Confessions of an expat – Singing by the sea

Coral Reef from beach
The wild east coast of Grand Turk. Before Hurricane Ike in 2008 there was a hotel here

A friend (an expat) who ran a business in Grand Turk told me that if you kept your head down you could tick along quite nicely. That is only possible, though, once you have been through the mill of officialdom.

One of the legacies of British colonial times in the Caribbean is 19th century-style bureaucracy. While bureaucrats are everywhere, holding up those in a hurry through their insistence on doing things by the book, that book can be relatively straightforward or unnecessarily complicated.

In Grand Turk you would start at one civil service office, where there were forms to be filled in. Then there  would be the inevitable consequence of filling in those forms: the need to go to the accounts office half a mile away on the sea front and pay a fee. With the receipt for that fee you could go back to the first office and continue the process, which ended with the filling in of another form and another trip to the accounts department to pay another fee. It gets tedious and it gets expensive. But you can’t argue, and the worst thing you can do in another country is tell them what they’re doing wrong and how the system can be improved. That makes you an American smartass (people in in general who speak English are presumed to be American, and your London/Scottish/Australian accent counts for nothing).

One day while driving through the back streets near the centre of Cockburn Town we passed a building through the open doors of which we saw shiny new stainless steel equipment. Aha. A restaurant we didn’t know about. There was no sign outside, but they don’t really go in for signage in Grand Turk. With such a small population the tradition is that everyone knows where everything is and where everyone lives.

We climbed the stairs to be greeted, if that is the word, by two noisy dogs, followed by a blonde woman whom we had seen in the Sandbar. She and her husband were Canadian and were in the process of setting up a ginger beer business. ‘Hard’ ginger beer, that is, containing alcohol at about the same strength as ordinary bottled beer. The stainless steel containers were part of the brewing process.

Sandbar 1
You can’t get the ginger beer anymore, but the bar and the smiles are still there

Hard ginger beer has a long history in the Caribbean, and this couple had experimented with recipes to produce a beer that tasted good and had a pretty broad appeal. Like many of the other expats, I got a bit of a kick out of the fact that this stuff, although not exactly homemade, was produced on a small scale by some friends of ours.

With live entertainment being at a premium, and being a singer-guitarist myself, I eventually got a regular gig at the Sandbar. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience: the expat crowd were mainly around my age and receptive to my material, which  is big on Neil Young, Bob Dylan and James Taylor, with a song here and another there by everyone from The Beatles to Bonnie Raitt and Steve Miller, plus a bit of reggae, a touch of folk and even a wander down a country lane at times.

The Yorkshireman who ran the cruise centre lent me their PA system and there was a brief flurry of excitement at the musical new kid in town. A drummer appeared from nowhere, an Italian who played a single instrument called a djembe, which most of us in our ignorance would refer to as a bongo. Whatever it was called, it added rhythm to my solitary guitar and he played along to whatever I launched into from a repertoire of several hundred songs.

CM Sandbar
One Thursday night at a bar on stilts over the Caribbean. That’s me making an easy chord look difficult, with a real sky in the background

Last week I told you about Mitch, who has been playing in Grand Turk for years, and I have to say I don’t know how he does it. For my own amusement as much as the audience’s, I tried to add two or three different songs every week, and variety was added some weeks when a holidaymaker who could play or sing would come up and do a bit. There was a regular who came to Grand Turk two or three times a year for the diving and brought his electric guitar with him. With a bandana adding a touch of the rock star to his balding head he would blaze away on whatever I was playing.

Another who turned up more than once was a Canadian who played exclusively his own songs. That’s a brave thing to do unless you’re Neil Young or Bob Dylan; I used to do one of mine now and then, but in my experience in such a setting  you’ve got to give people something they know.

A couple turned up once who sang I-can’t-remember-what and then did some backing vocals on California Dreaming. A solo singer-guitarist had everyone bewitched with his first song but didn’t have more great material to back it up. And one of the local masseuses, a Guyanese girl, would get up and do three or four with me each week, which involved rehearsals.

I was always on the lookout for talent, but more often than not, people who can sing a few songs very well in private just haven’t got the confidence to do it in front of an audience. And it is different. The next time you see someone giving you a couple of hours of good music, just remember it doesn’t happen by magic. As Ian Dury said on What A Waste, “First night nerves every one-night stand”. Yes, it’s fun to do when there’s a bit of a crowd and they’re on your side, but on a quiet night it can be a lonely job.


Next Tuesday: all things must pass