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Memories of a country panman
Kenrick P Thomas’ literary account of Tacarigua’s role in the development of steelpan music might have annexed neighbouring Tunapuna and Curepe territory, but it provides a fruitful opportunity for readers to journey into the inner dynamics of a world of music, religious practice and politics in one of the more vibrant pre and post-independence Trinidad communities.
Panriga: Tacarigua’s Contribution to the Evolution of the Steelband Phenomenon in T&T is the long-winded title of the publication, which looks at what Thomas insists are the contributions of a “country district” to the development of the instrument.
Thomas’ basic thesis is that while much attention is usually paid to the role of pan icons in Port-of-Spain and south Trinidad, “there were, in fact, many pioneers and other persons in different villages and districts throughout the country whose spontaneous, unselfish and simultaneous actions in their respective steelbands all contributed to the overall development of pan.”
The author’s credentials are derived from his active involvement in pan as a player, tuner, arranger, leader and teacher and tenure as an executive committee member of the defunct National Association of T&T Steelbandsmen (Natts) under the late George Goddard in 1962—a post he held until the birth of Pan Trinbago in 1971.
Thomas insists throughout the book—first published in 1999—that steelband history has been “one-sided” to the detriment of communities such as Tacarigua which produced both great musicians and outstanding bands.
“I have found,” Thomas insists, “that whenever representatives from the country districts, who may not have enjoyed any measure of popularity, made any genuine efforts to have the valuable contributions of persons from their areas noted on the national forum, they have always been casually dismissed by their Port-of-Spain counterparts.”
Thankfully, this is not a chip that remains on the author’s shoulder throughout the publication.
In fact, Thomas suggests that the longstanding claim that pan emerged in the early 1930s is an error and he credits the phasing out of tamboo bamboo bands in the late ’30s and early ’40s for the emergence of the instrument. In the process, it was the original Orisha drummers, who had faced a post-emancipation ban in the 1830s, who led the use of alternative percussive instruments to accompany the tamboo bamboo bands.
“The Orisha drummers and other Orisha devotees viewed the pan as the nearest alternative to their original skin-covered drums,” Thomas writes.
“At the present time, when anyone dares to make the connection between the Orisha religion and the birth and development of the steelband movement, that person is scoffed at and dubbed an obeah man.”
Enter Randolph Phill Wiltshire, also known as “Ladd,” of Tacarigua, who, Thomas says, “defied the hysteria, angry protestations of his youthful relatives, clergymen and peers, and ploughed his entire youthful vigours, leadership qualities, musical prowess and skill into steelband in its infancy in Tacarigua in order to promote its positive aspects.”
Panrigua traces a path of defiance in the face of social ostracism in painting pictures of the role of people such as Rufina Thomas-Thompson, whom the author describes as “one of the first women to play a tune on the pan” in 1946.
The occasion was a concert at Rex Cinema in Arouca and the song, played on the “ping-pong,” was Symphony of Love.
By then, the Dead End Kids steelband, under Mack “Zorro” Thomas had already been established in Dinsley Village, a few houses away from the original tamboo bamboo headquarters dominated by the Orishas in the area. The band would eventually be renamed Boom Town. As was the case elsewhere in the country, members of the band were described as “badjohns” by fellow villagers and it was deemed axiomatic that “every steelbandman (was) a hooligan and every criminal…a steelbandman.”
But, together with “official flagwoman” Lyn Belle, the band persisted and was later assisted by Orisha drum legend Andrew Beddoe, who, Thomas says, “automatically won the hearts of members of the steelband, because he took one of their pans, made a few indentations in the convex mould and started playing out simple melodies which mesmerised the members.”
Panriga features such anecdotes from a first-hand participant in much that had taken place in steelpan music’s early years.