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Pan history in the words of the pioneers

Published: 
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Author Von Martin, left, receives an award from T&T Ambassador to Washington DC Brig Gen (retired) Anthony Phillips-Spencer earlier this year.

US-based Trinidadian broadcaster extraordinaire, Von Martin, has written a book about key people who contributed to the development of the steelpan. And, no two ways about it, this should be compulsory reading for anyone with a serious interest in the instrument and a solid sampling of some of the more important men and women associated with it over the years.

There is no pretence at academic rigour. No hypothesis being tested. No side-stepping the seemingly mundane. Just a celebrated media-man and a vast and valuable professional archive he chose to share.

Voices of Pan Pioneers of Trinidad & Tobago – The Beginning of a Global Legacy is the wordy title of a valuable 290-page narrative on society - largely in Port of Spain - in the 1940s and 50s and the features of life then that served to advance the cause of an instrument and its players that ventured boldly into the social and cultural mainstream.

Despite Martin’s solid credentials as a southerner – he spent some of his formative years in Princes Town – references to “similar movements” in Point Fortin and San Fernando are sparse, as he concedes that “the pan movement in South was not as vibrant as in Port-of-Spain.”

But his description of life in “the yards” of Port-of-Spain paints important pictures of the social dynamics that led, for example, to the emergence of Silver Stars whose players were dismissed as “white boys” with no serious commitment to the instrument. “If you were not the right colour, the right blood, you really did not know about pan,” Junior Pouchet of Silver Stars is quoted as saying.

But then there were people such as Ellie Mannette, Tony Williams and Eric Roach who, according to Martin, “were not studious intellectuals” and had been relegated to “a sub-category.”

These two and other dimensions of alienation occur throughout the book in the form of responses to Martin’s questions during numerous interviews captured across the globe.

The concept of “the yard” – that inner world of suburbia in colonial Trinidad - also strikingly recurs as a persistent backdrop to much of Martin’s storytelling in the words of his interviewees.

Ellie Mannette’s Oval Boys of Woodbrook, for example, was distinguishable from Tokyo Steelband of east Port-of-Spain with which the legendary Winston “Spree” Simon was associated.

Mannette talks, in one interview with Martin, about the time his Barracuda pan with “a few notes on it” was taken away from him during a downtown fight – “Tokyo Steelband came into our band and beat up our boys” - and later hung it on a tree in John John. Mannette was given the opportunity to take the pan down himself. He promptly declined.

Arthur (Art) De Coteau, founding member of Casablanca Steelband of Belmont, offers no such exciting tale, but talks about his campaign to ensure that pan players acquired a better understanding of formal music. He is included in a chapter entitled ‘Cross Town by Blanca’ that includes an interview with iconic Casablanca captain and “bad john” Oscar Pyle aka “Bogart.” Pyle, Martin argues, was selected as captain of the band “because he was a solid defender with fisticuffs.”

He greets Martin with cold coconut water and a conversation that flows just as efficiently as the numerous refills offered. “The steelband,” Pyle announces, “started in politics. There is no question about politics coming into steelband; the steelband comes from the politics.” Read the book to get the point.

Then there is Augustus “One Man” Mark, another Casablanca icon, who talks about the frequently impoverished conditions under which pan players and their bands were made to survive. “In the early days,” he is quoted as saying, “life was rough, rough, you had to go and steal and ting to make pan.”

Sometimes, Mark says, “you see a drum full of oil in a garage, you hide and clean the drum, and then you wait until the drum drains empty. You can’t stray with it … when it’s empty you just gone with it.”

Only halfway through the interviews you leave Casablanca behind and meet Neville Jules of All Stars Steel Orchestra. Jules talks about hearing a parang band in full flight “one Christmas night” and paying attention to the chords being strummed on the cuatro. “So I went and got a pan, tune some notes and started to strum it like the cuatro.”

Impressed by the innovation, according to Jules, Philmore “Boots” Davidson of City Syncopaters “heard it, went back and tuned the same pan and called it a guitar pan. “That is how the name stuck to the guitar pan.”

There are sufficient anecdotes to keep the knowledgeable and the vaguely knowledgeable up all night – if not over contentious details, also because of the instances in which Martin’s interviewees make passing reference to some of the more remarkable moments in steelpan history.

There were also the women of early pan history. Martin focuses on the Girl Pat Steel Orchestra founded in 1951 by music teacher Hazel Henley and including Marjorie Boothman and the Maurice sisters, Barney and Pat. It was a band that was heavily influenced by the work of Invaders Steel Orchestra, also from the Woodbrook area.

Martin argues that the advent of Girl Pat signified a big change in social attitudes toward pan and pan players. “This aggregation of well-educated, talented young women with training in music (were) destined to play an important role in the history of the steelband,” he writes.

There are also chapters on the role of inventor/innovator, Bertie Marshall and a curiously-named section ‘Unsung Heroes’ which looks at the work of highly-acclaimed panmen Rudolph Charles and Clive Bradley.

Hugh Borde of Tripoli and Pouchet of Silver Stars also earn special mention, together with a chapter on the famous visit of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) to London.

Voices of Pan Pioneers deserves a read. With cover art by David Boothman, it is also worth a prominent place on bookshelves everywhere.