My adventures continue, and have led me deep into the Caribbean, to a charming island named Nevis. It was never my intention to stop here (a recurring theme during my travels, it seems…), and this region of the world was supposed to remain untouched by yours truly for at least a couple of years as I head west around the planet, upon “completion” of the European continent. And no, I’d never heard of Nevis before either. Except for Ben Nevis. But the Scottish mountain is pronounced with a short “e”.
I am privileged to meet countless fascinating and friendly people in my line of life, and one such individual presented herself last summer in the few hours I spent busking in Woodbridge, Suffolk (again, no, I’d also never heard of Woodbridge before!). The former can-can dancer had performed & travelled all over the world but the past 20 years of her life had been devoted to building a successful restaurant out in the West Indies. She wanted to take me across to play there, and being the “yes-man” that I am, I swiftly accepted the offer. I’ve found this trait of mine has brought me (mostly) good fortune & good stories thus far, and can see that the people I meet are receptive to the way I’ll see any opportunity through that comes my way.
This one has taken me across the Atlantic Ocean to Nevis, of St Kitts & Nevis. A former British colony and now the smallest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Armed with the social tools of my violin & new Brompton folding bike – plus the social lubricants of rum & “Carib” beer, both cheap and in abundance here in Paradise – It hasn’t taken long to get to know the island and many of its 12,000 inhabitants. Contrary to the majority of my travels, I have the rare and brilliant opportunity to remain in one place here, during my time performing at the gorgeous & tasty restaurant aptly named “Bananas”! Already, I’ve been able to dig a little deeper into the culture; the way life operates here; the plethora of gruesome local history, of an island raped by early colonialism, pointlessly fought over by the English & French, and all the while repopulated by members of the African populace ruthlessly dragged half way across the planet to cater to Europe’s new found sweet tooth. Discussing the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade is something I hope to cover in a later article during my time here.
However, I put pen to paper today (yes, I still write that way, it’s just a shame I’m left handed so that the ink smudges) in an attempt to put into words my experiences of the day before. I was invited to a goat-roast, a traditional Sunday event on Nevis. While the roasted goat wasn’t exactly my style (vegetarianism isn’t for everyone), the rest of the buffet was simply exquisite, and the setting in an old sugar plantation inn was a window to the past. No more than two dozen were in attendance, and I shared some music with the group prior to eating, in the main wing of the hotel – a striking wooden structure dating back to ca. 1670: the oldest of its kind in the Caribbean.
I’d slightly misjudged the sensitivity of the room at first, and the the Handel sonata I elected to play was appreciated, though did not capture the room as I’d intended. I knew that singing a traditional English folk tune would achieve this, and so followed accordingly. However, the piece was met with more emotional engagement and focus than I could have imagined. I think the combination of the ineffable beauty of the ballad, complimented by the rustic charm of the space, and most importantly the open hearts and willing minds of all of us in the room led to a mutually shared experience that was really quite magical. The children there were entranced by the violin; one couldn’t hold in her excitement and kept clapping! I think that when a musician can surrender their ego (something which can be hard to do, especially amongst artists…) and consider the communality of their performing, of which every individual has an equal role, that something quite special can occur. This undoubtedly happened yesterday, as clichéd or cheesy as it may sound.
The family who hosted the lunch asked if I might play to the mother, an energetic and wonderful woman who has suffered for many years from the merciless & undignified disease of Alzheimer’s. Seven of us, all male, including the father, son and close family friends came to her bedside, where I played and sang a piece for her. Maureen is Irish, and so “Danny Boy” was a fitting song. I’ve come across few songs in my existence that are as heart-wrenching as this one, and yesterday’s recitation was no exception. Music is impossibly powerful, and I cannot stress this enough. Even in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s the music was able to trickle through, bringing a smile to Maureen’s face, and a glimmer of recognition we all know she felt. Though perhaps even more powerful was that the music reduced seven grown men to tears. I think all of us there needed that in a way. As men we are conditioned to quietly cope with feelings as powerful as these (if we’re are permitted to feel at all), and during such busy lives it isn’t often that we give ourselves the time to truly process the deeper feelings that we have to navigate.
The experience shook us all, but we all returned to the main room of the house to find ourselves being soothed by the inviting voice and guitar playing of Pete, another member of the afternoon’s social circle. After sharing a couple of knowing glances, Wade and I (a family friend privy to the heavy emotional content next door) found a space near Pete and each picked up one of the many instruments he’d brought with him. The three of us gave what we could to get some harmonies flowing, and before long, all of us were merrily singing along to gentle Americana: some bluegrass, Peter Paul & Mary, and even the Eagles. It was a terribly quaint experience, which brought us all together. The sense of community & fraternity was infallible, and it is not often I feel such a sense of belonging when travelling as I did there. I think this was another of those first steps for me, in discovering what is most important in my life. The entire day will live with me, as a stark reminder of the importance of music and the way in which it transcends age, culture, race, and even the most unfair and isolating of diseases.