My Mistake on Canouan Island

The Caribbean

May 23


It’s a short but soulful walk along the main street of Canouan Island at midday. The Caribbean sun scorches the tips of the palm leaves, turning them canary yellow and toasted brown as I look up at the clouds.

I’m here by mistake. Two mistakes really.

The first involved my debut seasickness that blindsided me the day before. That ruled out today’s scheduled boat trip.

The second was a simple missed turning.

I’d meant to follow the crescent of sand that stretches from the thatched Tamarind hotel to Canouan’s jutting wooden port and beyond. From there I’d see a fruit market, a police station and a small row of houses in bubblegum blues and pinks, painted bright like a small child’s dream.

Canouan Island, The Grenadines

Instead, I turned down an uninspiring road, a patchwork of concrete with spikes of plucky plants piercing through and grasping for the sun.

I can hear my own footsteps, the swish of my bag against my hip – and in heat like this I’m tempted to think I can hear the sun itself, slicing through space to reach us here in St Vincent & The Grenadines.

I can also hear the voice of God. Or at least someone speaking on His behalf.

The gospel blasts across several blocks in the firm lilt of a Cari-bb-e-an accent. So too, does the memory of the eighties as It must have been love but it’s over nowowowow belts away from the shaded door of the local shop.

Young men sit at the roadside watching the young women saunter by. Baby goats play hide and seek with palm leaves.

And from the bright building up on the hill I hear the edgy sweet ripples of a Caribbean steel band.

I follow the music.

A wide lawn leads up to the low white building and I feel like a flip-flopped version of the children of Hamlin, seduced by the sound and drawn towards danger.

At the doorway, I have to stop. A young woman, tall, bright eyed and swaying with the beats looks me right in the eye.

I try to speak but the moment’s not right. She watches me; I watch her and try to smile.

I step a little closer.

The band, whose foot dancing rhythms beguiled me with their complexity, consists of children. Nimble-footed girls at the front, older children in the middle and a mix of ages at the back. They pulse from one foot to another, perspiration on their brows, concentration in their eyes.

I just can’t believe my luck. I snatch a nod of acceptance from their teacher and I’m in, standing in silence at the back, taking it all in, glowing with gratitude.

Girl in Grenadines Band

The Sand Dollar Orchestra

The front row, it seems, are the sopranos. They have the smallest drums in the shiniest condition. Another few rows follow with larger drums – and drummers – and in the far left corner, each child stands surrounded by turquoise metal barrels – one for each note.

A blackboard at the front gives instructions via two columns of chalk. I can read music – but beyond the keys of the piece, I can’t read this.

It’s joy to my ears but it seems that the practice isn’t going too well.

The teacher, whom I later discover is called Colette, is far from impressed.

“No, no, no,” she cries, halting proceedings by silencing her own drumkit.

“Marvin* and Carlton you are doin’ it wrong.

“I told you to list-en. I told you to prac-tice.”

Marvin and Carlton seem unconcerned.

They try again and this loop of conversation repeats for a while, allowing one of the “bass” boys to leave his drums and slink towards me.

Boy in Grenadines Band

He’s fascinated by my camera and makes me run through a brief photo shoot.

They practice four times a week, I learn, in the build up to carnival, some time later in July. Marlon* has been playing since he’s seven; he’s now ten years old.

The music returns and he scampers back to his drums.

Later, I meet three girls at the front. They hold smaller percussion instruments and one is periodically swept up in the arms of Colette and given a kiss.

They too are fascinated by the camera. They want to know my name and they want me to take their picture. As the practice gets underway again, Daisy, Carice and Kendra*, concoct a dance routine at the front of the hall. I get treated to frog hopping, catwalk shimmies and robotic moves, not to mention a whole dose of wholesome hilarity.

It’s one of the happiest ways to spend a morning.­­

It gets me to thinking about life in my home country, where such a pure celebration of life and music would be simply inconceivable. If this situation took place in the UK, I’d probably be arrested.

But I don’t want to waste time mourning what the UK has lost.

