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Antigua

Published on June 15th, 2015 | by BBC News

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The steel band hammering out the sound of Antigua

The sound hits you long before you see the canvas gazebo and the ensemble beneath it: a motley crew of musicians from schoolteachers to mechanics, pensioners to kids as young as five, in perfect harmony, united by a single passion. Here, on a roadside between a football field and a clutch of houses on the outskirts of Antigua and Barbuda’s capital city, something magical is afoot. The intoxicating sound of steel pans reverberates through the body, stirs the emotions and engulfs the mind to the exclusion of everything else. This is food for the soul.

Crowd magnet

Once dubbed the devil’s music, a ghetto pastime with instruments as rudimentary as hubcaps and scrap metal, traditional Caribbean steel bands are today as much part of Antiguan culture as Carnival and fried dumplings. Such is the music’s magnetic quality that barely five minutes pass before a crowd gathers to watch. With concentration inscribed on their faces, the performers are lost to the rhythm, eyes closed, brought back only by the jubilant applause. Even with just five or six players, the acoustics are incredibly uplifting. Add another 140 when the band is at full strength and it becomes a tour de force.

Hell’s Gate

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The world’s oldest, continuously operating steel orchestra, Hell’s Gate, will this year mark its 70th anniversary. Like many of its regional counterparts, the group’s organic roots have evolved into a highly technical and competitive art garnering global acclaim and concerts in places as diverse as Europe and South Korea. Hell’s Gate leader Veron Henry says that when “playing pan” first started in the ghettos in the 1940s, they used “anything that made a noise”. At the time, participants were thought of as gangsters. “It was the devil’s instrument, it wasn’t as fine-tuned as it is now; it was just a lot of noise, which is how our band got its name,” he says and smiles.

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