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Drumbeat of The Bahamas

Music from beef kegs and lard barrels


The drumbeat is the essence and the soul of Bahamian culture. And the drum sets the heartbeat for all Bahamian music, including rake 'n scrape, Junkanoo and goombay.

Edmund Moxey, musician, historian, teacher, son of the late legend George "God Bless" Moxey, explains:

"The fundamental root of music is the drum. And the original goombay music, which dates back more than 120 years, was actually a marriage of African instruments and the accordion from Europe. The African instruments included the drum, with an animal skin stretched over a hollowed log.

We improvised

"In The Bahamas we didn't have the big tree trunks so we improvised. We used beef and pork and lard barrels or kegs to develop the drums. The beef kegs gave off a deep bass sound. The pork kegs were the baritone drums and the lard kegs were the tenors.

"What did develop was a rich, vigorous rhythm that is heard nowhere else in the world. And we can't trace it back to any one African tribe or group."

John "Chippie" Chipman and his group, Chippie and the Boys, welcome cruise ship passengers at Festival Place on Prince George Dock with their brand of traditional Bahamian music. Chipman has been making and playing drums for 55 of his 75 years. He still prefers the venerable wooden conga or goombay drum although, over the past 15 to 20 years, most drummers in The Bahamas have switched to metal drums.

Can't find the boards

"You just can't find the boards now," he laments, referring to the wooden salt beef kegs drummers used to use.

"So we had to find new ideas and we tried the skins on tin barrels, small paint tins and the like. The paint cans were for the kids, and as they grew bigger we made bigger drums for them.

"These drums have taken me around the world, and I just enjoy playing, whether it's for the visitors, for charity work or schools."

Chipman is a musical recycling plant. His drums are made from containers from the cruise ships originally used for detergents or cleaning fluids. The maracas are fashioned from plastic orange juice bottles with pigeon peas inside. "We don't have to go to the music shops," says Chipman.

"All the skins come from Long Island. I get 40 or 50 at a time. One large skin will cover three big drums, with enough small pieces left over for a few small paint cans.

"I get some from Jamaica, and the other day I got a donkey skin from Inagua."

The cow skin gives you the bass and goat and sheep skins give the high notes, he explains.

"Wet weather flattens the skin. Sun and cold bring it up taut. In between, that's when we put the fire to it," he says.

Bahamian musicians soak the skins in lime water for one or two days to get the hair off, explains Chipman, but every country has its own method. In Jamaica they rub hot sand on the skin and scrape the hair off with a board or stick. In other countries they shave it off with a piece of broken bottle or a razor, he says.

"I provide drums for the whole island - the schools, Junkanoo groups, all the bands. I make drums every day, year-round. We have goombay drums in all the schools now. I can make seven or eight drums a day. From October to January I can't make them fast enough."

Peanut the Wonder Boy

The Bahamas has spawned and nurtured a wide range of drummers.

Possibly the best known is Berkley "Peanuts" Taylor, whose name is synonymous with Bahamian music. His dynamic and hypnotic beat has been entertaining listeners in Nassau and around the world for more than six decades.

The oft-repeated legend is that as a four-year-old he passed the over-the-hill nightclub of internationally acclaimed dancer Paul Meeres.

"I can sing and dance better than you," bragged the youngster.

"You're nothing but a peanut," said Meeres and the little boy went into his act on the spot. Meeres hired him and he shared a stage with 300 pounds of joy, "Princess" Augusta Lewis. They were billed as "Big Bina and Peanut the Wonder Boy." By age 18 he was touring Asia and Europe with a 25-member entourage.

Taylor had a series of nightclubs over 30 years. He has performed around the world - including Havana's Tropicana in the buoyant 1950s - as a musical ambassador for The Bahamas.

In 1993 his efforts earned him an MBE - membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Taylor took a group of 22 musicians to Cuba in 2000 to demonstrate Bahamian Junkanoo music and culture. The next year he performed at Percussion 2001 in Cuba with musicians from Europe and Africa. He was the first non-Cuban to receive Cuba's cultural medal of honour and was made a professor of percussion at Havana's Superior Institute of Art.

Water taxi driver Basil Rolle, whose uncle, Ernest Stubbs, formed the original rake 'n scrape band, Lacido and the Boys, joined the group as a teenaged singer and drummer in 1980.

"We used to use the traditional goatskin drums," he says, "but we use traps now because it often took half an hour to heat up the goatskins to get them tight enough to play.

"We used Sterno and sometimes had a little Sterno can built right into the drum. We used to burn our hands heating up the drums, and then my uncle brought new drums from Indiana."

Local boy makes it big

Born in Nassau in 1941, King Errisson Pallman Johnson dreamed of being an entertainer and actor. From age 13 to 18 Johnson was a professional jockey at Hobby Horse Hall, a race track at Cable Beach, and at the same time moonlighted at local clubs, jamming with the hired bands.

His early years as a drummer with legendary limbo dancer Sweet Richard and, later, Percy "The Deacon" Whylly, were followed by a stint with his calypso group in the James Bond film Thunderball.

He moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and established himself as a top session conga player on the disco and R&B scene. He has worked and recorded with many artists, including Barbra Streisand, The Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations and The Carpenters.

Johnson became an active studio musician, going on to work with many jazz greats, including Quincy Jones. He recorded eight albums with jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. He joined the Neil Diamond band in 1976. Today he divides his time between his Las Vegas home and his bonefishing resort, Pestell Beach Resort, on Acklins island in The Bahamas.


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