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Arranger Leon Edwards - One smooth operator
It will be hard we know
And the road will be muddy and rough
But we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there
We know we will
Woyaya (Osibisa, 1971)
The journey now start.
On Wednesday night, three days leading up to the Panorama semifinals, Trinidad All Stars arranger Leon “Smooth” Edwards is putting the band through drills that seem to belong to another time, when Neville Jules, the band’s founder and post-World War II arranger, would block any band member from leaving the “panyard,” situated in an attic above the old Maple Leaf Club on Charlotte Street, until he passed a test.
Play the music individually and to perfection, or you’re relegated to the back of the line.
Fifty-five years later, Edwards’ conducts his version of the exam in front of the players and a crowded pan yard. Well past midnight, the process is still taking time to figure out the perfect tempo. The fastest.
“I call it fine-tuning and I’m looking for loopholes,” he said in a throwback to Jules’ hard-nosed reputation.
You’d need to rewind to early January to the first phase of his creative process, the planting of the seed that leads to the band’s objective—the Panorama hat-trick.
Edwards and a cadre of arrangers are huddling in a room, bouncing ideas and idioms off each other. They certainly don’t serve only as echo chambers for Edwards, who took time off from his job at the University of T&T to crank up new music fed to him by ace All Stars pannist Clive Telemaque, composer of Bounce and Drive, the band’s Panorama song.
Sometimes, before putting down the piece, Edwards would run the process by the section leaders. The team includes Telemaque, Terrence Demas, Sule Sampson, Derek Nurse and Tony Guy—all of them working together, patching up passages and chords and instrumentation and colour to make this brainstorm callaloo hot and sweet.
After all the fiddling and modifications, if it suits him and a part needs to be more jumpy, Edwards will acquiesce with advice.
Telemaque doesn’t mind giving the low-down on the down-low. “The players say this song has a lot of flair,” he tells. “Smooth creates passages around people dancing, which helps in his interpretation. Like theatre, which is about dance, too. So we strategise the choreography for the frontline players. We want to leave an impression—that this is a show band.”
“It will all translate into the performance of the music,” says Demas, a bassist and section leader who also functions as an assistant to Edwards. “You know when you have good music. The first four minutes are more solid than last year’s at this time of the season. It is madness.”
Beresford Hunte, the band’s leader, concurs. He’s seen Edwards shimmy into the yard, a li’l dance is how he christens the mood. “He has some steps like halfway in a swing, side to side like how you see people exercise. He’s in a good frame because members like what they’re doing.”
“Everybody smiling in the yard,” Edwards affirms.
The scene playing out is barely two weeks into the Panorama season and the headcount is unusually high. With the panyard and fresh vibes in heat, 88 players have come in from cold. In a few weeks 50 more will push the band’s limit. Only 120 will make the cut. Hunte isn’t concerned.
“This is one of our most important years,” he says. “Some will fall by the wayside because tempo is important with this band.”
Edwards, the tireless purveyor of head-bobbing, waist-swinging tempo, sits in the pilot’s seat, focused on the orchestra’s ultimate destination. If All Stars wins, Edwards, who earned the moniker for his cool demeanour, will be only the third arranger to guide his band to three straight steelband championships. Renegades’ Jit Samaroo did it in 1995-7; and Clive Bradley duplicated the feat for Desperadoes in 1998-2000.
Samaroo racked up nine victories, then walked away from the festival, which marks its golden anniversary this year. Both Bradley and Edwards have scored seven.
A good arranger must be original, creative and adaptive, and Edwards seems destined to share the stage with that rare breed.
“The country recognises Boogsie [Sharpe] and other arrangers, but Smooth ain’t no gallery man,” Demas says in a matter-of-fact way. “It’s hard [for the public at large] to accept winners.”
“He’s inconspicuous. Nobody really knows who he is,” Hunte says. “He’s not in front of the band, not shouting down at anybody.”
Yet, in the world of pan, “Smooth” is on everybody’s lips. With a name like that, it’s a wonder he ended up in the make-or-break whirl of the annual “arrangerama,” as Fonclaire’s Ken “Professor” Philmore facetiously refers to the festival.
Edwards, the seventh of eight siblings, spent his formative years a block away from Tokyo’s panyard. He didn’t ask for much at Christmas. A harmonica or xylophone would do. Soon, the family moved to Jackson Place in Laventille, an area that abounds in panyards. His eldest brother, George, played pan in City Symphony. Another brother, Winston, had joined Dem Fortunates and Solo Harmonites. Edwards doesn’t admit to the influence of musicians on his life, but pan definitely grooved in his head night and day.
A scholar at Queen’s Royal College, Edwards followed young boys in the area who were playing pan. In 1968, he signed up with Trinidad All Stars.
Determination and skill led to his successful debut as a Panorama arranger in 1976. Hamilton Webb, the band’s captain, relied on him to replace Rudy Wells, who had left to study abroad. Although the band made the finals then, it didn’t place in succeeding years. Some players groused that Edwards could never hope to fill his predecessor’s shoes. Wells had delivered the goods in 1973, when All Stars won its first Panorama with a memorable performance of Kitchener’s Rainorama.
But adoration of the past blinded expectations of the future.
“That fella ain’t gonna win no Panorama,” they grumbled. “We need to get Wells back.”
