Steel pans in my blood, says talented Peter, 81
There is a saying in Trinidad: when steel talks, everybody listens.
Peter Harris has had an audience for many years.
The Trinidadian was 19 when he played the steel pans for the first time.
“It was really beautiful,” he said, explaining how he was walking through the streets of San Fernando, a city on the Caribbean island, when he heard music coming from somebody’s yard. Intrigued, he interrupted the musician to ask if he could give it a try.
Mr Harris tapped out a tune that was so impressive, the bandleader asked if he would join his group for a rehearsal.
Until that day he had never played any instrument at all.
“But I think it was in my blood,” he said. “My father played the flute and I had a brother who played the ukulele.”
Mr Harris’s first public performance was at a steel pan competition.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “I was playing three drums called the cello pans. Another guy was playing the bass.”
He and the bass player were supposed to match note for note, but that was not happening.
“He could not do it,” Mr Harris said. “But I did it. I saved the band from busting on stage.”
Today’s steel pans are made oil drums specifically intended to be instruments; back then young people crafted them from discarded ones.
“I think what makes steel pans popular is the idea of it – that they can take an oil drum and make an instrument and make it sound pretty,” Mr Harris said.
Every good band had a big oil company, such as Esso or Shell, as its sponsor. Mr Harris’s group, the Guinness Cavaliers, was sponsored by the makers of the famous Irish stout.
At 30 he went to Toronto, Canada for a vacation and liked it so much he decided to stay.
He got a job as a salesman selling everything from cars to sewing machines and shortly after met his future wife Lynette, a Bermudian studying in Toronto.
“I almost dropped,” he said. “Her face had exactly the same features I saw in a dream. I knew right away she was ‘the one’. We had a spiritual connection.”
They were married in Toronto and in 1974, moved here.
“I loved Bermuda,” said the musician who had four children: Arlene, Nichole, Mikkel and the late Nigel Harris. “Bermuda was a very beautiful and clean island.”
He went to work as a waiter at Holiday Inn where the St Regis hotel is today.
In 1980, he got his first opportunity to play the steel pans at a carnival organised by the St George’s hotel.
“They had a big celebration and brought in costumes and steel pans,” he said.
Reuben McCoy, who ran a number of bands throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, invited Mr Harris to join the All Stars. The band had a regular gig at the Southampton Princess Hotel and also played at private events.
“I gave up my job as a waiter,” Mr Harris said. “I think the head waiter was sad to see me go.
“I don’t remember now what the name of the band was that I played in. I remember that my brother Wilfred played with us. Once we were invited to play with the Follies when they were here. I also played with the Bermuda Strollers and we went abroad to Connecticut and Boston to play. The people out there loved us.”
The 81-year-old is sad that there is no one in Bermuda who can tune a steel pan now. The instruments have to be sent overseas, an expensive undertaking.
He drove a taxi for 15 years before retiring. For two or three years, until the heat forced stop in 2019, he played the steel pans in King’s Square. “The tourists loved it,” he said.
Despite some health challenges, eye problems and a mild stroke a month ago, he is hoping to one day get back to playing.
“I could play at Harbour Nights on Wednesdays,” he said. “That’s in the evening when it is cool, or I could play indoors during the day if it is air-conditioned.”
Mr Harris parents, Charles and Mary Harris, moved to Trinidad from Grenada.
“I don’t know why they came to Trinidad,” he said. “They had three sons together. I was the youngest and the only one born in Trinidad.”
He was five when his parents separated. His mother stayed in Trinidad with his siblings; his father took him to Grenada.
“My family were from Mt Moritz, Grenada, but my father had a store on the wharf in St George’s, Grenada. He remarried and had three more sons,” Mr Harris said.
“We lived on top of a hill. When I looked over the bank from where I lived there was a river. The river belonged to me when school closed. I would go in the river and catch all these big crayfish. They looked like lobsters. We cooked them with different preparations – yams, green bananas …. We would just make up a nice cook. It was lovely.”
At 14 he began to think of his mother.
“I asked my father to send me back to Trinidad, because I missed my mother,” Mr Harris said. “He wasn’t angry. He put me on a schooner headed that way.”
His mother was waiting on the dock when he arrived. It was a very emotional reunion.
“It had been very hard on her,” he said.
Before the pandemic he went back to Trinidad regularly, particularly for the country’s carnival which usually falls just before Ash Wednesday.
Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or email@example.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them