If you want to hear the real driving steel drums of the U.S. Virgin Islands, you ignore the big board bands of the tourist hotels and look for a swinging bunch of amateurs in a small town bar or dance hall.
One such steel band is Charlie Prentice’s “Hot Shots.” They play Thursday and Saturday nights at Eric Christian’s “Hilltop,” perched on the side of a hill overlooking the town of Cruz Bay on the island of St. John.
Their instruments are strictly home-made — 55-gallon steel oil drums sawed in half. A circular arrangement of raised bumps is hammered into the head of the drum, many small bumps for the higher-pitched “piano drum,” a few large bumps for the lower bass drums. The drums are tuned by banging on the top or bottom of a bump with a ball-peen hammer until the desired pitch is obtained. The drum is played with two short, soft-headed mallets. The ony other instruments used by the Hot Shots are a pair of maracas and the “steel” — a horseshoe struck with a metal bar and damped with the other hand.
This recording was made on a portable tape recorder during a typical Saturday night at Eric’s. The audience is an equal mixture of neatly dressed islanders and sloppily dressed tourists from the Caneel Bay hotel or the Cinnamon Bay campground in Virgin Islands National Park.
The recording is strictly informal — you’ll hear guests talking, laughing, whistling, shouting.
The band’s arrangements are equally informal. At one point Bandleader Charlie Prentice thought he was playing “Michael, Row The Boat,” but Joe Benjy on steel was contributing, the lyrics from “The Old Rugged Cross” — … take my body but not my soul, hallelujah.”
This music is markedly different from the calypso rhythms of the British West Indies. The Cruz Bay Hot Shots in particular exhibit a fascinating combination of intricate Latin-American rhythms with the spontaneous driving energy that characterized the best of New Orleans and Chicago Dixieland.
“Eric, another round of planter’s punches, please — and see what the boys in the band will have.”
(Not licensed for commercial broadcast)