Strange Drums and the Banks Band in Port Vila

I have always been attracted to the beat of a drum.

In the sixth grade when we all had to pick an instrument to study at school I choose the drums. For the next seven years I played in the school band.  I was never particularly interested in the drum set, no teenage dreams of being the spunky drummer chick in the next hot indie rock band (it was the early 90’s). No, I preferred the boom of the kettle drums during a classical concerto or the complex driving rhythm of the solitary snare drum that anchored a traditional marching tune. I went on to explore the variety the percussion section had to offer; equally enjoying the musical complexity of the marimba and the staccato simplicity of the claves.

Throughout the South Pacific we’ve encountered music, most of it played on a beat up guitar, often strung with fishing line, or tapped out on a local drum. The designs of drums have varied; tall stand up drums with still furry goat skin stretched across them, plastic buckets inverted and sat upon, whole logs hollowed out through a long, narrow slit.

My ear has been tuned to the sounds percussion section.I have even been known to follow the beat of a distant drum across the anchorage and into a village in search of the instrument and it’s player. So imagine my surprise and excitement when I stumbled across a band visiting from the Banks Islands in town a few weeks ago.

They had set up at the market and when I arrived their instruments were standing in a neat circle on the dirty courtyard under the shade of a couple trees. They were curious looking objects; varying lengths of bamboo tied together with strips of inner tubes and propped up on frames. I wondered what kind of lungs one needed to play these giant pan pipes. In the middle of the circle was a pair of more traditional looking drums, their skins made of the same stretched inner tubes.

There wasn’t anyone milling around waiting to see what was going on and no one looked like they were getting ready to play. I thought perhaps I had missed the performance. Then a Mama at the market noticed me looking around and told me they truck had just gone back to get everyone. They couldn’t fit the people and the instruments in the vehicle at the same time. So I hung around.

The boys showed up to play shortly after and a crowd of locals quickly gathered. The men stood behind their instruments,  holding in each hand what looked like sole of a flip-flop tied to a stick. In the center near the drum was a small circle of older me; one with a guitar, on with a white sack, one the conductor. A hush came over the crowd as the conductor man lifted a hand and one boy played a simple opening beat line. Then singers started with the first lines of the song. There was a brief pause, and a knowing glance quickly circulated between the band. Then it began.

What followed was pure magic.

A blur of hands and sweaty brows. A swaying crowd that hooted and clapped along. A harmony of voices.

Their song repertoire was limited but very well rehearsed. A couple of the youngest boys did actually play some over sized pan pipes, how they even lifted them was impressive. That white sack turned out to be a maraca of sorts, and as the man shook and massaged the soft metallic sounds it made reminded me of beer bottle caps. A hat was passed around and Mama’s from the market danced among the growing crowd and draped new sarongs about the necks of all the band members. At the end of each tune the boys looked exhausted, the physicality of playing these instruments nothing short of athletic.

I somehow ended up with a front row seat, the crush of people around me making it hard to move let alone lift my camera to snap a few shots. I have been waiting to find half decent internet to be able to upload a couple short videos to share. I hope you all enjoy them as much as I did.

Love,

H&S

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