Sixty-two years ago, on July 26, 1951, a significant aspect of steelband history was recorded with an appearance by Taspo at the Summer Festival of Britain.
The acronym Taspo stands for the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra–a band formed in 1951 as a direct result of the violence that was rampant among the steelbands in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
Opportunity knocked in the guise of the 1951 Summer Festival of Britain, an exposition of arts, crafts, exhibitions and cultural events from all over the United Kingdom, including its colonial possessions, that brought forth the suggestion from Sir Hubert Rance, Trinidad's English governor at the time, that a steelband represent the island colony at the event.
This suggestion was enthusiastically supported by influential organisations and individuals who had been campaigning for the steelband, and felt that an appearance at the Festival of Britain would help in its struggle for respectability.
Taspo was the first major undertaking of a steelband association that was formed in 1950 on the recommendation of the 1949 government-appointed Steel Band Committee. The association's president was Sydney Gollop.
Other members included Port-of-Spain solicitor Lennox Pierre, Carlyle Kerr, union leader Nathaniel Crichlow, and Oscar Pile–all outstanding activists of the steelband movement. Lieutenant Nathaniel Joseph Griffith–born in Barbados–who had been playing with the Trinidad Police Band and was a qualified musician, was co-opted and consented to teach music, a move that certainly contributed to the high number of bands that joined the association.
The T&T Steel Band Association (TTSBA) as it was called, was the first officially recognised governing body for steelbands, but was not the first attempt to bring warring steelbands together in an association of some kind.
TTSBA was, in fact, the direct follow-on from an initiative begun by Harold Blake in 1948. Then, in the face of dire assurances that nothing would bring members of rival pansides together, he personally sought out 21 bandleaders, who duly registered their bands in the first steelband association and actually met as a group–300 boys–at the Teachers' Training College in Port-of-Spain.
Eventually, eleven members were selected to form Taspo–Theo Stephens from Free French, San Fernando; Belgrave Bonaparte from Southern Symphony; Andrew de la Bastide from Hill 60; Philmore "Boots" Davidson from Syncopators of Quarry Street; Orman "Patsy" Haynes from Casablanca; Winston "Spree" Simon from Tokyo; Dudley Smith from Rising Sun, Belmont; Ellie Mannette from Invaders in Woodbrook; Sterling Betancourt from Crossfire, St James; Granville Sealey from Tripoli, St James; and Anthony Williams from North Stars, St James.
All were ping-pong players. When Lieutenant Nathaniel Joseph Griffith, joined the group, with the help of his tuners, he imposed–for the first time–a chromatic or melodic progression on the instruments in the band.
Four official tuners were appointed–Ellie Mannette, Sterling Betancourt, Andrew de la Bastide and Philmore "Boots" Davidson. The ping-pong players were Ellie Mannette, Theo Stephens, "Patsy" Haynes, Andrew de la Bastide, "Spree" Simon and Granville Sealey. On the alto pans were Sterling Betancourt and Belgrave Bonaparte. Dudley Smith and Tony Williams were assigned to tenor bass. On bass was Philmore "Boots" Davidson. The music was arranged by Griffith.
Some of the tunes in Taspo's repertoire were Tosselli's Serenade, After Johnny Drink Mih Rum, Jamaican Rhumba, Golden Earrings, Mambo Jambo and God Save The Queen.
Before the tour began, Granville was dropped and replaced by Sonny Roach of Sun Valley.
The band sailed on French liner San Mateo which left Port-of-Spain on July 6th for Bordeaux via Martinique. It remained five days in Martinique. Sonny Roach fell ill and had to be left behind for treatment. He was supposed to rejoin the band later, along with Beryl McBurnie, but these plans never materialised.
After Martinique, the second stop was Guadeloupe where the band spent just a few hours. The journey ended when the San Mateo arrived in Bordeaux on 24 July 1951. From Bordeaux, the group travelled by train to Paris, and then by ferry to London. In London they played on the BBC, and were given a warm welcome and invaluable assistance by Edric Connor (a pioneering calypso singer, folklorist, and actor from Trinidad) who placed his London apartment at the disposal of the Taspo members.
Taspo's first Festival performance on July 26 1951 on London's South Bank Exhibition grounds got off to an unprepossessing start. At the first sight of the rusty pans–and rusty they must have been after the long sea voyage–the reaction of the curious crowd was polite but doubtful that such 'instruments' could produce music of high quality. But their doubts were not for long. A report stated that "jaws dropped and eyes widened as the first sweet notes were struck and the band swung into Mambo Jambo."
By the time the story of Taspo's performance reached the newspapers, the writer was enthusing over the performance in the article liberally sprinkled with phrases such as "first class", "wonderfully skilled playing" and "virtuoso jazz." The ice had been broken.
Taspo's going abroad changed the status of steelbands at home and became a landmark event, preceding the wildfire spread of the steelband movement all over Trinidad and Tobago, and across all levels of society.