Caribbean Cumbria

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Andy Whitfield started a steel band and found unexpected repercussions for pupils and parents

Most primary schools try to offer some sort of choral work for infants. Children who get the chance to sing in a choir, whether the repertoire is hymns or traditional songs, enjoy standing with their friends and feeling the heady power of many voices all working as one.

But as their confidence develops children will soon start wondering whether they can make a noise other than with their vocal chords; this eagerness can quickly challenge the school's (or the teacher's) resources. How can young children get a valuable ensemble experience without having to learn complex skills?

On concert night, a programme of individual learners and small groups going through their paces often lacks the unifying and satisfying feeling of a large group drawn from the whole school. Some schools try to create the illusion by ransacking the percussion cupboard and throwing every level of novice instrumentalist into the pot, but it is doubtful whether a child's confidence - or the audience's enjoyment - is best served in this way.

Three years ago, I joined the staff of a small school in Cumbria. Music was a low priority, and performance at a low ebb. Today, a third of all juniors are involved in the music and movement of a culture far distant from the clog-dancing of their native soil - the calypso rhythms and shimmering sounds of Trinidad's gift to the world - steel pans! It all started the day a young steel band from Manchester visited our school, where none of our children has Caribbean cultural links. The effect on parents and children alike was electric and instantaneous. The parent teacher association made an offer for their complete set of pans (pound;850 - they were rather worn out) showing a touching faith in my naive ambitions. But the justification was threefold:

* a child's first experience of music should be positive. Children should have access to an ensemble experience that is within their grasp;

* a steel band would raise the school's profile in the community;

* a window on Caribbean culture might widen our rural community's horizons.

From the first taps on the beat-up tenor pan we found that the melody of Peanuts and its inseparable rhythm threw a jig into the shoulders of the young player. As she repeated it, again and again - trying to get it right - the movement became more pronounced. What was happening? In many parts of the world music and dance share the same word. You simply cannot play roots music from anywherein the world without the image or the feeling of dance. Our children started to move rhythmically as they learned their parts - in fact, the six free-standing bass drums at the back seemed to generate a rhythm even as we manoeuvred them into place. Then, as children from Years 3 and 4 took turns at developing a rhythmic bass line of two or three notes, I noticed how they almost had to dance to get from one pan to the other.

The bass and the middle-range pans seemed to talk to each other as they kept the rhythm rolling - Um, cha-cha cha, Um, cha-cha cha. It was impressive how quickly the patterns of shapes on the partitioned steel surface were memorised - perhaps helped by this friendly dialogue. Maybe the actual movements of playing are an aid to memory. Always in the background is a solid 44 beat which players seem to internalise without effort (the drum kit is central to a steel band, and to find and train a solid pulse-giver is an early priority). A year after their first pan session, nine juniors worked out the theme tune from Titanic, with harmonies, virtually unaided in 20 minutes.

The band is now in great demand. We get requests from the surrounding districts to play at summer fetes, winter fairs, sports centre openings, birthday parties, weddings. Steel bands are rare in this part of the world, and the Caribbean sound is popular and somehow appropriate for celebrations. But a deeper satisfaction has come from the new-found confidence of the band members. Each child knows that he or she is focused, listening to and watching what makes the music click and those audiences so excited. They can be proud of a skill which is there for all to see. And the knock-on effect on other children in the school, and indeed other schools, is considerable. Everyone wants to play, everyone wants to practise, everyone starts to listen harder and make suggestions.

Why haven't more schools outside urban centres cottoned on to this accessible, happy music? Are we afraid that this very Caribbean sound is not "for us"? Are we unaware of how universal music has become? One of the band's favourite numbers - Rivers of Babylon - may have started as a spiritual, but has long since been adopted, and not only by Bob Marley, as a pop anthem.

Have teachers in England abandoned their rhythmic instincts in favour of a European Art music that has little in common with children's vernacular and is mastered by a privileged few who let the dance in themselves wither and die?

Andy Whitfield teaches at Milnthorpe County Primary, Cumbria

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