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May 15, 2005

Another Look at the History of the Steel Band - No. 3

Sam's Newsletter
1950 - 1959
May 2005

by Robert 'Sam' Saldenha

As usual there were the usual contests for Carnival 1950.  The Beauty Queens Contests and the Steel band Competition were the main attractions on Carnival Sunday night.  Bands played a variety of tunes from calypsoes to classics.  Casablanca stole the show playing Chopin's Nocturne in E flat, and from all indications was a well-deserved win.  It was the first time a classical piece was played by a steelband, and that started a revolution in steel bands choice of tune.

By that time steel band members were considered outcasts of society, and there were the usual confrontations with the law enforcement agencies, among them, the Police.  And again members from different bands continue to wage war between and among the bands.  However, there are names, which stood out in helping to change this image.  Most note-worthy were Lennox Pierre, Carlyle Keer and Sydney Gallop, who tried to create a harmonious relationship among steel bands men.  A Steel band jamboree at the Cocorite Youth Centre later that year, led to the formation of the Steel band Association, and the executives chosen were Lennox Pierre, Carlyle Keer, Sydney Gallop, Nathaniel Critchlow and Oscar Pyle.

A closer look at the names would show that Nathaniel Critchlow was a trade union executive, Lennox Pierre was branded a Communist; so that one could question if there was an ulterior motive with these gentlemen aligning themselves with the steelband movement.  Were they using the movement as a political base of support?  Never the less, a series of concerts were organized, one at the Empire Cinema on St. Vincent street, which was later burnt, another in San Fernando, and yet another in Oropouche, bringing the new sound to the people.

As mentioned before Carnival days was synonymous with steel band clashes (fight), and in an effort to end these fights, and foster better relationships among the bands the Steel band Association created T.A.S.P.O Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra.  It was made up of one representative from ten bands under the leadership of Lt. Joseph Griffith of the St. Lucia Police band.  This band would eventually represent Trinidad & Tobago at the Festival of Britain, held to commemorate the Allied Victory over Germany and Japan.  The method adopted to form this band was that, all steel bands belonging to the Steel Band Association should nominate two members, and from that total one representative would be selected from twenty bands.  Twenty-three names were submitted, but on further reflection they realized that twenty players would be too costly, and so it was reduced to eleven (11) members.

The eleven members chosen were:
Theo Stephens from Free French - San Fernando
Belgrave Bonaparte from Southern Symphony - Oropouche
Andrew De Labistide from Chicago - East Dry River (Port of Spain)
Philmore Davidson from Syncopators (later became City Syncopators) - Quarry Street (Port of Spain)
Patsy Orman Haynes from Casablanca - East Dry River (Port of Spain)
Winston 'Spree' Simon from Tokyo - East Dry River (Port of Spain)
Dudley Smith from Rising Sun in Belmont
Ellie Mannette From Invaders in Woodbrook
Sterling Betancourt from Crossfire
Granville Sealey from Tripoli
Anthony Williams from North Stars
the latter three bands from St. James.

Even though Granville Sealey was chosen, he did not make the trip as Sonny Roach of Sun Valley from St. James subsequently replaced him.  What is ironic is that Sonny Roach fell ill on the way, and never rejoined the band. 

Be aware that some historians continue to state that Granville Sealey made the trip, which is incorrect.  My source is Anthony Williams of North Star.

All the players chosen were Ping Pong or tenor player ( i.e. they played the melody).  Lt. Griffith introduced the chromatic steel band.  Prior to that, on the Ping Pongs in some bands were tuned chromatically.  The bass boom comprising three 55-gallon oil drums were introduced.  Prior to this All Stars and Chicago were the only steel bands which had one player playing more than one bass pan, they had two, each were caustic soda drums.

