Another stream of the steelband creation and performance was joined by the so-called “White Boys” or “College Boys” bands and players who emerged as early as the 1940s.
Dixieland, Dixie Stars, Silver Stars and Tropitone were among the early bands. Ernest Ferreira, Curtis Pierre, the Pouchet Brothers–Junior and Edgar, and Lawford Dupres, the last named, all of 86 years, still “beating pan”, is the one telling his story and that of the panmen, the bands of the era and the contribution they made to the growth, development and acceptance of the steelband.
He was assuredly a College Boy (St Mary’s) but classification as a “White Boy” is another thing: “My father was brown skin and my mother was fair,” Dupres says. In addition to skin colour and texture of hair, “middleclassness” had to do with wealth and property ownership.
“My father never owned a home; we always rented, and we lived in a variety of places,” Dupres says. Belmont, where he was born, Woodbrook, San Juan, Mt Lambert, Abercromby Street, even Mayaro.
“The sound and a melody which could be played on the early tenor attracted me. My first involvement came through a lady who ironed for the family. She had a boyfriend who worked on the American Base. When he visited her, we would take walks in the Mc Donald Street area; the rhythm and the iron section, no melody,” says Dupres.
“I began on a three-note tenor pan playing Mary Had a Little Lamb, and people started hearing this when passing on the pavement; they would stop and open our gate and come inside to see and hear.
“When V-J Day (Victory over Japan by the Allies) came in September 1945, I was up and down the pavement along Ariapita Avenue between Gatacre and French streets with a pan around my neck beating Chinee never had a V-J Day.”
The early steelbands, men and women from “Behind the Bridge” were ostracised, jailed, relegated to the lowest levels of the society as non-achievers, hooligans and badjohns. Even parents from the lower social classes, aware that their children could be stigmatised for “beating pan” and being in panyards, did not allow their children to be involved.
The first real band Dupres played with was Dixie Stars which was an offshoot of Dixieland. “In those days once you leave college and you gone and work somewhere, you could not be beating pan; companies such as Huggins did not tolerate that,” says Dupres.
He started formally at Gatacare and Kitchener streets at the home of Alloy Pantin. The fathers of the two boys went to war (WWII) together, and that helped as they trusted us to be together involved in pan.
One turning point for the steelband was when Eastern States Standard Oil (ESSO, today Exxon Mobil–an American oil giant) initiated sponsorship of Dixie Stars. “We started playing at Bel Air Hotel, and that was okay, but one day my father asked me: ‘What about your lessons?’”
“What about my lessons?”
“‘Have you done them?’”
“I finish them!” He said, “‘Ok, go ahead.’”
“My mother never gave me problems,” says Dupres; he was a good student at St Mary’s, and that bought him some leeway.
The general problem had to do with young boys from the middle classes “hanging out with steelbandsmen, older guys not from CIC and QRC, and those associated with fighting and rioting”, reasoned Dupres.
It is recorded that Trinidad All Stars Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) made the steelband’s first trip to England in 1951. Dupres notes that a couple of the bands he played with went on early tours (1954/55) to Jamaica, Canada, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Bermuda; Dixie Stars, Tropitone among them.
“On one tour of Halifax in Canada, the band played for two weeks, half an hour per venue; the pans were completely wrecked from the constant playing every night,” Dupres says.
However, trouble came to Dupres and his schoolmate, Carl Cabral after one extended tour to Canada, when they arrived home two weeks after the start of the school term. At the end of their first class, the teacher took them to the principal, Fr Brett. He simply said, “go home”—the school being aware of why the two boys were late.
“At the time it did not bother me much, although it caused me a little concern; but it did not last long as I was going to Barbados to play and enjoying myself,” says Dupres.
“But I really resented the fact that they did not contact my mother to let me know that they allowed Carl Cabral to return to school after his mother begged for him.”
Dupres had become a quite mannish young man “drinking rum with de boys, smoking cigarette; I could not see myself sitting down in a classroom, so I told my mother ‘don’t beg’ “and that was the end of my school career, and so I did not sit HC ‘Higher Certificate’.
His first job was as a trainee maintenance engineer with BWIA.
