Swanky Band keeps traditional kitchen music alive and kickin’

Cayman traditional kitchen bands may be a dying breed, but “Swanky” is stirring up brown sugar and Seville oranges to keep the musical custom alive. 

“We literally are the last of the traditional kitchen bands left in Cayman,” Swanky band leader Samuel Rose said in between breaks performing for the Christmas at the Bodden Town Mission House event this week honoring volunteers and members of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. 

“The North Side Kitchen Band lost two of its musicians this year, and they won’t be performing anymore, so it is left to us to keep it going. Right now we are more endangered than the Cayman blue iguana,” said Mr. Rose, sharing his passion for the local music of long ago. 

At the Trust Christmas party, volunteers were recognized for their time and contributions to the nonprofit organization and treated to a feast of Cayman-style stew beef, fritters, fried plantain, cassava heavy cake – and more Swanky band music. 

Mr. Rose said the centerpiece instrument for musical bands in days gone by was a fiddle. “That is what distinguishes Caymanian music from any other indigenous traditional music in the Caribbean,” he said. 

“We all claim to have Scottish and Irish ancestors, so it is kind of connected to music from there and, of course, the rhythm is undeniably African. The first settlers were obviously from the British Isles and from African slaves – they combined bloodlines, culture and music, and we created the Cayman kitchen music that we enjoy today.” 

Mr. Rose explained the musical “grater.”  

“The grater was used for grating coconuts, cassava or yam, which were staples as part of the traditional meal that Caymanians enjoyed a long time ago. They combined it with bottles spoons, pots, pans and maracas and everything else they could find to make music,” he said. 

Earlier, Mr. Rose paid a visit to Bodden Town resident Cedric Levy, where he played the fiddle for the 89-year-old. Mr. Levy recalls the fiddle being the most popular instrument used at dances and was played during Christmastime back then.  

“I was a little boy when the fiddlers came to town to play. But, oh! What a time it was,” said Mr. Levy recalling his teenage days. 

He recalls Bodden Town people flocking to the little old school house to hear the fiddlers play and dance the night away. 

“We really did not have good fiddlers back then like they do today, but those guys like Franklin Green, Jackson and my cousin Lapear could hold their own going around the neighborhood during Christmastime, when someone got married or just to strike up a party,” Mr. Levy recalled. 

Mr. Rose said he cherishes what he does. “I enjoy playing the traditional music as much as I can. To keep this tradition alive I have taken the music to all the government schools in the hopes that the children will take it up and keep it going.” 

Mr. Rose said Swanky’s music has taken them to the international stage – and as a group they were able to share something that was authentically, undeniably Caymanian.  

Swanky draws its name from a popular drink that Caymanians enjoyed long ago and still do today. “We take a little brown sugar and stir in some lime or Seville orange to make a refreshing drink,” said Mr. Rose. “This is the name we adopted for the band after playing around for a year or two without a name.” The band has been playing for the past 10 years. 

“In the Caribbean we have a very competitive spirit when it comes to culture – Jamaica has reggae, Trinidad calypso and Barbados spouge. When we broke out on Trinidad stage with the kitchen band, they said, ‘OK, we can’t claim that, so it must be Caymanian’,” said Mr. Rose. 

The Swanky band has a variety of different configurations. “We have a 10-piece show band which takes traditional music another level.”  

He said Swanky music is like putting turtle stew or oxtail on a china dish. “We dress it up a little bit but the core is still the same Caymanian flavor.” 

At the National Trust party, he told members and volunteers: “We share the same passion as you do for culture and for preserving it. It was a pleasure to be here to give Christmas cheer and thanks for giving us the pleasure to be part of something preserving Caymanian heritage.” 

Xmas fiddler at Mission House

Samuel Rose entertains Cedric Levy on the fiddle – a musical tradition enjoyed many years ago by Caymanians. – Photo: Jewel Levy