Industrial arts

Eva Murray: On a sunny Saturday, when the steel band came to Matinicus

Posted:  Friday, June 6, 2014 - 2:15pm

On a warm and sunny Saturday evening, surrounded by a harbor calm as a millpond — so calm, in fact, that I overheard somebody observe how the boats weren't even all pointing in the same direction — we came together and loved this place and made merry and found ourselves grateful for the noise of metal.

After a day's labor, whether loading lobster traps or struggling in a cellar with a flood-ruined furnace, and before the onslaught of mosquitoes or unfamiliar faces, 50 or 75 of this blessed island assembled on the so-called Steamboat Wharf to eat hot dogs and revel in the music of a steel drum band. Planet Pan was here from Stonington aboard the Sunbeam, making a party on the wharf that did us a world of good.

Nigel Chase, Planet Pan's bandleader, has grown up with steel drums and has taught a series of teenagers from the Blue Hill area over the years. Chase's father, Carl Chase, founder of the Atlantic Clarion Steel Band and a steel pan maker, is essentially responsible for bringing steel drum (or, more usually, "pan") music to Maine. The crew of the Maine Seacoast Mission's vessel, Sunbeam, — in particular Rob Benson, the minister — is a big fan, and an annual multi-island tour aboard the 'Beam helps to make sure "the music of the islands" is the music of the islands of eastern Maine.

The flag of Trinidad and Tobago flew high, honoring the origin of the pans, while friends who had not seen each other for months hugged and smiled and passed on good wishes. Much root beer was enjoyed, toes tapped and hips swayed almost involuntarily, and three or four among the crowd gave serious thought to their own oil barrels at home, and where to get a six-pound sledge hammer, as is required for the making of such an instrument.

From Hal, age 89, to Eli, 1-1/2, we let the music make us happy. A few danced. The postmaster and the minister and the schoolteacher danced. I danced. It was perfectly ridiculous.

What...huh? Where exactly was this?

Here, on the pirate island, of course. Everybody across the water has heard about our wild and wooly ways, and if they haven't, they feel quite free to speculate. From the cab drivers in Rockland to the dentist to the guys on the nightly ham radio rag-chew, we are provided with an ad-hoc education on "those boys out there on that island," and they aren't talking about the plumbers and electricians.

You know—Matinicus, where the manufacturers of tabloid television come to stock up on egregious stereotyping and to fill their metaphorical bellies with artificially-flavored, cheap sensationalist goo. Here, where everybody flies the Jolly Roger and supposedly even the little old ladies terrorize the seven seas wearing eye-patches, indulging parrots and clenching big knives in their dentures. Uh huh. Here, where if you stick around long enough to outgrow the clichés and consciously resist the temptation to prejudge, you will find the cooking to be excellent. Damn the stereotypes anyway, except that they serve a specific purpose to those engaged in this town's one and only industry. It seems to me that our reputation is lovingly cultivated to keep platoons of off-island lobstermen out from underfoot. I'm not convinced it even works. Anyway, the rest of us live and let live, and a few of us think we might need steel drums.

To be sure, we might in reality pace our creaky floors worrying over the shortage of schoolchildren, the delivery of groceries, the regulation of rope and the maintenance of diesels. We understand that a bit of live music is balm for the spirit. There is plenty to worry about, anyone will admit, but there is also much to celebrate.

Okay, enough of that. On a sunny Saturday, the last day of May, Matinicus Harbor was a certifiably happy place. Jillian and Mike and Storey and Rob, the crew of Sunbeam, ran the grills. The weather was nothing short of astonishing (so much for that foolishness about Sunbeam bringing the rain!) and music is always a big deal here, where it is rare and treasured. Two little boys ran around keeping their mothers and grandfathers hopping as they took circles around the piles of lobster traps, which made a stage set for the band. Little Eli enjoyed digging in Paul's overalls pockets for the voltmeter that lights up red, and Gavin, 3, spent the evening running around in his lifejacket with a drumstick and a carpenter's folding ruler. Things appeared to be just as they should be.

To see us on that wharf, with that band playing those pans and the babies dancing around, you'd never know we were so dark and scary.

Let us have music once in a while, and a wharf filled with smiling faces, calm water, little kids... With those, we can possibly handle the headaches and ulcers of island life — both the real ones and those we know to be pretty much imaginary.

Eva MurrayEva Murray lives on Matinicus.

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