09/28/2016 01:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Life Lesson From The Pan Man

It's 10 am on a January day that's colder than what I'm used to. Maybe it's because of the ocean breeze that's whipping my hair around my face like free formed streams of ice. It could be that everyone is moving around me. There's bundled up vacationers briskly walking in front of me on the beach, sandpipers scurrying from the rolling waves, and my hands are gripping the mallets tightly as the pinging sound of my steel drums gets lost in the rushing sounds arounds me. This morning is freeze framed in my soul. It was a different world on the beach that day. The sounds, the movement, the uniqueness of being a street performer when I was 9 years old made an impact on me. It was a humbling impact, not only because when you look out over the ocean and experience a oneness as your own compass but also how insignificant but grand a person can be. Imagine playing two ginormous steel drums alone as a child there while people walk past you - sometimes smiling, usually not. A homeless man next to me carrying a conversation with me during my breaks and his own conversation to himself while I play. I fell for the steel drums that day but also for the lifestyle that it portrayed. A lifestyle of humbleness, freedom, musical sovereignty and at the end when I was breaking down to go home -- I realized... after repeating four songs over for three hours -- which may be why the homeless man was talking to himself, is I needed a teacher.

Kelvin Hart was ancient. That was my first thought when I saw this wiry Trinidad man. When reading "To Hell with Dying" by Alice Walker, the character Mr. Sweet is described as being a "tall thinnish man with thick kinky hair going white." I could not think of a better description for Kelvin. The second thought going through my head when I met Kelvin was regret. I was regretting learning and as our lesson progressed -- I kept on regretting it. Kelvin spoke softly and very quick with a strong Trinidad accent, making him next to impossible to understand. Besides the verbal communication issue was the way he taught music -- by ear. I was to memorize the song he played for me. I don't think I got a single note right during the first lesson and if one was to ask who had more regret at the end of the lesson -- we'd both say it was a tossup! The following lessons we learned from each other and as the months went by, I don't know who looked forward to the lessons more -- I'd say it was a tossup! I became his protégé, the student he bragged about with the other steel pan band members from his band, the Pepper Pot. I found out later, they'd practice behind his small white frame home, in a patch of dirt by the carport and in between the practice sessions, the conversations sprinkled with progress of the little protégé. When I gave him a copy of Tiger Beat Magazine that featured Justin Bieber on the cover and a feature article about me, he was ecstatic!

I asked Kelvin a few times about his experiences as a steel drum performer. Like many older people I talked to over the years, the past in not something they wish to dwell on. They don't want accolades for surviving it and they don't want a medal for the success they experienced with their achievements. Kelvin talked about his winning the coveted steel drum competitions in Trinadad as a boy like he asked for coffee in the morning: briefly and in a monotone voice. But one day, he added to the time long ago in his homeland, "I won two years and each time I had to run. I was always running with my pans." If one looked at the pans, they aren't something you can run easily with besides being large, they are also heavy. Sometimes understanding Kelvin you had to understand what he didn't say. Kelvin came from Trinidad where one in five people live below the poverty level. Kelvin had to run with his pans so he could keep them from being stolen.
Over the next year, there were many more lessons. Some I was comfortable with and others were difficult. Kelvin was a tough teacher and sometimes I wanted to tell him I was good enough. I wasn't planning on making a career of steel drum performing. However, the lessons with Kelvin were synonymous with Mitch Albom's Tuesday with Morrie. If everyone had a Morrie in their life, they would be a more humble person. They would be a more understanding person. They would be just better. By this time, I had plenty of gigs I was doing, I was in most of the local papers at least once, dozens of radio interviews, a few magazines and I was feeling well accomplished in the steel drum world. My street performing had led to starting my own radio show when I was 11 years old and Kelvin was proud. I performed at a rowdy local beach bar called Ocean Deck in Daytona Beach, FL and behind me on the tiny stage was an old picture of Kelvin and his Pepper Pot band. I told Kelvin about it at our next lesson and he just looked down and gave a little laugh. His pride in me kept me going with the lessons. I wanted him to see that his belief in me was justified. That I did it.


The holidays are always a busy time and as the 2011 year ended, I had interviews I was doing for my radio show and it was a normally frantic time. I opted not to have the steel drum lessons during the holidays thinking Kelvin probably had some gigs and it was all for the good. My mother received a call on January 8, 2012 and it was Kelvin's wife. Kelvin had died and would I be able to play at his funeral. The moment of regret tastes acrid in one's mouth. It freezes the bones. I didn't know what to say, what to do, who to blame. I wanted to blame Kelvin for dying, me for not having the next lesson, everyone else for giving me a ridiculously busy holiday schedule. I didn't know what to do and was too scared to want to perform at his funeral but I said yes, because Kelvin would have wanted me to be there. Then we received word the plans had changed for the funeral and I felt cheated for not being about to perform. I felt guilt for not having a lesson, I felt guilt for being selfish over wanting to blame everyone and then guilt for an opportunity that was no longer there. A performance that would have been our last lesson together. Guilt, grief and then never wanting to miss an opportunity like that again with anyone. Maybe that was Kelvin's last lesson for me after all.