Steel pan man is all at sea
Working on a cruise ship isn’t for everyone. The travel is constant and the work can be intense.
Steel pan player Robert Symons got hooked in 1989 and hasn’t looked back. His latest gig was on Oceania Cruises.
“I was staff and crew in the entertainment department, which has more privileges than other departments,” he said.
“I could go just about anywhere. The one place I wasn’t allowed was the casino as staff are not allowed to gamble.
“It can be fun. You can eat in all passenger venues and you’re paid very well.
“You get to visit many different ports and on a ship you can get 64 different nationalities with many different languages. So it can be intense and it’s not for everyone.”
Mr Symons cut his teeth on Carnival’s Horizon. He was then a bass player with an Italian band, the Dorino International Orchestra.
He started dreaming of a solo gig in the 1990s, after he began playing the steel pans. Because he wasn’t known for that type of music, it took him two years before he got a job.
The 1998 offer only came because another steel pan player unexpectedly backed out of a job. He spent three months on Princess’s Crown Princess, travelling through Mexico, Hawaii and the South Pacific.
“I wanted to take my steel pan music global,” he said.
The musician has worked for several cruise lines since and the work is not easy.
The Oceania Cruises gig required him to perform a handful of 45-minute sets, staggered throughout each day. It meant he had to be switched on constantly.
“When you’re playing music, you build yourself up,” he said. “You have to concentrate. If you are on that level, and then come down a bit, then have to get back up again, it can take a lot out of you. Your day could start at noon and finish at midnight.”
Managers do not take kindly to sick days or injuries. Mr Symons said: “We could go on excursions while in port.
“They liked you to go along on tours with the passengers to act as an escort but we weren’t supposed to do anything that could cause injury, like jet skiing or parasailing.
“I banged myself up while riding a moped in St Martin. We were at a place called Maho Beach where the planes come in really low over the beach. The car ahead of me stopped, I hit it and was flung over the handlebars.
“My supervisor was not happy when I got back to the ship injured.”
He has loved music since childhood, when he got his first guitar for Christmas.
“When I strummed it, it was like, ‘pow!’ I felt completed,” he said.
Unfortunately, his parents weren’t so impressed.
“They said, ‘Get a real job’,” he said. “I did hold real jobs throughout my teens but I always played with garage bands. Looking back, I realise that music was an important part of my early years.”
He worked in the United States as a professional musician throughout the 1970s.
One of his first jobs was playing in the orchestra of the Actors Conservatory Theatre, in Westchester, New York.
He taught himself to play the steel pans in St Thomas, where he worked for part of the 1980s and 1990s.
“I play by ear,” he said. “I just have to find out the mechanics of the instrument and then play scales, after that it is fine.”
Mr Symons is now back in Bermuda between cruise ship jobs.
He plays at the Frog & Onion Pub on Sundays, from 1pm until 4pm, and also performs for hire, under the name Tropicana Steel Pan.
“I have a lot of irons in the fire, but right now I am taking one day at a time,” he said.
He has been all over the world, but still believes Bermuda is the destination.
“Cruise ships allow you to see a lot of the world,” he said. “I would recommend it to anyone.
“It is a great experience. I have been to the Caribbean, South America, Europe, the Mexican Riviera and the South Pacific. Each place has its own vibe.
“When you tell people you are from Bermuda they just light up. There is something special about Bermuda. I am really proud to be part of that.”
The one thing he has not done is take a cruise ship vacation.
“I have never been a passenger,” he said. “I would like to take a vacation cruise, to experience it.”
Mr Symons’s albums, Tropicana Steel Pan Bermuda volumes one, two, and three, are available on iTunes and CD Baby
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