Robert's steel pans help ease stress for Covid-19 test takers
Chances are, if you have been stuck in a queue outside Perot Post Office waiting to get tested for Covid-19, you'll have heard Robert Symons play.
He has been there with his steel pans since June, performing four days a week. The 70-year-old is certain his calypso and pop tunes help ease some of the stress brought on by the pandemic.
“Standing in line doesn’t help," he said. "A lot of people have young kids. The kids can stand in line for about 30 seconds before getting antsy.
“People get into the groove. The music is not overbearing; it is nice and mellow. Everything just comes together.”
With the opportunity to perform live clipped by gathering limits it gives him a reason to practice.
“Every day is different,” Mr Symons said. “I see people I haven’t seen in decades and I meet a lot of new and interesting people. I will take time out and show kids the pan or talk about Bermuda. It makes the day go by. Plus, I am out here and it is practice for me.”
Every now and then he gets a nibble about a possible gig.
“It is not coming in torrents,” he said. “But what better way is there to practice and create opportunities? Not every day is a catching day, but every day is a fishing day.”
He plays for tips although his performances were sparked by a donation from Chubb, the insurance company.
Mr Symons, who started performing on cruise ships in 1989, was grateful.
Like many musicians he was hit hard by the pandemic.
In early 2020 he was having a great time running Cruise Port Entertainment and performing on-board for passengers when ships were here.
“Can I take you back home with me?” was the refrain from his appreciative audience.
“Then the pandemic hit,” he said. “That really sank my ship.”
With no cruise ships coming in and no events or parties to play at Mr Symons was forced to rely on the unemployment benefit government launched with the announcement of the first Covid-19 lockdown last year.
“I have to pay bills,” he said. “What I got from government took care of insurance. There was an allowance to wash your clothes and there was about $100 a week for food – with Bermuda’s prices that won’t buy you much more than a loaf of bread and pint of milk.”
Food from charities helped but much of what was given were things like Mr Symons, who is diabetic, couldn’t eat – cereals and crackers, items full of sugar and starch.
When Bermuda opened up again, Island Restaurant Group gave him permission to play for tips outside its eateries: the Frog & Onion in Dockyard, Brew on Front Street and Hog Penny on Burnaby Hill.
Mr Symons used that money to buy vegetables; he also became a little more savvy with his shopping.
“The MarketPlace will sell loose vegetables,” he said. “Fish is not too expensive, so I could have that. But if you go down to the Supermart on Front Street, they get this English chicken. You can get a whole chicken for $29. You can take it to the butcher and he will cut it into quarters. If you freeze it and you have that and veg, you have a meal.”
Sometimes the situation gets to him, but he remains philosophical.
“It is, what it is,” he said. “I am still alive and I am still here. I always say, get up, clean up, dress up, show up and make the effort.”
He got his start as a bass guitarist, playing with lounge bands.
“Then I went down to the US Virgin Islands with the intention of staying for six months and ended up staying for ten years,” he said.
In St Thomas he met a man playing the steel pans.
"He was playing everything but calypso. He was playing pop and Michael Jackson. That appealed to me.”
On the back of that a friend in the music industry told him he needed to learn how to play a second instrument to boost his career. Thinking that piano players and guitarists were a dime a dozen Mr Symons chose the steel pans, mastering them within a couple months.
He then launched a solo act called Tropicana Steel Pan and in 1998 started performing on cruise ships and travelling through Mexico, Hawaii and the South Pacific.
He returned to Bermuda in 2013, carrying the steel pan he purchased from Herman “Guppy” Brown, a master pan maker and tuner from Trinidad.
“That is the Lexus Rolls-Royce of steel pans,” Mr Symons said. “I do not even clean it. The more I play the sweeter it sounds.”
The challenge is getting it tuned. Mr Symons has used a man Mr Brown recommended in New York. With Covid-19 at play he will have to ship his steel plan there to make necessary repairs.
“The pan fell on its skirting,” he said. “One note is out, and when one is out they all gradually go out.”
Until that happens his plan is to continue playing outside Perot Post Office from 9am until 2pm Monday through Thursday. In December he is to move to the Arrival Hall at LF Wade International Airport. For more information: www.tropicanasteelpan.com; 777-1287; email@example.com.
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