A BAND ALL AT SEA or
UNIVERSITY OF LIFE FOR THE WEDDING SINGER
Leonie Trubshoe boards the Queen Mary II for Australian Musician and discovers that music is a big part of life on the open sea
Are you the consummate Wedding Singer? Then you should consider a career as a musician on board a cruise ship, according to the resident band on the world’s most luxurious passenger liner, Queen Mary II.
The five St Lucian nationals who make up VIBZ, have been playing on cruise ships and passenger liners from between five and twenty-five years and consider it the “university of life” for musicians.
Interviewed during the 10th Anniversary of the ship’s famous Trans-Atlantic crossing from Southampton to New York and back again, the VIBZ members sailed away with hats pulled down and collars turned up, high on deck, in 8°C with a wind chill bringing the temperature down to near zero. Welcome to the first point of difference to a shipboard gig versus shore-side – you play, no matter what the weather.
On this historic occasion, the three Cunard Line Queens – Mary, Victoria and Elizabeth – sailed together in a spectacle; fireworks filling the sky and a wide range of passengers braving the cold to be able to say – they were there.
“A wedding singer must assess the guests and make sure they play something for each of the age groups from the bride’s and groom’s contemporaries to their parents’ friends and relatives,” says the oldest member of the band, bass player Mitchell Carasco, known as Slade. Having worked on passenger ships and liners since 1985, Slade has covered the full range of cruises and age groups.
“Travelling is a privilege,” he says. “It’s a good job, you learn a lot and get to interact with other entertainers. However, if you do not have good training from home – good discipline – you cannot survive. You have to learn to live by the rules and regulations and adapt to being one-on-one every day.”
Drummer Vaughn King explains: “at home when you finish a gig you go home and any disagreement with your fellow band members has time to settle. However at sea, you might be sharing a cabin with the person you clashed with. You need to get on and cooperate with one another, be tidy and organised.”
King says that musicians need to join a ship with an open mind. “Don’t come expecting something. Expect nothing and learn. Adapt. You can’t stay up drinking all night, because you perform every day.”
It was school friend and band leader Lindy Jean, keyboards and vocals, who convinced King to join the band. Another veteran of various cruise liners and ships Jean explained that the advantage of being a shipboard musician was that the ship owned all the basic equipment such as the keyboard (Roland XP30), the drums (five piece Pearl Session Custom Fusion kit) and all the technical equipment. Only the guitars, drum sticks and the steel drum are personally owned.
“At the end of a gig, we just turn everything off and go to bed – no packing and loading, no transport problems and if anything happens to our gear, there is a whole audio-visual technical division on hand to fix everything. It is important that the guests can keep dancing if they want to, so everything is fixed immediately,” says Jean.
Although the ship has lost power on some cruises, it has never happened while any of the band members have been playing and luckily, to date, has happened in the middle of the night when no entertainment was affected. The ship has its own generators, so the engineers are always on full alert and an appropriate team is allocated to make any necessary repairs immediately.
All flights to and from their home country to the point where they join the ship (usually Southampton) are covered by Cunard who, according to vocalist and steel drum player Gennoter Neptune – at 28 years the baby of the group – treat their crew well including sending money transfers home at no charge and providing services above and beyond other companies he had worked for.
“Working on this ship makes me a better musician,” the aptly named Neptune says, explaining that he was able to perform every night in different genres, and got to meet people from all over the world including stars like Lenny Kravitz (who travels on the Queen Mary with his family annually), rapper KRS-One, Charlie Pride, Rod Stewart (another frequent traveller) and Neal McCoy.
It is Neptune and King who face the biggest challenges when the weather turns bad. On the return voyage from New York to Southampton, the Force 9 gales meant that despite the best stabilisers of any current ship on the water, the rocking meant a constant challenge to stay upright.
“It can be difficult to balance and keep the tempo,” King says. “You have to follow the wave and ensure the drums are weighted to stabilise them.” For Neptune, as the steel drum rocked in its cradle he not only had to keep his balance standing upright, but move backward and forward with the sway of the drum. “It’s difficult to play soft and in control in rocking seas and in a small enclosed area like the Pavilion Bar,” he says; “but you learn to adapt.”
Each band member has their own reason for choosing to be in a cruise line band and advice for other musicians considering the life.
Magaron Destang, lead guitar and a veteran of three ships and eight years at sea at only 29 years of age, promotes the life. “This way you get to travel and see the world, getting paid while performing in your chosen profession. Most people have to choose one or the other. We get to make more money to send home because our food and accommodation is included.”
King concurs. “We get to have a job when so many others don’t. We also see the world, go places others couldn’t – the last leg of this cruise going to Iceland for example. We can buy gear direct in USA and UK that would be prohibitive with shipping and we can take presents home to spoil the family.”
The challenges, however, include the frequent time changes around the world and especially on the Trans-Atlantic where there is a time change almost every day. “This can be really tough on the body,” King says.
