The passing of a steelpan genius

T&T and the steelpan fraternity lost a true legend with the death yesterday morning of master arranger, composer and innovator, Anthony Williams.

For eight of the nine decades of his long and illustrious life, Williams was an inspirational and influential figure in the steelband movement, presiding over the evolution of the national instrument from its embryonic beginnings in the post-World War II era to its 21st century coming-of-age.

Fondly referred to by those closest to him as Tony, Muffman and Skip, Williams was a lifelong resident of St James who excelled at tuning and creating the steelpan. He was a true musical genius whose place in the pantheon of T&T greats is assured.

Born in Port-of-Spain on June 24, 1931, Williams grew up on Nepal Street, St James, where his first interaction with the instrument was in the form of a biscuit tin which he tuned and then used to play Mary Had a Little Lamb.

That was the humble start for the man who went on to distinguish himself as a visionary musician and leader.

Williams was one of 12 pannists selected to join The Trinidad All-Steel Pan Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), led by musical director and arranger Lt Joseph Nathaniel Griffith, at the 1951 Music Festival in England.

He was also the leader of legendary Pan Am North Stars, a steelband that broke many barriers in the 1950s and 60s, including being the first to land a sponsorship deal.

During his time with the band, he developed the “spider web” lead pan, an instrument with an expanded range that was the key to the band winning the 1962 Steelband Music Festival with Voices of Spring Waltz by Johann Strauss.

The following year, the band won the precursor competition to Panorama—The Best Road March Steelband Competition—with its rendition of Sparrow’s Dan is the Man in the Van. In 1964, the band won the first Panorama competition organised by George Goddard’s newly formed Steelband Association, with Kitchener’s Mama This is Mas.

A steelband pioneer in the truest sense, Williams broke new ground when he associated his band first with the Marionettes Choir led by Joycelyn Pierre and then with world-famous Trinidadian-born pianist, Winnifred Atwell.

The collaboration with Atwell produced music that was compiled into a landmark album, Ivory and Steel.

It is amazing, when one considers all his accomplishments and contributions to the development of the steelpan, that Williams was not much more celebrated during his lifetime. He paved a way for generations of pannists, tuners and arrangers and did earn some accolades, including an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from the University of the West Indies in 2016.

But for all the cultural wealth that he has created for this country, he enjoyed very few financial benefits and lived a simple life, his talent and contribution not well known by younger generations in this country.

It is now left to those who know of Williams’ genius to ensure that his legacy is not lost, and his sterling contributions never forgotten, for that has been the sad fate of many who have given so much to T&T.

We have lost a cultural giant.