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Cruise Diary: The Oosterdam Music Makers

HAL blogger Gary Frink recently sailed on board Oosterdam and sent in post from his voyage.

HALCat leader Gervay Burnett.

HALCat leader Gervay Burnett.

I might have met the happiest employee on the planet. When I first approached Gervay Burnett, leader of one of the two HALCats musical units aboard (quintets, each with a keyboard player, drummer, bass and guitar player and a tenor saxophone player—who also plays flute and alto sax), I said: “ I understand that you have been playing on ships for 30 years.” “Holland America,” he said. “I have always played for Holland America — and it is 22 years, not 30.” Burnett was about to go back on the band stand, but added: “It’s a great gig and they really take care of you.” Then he laughed and said: “On land, where do you play after New Year’s Eve?”

In a subsequent interview, I learned more about the 54 year old, Philadelphia native and Temple University graduate. “When I came to work for the company in ’90, it had only four ships. The bands aboard ship in those days had 10 players, almost a full big-band. I was promoted to leader after six years.” I asked about the benefits of working at sea for HAL, instead of living and playing ashore. “First, the work is steady. Ashore, work dwindles every year. I went to hear Stevie Wonder a while back. He had himself, four backup singers and two computer operators. I kept hearing a trumpet line and would look around for the player; there wasn’t any. And it wasn’t a synthesizer; the sound was an exact digital reproduction of a trumpet.”

Gervay could not be a more satisfied employee: “I would have to make three times my current salary on land to put the money in the bank I do from here. Aboard ship, I have no real expenses: food, room, uniforms, health care, prescriptions, everything is paid for.” A bachelor, he doesn’t maintain a permanent land residence. “I only take a month off after a contract (4-6 months), that’s enough for me.”

Gervay mentioned a couple of instances where Holland America went out of its way to provide him great assistance: “Both my parents died while I was aboard ship. Holland America found someone to replace me, and paid my round-trip fare to go home. One time, in Cabo San Lucas, I had to have my appendix removed. They set me up in a very good hospital, then flew me to San Diego to rejoin the ship, and paid for it all.”

Each unit of the HALCats can back up the various musical and other entertainment acts that come aboard for short periods to perform; in order to do that, all players have to be expert “sight-readers” (put a piece of music in front of them and they can play it expertly.) When not playing backup in the two story theater, each unit plays for dancing in one of the Oosterdam lounges.

Canadian Andrew Hills, the sax player in the other HALCat unit, is 23 years old, and more typical of the musicians aboard ship. A graduate of Saint Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, he told me: “The word about working the ships is around all the schools that have good jazz programs. You decide if you want to audition and, if they need your instrument, the company head of auditions will email you an audition kit. You open the music, play it while being videoed. Then an hour later you play it again, so the audition guy can determine if you improved. If you pass the audition, you are offered a contract and arrangements are made to get you aboard a Holland America ship that needs you.” Andrew is pleased to being paid to play and, like Gervay, is enjoying his “no cost” life aboard the Oosterdam.

Tall, thin, 24 year old Denmark native (from Aarhus), Mathias Madsen left home at age 19 to study drumming in London. He perfected his sight-reading ability and honed his very impressive drum-set percussive skills for four years in the U.K; then it was on to work in Holland America quintets. He is scheduled to follow his group leader to Seabourn, a Holland America sister cruise company, when he completes his current HAL contract. When I told him how much I enjoyed watching and listening to his work on the drum set, he said simply: “I like to make noise.”

  • Julie

    I met Gervay in the 90’s during the steam powered Rotterdam’s final holiday cruise. It was pure magic for 14 days! Gervay is a blessed artist. Seeing the sparkle in all the musicians eyes, their passion for music and entertaining was inspiring. No other line has “it” like Holland America. They truly own and embrace their tradition in excellence.

  • john santana

    greetings my friend from an old b-ball rival, hope all is well,,,, congrats on your succsess,

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