TT – Pannist Ray Holman says his upcoming presentation of an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by The University of the West Indies (The UWI) signals a growing respect for pan and the calypso artform.
“To me, this signalled that gradually our society has begun to attach a significant value to practitioners in the steelpan and calypso artforms. Of course, there is a great feeling of pride in seeing some tangible recognition of our indigenous music, especially coming from the highest academic institution in our country and the region,” an elated Holman told the Express yesterday.
Holman is set to receive the honour during the 2021 presentation of degrees at The UWI, St Augustine, set for October 28 to 30.
A total of 14 honorary degrees will be presented in the coming months across The UWI’s five campuses after gaining approval by the University Council at its sitting on April 30. A total of 450 honorary degrees have been conferred by the regional university since 1965.
The musician/educator, a former history and Spanish teacher at Fatima College, rated this honour among the very highest he has received in his lifetime. Holman is a National Hummingbird Medal (Silver) holder and has received an esteemed Pan Legend Award from the New York Folk Arts Institute and the US Congress.
“I treasure all of these honours, but if you press me, I would have to say that an honorary doctorate tops the list as it represents the ultimate recognition of my body of work,” he said.
Started as a teenager
Holman, a graduate of Queen’s Royal College, began playing pan at age 13 under the direction of Ellie Mannette at Invaders Steel Orchestra in 1957. The future The UWI graduate composed his first pan piece for that band, “Ray’s Saga”, in 1961, at just 17 years old.
Also at 17, Holman became the youngest player to win the solo ping pong (an early version of the tenor pan) competition at the 1964 Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival.
Asked what his teenage self would make of his illustrious career and upcoming honour, Holman said that boy would be “very surprised”.
“I think he would probably be very surprised as at the outset of my fledgling career, I did not harbour any such dreams or aspirations, seeing that my first attempts at playing the pan had resulted in abject failure,” he smirked.
In 1962, Holman joined the Starlift Steel Orchestra and delivered the renowned arrangements “I Feel Pretty” and “Penny Lane”. Starlift won the National Panorama title twice with Holman at the helm, with his arrangement of Kitchener’s (Aldwyn Roberts) “The Bull” (1969) and his original “Queen of the Bands” (1971—joint winners with Harmonites).
Holman went on to arrange for several top steelbands, including Phase II Pan Groove, Exodus, Carib Tokyo, Hummingbirds Pan Groove, Invaders and Pendemonium. In 2001, he returned to Starlift.
Reflecting on that trajectory yesterday, Holman rated his exploits with Hummingbirds as his greatest achievement.
“I consider my work with Hummingbirds to be the most remarkable as I took a small, unsponsored band from an unfashionable area, Cocorite, a band that had made the semi-finals of the Panorama competition only once during its existence, to the finals in two consecutive years, thereby making them an overnight sensation,” he beamed.
More music to share
Apart from his live band arranging, Holman also recorded several pan albums, including In Touch (2003), Changing Time (2006) and First Love (2017). He also composed the score for the New Jersey, USA-based Crossroads Theatre Company’s Black Orpheus in 1991.
In 1972, he again created a history by becoming the first arranger to take a pan orchestra to the Panorama competition with an original composition when Starlift played his “Pan on the Move”. Despite threats of violence from other band leaders who found this move unfair since “it was not a proper calypso”, the band finished third.
Since then, many bands have co-written or composed their own songs for competition. Lennox “Boogsie” Sharpe has notably won five Panorama titles with original compositions. Pelham Goddard is the only other arranger to win with an original piece after his “A Happy Song” earned Exodus the title in 2001.
“In 1972, I was at the top of my game, having won the Panorama competition twice and placed second on two other occasions in the previous four years. I’ve always felt that the time to set the tone for change is when you are the leader in your field.
“I was convinced that change was needed and that the steelband had become sufficiently of age to have its own music as had always been the case with calypso. I was also very confident that I could compose a piece of music that could hold its own amongst the best,” he explained.
Holman’s calypso witing talent is also well documented, having penned “Panyard Vibrations” (1977) and “Heroes of the Nation” (2001). He notably also had a hand in Chuck Gordon’s (Roderick Gordon) back-to-back National Calypso Monarch wins in 2015 and 2016, composing music for the winning songs alongside lyricist Fazad “Joe” Shageer.
“Having my compositions capture the top prize in the Calypso Monarch for two consecutive years and then placing third the following year has to rank very high amongst the list of my achievements because there are many great composers who have not won it once,” Holman noted.
Holman, who has lectured extensively on the national instrument at West Virginia University, however weighed his pan achievements ahead of his calypso work.
“The Panorama is a different thing, you know. It’s sort of deeper, in that it’s a composition you develop over eight to ten minutes, and it really takes a lot more work. So I would have to say Panorama may be slightly ahead in how I rank them, but still, winning a Calypso Monarch twice is nothing to sneeze at,” he concluded with a chuckle.