It dawned on Edwards that there was no need for him to hang on. And it wouldn’t be difficult to unpack the panyard tension so he could deepen his role in the family. He had already intended to migrate to the US with his wife, Claudette, their two girls, Lisa and Cherie, and Cheveonne, his youngest daughter from a previous relationship. And the ongoing slight only bumped up plans.
But with Wells still unavailable in 1980, the band trusted Edwards to arrange Scrunter’s Woman on the Bass.
In his hands, the calypsonian’s aria to Annie Lopez, Despers’ first female bassist, became a classic piece of steelband history. Victory put Edwards on a pedestal right away, and his pride swelled the way he felt at nine when, walled in by city life, he sat on the front porch of the family home and picked out the notes of Danny Boy on George’s pan. The cheers from the Savannah crowd now were madder than the applause the little boy got back then from passers-by who hung back out of curiosity to hear him play an Irish tune that everyone sang in primary school.
“Good stuff is perennial, and Woman on the Bass will be around for a long time,” says Simeon Sandiford, managing director of Sanch Electronix, who recorded the band’s slow-jam version, which has become a staple at parties. Woman on the Bass still resides in All Stars’ road repertoire. So it has defined Edwards.
The following year he sparkled with SuperBlue’s Unknown Band, throwing off a brilliance that underscored the song’s inevitable popularity.
Will he be the first arranger to pull off a hat trick? He’d be the stuff of worship then.
But one can’t change human nature. An arranger’s happiness is another’s misfortune. Edwards knew the score. While rival bands acted like Sparrow’s gunslingers, All Stars admirers howled with delight in the wind on the Drag. But Kitchener’s Heat was the dog that didn’t bark in ’82. It was Renegades who made all the noise with a rendition of the calypsonian’s Pan Explosion, shoving its neighbour down the road into second place.
Things turned worse for the Stars in 1983.
Desperadoes’ Rebecca screamed with humiliating vanity, leader Rudolph Charles having deliberately chosen to perform All Stars‘ Panorama choice. Though arranger Clive Bradley was beaten mightily by Edwards’ interpretation in the preliminary and semifinal rounds, Despers regrouped for the finals, then slipped a noose around Edwards‘ neck, tightening it with a mesmerising introduction and coda.
It was like dynamite, Edwards recalled.
With Renegades finding Kitchener’s voice for two years straight, Edwards’ turn arrived in 1986 with David Rudder’s tribute to the deceased Charles. In a sense, Hammer reflected Charles’ tough-minded realism. And, what better way to celebrate the life of the Laventille don by galloping up Laventille Hill, past Jackson Place, curving this way and that, in the long run strutting impish chords—dissonance, really—that growled and snapped at the audience. A passage that led several half steps up a chromatic staircase, where he had fiendishly fashioned a gallows effect by closing with the magisterial power of the Hammer himself.
“It was sick,” he told a TV interviewer in the after-sweat of victory.
Edwards’ arrangements spanned 13 years through 1988, a tensive year for All Stars—seeing that he and seven or so players had carried an edgy relationship with the band, pressing musical director Jerry Jemmot and his allies to walk away, hard as it was back then for supporters to process the pain. The band had decided to keep the matter under wraps.
Edwards studied music theory at the University of Florida during the period. In 1989, he moved the family to Maryland. A week later they joined mega-church Evangel Temple in Washington, DC.
“I gave my life to Christ,” he says.
Not once did he miss arranging. Not for ten years. He would engage himself by putting his children through college. All three became professionals with master’s degrees.
In 1999, he had a dream that he’d return to arranging for Panorama. He didn’t tell anyone.
The band called two days later.
“Credit his accomplishments,” says Don Clarke, a composer and professional pan player. “He wants the most wins.”
In the cut throat environment of pan, such pragmatism tends to belie an old-school but sturdy character like Edwards. Indeed, liming is not an efficient use of his time. No chilling out at the beach, either. Nor alcohol and parties.
So religious motifs on the radio tend to backdrop the low drama of home life. The color he hoards bleeds for his music and washes out in the spacious Duke Street pan yard where nightly crowds celebrate his idioms like Phagwa. It is in this festival setting that his other life is renewed.
For now, for even deeper inspiration, Edwards might want to recall Panorama 2011, when the band won with Edwin Pouchet’s song, It’s Showtime. How he proved that he could tear out the guts of the melody and remake the work more personal.
“It’s show time and All Stars is about show,” Edwards said after the performance at the Savannah.
And he reprised the Broadway impact in 2012 with Telemaque’s Play Yuhself, the band basking in the glow of the footlights on the stage. Two in a row in the bag. And nowadays, everybody’s looking up to the Stars. Is that where the magic is stashed? Among a constellation of steely notes stylish fine-tuned as in Wednesday’s marathon session, the night sleeping on the players shoulders?
Because every man Jack is packing new power and bringing heat in their arrangements. So much so that Edwards can’t afford to follow his rivals’ course. His cadre will attest that his operation runs so much smoother and deeper. Still, to pull off the hat trick, it might take a new, perhaps fourth dimension, which Einstein noted as “time.” Which Edwards might count as tempo.
So, just bounce the starter and roll. Might be all it’d take on this epic journey come Sunday, arguably a critical juncture in the Panorama.
The mission now start.