Christmas kitchen dance at the Galleon, circa 1973

There are a lot of clichéd phrases that are supposed to make us old folks feel better. You’ve heard them all; quotes like “these are your golden years,” “I’m not getting old – I’m becoming a classic,” and “age is nothing but a number” … blah, blah, blah. Well, those chirpy excerpts irritate me.

And then there’s the memory issue: My Facebook password, for example – I have no idea – I’m always asking for a new one. Lyrics to songs I’ve composed? Without my three ring binders on a music stand, I wouldn’t be able to perform.

Then, however, there are memories that time cannot erase – wonderful flashbacks, when a Cayman traffic jam was caused by stray goats in the heart of George Town. When the majority of waitresses, waiters and bartenders were locals working at the few hotels along Seven Mile Beach and the night The West Bay Kitchen Band performed at the Galleon Beach Hotel.

Fond musical memories

It was around 1973, when I had experienced my first Cayman Christmas. I recall driving with Chef Cleveland Ebanks (yes, chefs were local back then) to West Bay for some fresh beef along some back road. There was a gathering of locals in the butcher’s yard; it’s a tradition that still prevails today. A week or so before Christmas, friends, neighbors and family meet to collect their share of Christmas beef.

As the poor animal came to its demise, the crowd killed time gossiping, telling jokes and passing around a bottle of Bacardi while an old fiddler played some strange music that was novel to my ears. On our way back to the Galleon, we ran into Erskin Ebanks cleaning fish along the ironshore near the Turtle Farm. Erskin and Cleveland exchanged a few words when I overheard the subject of “band rehearsal.” This perked my ear.

“You play in a band, Mr. Cleveland?” I asked.

“The best kitchen band in West Bay,” he responded proudly.

“So it’s called a ‘kitchen band’ because you’re a chef?” I inquired further.

“NO, NO! Let me tell you about kitchen bands ….”

Cleveland’s stories intrigued me. From him, I heard for the first time about ship building, turtling, the national bulk ship carriers, local Christmas traditions and kitchen bands. Long before radio, TV and roundabouts there were performances by local musicians at ship launches, weddings and the rare visit of a dignitary. However, Christmastime is when the minstrels kept extra busy, and in most cases (according to Cleveland) there was no pay involved for their services. That being said, the food was plentiful, and as Andy Martin sings in his classic local Christmas hit, “Old Time Cayman Christmas,”: “Someone always had a bottle of rum hidden somewhere in the kitchen.”

I asked Dave Mitchell, general manager of the Galleon at the time, if Cleveland and his friends could come by the hotel over Christmas and perform for the tourists. Dave was skeptical; he suggested that we should audition them first. After all, neither one of us had ever heard a kitchen band perform.

That weekend, after Sunday church service, the band gathered in Dave’s hotel suite. I was impressed; impressed because it was all so new to me. I could not distinguish what I was hearing; these guys stumped me. As a musician, I prided myself with recognizing the genre of a song within the first few bars.

I heard something between Celtic/Irish jig styles with a bit of bluegrass garnished with an African rhythm. The root of the lyrics were about boats, fishing and Cuba. Duxey Ebanks’s fiddle carried the lead parts and to me the strings seemed out of tune. I say “seemed” because after all, even a bagpipe can sound as if it’s out of tune.

When I asked my friend Andy Martin about it, he summed it up for me (very bluntly): “We’re not in Nashville, this is Cayman and that’s what a Cayman fiddle sounds like, so take dat.”

All of that being said, I sure enjoyed what I heard and was convinced they’d be a hit with the visitors. So, a few days before Christmas (1973 or so) in the Windjammer Lounge at the old Galleon Beach Hotel, we presented Cleveland Ebanks on the scraper, Erskin Ebanks on the cow-skin drum and Duxey Ebanks on the fiddle. As multicolored Christmas lights flashed around them, they started their 30-minute set with “Cardile gone to Cuba” followed by “Jingle Bells.” The West Bay Kitchen Band brought the house down. They even got a standing ovation. The tourists loved them. I recall Duxey whispering to me, “Why are they standing, are they leaving?”

“No, Duxey – they’re not leaving. They love you guys. Play another one.”

The image above is from the book ‘The People Time Forgot’ by G Nowak. The book is on sale at the National Museum and all proceeds go towards museum projects.