The four official tuners appointed were Ellie Mannette, Sterling Bentacourt, Andrew Delabistide and Philmore Davidson.  Ellie who tuned the bass wanted to play it, but was discouraged and advised to stay on the Ping Pong, as he was already known as a Ping Pong player.  The others on the Ping Pong were Theo, Patsy, Andrew, Spree and Granville.  On single second (or alto Pong) were Sterling and Belgrave.  On two pairs of Tenor Boom were Dudley and Tony (Anthony Williams), and Philmore on the bass.  While the tenor booms and the altos were tuned alike, the Ping Pongs were tuned in various styles to suit the styling of the players respective bands.  Tony recalled that the tenor booms were tuned from biscuit drums, which tone he did not like, and as a result he tuned his own from two 55 gallon oil drums, which was accepted.

Some of the tunes played by the band were Touseli's Serenade, After Johnny drink meh rum, Jamaica Rhumba, Golden Earrings, Figuray, Mambo Jambo, and God save the Queen.  The band gave concerts in Port of Spain, San Fernando, Perseverance Club, Country Club and Government House to raise funds for the trip.  Other bands pitched in by giving concerts of their own to help raise funds.  Sir Hubert Rance the governor made a public appeal, and public donations poured in.

The band left Trinidad late in the afternoon aboard the s.s. San Mateo and arrived in Martinique the following day, where they remained for five days, and performed in a few concerts.  The next stop was Guadeloupe, where they stayed for a few hours before travelling on to Bordeaux, France.  As mentioned before, Sonny Roach, who replaced Granville Sealey became ill in Martinique, and remained for medical attention.  He was to rejoin the band inn London together with Beryl McBurnie, but for some unknown reason never did.

The band arrived in Bordeaux, France on 24th July 1951, and later that evening traveled by train to Paris.  They arrived the following day, had a brief stay, and boarded another train to Calais.  The band crossed the English Channel in the ss Invicta, and landed at Dover, where they took another train, and reached London at 9 p.m. in daylight.  One could well understand how the members felt, seeing daylight for the first time at that time of the day.

The band stayed at King's Court Hotel, London, and the first engagement was over the British Broadcasting Corporation (B.B.C.) on a programme entitled 'In town tonight'.  The other performances were at the Colonial Office, on Television, at the Festival, and also made recordings at a recording company.

For approximately two weeks the band had no engagements, but continued practising in the basement of Edric O'Connor's Flat, where they learnt among other tunes Blue Danube Waltz.  There was a hurricane relief fund for the West Indies, where they were able to show off their skills.  Two of the players (Dudley and Theo) got home sick, and wanted to return home, but because the contract was signed for three months they had no other choice but to stay on.  Fortunately, they received a two week contract with the Savoy Hotel, where they played in a Cabaret show.

On the final night there, they traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to fulfill another contract, playing for a chain of dance halls called The Mecca Dance Halls.  Places they performed were Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Tottenham.

The tour also had its humorous moments.  The members did not like the food, as it was not highly seasoned.  On one occasion Beryl McBurnie made a pelau, (which was described as a rare treat).  She suggested to the Chef of the hotel that West Indians like sweet foods.  The Chef will to please prepared the curry with sugar, but was a mess, and unable to be consumed.  As the tour was winding down, they met a Trinidadian by the name of Chris Leimett, who advised them not to return to Trinidad as yet. Five members, Sterling [Betancourt], Belgrave [Bonaparte], Philmore [Davidson], Patsy [Orman Haynes] and Anthony [Williams] decided to remain.  They asked Lt. Griffith for the pans, but were turned down.  Once more the band got a two week contract in Paris, to perform at the Medrano Circus, and left for Paris on 15th October, after securing their baggage at Edric O'Connor's Flat.

