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Early steelband memories
Corbeaux Town, Port-of-Spain, is named after the corbeaux who scavenged the garbage from the La Basse and fish market, about where the fire brigade station is now, in the 19th and early to mid-20th century. Family lore has it that cattle from the Main, as the old-timers like my uncle Mike used to call Venezuela, would come ashore, and be slaughtered on the beach, and the entrails left behind for corbeaux to feast upon.
Its boundaries are uncertain but most people who lived there in the first part of the last century would agree that it is bounded by Wrightson Road, from London to Colville Street. In the 19th and early part of the 20th century, what is now Wrightson Road was beach, hence the lighthouse at the end of Wrightson Road. From Colville Street, Corbeaux Town turns right onto Ariapita Avenue, bypassing Lapeyrouse Cemetery on the left and continues into Park Street, Victoria Square, the old playground on the right now literally gone to the dogs. Turn right into Richmond Street and back to London Street and there you have it: Corbeaux Town!
When I was a child, the sky over Corbeaux Town would darken with hundreds of corbeaux. This, for some reason in my child’s mind, is irrationally associated with the onset of rain. “Rain, rain, go to the Main, never come back to Port-of-Spain” was the chant. Cattle come, rain go, corbeaux stay. We had family living in the East Dry River tenements. When not coasting over town, the corbeaux seemed to settle near them in the Dry River, near where the greasy pole used to be put up every Good Friday.
One Carnival, at the Queen’s Park Oval, I saw a band of masqueraders dressed as corbeaux surround another masquerader, cover him and when they separated from the body, a skeleton appeared. The crowd roared. Dixie Land was founded next door to us at 3 Scott Bushe Street, by Ernest Ferreira, a St Mary’s College student—a courageous act in those days. Merrymakers from Sackville Street, just around the corner, where Eric Williams used to live in his pre-PNM days, came over and taught the white boys to beat pan.
When I caught measles and had to spend days “resting” in bed, reading my Just William books, and cutting paper cars out of magazines with my mother’s scissors until I blunted them and was demoted to crayon drawing or scraping my pencil over a piece of copybook paper under which a coin was placed so that the impression of the coin mysteriously appeared, Dixie Land would be practising a dozen feet away from my bed, just over the fence. What tunes they played memory fails, but my love for steelband and the unique sound of the tenor pan must surely date from then.
At one time Dixieland actually stored their few pans under our house, hanging from the wall, until one fell on the younger of my two sisters while I was attempting to beat it, cut her forehead and my mother said, “Out!” and out they went. I have a very clear memory of running into the gallery at Scott Bushe Street one Carnival night to watch a steelband come down Charles Street. In those days, Corbeaux Town children went to bed at 7 pm unless it was a special day, like Christmas or your birthday, when you were allowed up until 8 pm, so it must have been around 9 pm when I first heard the shush shush of shuffling feet and the unmistakable sound of pan playing whatever the road march was.
Scott Bushe was an upstairs house with a long gallery, shaped liked a back-to-front L, with the long handle running parallel to Charles Street and overlooking the little park in front of the fire station. My mother tried to shoo me back inside but someone must have intervened because I was allowed to stay and watch the unique spectacle of one of the very earliest of steelbands parade down my street. The gallery was surrounded by a wooden balustrade, just narrow enough to prevent a small child’s head from poking through, (although my head once got stuck) and it offered a clear view of the small band, perhaps 100 strong, ten or 12 men beating pan, as it slowly came into sight, chipping out of the darkness into the light of the lamppost at the corner, the one where the big boys of the neighbourhood used to lime, and led by someone waving a flag.
It passed patiently in front of us, people spilling over into the darkened park, turned left into Wrightson Road and wound its way past the fire brigade station and Affee Koo’s corner parlour onto Sackville Street, and I must have wondered why the adults around me could not stay still. Thus are columns and dreams made from memories of small boys whose mothers allowed them to stay up and see and hear and marvel at the sound of steelband music breezing in through their bedroom windows.
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