Toronto is host to an annual Caribbean celebration known as Caravana, one of the largest festivals in North America featuring music, dance, art, and parties galore. And what instrument signifies the island sound more than the steel drum? While not an overtly complex instrument, the unique piece of equipment has been a staple of Caribbean and West Indies culture for decades. This compilation is an exhaustive and very informative look at the history of the instrument, featuring the likes of the Steel Band of the University of the West Indies and the Rising Sun Steel Band, among others. Regardless of who is playing, though, you’re bound to find yourself doing your little hip shake in your car, at your desk, or walking down the street while listening these tunes.
The format of the compilation is rather straightforward, offering half a dozen songs from four bands on the first disc, and nearly two dozen from two bands on disc two. The Steel Band of the University of the West Indies commences the infectious two hours with “Mambo Negro”, with the steel drums slowly picking up momentum while shakers add some fine spice to the track. The only problem is that is quickly ends just as it gets its footing. But not to worry, this disc is consistently strong, and “Tropical Merengue” follows with its Jamaican-meets-Latin flavor, taking things up in intensity. The different notes and tones heard in the song are due to the presence of the proverbial father of the modern steel drum, Winston “Spree” Simon, who developed the original four note drum and then, using oil drums, evolved that into 14 notes. And it’s this drum that enables so many of these songs to basically jump onto the dance floor. The light, airy vibe is the one constant, taking you away to some distant warm shores for a few minutes at a time.
That isn’t to say there aren’t a few clunkers presented, as “Zambei” seems too ordinary or pedestrian for a steel drum ensemble. Perhaps it was the recording technology of the time that makes them come off as unspectacular, with “Tropicana” recorded nearly a half century ago in 1957. But fortunately, songs like “El Negrito Del Batey” have a playful enthusiasm about them, with one or two steel drummers taking alternate leads throughout. The SBOTUOFWI close their set with the lone non-instrumental, “Iron Bar”. The West India Regiment Steel Band rely more on rhythm than surprise, particularly on the grin-inducing, slow-rolling “Yellow Bird” and the equally pleasant “May May”, in addition to a rousing cover of “The Magnificent Seven”. One oddity is “Perfidia”, which brings to mind a calypso version of the Crew Cuts’ “Sh Boom”.
Up next is the Hell’s Gate Steel Band, but anything that comes from them is pure manna judging by the highly charged “Archie” and the rather kitschy “Do-Re-Mi” that stays too true to the original to be anything entertaining. This cover pales greatly compared to the fine effort on Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” that seems well suited to this instrument. The WIRL All Star Steel Band takes more of a Latin, tango-like approach to its steel drum sound on the exquisitely titled, er, “Bam Bam”, once again proving that this instrument fits into several different styles of music like clockwork. There are various moments of shining solo work here that seem destined for some hip-hop sample to a hit single. Some notes here are a bit on the higher range, which can be somewhat annoying, but this group is just as efficient at easing the mood and reverting to a rock-solid arrangement that is criminally relaxing, as on “Big Bamboo” and the reggae-tinted (dare I say ska?) “Wings of a Dove”.
Another plus to this collection is the display of the liner notes, with as much background on the evolution of the steel drum as those showcased here who have honed the art of playing them. And disc two sounds more polished, possibly due to the recording elements for the Rising Sun Steel Band. Whether it’s the standard “Enjoy Yourself” or the rumbling and bubbling “The Ferry”, the band here sounds like a well-oiled machine. There is some overlap among both discs, as “Do Re Mi” is performed on both discs and “Nobody’s Business” sounds a bit too similar to the aforementioned ditty. Nonetheless, they are back in fine form with a joyous and intricate “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and samba-tastic “Somewhere My Love” that make you yearn for reruns of Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, or both.
What you realize is that, while it might be a bit much to listen to both albums in one sitting, there is a happy-go-lucky attitude oozing out of each song, particularly “Lonely Goat Herd”, which contains a polka-like “om pah pah” hook to it. Not all of these are experiments that pay off, as “Dixieland” is too fast and basically out of the realm of steel drum, while the melancholic “Theme from Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” sounds like romantic elevator music Inspector Clouseau would be listening to as he dimmed the lights. And I won’t bother lambasting “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” too much either. The reggae emanating from “Mawga Dog” is perhaps the showstopper by far, well worth repeated listens. It is the sort of collection you would like to have for these cold, snowy winter days to give you hopes of warmer, happier times to come.