A steelband in Oxford Street

By contributor Sean Carey

The slim, elegantly dressed blonde-haired woman in her early forties emerges from the side entrance of the House of Fraser into the pedestrianized part of Old Cavendish Street at the junction with Oxford Street, purposefully heading to her next destination. A smile slowly appears on her face as she hears the melodious sound coming from the 8-strong steelband, which is playing the Christmas classic Ding Dong Merrily on High. Her pace slows. She stops. She then transfers her three shopping bags to her left hand  and with her right hand retrieves some change from her handbag. Then, bending down carefully, she puts her contribution in the NSPCC children’s charity collection box placed on the pavement. Unlike other people, who have gathered around, she does not linger but disappears into the crowd. This is the last Sunday before Christmas Day. Undoubtedly, she has more presents to buy. But because of the Sunday Trading laws, the shops will close in two hours at 6 PM. So she needs to get a move on.

Ebony Steelband, Notting Hill Carnival 2010. Flickr/Ibrahim_D

The members of the Ebony Steelband, who are wearing the instantly recognizable NSPCC t-shirts on top of their normal clothes as well as Santa Claus hats, are wrapped up in the musical moment and barely register what is taking place a few yards in front of their pitch.

The hands of the two young pannists, one male and one female, playing the small, “lead” or “tenor” pans, move at blistering speed in perfect synchronicity as the piece comes to its climax. The crowd of several hundred people applaud. Many of them, including young children whose parents have provided some coins, place money in the charity box. Then the band starts the next number, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. And so it goes on.

Apart from knowing that this tradition originated in Trinidad and Tobago, I claim no expertise on steelbands.  But even to my untrained ear this is high quality stuff. I want to find out more.

So I talk to Michelle Francis, aged 44, who is standing behind the band swaying rhythmically to the music. “I don’t play myself, but I’m the manager,” says Michelle, who is wearing a heavy-padded, black jacket and woollen hat as protection from the cold night air. “My father, who comes from Trinidad, started Ebony in 1968 in Ladbroke Grove and it’s all grown from there. We’re still based in the same area, but we now go into schools to teach the kids about the tradition. We’ve now got steelbands in Leeds, Leicester and Huddersfield.”

Michelle tells me that the Ebony Steelband Trust, a registered charity, was the first black organization in the UK to receive the Queen’s Award for voluntary work in 2005. “That was quite something – it made us all very proud,” she says. She goes on to explain that, while the size of the band varies over the year, the core group has around 35 members. But before the Notting Hill Carnival, which is held over the bank holiday weekend at the end of August and is the second largest street festival in the world, the number will grow to around 110 as other pannists fly over from Trinidad and Tobago to join in.

Although everyone playing today is of African-Caribbean heritage – Trinidadian, Jamaican and from some smaller islands — the Ebony Steelband is both culturally and socially “open.” “We don’t have any restrictions — we have English, Irish and even Japanese people playing the pans,” says Michelle.

The Ebony Steelband has been playing for charity in different parts of the Oxford Street area for the last four years. “You have to have a license, you can’t just turn up,” explains Michelle. But the band has clearly put time and effort into their Christmas repertoire – as well as Ding Dong Merrily on High, members also play classics like We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Sleigh Ride, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Walking in the Air.

Having just learned that today the Ebony Steelband has been playing in temperatures hovering around freezing since 11 AM and will finish at 6 PM, “it must be hard work,” I say. “If you are a beginner then it’s hard work,” Michelle replies. “But if you are experienced like all the people here today it’s easy enough. You just get used to it. We’ve been here every day since 8 December and we’ll finish next Saturday on the 24th, Christmas Eve.”

Earlier in the day, I talked to some managers and shop assistants in a number of shops along Oxford Street, once, along with Regent Street and Bond Street, London’s foremost shopping area. I wanted to find out how sales were going. I was told that the number of people buying products seemed to be down from last year, and many were reluctant to buy without the incentive of some sort of discount. Some of this behavior can undoubtedly be explained by the economic downturn – consumers are justifiably careful about spending their hard-earned cash, especially at a time of rising unemployment – but the area now has significant competition from two new, large shopping centers, Westfield London in west London, and Westfield Stratford near the Olympic Village in east London developed by the Australian-owned, Westfield Group. Tony Travers, Director of LSE London, a research center at the London School of Economics, has argued recently that “although the pound’s weakness has spared central London the worst effects of the long economic downturn” because it has brought in visitors from Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere who have taken advantage of favorable exchange rates, “it is inevitable Stratford Westfield will take trade from West End stores.”

Later, it occured to me that, while the noise level produced by musical groups like the Ebony Steelband can easily be accommodated in open areas like Oxford Street and its surrounding areas, this is not the case with conventional, enclosed shopping malls where the sound would be deafening. Given that charity donations have held up well in the U.K. despite consumers cutting back in other areas of expenditure, maybe the New West End Company, which represents 600 traders in the area, who employ a considerable number of people, has found a secret formula in their competition with the two Westfield shopping malls as well as with the comparative ease of Internet shopping.

Surely, the combination of a highly accomplished steelband and a nationally recognised charity should be deployed more often.

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