As the unmistakable sound of pan continues to spread across the farthest reaches of the globe, it is perhaps worth pausing to take stock of these early pan pioneers.Beyond the members of Taspo and the various national steelbands, the stories of many early pan pioneers have not been told. Ironically, these lesser-known pan pioneers are responsible for taking pan worldwide.
Every year at Notting Hill Carnival, you'll see one such early pan pioneer. A small man with a big smile, a panman, the scratcherman for Nostalgia, that's Cyril Khamai, a quiet man with a gentle presence.Pan has played an integral part of Khamai's life since he was a child in Trinidad. Chasing a dream, Khamai went to the UK in 1957 and has been playing, building, tuning, and teaching pan in his new home ever since. Beyond the UK, he has travelled the globe from Russia to Hong Kong and all over Europe, playing pan with a number of different bands.
Khamai started playing pan with the Free French Steelband in San Fernando, whose leader at the time was Theo Stephens, who had been a member of Taspo. From the Free French Steelband, Khamai moved on to another San Fernando steelband called Melody Makers. Here, in addition to honing his playing skills, he became a self-taught builder/ tuner of pan. He also played with other south bands the likes of Rogues in the Irving Park neighbourhood and the Rhythm Stars with Nearlin Taitt; however, he was a young man eager for adventure and set off for the UK.
In Cardiff, Wales in 1957, a homesick batch of Trinidadian boxers wanted to have a steelband and Khamai was just the man for the job. He built the instruments and played with the band, staying about nine months, then decided to move to London, where he became part of one of the earliest steelbands there. In 1959, he joined a band known at the time as the Tropicana Steelband, which sported a membership consisting of several Trinidadian expatriates who had previously been part of the Rogues band in San Fernando. The Tropicana Steelband featured brothers Carl and Winston Jones, Tony Charles, Karl Boyd, Kay Sammie, Sonny Hart, and Lynn Kenkaran.
The group rehearsed in a basement near the Chelsea Art School and students from the school often invited the Tropicana Steelband to play for parties and events. Building on this early success, the band moved on to various extended night club residencies in London, and was popular at the Latin Quarter as well as university and hospital events and society balls all over the country. The band also held popular shows at the Royal Festival Hall in 1960 and Royal Albert Hall in 1961.
In 1961, the band trimmed down to five members and embarked on an important month-long booking in Spain, where it played at clubs and restaurants all over the country. The Tropicana Steelband thrived on the road and from Spain the band continued to travel and perform throughout Europe. One of the most exciting tours of this early period came in 1968 when the band went to Germany. In West Berlin, the band recorded an album under the name The Original Trinidad Steel Band before crossing the wall and playing nightclubs and doing a film in East Berlin.
From Germany, Khamai and the band launched a tour of Russia. Groundbreaking on many levels, Khamai and the Tropicana Steelband have the distinction of being the first steelband to tour the Soviet Union. The tour was part of a variety package of Latin American performing groups led by the Paraguayan band Los Paraguayos. The tour was based in Moscow and over the course of ten weeks the band performed all over Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries of Georgia, Ukraine, and Estonia.
Khamai has fond memories of this tour, especially the five pan players and two limbo dancers who comprised his portion of the show. Upon returning from the Russian tour, a four-person version of Tropicana Steelband went on a nine-month non-stop tour of England, Scotland and Wales.Throughout the early to mid-1970s, Khamai performed in several steelbands all over England and Europe. Notable among these steelbands are the Caribbean Trio, with the late legendary panman Selwyn Baptiste, as well as continued work with the larger Tropicana Steelband. The Caribbean Trio went to Switzerland in 1964 playing mountain ski resorts, US bases in Germany, and Nato bases in France and Holland.
In 1975, Khamai spent the summer performing with a steelband in St Tropez, France and in 1979, he was booked as a single pan player to accompany the German-based Trinidad-born calypsonian Lord Ambassador for a three-month tour of Hong Kong.As the years went by, Khamai continued to play pan with countless steelbands. In addition to fronting his own bands, he was a regular with bands led by Russell Henderson and Tony Charles. Every summer, he and Russ Henderson had a regular gig entertaining audiences at the Goodwood horse racing track in Surrey. With Tony Charles, he played the opening of the Dubai International Hotel and for a couple years in the late 70s he led a steelband for the Buddhist Association of England.
Recognition has finally caught up with this pan pioneer in recent years. In 2006, he won the UK Black History Month award. In 2011, he was one of the pan legends honoured by the Commonwealth Arts and Cultural Foundation. These days, Khamai still plays pan on occasion, but he tends to favour playing various percussion instruments, mostly scratcher. For London Panorama, he has appeared with Ebony, London All Stars and Metro on scratcher and on the road at times with Nostalgia and Pan Nectar.But once a panman, always a panman, as Khamai has been known to jump up and play with almost any pan side when the spirit takes him! Yet, most do not realise that this gentle man with the big smile is an understated pioneer of pan and that for the past half-century he has taken the instrument all over the world.