Ray Funk and Andrew Martin
For many decades and counting, Rudy "Two Left" Smith has quietly been one of the great steelpan ambassadors to the world. His influence is felt far and wide, especially in the jazz world. Smith's unsung accomplishments were recognised when he was inducted into the Sunshine
Awards Hall of Fame in New York on
This most recent celebration of Smith's career comes on the heels of a career-spanning album What Pan Did for Me released this past summer.
Rudy "Two Left" Smith was born in Woodbrook at 27 Methuen Street and grew up in Cobo Town at 21 Charles Street in the same yard as famed calypsonian Lord Pretender (aka Aldric Farrell). In the late 1940s and 1950s, Smith played with several local steelbands including the Mello-Harps Steelband and then Merrymakers Steelband–a breakaway steelband from the famed Red Army Steelband.
He also spent time playing and jamming with other steelbands the likes of City Kids Steelband and Nightingales Steelband. At the tender age of 13, Smith was called out to perform as a soloist with Merrymakers Steelband and he late went on to perform with the band on tours to Surinam, Martinique and Venezuela. He appeared with Merrymakers at the Little Carib where the band was a favorite with Beryl McBurnie.
From an early age, Smith was determined besides playing steelpan to learn as much as he could about steelpan construction and tuning. His tuning abilities and involvement with a group called the Beatniks (with future quarto legend Robert Munro) led to Smith blending steelpans for Renegades Steel Orchestra several times while he was a teenager.
Smith was well on his way to becoming a hometown steelpan pioneer; however, everything changed in December of 1962 when a stage side of Merrymakers Steelband embarked on a European tour. The budget was tight and the band needed players like Rudy "Two Left" Smith who could play any steelpan and tune and build.
The opportunity was too good to pass up and the night before the band left for Europe, they had a farewell party in the panyard. In honor of the occasion Lord Pretender wrote a kaiso telling Smith "Don't come back to Trinidad until you make good." Smith took Lord Pretender's words to heart and it was a decade before he returned back to visit Trinidad. And this only after he had, in fact, made good!
Smith has now lived in Europe for over 50 years ago and his amazing career in steelpan is storied. He has since played steelpan in a vast number of different contexts and lived all over the continent. For the last few decades, however, Smith has lived primarily in Scandinavia with Sweden and now Denmark serving as his home base. Smith is almost single handedly responsible for building and tuning most of the steelpans in Scandinavia and as such stimulating and fostering the regional steelband scene in this area.
Though now based in Scandinavia, Smith's early career in Europe was much more transient. Upon arriving in Europe in 1962, Smith and the Merrymakers Steelband were initially based in Germany and toured all over the continent, spending a month in Tunisia, Casablanca, and the South of Spain. The band played standard steelband repertoire typical of the time period. After part of Merrymakers Steelband returned to Trinidad, the members remaining in Europe evolved into a new band with standard instrumentation, which led Smith to develop a passion for jazz.
The band renamed itself the Modern Sound Quartet and was based in the south of Spain at Torremolinos. The band members were Ancel Joseph on six bass, Danny "Buntin'" Grant on double seconds, George "Shockess" Allyn on drums, and Rudy "Two Left" Smith on tenor and double tenor. Over the years, Smith played in a variety of bands and these other bands focused on jazz to the point that now he primarily plays with a jazz quartet based in Copenhagen or as a steelpan soloist brought in to play with other jazz groups. Smith's eclectic career has seen him tour Africa with a Scandinavian based AfroFunk band, perform duets with an Andean harp player, perform with jazz big band jazz; indeed, in nearly every imaginable jazz configuration.
Smith returned to Trinidad in 1979 and organized a version of the Merrymakers Steelband to tour Sweden which, unsurprisingly, resulted in the creation of yet a local Swedish steelband. The band in question, Hot Pans, are still active today and have come down to Trinidad, even appearing in performance on the road for Carnival. Starting in 1988, Smith began performing with various groups at Pan Jazz concerts in Trinidad and started coming down to Trinidad to arrange for Panorama.
Smith's arranging prowess has since been heard with both Valley Harps Steel Orchestra and Birdsong Steel Orchestra, and one can further hear his arrangements played by the Mangrove Steel Orchestra in London and Hot Pans Steelband in Sweden, among other bands. In many ways, one could argue that Smith has done it all with steelpan on almost every continent.
In July, Smith and his Quintet were featured at the Birdsong Steel Orchestra Scholarship Benefit concert at Queen's Hall, which is only proper considering the many years that he arranged for Birdsong. Reporter David Cuffy called Smith's band the highlight of the program and Krister Malm, ethnomusicologist and executive producer of Smith's new album, commented that the concert was a showcase for Smith and his life's work.
Rudy Smith has married the most important Afro-Caribbean invention in the field of musical instruments, the steelpan, to the most important Afro-American musical tradition, jazz. More than that, he has developed a solo style of the steelpan which has not been heard before. His technique is dazzling. But its not?a question of empty virtuosity. Rudy Smith's playing is marked by the same astonishing inventiveness that has created the steelpan.
Gil Figaro, founder of the Sunshine Awards noted: "Rudy Smith as a performing artist combined with his skills and craftsmanship and his commitment to quality and excellence connects him to the Sunshine Awards organization and its mission."
Smith's most recent album What Pan Did for Me (released on the Swedish Caprice imprint) is complete with a 44-page booklet detailing the story of Smith's complex career. Krister Malm who interviewed Smith for the album booklet let him tell the story in his own words.
The moving narrative gives the ups and downs of a life in steelpan including once instance in which Smith and his band were arrested for taking his instruments back from a gig because of an unscrupulous promoter. The booklet is also full of photos from various points throughout his career.
The music on the What Pan Did for Me shows the wide range of what a steelpan in the hands of a master can do. The playing is a breathtaking, moving from what steelpan sounded like in the mid-1950s, to the great Panorama sound of today, and in between a wide range of jazz recordings. The earliest recordings included in the album are two rare Merrymakers Steelband cuts (one of which is the Duke Ellington classic Take the A Train) from 1955 with Smith featured as a soloist.
The last cut on the album is Smith's 2000 arrangement of the great jazz bassist (and Woodbrook's own) David "Happy" Williams' Happy's Story. In between, there is a wide variety of mostly jazz cuts, several with Smith's quartet and many of these are originals by Smith and his pianist Ole Matthiesen that range from ballads to upbeat workouts.
There are collaborations with flamenco-styled Swedish guitarist Coste Apetrea, classic Afro-Funk sound of the Modern Sound Quintet with conga drummer Kofi Ayivor from Osibisa, a piece based on a JS Bach piece with the Copenhagen Steel Band, and an arrangement of Lord Kitchener's Pan in A Minor featuring Robert Munro and Friends and the Hot Pans Steelband. Anyone wanting to hear where steelpan reach and what steelpan can do has but to get this fine album.
�2 Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.