes of his drum with block and hammer during each break.

 A wizard on the pan, his rarefied playing could at once epitomize and transcend the carnival atmosphere. He was a younger man, a gemstone in his earlobe, and though known as a wharf rat, from teeming ghetto by the sea, he felt destined for better, and played this tune every night.

The bass man was Slade, a tall dread who had lately shorn his locks for the calypsonians. There was more work in calypso than in reggae. 

Slade now drank more than smoked, but hadn’t yet made the adjustment. Late evenings could still find him playing flat on his back, howling and kicking at the ceiling. He never dropped the beat.

For this was their heated core. The meter was nearly inhuman, frighteningly riveted in drive. Straight soca calypso to springing French-colored zouk, the tunes were paced furiously, the rhythm unstoppable, by most outrageous brawl, by anything, save the orchestra’s fancy.

The raw pulse was laid bare with impromptu solos of the batterie, in answer to stalling electrical current. Leslie the set drummer, of trash can set, crushed cap and smacking off-beats, had a rapport with the conguero, who sat by him beating a conga far outsized for his build. They would hunch over their drums, lock grinning eyes in fierce intensity, and remain so through a whole tune, or until one did something impressive enough for the other.

Just before each show an opening round of white rum was served, supplied on the house or by Forde, the little guitarist and heaviest drinker. Despite his habit he was the gentlest soul of them all. His hypnotically skewed cadence patterns were largely unknown or unlearnable to guitarists outside the island chain. He played a battered Fender through a crackling amp, the liquid chanting terminally marred. But then his forte was his local banjo, cut from one piece of wood and electrified by oblique bursts of current in the right hand. By shaking its open back against his bare belly, Forde added a supreme wowing effect.

It was he who had once brought the conguero to the orchestra, no small favor, as Forde was already derided for drink, and the conguero foreign, and lighter, on a dark man’s island. The favor was returned only in the music, and Forde would still do anything for the friend.

A shot of rum was set down before each man but Shaps. On guard for poisoning or obeah the sax man drank his own, stowed in his saxophone case and sipped from a bull’s horn goblet. 

He stood up to down his shot, with the precision flourish that infused all his motion, and started off to play.

He did not recognize his greatness by foreign standard but knew the foreign greats, expanding on their licks and sounds effortlessly. He had a local reputation and was the lead voice, the master musician of the band. He played a worn silver-plated French alto, acoustically. The bass and guitar were amplified, and to lead all, Shaps had to blow for his life, while maintaining his dynamics and tone. The virtuosity inspired unspoken awe in the others. He couldn’t have cared. His solos exulted and soared above all, in great compressions and releases of frenetic being. Impossible arpeggios and shocking comic blasts were matched by a towering showmanship unconscious, to this Shaps, who lived his music.

The small lean figure continually swayed, or contorted in all direction, totally elastic yet superbly controlled. At times he would release his left hand from the instrument, tracing sharp hysterical designs in air, as absurd as his anecdotes, but always in the time frame. Except for when a valve became stuck. Then he would stiffen, glare and shake his finger at the horn in wicked tattoo, fixing the valve with his other hand in the same split second.

Starting a long high note he would throw himself into a backward arc, the horn thrust out above. And sink at the knees in tight fluidity, through the sustain. 

The instant assumption of such hallowed pose could stun the conguero, nearly to tears. No, this man would not have stolen his drum. And how he could make that horn cry! Not through familiar minors, but in strains and bursts of a joyful desperation unique to the music.

The milling crowd would dance to the fervor in contrasting stoic grace. Only the lower halves of their bodies moved. The urgency of the sound only half drowned their hardness of being. Applause was seldom heard, nor expected. True, there were always riotous souls who would coax and holler, screaming “Blow, Shaps, BLOW!”, when the sax man neared a dizzying peak.
And true, when they played the ramshackle halls of the countryside the crowds showed more verve, and the floors would hop, bouncing the players and scuttling their drinks.

But the night was quiet at the moutain side rum shop. Shaps and the conguero were the only patrons and their drinks sat still. The conguero didn’t want to indulge much anyway. He was just rousing from a three day drunk, borne of self-glorious fear for his life and his lost drum. When his liquor ran out he’d drained his woman’s medicinal potion, of strong rum, prized herbs and swollen black caterpillars.

“Of which wood is the conga made?”, asked Shaps.

“White oak”.

Another long silence, as Shaps squinted into space ahead and the conguero wondered why the question was asked.

Two flies forgot the night and danced ‘round the buzzing lamp. They were chased by a third. The conguero’s desperation peaked. He finally sipped, and spoke in resigned tones. 

“Well, maybe I needn’t worry so. All the others say my drum will come back to me. Yes. You see, not long after I first reached the island I brought the drum south, to show to Mal Jo, the maji noir… Now, I’m the last to believe in that rubbish, but Forde had told me how important it was to do it, that it was for the best… and now they say the drum must come back. Yes… maybe I needn’t worry so."

They did not face each other to bid goodnight. The conguero downed his shot and left.
He did not want to see if new silver beads lit the indigo face. He wanted to forget his ploy, the sweat and the drink, the drum and the music, and he started back down the mountain to sleep.

Word arrived two mornings later. The drum was found. Through tearful guffaws, Forde choked out Shaps’s story… that it was mistakenly loaded into his attic that night, along with other instruments normally stored there. It must have rolled to the back, Shaps had said, and wasn’t discovered until this morning, despite all earlier searching.

How funny that it was found today, cried Forde, as their next show was set for the evening.

The conguero heard with indefinite relief and pain. The pain quickly fell to hard laughter.

Not as uproarious as Forde’s, for the conguero wasn’t as sure the story was untrue.

And he would hear it from Shaps in full and yes he would play tonight and leave that island forever in the week to come.

Author's note: 

The account is entirely factual, except for the second to last line about leaving the island forever, I was invited there a decade later, hired to perform on percussion with Caribbean saxophonist/composer Luther Francois and others at several Saint Lucia Jazz Festivals.

During my tenure in the Peace Corps I had performed in St. Lucia with Francois and others, and also in the world premiere of "The Haytian Earth" a play written and directed by St. Lucia's Nobel Laureate poet and playwright, Derek Walcott.

The story above describes one of the local dance bands I performed with while I lived there. To my knowledge, no more Caribbean bands of this "double sax" format exist today.

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