I want to savour, bottle and capture the experience forever.

I want to commit those musical notes to memory and to carry the lilt and the lightness of the children’s spirit with me as I walk back home.

On that quiet street in the midday sun in Canouan Island, it’s easy.

The trick is, somehow, to make it travel further. To make it travel all the way home.

Disclosure: I visited St Vincent’s and the Grenadines as a guest of DiscoverSVG. As ever, as always, I am free to write what I want and what I really think.


*Names changed for no better reason than I grew up in a paranoid country

Have you ever heard a steel band play live? Or stumbled into a situation where people made you feel welcome on your travels?


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.

  • Love the photos of the children–they’re adorable! I commend you for following your travel senses!

    • Abi says:

      And I’m so glad I did! I had such a wonderful time…

  • Roxanne Israel says:

    Hello Abigail,

    I was warmed and encouraged by your article – “The Sand Dollar Steel Orchestra.”
    Through your eyes, thoughts, expressions, pictures and your keyboard (smile), we were abe to share that experience with you.

    Almost one year ago in recognizing the importance of inculcating music in the lives of our youth and the community as a whole, C.C.A. Limited, the company Colette and I work with here, employed Colette Myers to teach the children and anyone who had an interest in learning to play the Steel Pan on the island of Canouan, free of cost.

    The children have been very receptive and willing to learn and are moving forward with the support of C.C.A. Limited and the expertise of their Tutor Colette, who has been doing a commendable job.

    As residents and workers on the island of Canouan we are sometimes so caught up in our daily work lives, that we seldom take the time to stop, listen, savour and appreciate what goes on around us. We need to constantly remind each other of these privileges and blessings. (Smile)

    We are indeed happy that you were able to experience and appreciate what we at C.C.A. Limited is doing for our Island Paradise – Canouan.

    A warm welcome will always await you.
    It is home to us to all.

    Safe travels and do come again. GIve us a shout when you do!


    • Abi says:

      Thank you Roxanne. It was a great experience for me. I think we all get caught up in our daily work lives and seldom take the time to stop and savour what goes on around us. That’s one of the joys of travel! It removes the everyday and forces us to pay attention.

      Now I need to remind myself to pay more attention when I’m at home as well…

      Thank you for the warm welcome. You have a fantastic project underway and I still feel privileged to have been able to experience a part of it first hand. Best wishes, Abi

  • Major Harold Durie Finch says:

    Sumptuous in every way. Beautifully written, lovely, lovely pictures. Keep doing what you are doing, it’s great! Hal Finch.

  • I’d love to visit the Grenandines–they seem so much more remote and sparsely populated than the majority of the Caribbean isles.

    • Abi says:

      There’s quite a difference between the islands within St Vincent’s & the Grenadines as well. I think they’d suit you ;)

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic says:

    What a beautiful thing to stumble upon. I’ve never heard a steel band play live, but I’d love to — especially if the band was this sweet and cute! :)

    • Abi says:

      It’s fascinating to watch a practice and to realise how much skill is involved…

  • Federico says:

    I specially like the third color photo…so charming!

  • Turtle says:

    What a thing just to stumble on! It sounds like a fantastic way to spend a morning. They all looks so happy and I bet there’s no way that couldn’t rub off!

    • Abi says:

      It seems to have sparked a pattern! Last week in Catalunya I stumbled upon a human pyramid practice session (that’s a very Catalan activity…)

  • You are such a good storyteller :-)

    I love a steel band. My friends had one play at their wedding reception in Key West, and it was perfect.

    • Abi says:

      Thank you. I’m also now a big fan of steel bands!

  • Erica says:

    GAH I’m still learning how to capture people – these are adorable!

  • Jenna says:

    There is nothing more precious than the smile of a child, and these kids are so cute! I have never been to the Caribbean but of course look forward to doing so. Seems like such a colorful part of the world.

    • Abi says:

      The Caribbean certainly specialises in colour – perhaps it’s the sunlight but everything seems so vibrant. And yes, the smile of child can light up the world.

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