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It’s midafternoon on Saturday at the Crossroads, a nightclub and Caribbean music venue in Bladensburg, Md., and Michael Lake is milling around with his gadget bag. He and several other men congregate onstage whenever they get the chance, bending their knees and eliciting echoey sounds by striking metal on metalusing iron rods to make music on brake drums. In between the performances of the scheduled steel-band jamboree (which featured a surprise appearance by steel-drum legend Kobo Jack), these ironmen are gearing up for what organizers say is the first “Sweet Iron Competition,” a contest arranged in conjunction with the D.C. Caribbean Carnival.
Organized by carnival committee President Michael Dupigny, Sweet Iron is meant to acknowledge talent in a musical tradition that usually goes unrecognized.
“Kids are playing the [steel] pan, but when you look at who’s playing the iron, it’s only gray-haired menno young boys,” says Dupigny. A Trinidad native who has lived in the United States since 1969, he has been playing iron for the past 13 years.
“I started to wonder, Is [iron] a lost commodity?” he says, explaining how he came up with the idea for the competition. “We figure the iron is an integral part of carnivalalong with calypso and steel bandbecause the thing that rings the most is the iron.”
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It’s not clear precisely when the art of playing irondiscarded brake drums often heated up and cut to different sizes to produce different soundsbegan. Dupigny says it started about the same time the steel band was born: after World War II, when “you used a piece of rod [to make music on] a pitch-oil can.”
“Somebody began knocking [a brake drum], realizing it had a good sound out of it, and that’s how it really became a tradition,” says Lake.
For those willing to take up the challenge of the Sweet Iron Competition, the task is the following: to group into threes and get their irons to vibrate melodiously to accompany a song that a DJ plays on CD.
So Lake has come to Crossroads prepared, tucking his instrument away in a padded black cymbals bag and carrying another small pouch for his mallets. The longtime ironman from Trinidad special-ordered his iron from a manufacturer back home. (Gone are the days of going to a mechanic shop or junkyard; today’s ironman can opt for the convenience of a hardware store or place an order with an iron-maker in New York.)
Suddenly, the ironmen, who have been playing just fine before the MC mentions that the time for the competition is approaching, turn shy. But near the end of the steel-band performancesDupigny says, “after the ka-tingy ka-tingy of the iron twisted itself deeper into their heads”two groups of ironmen (Lake among them) come forwardalbeit hidden behind tall bass steel drumsto play along to popular calypso tunes such as Shadow’s “Stranger” and Denyse Plummer’s “Carnival Baby.”
In the end, Sweet Iron is more like a showcase than a competitionno one is declared the winner. But the carnival committee is planning a second round for next year.
“Sometimes you go into a party pretty sad,” says Lake. “This instrument makes you jumpymakes you feel like getting up and doing something, makes you want to start partying.” Ayesha Morris