Carnival Culture in the Park, Day Two: Steelpan
After Thursday’s calypso show on the Opera Holland Park stage, hopes were high that steelpan would have the power to fill the space the following day. We weren’t disappointed. Thursday’s gremlins were banished and the sound quality was infinitely better.
The format was simple: Mangrove Steel Orchestra played in the first half, Ebony in the second. Each half ended with a classical piece, with steelpan accompanying Trinidadian soprano Anne Fridal. To top it all we were treated to the remarkable sight of those two great rivals, Ebony in black and Mangrove in white, playing together. Wow!
Quite how many UN negotiators were involved in brokering this deal we don’t know, but the effort was worth every drop of blood that was sweated over it.
Some familiar faces were spotted in the socially distanced crowd, but it’s doubtful that many in the audience were diehard carnival-goers. Instead of roti, doubles and Carib, the Holland Park regulars had bottles of Champagne chilling on their front-row tables. In the interval, a Fortnum & Mason hamper arrived, presumably for music-lovers whose appreciation of steelpan is enhanced by nibbling on stuffed quails’ eggs. This was certainly a different experience to a show at The Tabernacle.
The musical menu was varied – especially so from Ebony – and there was something to suit every taste. This is, of course, the 70th anniversary year of TASPO introducing live pan performance to the UK, but many people who haven’t heard a top steelband play are still inclined to dismiss the music as fit only for jump-up bacchanal (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course!). Perhaps a few shared the mild disbelief of The Stage newspaper’s journalist, who, after hearing TASPO in action, wrote on 9 August 1951: “The resulting music is, somewhat surprisingly, on the ‘sweet’ side, not at all the noisy cacophonous jazz that might have been expected.” Indeed!
So how did the Holland Park Opera Massive respond to the Caribbean musical invasion? The enthusiasm and sustained applause at the end of each number told you all you needed to know. It was heartening to see a discerning classical audience appreciating the skills of steelband arrangers and players. No one seemed to mind the flag-waving, banter being exchanged with the MC (Coco P doing a great job of bridging the cultural divide) and the girls jumping up in the back row. All credit to the Opera Holland Park staff for taking this exuberance in their stride, and even embracing it themselves (the bar and security staff were dancing too!).
If there were any steelpan sceptics in the audience then they were well and truly put in their place by performances that combined energy with sophistication and subtlety. And never more so than in Habanera (from Bizet’s Carmen) and Fats Waller’s jazz standard Ain’t Misbehavin’. The combination of what we can cheekily call the Ebony-Mangrove All Stars and the magnificent voice of Anne Fridal was something altogether special, an experience to be savoured. If you missed the show, you’ll be able to catch it on YouTube, though inevitably it will lack the spine-tingling sparkle of the live event.
RBKC Mayor Gerard Hargreaves – who revealed that he’s “been listening to this music for over 30 years” – was clearly impressed, and he emphasised the how important the Holland Park events have been in countering negative publicity. “Too often all you hear about is the violence, but these shows are a great way to show off the culture,” he told Soca News.
Congratulations are due to Matthew Phillip and the team at NHCL for bringing the show together so impressively, to Opera Holland Park for making us welcome, to Anne Fridal for thrilling us all with her beautiful voice, to Leon Foster Thomas as conductor and of course to the steelpan players and arrangers of Mangrove and Ebony for making history as surely as TASPO did 70 years ago.