By the time they fulfilled their contract they all just wanted to get back home.  At the last moment Sterling had a change of heart, and returned to London, where he remains to day.  A few years ago he was given and honorary Ph.D., by a University in England.  Ellie Mannette was the only person who got up to see him off.  The band left Paris on the evening of 22nd November, traveled to Bordeaux by train, and left Europe aboard the ss Barfleur the next day.  On 5th December they band arrived in Martinique, overnighted and left on another ship, arriving in St. Lucia the same day.  The band spent three days in St. Lucia, giving concerts with the Police Band under the direction of Lt. Griffith.  They boarded the ss Lady Nelson on 9th December, and took three days to reach Trinidad, as the ships made calls at St. Vincent, Barbados and Grenada.  Once could well imagined the triumphant return of this band.  It is said that Trinidad came out to greet their heroes.

The next year 1952 is significant, because it was the first time that steelbands were included in the Music Festival. Boys Town from Point Cumana, Carenage, led by Glen Beterand won the Competition playing 'You are my heart's delight' along with the test piece.  Among the comments made by the Adjudicator, Dr. Sydney Northcote, was that steel bands should not attempt the Classics as they could not play sustained notes.  He told Free French, who played 'Handel's Largo' that they did not know as much music as Handel did, and that they should not change his music.  In those days band would learn the melody correctly, but alter the harmony to suit themselves.  This was not intentional, because at that time the arrangers lacked proper music ability.  The tunes were usually learnt by ear. 

Dudley Smith on the Ping Pong Solo competition performing 'Body and Soul', together with the test piece.

It was during this year that Dixie Land produced the double strumming pan, the forerunner of the double second or alto pan.  There is another story to this, as Anthony Williams already had produced a double strumming pan.  However, while his was hung form a wooden stand, the pans from Dixie Land was welded together using a steel bar on top and below.  This meant in order to play the pans, the player had to be seated with the pans resting on his legs.  And slowly but surely the pans began appearing on stands. 

1953 is one of the biggest watersheds in Steel band history in that the Spider Web was introduced.  This is accepted note placements on tenor pan.  It is easily identified, as all the sharps and Flats are on the left side, and the natural notes on the right.  I will speak about the Spider Web some time in the future, but it got its name through the markings (grooving) which separates the notes.  A spider web is easily identified.  Today it is not called the Spider Web as tuners use the rounded note formation.  I once asked a tuner why he did not groove his pan in the Spider Web design, and he confessed that it was a very difficult pan to tune. 

Carnival 1954 was the first time that the Public saw these new Ping Pong on the road.  After Carnival the Music Festival preliminaries began.  North Stars was the only band to appear with their pans on stands, fully suspended.  All others were still using straps around their necks.  Southern All Stars were the eventual winners playing 'Anna', Trinidad All Stars was runner-up; their tune of choice 'La Meir'.  The Adjudicator, Dr. Herbert Wiseman, was high in praise for Theo Stephens of Southern All Stars for his virtuosity on the tenor pan. 

Again, Dudley Smith won the Ping Pong Solo competition for the second time consecutively.  He played Minuet in G.  Dr. Wiseman remarked, that he would have liked Beethoven to hear his tune rendered on a Ping Pong.

In 1955, Skokiaan and Happy Wanderer (Valerie) were the top tunes on the road.  At this time, more and more bands were discarding the caustic soda and biscuits drums for the oil drums.  Eman Thorpe of Crossfire, decided to tune the 55-gallon oil drum, cut off the tune part to a depth of 4 to 6.  The top of the caustic soda drum was also cut off, leaving it opened at both ends, and then the tuned top of the 55-gallon oil drums was welded on, making a lot lighter to carry.

