Du dup and djun-djuns: the Laventille Rhythm Section

Mesmerised by the sound of the Laventille Rhythm Section, David Katz didn’t notice he was being baptised in blue paint at 3 am one Trinidad Carnival

Getting into the groove at a rehearsal at the Laventille headquarters. Photograph by David KatzLearning the art of the all-important tyre iron. Photograph by David Katz

My first encounter with the Laventille Rhythm Section was a jaw-dropping moment. It was three o’clock on J’Ouvert morning, when Trinidad’s annual Carnival is opened by the uninhibited mayhem known as bacchanal, and I was among the crowd gathered on a Port of Spain street corner, waiting expectantly. As mammoth trucks blasting soca music inched forward in the distance, suddenly another type of sound was upon us: two dozen players banging complex polyrhythms on a variety of known and unknown instruments, yielding an instantly powerful sound that evoked the ancestral homeland of Africa, yet was simultaneously rooted in the present, particularly through the resounding rings of a tyre iron—the inner part of a car wheel.

The scraping of a metal grater merged with the shakings of a tassel-covered gourd, and the metronomic tapping on a plastic block by the only woman in the crew melded with the congas, cowbells and other pieces of iron being struck with metal sticks. There were muscular youths pounding oil drums known locally as du dup. On the back of the truck, a fat man clad only in his underpants blew deep, angry trombone notes and another drew harsh treble blasts from a truck horn.

Most impressive of all were large, double-sided drums called djun-djuns; as two shirtless gents banged away on them with curved wooden sticks, creating a stupefying din, I became completely mesmerised, so much so that I discovered I had been baptised in blue paint by the mad revellers in the street.

In recent years, rhythm sections have become an increasingly important part of Trinidad’s musical landscape. They have always been used to augment steel orchestras, but the most impressive function as stand-alone outfits, using nothing but percussion. The Laventille Rhythm Section was one of the first to get going, and is now recognised as one of the greatest in the land, the section of choice for leading Carnival bands such as Brian MacFarlane’s and Peter Minshall’s legendary Callaloo Company.

As the name suggests, the group is based in Laventille, an eastern suburb of Port of Spain that is at present one of the island’s most troubled spots, where longstanding issues of urban decay have resulted in a high crime rate. Though various official solutions have been proposed to stem Laventille’s decline, very little has been accomplished to date, which makes it all the more heartening to learn that the Rhythm Section is a focal point for young people in the community, its doors open to all who are willing to learn.

“Laventille has that stigma right now,” explains the band’s captain, Trevor McDonald. “The news suggests that no one is safe here, which is very far from the truth, so we always try to show that good things can come out of Laventille too.”

McDonald says the band began informally 15 years ago, when a handful of friends brought percussive implements to parties. Promoters soon began allowing them free entry because of the buzz they generated, so they expanded the group by recruiting young people from the community. “It took seven years for that to happen,” McDonald adds, “because it was difficult for us to make them realise that this is something that can be life-changing in the long term.”

The group has performed in Britain in 2001 and Bahrain, and spent three weeks performing in Germany for the football World Cup in 2006. “It was amazing seeing the kind of reaction we’re getting from the people in Germany, when you are expecting only to be getting that in Trinidad,” McDonald grins, “so I always try to impress on the guys that we should aspire to reach that level all the time, to be able to play to international crowds and to be appreciated by them.”

As word of the Laventille Rhythm Section continues to spread, McDonald says they are hoping to reach the point where members can support themselves solely through the group, and want to transform their rehearsal premises into a self-contained business space.

“I would really like some of those business entities based in Laventille to realise that what we are doing here is a good thing,” McDonald explains, “because the more youth we can get off the streets, it’s gonna be better for the entire country.”