But the biggest challenge of them all, they agree, is pleasing guests from such a wide demographic. You need to learn a wide range of music to suit different nationalities and age profiles as well. “World cruise passengers tend to be older,” says Jean. “UK passengers and Trans-Atlantic want chart toppers. Around the USA – Top 40, while the Germans like house music. The basic repertoire depends on the age of the passengers.”
The Queen Mary II and the other Cunard ships tend to be older people, more sedate, although the Queen Mary is also very popular amongst younger gay travellers; while the Celebrity, Princess, Carnival and Caribbean line ships tend to be a different profile with overall younger passengers.
“Often on QMII they don’t want the latest songs, they want the oldies,” King says. “We need to play what the guests want and take requests that will appeal and be circumspect with those that might not suit the demographic.”
VIBZ play in four venues throughout the ship. Their main place of residence is the G32 nightclub, a home they share with the resident DJ Marc. The music is up-beat, disco mode 70s, 80s, 90s and, depending on the passenger list, older Rock ‘n’ Roll numbers.
The Queen’s Room caters mainly for the older audience and while a more-ballroom orientated orchestra plays daily, when it comes to party time it is the skills or VIBZ which are transported into this chandelier decorated reception room for waltz, cha-cha, rock ‘n’ roll and jive.
Every midday VIBZ can be found poolside either outdoor when the weather suits, or in the covered pavilion when inclement. Here these seasoned performers are called on to read their audience and play accordingly, incorporating the steel drum for a Caribbean twist and adapting old favourites such as New York New York on this real-life themed journey.
The only time when the musicians can let loose and play what they want and not what is dictated either by the Entertainment officers or the passengers, is when they get to play in the Crew Bar. Then they can play their reggae, hit parade numbers and whatever their fellow crew request. But, their crew bar performances are at the whim and will of the HR officers.
All VIBZ members are employed through the same agency in St Lucia – Xtsea – although Cunard draws from agents all over the world, who in turn choose the most versatile performers able to cover for each other if one goes off sick. No one member can afford to be a specialist, Jean says, but rather must be able to step in and take over at least one other instrument, or vocals, as required.
Contracts are usually for around nine months and the Trans-Atlantic crossing came at the end of a Round the World cruise for VIBZ – their total time at sea being from September 2013 to June 2014 followed by almost three months back at home. As their agency also handles fill-in musicians, VIBZ was quickly called back for two weeks on the Queen Victoria interrupting that break, although the time lost can be tacked onto the end of their original vacation time.
The VIBZ repertoire is decided by discussion and new numbers are often added after observing the reaction to songs requested of the DJ either on his afternoon radio show, or when he takes over in the nightclub after the band. As none of the band members reads music, they play by ear – and have good memories – King says; so new numbers can sometimes be added overnight.
Adding to the multi-cultural nature of the modern music division of the entertainment crew is Canadian Marc Faran. Of Egyptian descent, Faran is another seasoned cruise ship performer, on top of a background as a DJ on land and MC throughout his home city of Montreal.
Being multi-lingual makes him a popular choice as he can converse in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic and as a single man, he also has the flexibility to fill in on short term contracts throughout the Cunard Line, as well as others. Another advocate of the shipboard discipline, he advises that punctuality is essential especially for his radio show, which is played throughout the ship, and his late night G32 nightclub stint when he takes over from VIBZ.
Faran carries a range of 560 CDs with 9,500 songs that cover an age group of 18 – 90 years, he claims. While he downloads some music, he prefers CDs to ensure he always has access to instant sound. Faran also personally checks the audio-visual equipment before starting his contract on the ship – on the Queen Mary II this means a Kaleidoscope for effects, Telemetric systems for two cameras, the AMX main interface system, 18 fifty inch plasma TVs, 30 ten inch monitors, a Pioneer mixer and CD player and three smoke machines.
The equipment must be able to withstand the constant vibration of the ship, Faran says and this can limit the choice, especially with lighting. He uses a JBL sound system with JBL and QSC amplifiers; and Firefly technology – all owned by the ship.
The benefit of the shipboard contracts Faran says, is that he only needs to own his laptop, CDs and earphones and everything else is supplied…… but from this writer’s experience, you also need everything on your laptop backed up, as a virus can easily be transmitted through the cabin system.
The DJ and VIBZ band members sleep deep in the ship on Deck 1 – complete with their own cabin steward – and with a choice of messes in which to eat. They must all dress as professionals, with Faran explaining that the shore-side jeans of the DJ are not acceptable on ship, where they must dress as professionals to suit the liner – jackets and ties at all times after 6 pm and dinner suits on special occasions, no matter what the type of music being played.
They are also required to serve as emergency crew including acting as Stairway Guides during lifeboat drill and if the order to abandon ship is given, to accompany passengers direct to the life boats. During port visits, at least one band member is required to remain on board as emergency crew and all are required to return in time to prepare for drill for newly embarking passengers.
Faran, like his Vibz colleagues sums up being a DJ on the Queen Mary II: “If you’ve just been a DJ you won’t make it. You need to have felt the range, been a host and interacted with your audience. You must be a sociable person, able to take criticism, because if a passenger complains, you can’t escape them.
You have to be everyone’s friend …… you need to have done weddings.”