Eight-year-old Mykhel Scott plays in the Branches steel pan orchestra during the Kiddie Carnival, an annual event where individual dancers are judged in advance of Saturday’s 35th annual Boston Caribbean Carnival. (Yawu Miller photo)
Calypso tunes have a way of sticking in your head.
A month ago, it was “Blast Off,” by calypso artist Crazy, that stuck in the head of 17-year-old Dorchester resident Shaquan Gabriel.
First he started tinkering with the notes to the song on the piano. Then he brought the music to the Branches steel pan orchestra, where he serves as drummer and band captain.
Working in the group’s Harvard Street pan yard — a large shed that serves as the band’s practice space — Gabriel turned the tune into an arrangement that had the whole band rocking.
What started as tinkering secured Gabriel a new title in the band: musical arranger. Along with two other arrangers, Gabriel is responsible for maintaining and adding to the songbook of the 40-piece band.
On Saturday, Branches and two other steel pan bands will showcase their arrangements during the Boston Caribbean Carnival. Marching with a wheeled steel-framed float to support their pans and percussion section, the bands will make their way up Warren Street from Martin Luther King Boulevard in Roxbury to Franklin Park.
As most Trinidadians will tell you, Boston’s Carnival can’t hold a candle to the annual celebration held in Port of Spain on the eve of Lent. But organizers estimate that the Hub’s version attracts more than 200,000 spectators.
This year, 12 bands are expected to dance in Carnival, some with as many as six separate design-themed sections and upward of 200 players.
Hundreds of thousands of feathers, sequins and immeasurable yards of fabric, wire and thread are going into this year’s costumes.
As is customary in Boston, the steel bands — The Metropolitan Steel Orchestra, Pan Vibes and Branches — will bring up the rear.
For Branches, Carnival is a major highlight of the year, but it’s by no means the end of the line. The 40-plus members will be in the pan yard practicing their standard repertoire and learning new arrangements all year.
In the summer, the band members — most ranging in age from 7 years old into the 20s — practice five days a week, from 3-6 p.m. During the winter months, practices run on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 6 to 9 p.m.
“It’s a school,” says Branches founder Carl Smith.(p2)
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