Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Alexis Gross

The Laventille Rhythm Section is one of Trinidad & Tobago’s national treasures. Over the last three decades, this multi-generational outfit from Port-of-Spain’s Laventille community has come to be the living embodiment of T&T’s significant percussion traditions and history.

It’s said that the sound generated by the Laventille Rhythm Section can be heard from miles away, and instantly differentiated from other rhythm sections — or “engine rooms,” as they are sometimes known — from just as far. Not to be confused with the drum-and-bass rhythm sections that serves as the backbone of rock, jazz, and soul bands, these all-percussion ensembles employ a mixture of traditional and uniquely Trinidadian instruments, including the dudup (a progenitor of the steelpan), the djun djun (a massive, two-sided bass drum) and iron, modified car tire irons that create the clanging sound evident in so much Trinidadian music. (Today, the iron used by many rhythm sections is commercially produced in Trinidad at Panland Trinidad and Tobago; However, Laventille still produces all of its own instruments, preserving the rhythm section’s DIY roots.)

Like many things in multicultural, polyglot Trinidad & Tobago, the history of the rhythm section is complex, intricate and a little tough to explain. Its roots are firmly in Africa, but also incorporate influences from the country’s significant South Asian population via the tassa drum. Generally, rhythm sections are thought of as the rhythmic component of steelpan orchestras, providing a percussive counterpoint to the blissful melodies of Trinidad’s most ubiquitous musical creation. However, percussion groups serving a similar function to rhythm sections predate the invention of the steelpan in early 20th century, in fact dating back to slavery. Today, many rhythm sections, including Laventille, operate independently of steelpan.

“A little before the time that we had started, the Point Fortin Engine Room fashioned the name with a song called ‘The Engine Room,’  says Oba Kiteme, the Laventille Rhythm Section’s group historian. “But the unit was always there, the ‘engine room’ was always there accompanying kaiso music. Coming from Nigeria, from Ghana, from all over Africa, the drum was a part of us. Anything that was available, we as Trinidadians took it, and made music, and that is how the rhythm came through.”

The Laventille Rhythm Section performs in Trinidad for hire year round, soundtracking weddings, cricket matches and all manner of public affairs. Demand for their services spikes during Trinidad’s festive season, from December through February, leading up to Carnival Monday and Tuesday, when they form the musical heart of essential presentations like 3Canal’s Jouvay band.

The pulse and pace of Trinidad’s rhythm sections, as heard live on the road at Carnival, is embedded within the core of soca, the country’s primary recorded music today. Of late, soca has been returning to its roots, by way of Laventille. Last year, tech company Indigisounds and production outfit Jus Now worked with the group to create the Laventille Rhythm Section Sample Library, a downloadable pack making drum tracks from the band available to producers. Since its creation, sounds from the software have appeared in songs by Trinidad’s top soca artists, including Bunji Garlin and Machel Montano. They are layered next to a sample of Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” on Jus Now and Dismantle’s new electro-soca-dancehall hybrid “Fire,” featuring Busy Signal. Keshav Chandradath Singh, one half of Jus Now, guesses that Laventille rhythms can be heard in as many as half of the soca productions made in Trinidad since the project’s creation.

“They produce a reaction from listeners unlike any other band/singer/ensemble simply because they are the ancient rhythms upon which all other Trinidadian artforms are developed,,” Keshav says. “It’s almost as though they speak an undocumented language that everyone seems to collectively understand. In a land as diverse as T&T with it’s people having arrived from Africa, India, Europe, China, the Middle East and South America, LRS is one of the few common denominators that all Trinidadian’s claim as their own.”

Last month, members of the Laventille Rhythm Section flew to California to appear at the inaugural edition of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles. The group has traveled overseas before — in 2006, it was part of a contingent that joined T&T’s national football team, the Soca Warriors, at the country’s first World Cup appearance in Germany, and at qualifying events from Panama to Bahrain. But this was its first appearance within the U.S.

They were programmed into a special edition of Rail Up, an eclectic monthly party in an abandoned warehouse space in East L.A. known for bridging the gap between the city’s African and Latin communities. “Laventille Rhythm Section is one of the rawest examples of Trinidadian rhythm, and it’s a proper spiritual experience when performed live,” says Adam Cooper, one of Rail Up’s organizers. “People were blown away by the performance. It was a truly spiritual thing that put a lot of the music associated with Rail Up into perspective. Giving people in LA a chance to jump up to live, minimalistic, high-energy Afro-Trinidadian percussion was definitely a milestone.”

Photographer Alexis Gross was on hand to capture images of the event, which we’ve presented below with input from Gross and members of the Laventille Rhythm Section.

Rail Up x Red Bull

Members of the Laventille Rhythm Section before the show

“Think of me”

Trinidad & Tobago pride in the large crowd.

The men of the Laventille Rhythm Section watching people dance before their set, enjoying their first time in America.

The abandoned East Los Angeles warehouse was the perfect backdrop for the raw experience.

Custom polo shirts made by the band for sale.

A portrait of the Laventille Rhythm Section posted up by their march table. Pictured are Keron Mitchell (djun djun/big drum), Evan Edwards (snare, tassa and bongo drums), Taariq Morgan (congas), Shaquille Parsons (bass drum), Colin Mitchell (on the ‘tuck tuck’, or jam block), Koro Hills (iron) and band captain, Trevor Mc Donald. 

When the conch blows, the party starts

Keron Mitchell atop the djun djun

The Laventille Rhythm Section is known for being the maddest and the baddest.

Alive

Dancing under the faint red lights

The sounds flood your body with pure happiness.

Each member was so meticulous with their use of whichever instrument they played.

Taariq Morgan on the congas

From the drums to the sticks, every tool used by the Laventille Rhythm Section is homemade.