A career in music is rarely boring. Expect the unexpected! Learn to roll with it. Boogie through bloopers with a belly laugh! Sometimes excruciating moments remain as hilarious memories, stories to tell with relish. Here are some stories from my band when we played regularly at theme parks.
My Caribbean band, Island Fever, performed at the San Diego Zoo every summer for 10 years. We had a lot of friends there. Among them was a flock of six free roaming Guinea Fowl, a hen called Jenny and her nearly full-grown brood. They were companions and sometimes participants in the show. Very cute!
We met Jenny and crew when we were doing our shows under a very big tree near the zoo entrance. They would sometimes stroll through the crowd looking for food scraps, do the limbo with the children, and warily accept tidbits from friendly fingers.
Around 6 PM or so, the Guinea Fowl would settle in to roost in the tree above us. But first, they would perform in concert, announcing to the world that the sun was going down, with raucous staccato rhythmic squawks. Amplified or not, there was no way for our band to compete. They were always “singing” on G or G# (more or less), so we jammed along with them until they finished, tucked their heads under their wings, and went to sleep.
Why We Wore Big Hats
Another thing about Guinea Fowl, they had rather carefree hygiene habits up in that tree, and did not worry about what was going on below. I learned that Guinea Fowl eat a high-fiber diet, also containing a surprising amount of pebbles. And I discovered what it feels like to be hit on the head by a soggy, high fiber, dirt clod. This is why we wore the hats you see in the photo accompanying this article.
Years later, the zoo staff took pity on us and provided large umbrellas.
The Jamaican Freeze
We attracted massive crowds at the zoo, as our shows were rhythmic, colorful, and often humorous to watch. One of the audience participation things we used to do at the zoo was a dance contest we called the Jamaican Freeze. All ages could participate. Basically the band played a dance rhythm while the contestants boogied, and each time the band suddenly stopped, the dancers had to freeze instantly, too. Anyone still moving was Out. The final contestant still In was the winner.
On one occasion, when explaining the all-ages contest to the audience, for some inexplicable reason, I was inspired to tell them it was for grown-ups and “the wee ones”. The contest began. The contestants jumped and waved and bopped. The music suddenly stopped, and Zookeeper Willie, the official judge, indicated who was Out, by tapping them lightly on the head and blowing his whistle.
Among the Out participants was a cherubic looking little boy, perhaps two years old, who plainly disagreed with the judge’s decision. When the band started again, he resumed dancing. When he was tapped Out once again, he retaliated by walking into the center of the huge circle, and…. watering the grounds. The crowd gasped. His red-faced parents grabbed him, apologized and took off. Our guitarist, with a slight twinkle belying his bland demeanor, said in his mic, “That would be the wee one.”
Remember Where You Are!
We perform many high-energy dance songs and love to get audiences jumping and dancing. When a band is grooving and the audience feels the music and lets loose, the energy is a contagious feedback loop. Total fun!
Some of our favorite high-energy music to play is Soca, an upbeat style related to Calypso, from Trinidad & Tobago. Our guitarist used to sing the T&T hit soca road march “Bacchanal Time” by Super Blue, a guaranteed crowd pleaser, in which the chorus repeats the refrain “Jump up, jump up, jump up, jump up!” in catchy harmony.
Performing at the zoo meant we had to appeal to families with children of all ages. So we would adapt the Carnaval soca songs we learned in Trinidad to the situation, and get the kids to participate in our shows. When we performed Bacchanal Time for them, our guitarist would throw suggestions into the chorus for them to jump like various animals seen at the zoo. Sometimes the children were so excited that they converged closer and closer to the band, leaping and shouting with glee.
Adults do precisely the same thing, once they set themselves free from convention and let their Inner Children cut loose. They will do the limbo, conga lines, all kinds of dance moves, whooping and cheering with carefree abandon.
But at the zoo, our shows were always featuring the kids, and most adults observed and cheered in support.
One year, after months of daily zoo shows, we were performing a summer concert for a crowd of about 2000 fun-loving people in Del Mar’s beautiful Powerhouse Park, by the sea.
We had awesome percussionists and drummers creating irresistible rhythms. The audience was very responsive. It was a musical high, that mystical connection between band and listeners we all crave. It was hot!
And then our guitarist was singing Bacchanal Time. The mostly adult crowd was leaping to the beat, and masses of dancers were pressed against the stage. The chorus came around again, lifting the energy yet higher… the rapport was intense… and he called out to the crowd “Everybody jump like kangaroos!”
I watched the peculiar shift of 2000 mostly adult audience members becoming nonplussed… their boogieing grinding to a halt… as if they were waking up from a spell…
The band continued, the audience willingly came back under our spell, and the dancing revved up to exciting peaks again. Whew!
But I have to wonder if at that moment, something shifted in the winds of fortune. We haven’t been asked back to Powerhouse Park in a while.
You can see videos of Island Fever performing at the San Diego Zoo and Powerhouse Park here. The actual episodes I have shared with you are not on those videos (though we have some on unedited tapes), and the sound volume sometimes distorted the camcorder mics. But I think some of the fun comes through.
If you would like to listen to or purchase music by Sabira Woolley, here is her Music Shop.