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Friends celebrate Hugh Borde at 81

T&T’s pan ‘Liberace’
Monday, April 28, 2014
Hugh Borde, right, and his son Emile at Borde’s 81st birthday celebration at the home of Dr Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool.

The names Hugh Borde, Tripoli Steelband and Wladziu “Liberace” Valentino may not be familiar to many young pan musicians, musicians in general or random adults, but to the history of pan, hopefully, they are.


Back in the 1960-80s, then steelband manager Hugh Borde—considered a “mad man to leave his ‘government’ job to go away with a steelband”—and his pan ensemble, Tripoli, were special in the eyes of the First World when we in Trinidad (The Mecca of Pan) couldn’t recognise the beam of light. 


Of course in those days, while we knew the partially wood-made piano, or guitar, was an instrument and were never daunted by them being a by-product of trees, we were unfailingly daunted by the pan, an instrument, being an oil drum, worst yet, popularly considered a dustbin.


Borde would enlighten the world on pan being “the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century that could duplicate a symphony orchestra” but that, back in the day, anyone playing (beating) pan was labelled a “vagabond,” so much so that the “police arrested anyone when found playing a pan…even in a yard; you are taken to court the next morning and ‘jailed’ for six months.”


Time progressed, and when all Borde’s efforts at Tripoli becoming pan entrepreneurs in the’ mecca’ could not be realised, his attempts during their tour to Canada actually landed them in the hands of then stranger-to-pan, world-renowned, legendary pianist and vocalist, Liberace, who said he “discovered” them performing at the 1967 Expo in Montreal, Canada. While in the ‘mecca’ pan was a disgrace to society, its resonance considered noise, and the player viewed as the scum of the earth, in the ‘first’ world the legendary Liberace stated that Tripoli performed “fabulous,” further stating his invitation to have them tour with him arose out of them having presented “the most exciting musical performances of its kind in the world of show-business ...” back then. 


Borde and his ensemble appeared on many high-profiled American television talk-shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merve Griffin and David Frost respectively and performed with Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin apart from many other celebrities. 


As guests on his television talk show in 1973, having listened to Tripoli’s repertoire on their record before introducing them, host Mike Douglas profoundly described the ‘noise’ he heard: “… one of the most unusual and exciting sounds in the world of music is the sound of the steel drums.”


Soon, the group became the talk of an international world, drumming-up fame, not only from a world-class repertoire but touring for “three years” with the world’s greatest … Liberace, who marvelled at Borde’s twin-like appearance in apparel.


In a video expose named Pan Story produced by Borde and his son, Emile (LA, USA), on the Tripoli-Borde-Liberace experience, a particular post-performance footage shows Liberace introducing a similarly-attired Hugh Borde to the audience when he jokingly tells him, “I have a concern … where do you get your idea from for your ‘costume’?” 


Borde, with a huge grin, replies, “as everybody can see … from Liberace!” This special pan icon—Trinidad’s Liberace, Hugh Borde—recently turned 81-years-old.


Not only has he left a musical legacy, but he also maintains a wardrobe—that even though much played-down on the glitz—holds fast to glamour. Still well-groomed and charming, his big ‘81’ was celebrated in simple fashion at the home of one of his long-standing and genuine friends, Dr Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool. The local Liberace outshone all guests.


Thank you Chalkdust!


But, the question remains, how did the pan fraternity celebrate this icon?


This icon’s musical intelligence was questioned by Liberace, yesteryear, unceasingly baffled as to the sphere of music this ‘dustbin’ player had under his belt by inquiring into how many of his tunes he was familiar with, compounded by challenging him to play one.


The challenge of playing Alley Cat—the instrumental composed by Danish pianist and composer Brent Fabric—was put to the test, and so, the esteemed pianist and ‘vagabond’ pannists matched talents, all to the end of a more mesmerised Liberace. 


In honouring this most powerful yet humble soul in the early 2000s, Chalkdust described Borde in an awards function as a “pan pioneer” who survived many pan struggles, claiming that it’s through his efforts, “pan has reached the ears of a greater multitude of music-loving patrons.”


The pan world salutes you ‘Sir Borde’. You fought a great fight, and continue to, through sharing your experience and making recommendations today, five decades down, but your work will not be in vain. Many, many more birthdays in continued health, wisdom, strength and fashion is wished. Congratulations!


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