Very interestingly, as Dupres explained, while the big bands and players from Behind the Bridge were not being hired to play for fetes and parties, the College Boys/White Boys bands were “playing out every weekend with Dixieland under Curtis Pierre; all of us got a little $50”. Dupres notes that “ah roti was a shilling, pit (in the cinema) was 27 cents, a bottle of rum $1.10 cents, so with the money I made from playing with the band, I could meet my daily expenses and save all my salary”.
The point to note here is the role played by the CB/WB bands in creating a measure of social acceptance of the steelbands. However, it may, at the time, have pained panmen and bands from Behind the Bridge that they were not getting the jobs to play out.
Dupres noted, however, that when the likes of Dixieland came on to the streets on Carnival day, they had to pay full respect: “What we used to do when we run into one of the bigger bands; we quiet down, put our pans at the side of the road, and keep yuh arse to the side and let them pass. we not going head-to-head with any of them bands.”
He recalled one of the most famous/infamous steelband battles of all times, 1950, Invaders and Tokyo: “So when de steelbands clash, mamayo if yuh see cutlash” (Blakie) at Green Corner, Park and St Vincent streets.
“I was just outside the Chinese laundry on Park Street. I hear pan dropping on the ground, people screaming, bottle and stone flying through the sky. I jumped over the counter of the laundry, crouch below; about six big men pile up on top of me; when the noise ended and people stop screaming, I came out, and of course I ran home.”
Now while Dupres was having a grand time, beating pan, liming, drinking, smoking (cigarettes) with the odd girlfriend here and there, his father brought him to his senses with a question to the effect: “Where will all this end?”
In September 1959 he went off to Canada to study at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver with his $2,400 savings from his job, and embarked on a student career leading to qualifications in chemical engineering.
“Without my steelband career, I would not have been able to complete my education; it paid for it. My father, by then a retired man, gave me $500 dollars to buy my return ticket; he cashed in an insurance policy to get the money,” notes Dupres.
In Canada Dupres played with a few bands, Moonlighters and Stelltones among them with Trini panmen such as Nicky Innis (Silver Stars), Patrick Arnold (Our Boys, Tobago), John Donaldson Jr and Eddie Limchoy.
An interesting story unfolded when Dupres attempted to get a refund on the return ticket to aid his living expenses.
“Mr Dupres, I am not writing any letter for you,” said the immigration officer from whom Dupres had to get permission to cash-in the ticket.
“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘as far as I am concerned, people like you need to have a return ticket on their person all the time.’”
“I steered at this man for about five minutes … I wanted to kill him.”
Dupres was fortunate though, as the airline eventually facilitated the cost of the return portion of the ticket.
On graduation, Dupres landed a job with guess who: Esso-Sarnia in its refinery. He considers his answer to one question at the interview to have clinched the job. “Give me an example of your initiative,” asked the interviewer. “The answer came to me in a flash: ‘Sir, the fact that I am sitting here talking to you; I have come from a place 5,000 miles away, and that I am still here is an example of initiative.’
“I think that made an impression on him.”
In response to a 1974 phone call from Trintoc’s Walton James, Dupres returned home and took up an appointment as chief technologist at the company’s refinery. The return also assisted in keeping the family home going, which had been the sole responsibility of his sister Diane Dupres, his brother Steve, having gone-off to Bermuda to follow a career playing the steelpan.
Dupres ended his career as president of Trintoc in 1998. He then restarted his pan playing at J’Ouvert with Harvard Harps, a band which brought the pan players of a different era back on the road.
Dupres encountered great panmen such as Sterling Betancourt, Patsy Haynes, Alfonso Mosca and the inimitable Emanuel “Cobo Jack” Riley of Invaders. He remembers playing Jack’s famous piece, “Liebestraum”, in the big man’s presence. Eventually, “Jack took over and asked for the High B in the piece: “it ent have no High B was my response”.
“We have reached a plateau with the pan; we cannot keep the same formula going all the time, rewarding the bands with money. One to two million that’s good, but the whole concept of having a national steelband is misguided.
“I think the top band of Panorama should be the national steelband for the year. They should be touring putting down an imprint of Trinidad on steelband. We need to have that anytime someone picks up a pan, they should know it has come from T&T.
“Andy Narrell has become famous worldwide; the best known panman in the world right now: what happen to Greenidge, Rudy “Two Left” Smith and Boogsie, he should be a multi-millionaire.”