Later in the year, there was the Caribbean Exhibition, and the Steel Band Association organized a steel band competition. Happy Wanderer (Valerie) was the test piece.  Boys Town, Katzenjammers, Spellbound and North Stars all won their respective groups.  In the final held two weeks later, the test piece was changed to “Skokiaan.  North Stars won, and Boys Town was the first runner up.
Carnival 1956 is perhaps the most memorable Carnivals.  Two things of significance. For the first time steel bands became mobile.  That is to say some of the instruments were now on wheels.  The second is, for the first time a long playing records of steel bands was made on the street, by and American name Cook, and is considered a collector's item.  On the record is North Stars playing 'Puerto Rican Mambo', and is identified by someone calling out to a player in the band named 'Zambie'.  Star Land performs 'Back Pay Shuffle', and another band, some claims to be Trinidad All Stars can be heard.  Also on this record is Lord Melody and the Mighty Sparrow going at it, giving one another picong.  When listening to this record pay particular attention to the bass chords in 'Puerto Rican Mambo', for though it sounds like one drum playing a particular run, it actually was several players, picking up where one left off.  However it is so well rehearsed, that one can miss it.

Once again Music Festival began a few weeks after Carnival.  Katzenjammers, Tripoli, Merry Makers, North Stars, Ebonites, and a steel band from the British Guiana were among the participants.  Very early in the Festival, North Stars performing 'Constable Tre' composed by Lord Kitchener and Puerto Rican Mambo were eliminated. At the end of the semi-final Ebonites from Morvant led the field.  Tripoli played 'Unchained Melody' and 'Go Go Mambo'; Merry Makers played 'Unchained Melody', and Katzenjammers played 'The Breeze and I'.  However, in the finals Katzenjammers won the festival.

Dr. Nrothcote, at the end of the festival addressed the audience on the progress of the steel band in these words: "It was the most incredible improvement.  You have showed me that you can play sustained notes".  He praised Katzenjammers for their rendition of the 'Breeze and I'. 

Nerlin Tate won the Ping Pong Solo competition from South.

A farewell show was given in honour of Dr. Northcote, and it is believed that Star Land performed “Blue Danube Waltz. (This is yet to be confirmed).  As to comment on the performance, Dr. Northcote remarked that the bands could play the Classics, but not to go delving into them.  I am sure he would be very much surprised if he should hear a steelband performing the 1812 Overture today.

Some time later Warwich Films came to Trinidad to shoot the movie 'Fire down below', and they took Katzenjammers to Britain.

Sir Patrick Rennison who was Colonial Secretary of Trinidad & Tobago was also a patron of the movement, promised to send a trophy for the steel band when he left.  The trophy did arrive, and competitions were to be held every tow years for the trophy, but up to 1961 none was ever held.

Carnival 1957 saw almost every band mobile (on wheels).  Many bands bolted two drums together, other welded them.  However, Merry Makers was a jump ahead of the others in that they had three drums attached to a frame (stand) made of steel pipe. 

Carnival 1958 can be described as the year of the Classics.  Many bands played classics on the road, but Trinidad All Stars made a huge hit with Minuet in G.  'Tan Tan' composed by Fitz Vaughn Bryan, and 'Theresa' composed by the Mighty Sparrow were the most popular tunes on the road.  The Music Festival due that year was postponed as Queen's Hall was undergoing repairs. 

Another steel band, Samba Boys, led by Theophilus "Tello" Mollineaux was formed that year, but  later changed their name to Wonder Harps.  Tello is one of the great steel band soloist, and  should one ever get the chance to see him perform, one should not miss out.

1959. 'Michael' composed by Lord Melody was the Road March, and Invaders made a hit playing it.  That year Invaders introduced the Double Strumming pan on wheels, on the road.  They also recorded 'Liebestraum', and Emmanuel "Cobo Jack" Riley became famous for his improvisations on the Ping Pong.

Music Festival Invaders won that year in the West Zone performing 'Come back to Sorrento'.  Silver Stars played 'Rubenstein's Romance', and Tripoli played 'Moonlight Love'.  Other preliminaries were held at the Roxy Cinema, and Dixie Land won in their zone playing 'Estudiantina' and 'Endlessly'.  Ebonites also won in their respective zone, but withdrew.  This Music Festival, one of the grandest up to that time was completed in 1960, with Dixie Land although leading changed their tune, as well as Invaders. 

However, that is for another time, until then take care and Stay Up.