by Lilian Sten
Ray Holman was just 17 when he composed and arranged his first tune for the Panorama steelband competition in 1961. It was the start of a 40-year steel pan music career with few equals. Lilian Sten tells the story of Trinidad’s legendary pan arranger, from his first encounters with the instrument in 1950s Woodbrook to his latest international successes
As musical instruments go, the steel pan is a young creature. Myth and mystery surround its birth, and several persons have been accredited with its conception, but it is truly a child raised by the whole village, not the invention or property of any one man.
During its 60-something years of existence, pan has produced many unsung heroes — every iron-kudjoe and scratcherman is important to the music, every player matters — but the composers and arrangers stand out. They are few, they are great, and they are, usually, humble men who approach the music with love and respect.
Ray Holman, one of Trinidad’s foremost steel pan arrangers and composers, has been involved with the instrument since he was a child. After four decades as a musical trailblazer, he is one of pan’s many contradictions: a gentle revolutionary.
Holman was born in Woodbrook, the residential district in western Port of Spain, on April 22, 1944, just around the time when the first steelbands were being formed “behind the bridge”, in the working-class areas to the east of the city. Pan pioneers like Winston “Spree” Simon and Ellie Manette had sunk and tuned the first notes on the bottoms of oil drums when Holman was still a toddler; by the time he entered prestigious Queen’s Royal College (QRC), there were dozens of steelbands in the city, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra had travelled to the Festival of Britain, and pan adaptations of classical works were being performed at the Trinidad and Tobago Music Society’s biennial festival.
In the early 50s, steel bands flourished in Port of Spain’s middle-class districts — Woodbrook, St James, Newtown. A multitude of bands, with names like Silver Stars Tropitones Troubadours and Green Eyes filled the air with the sound of pan practice every night during the Carnival season. Music drifted over the rooftops and seeped through open doors and windows, growing from the strands of simple melodies to the full force of road march contenders. Ray Holman knew the music long before he started to play.
Starlift, one of the first Woodbrook steelbands, was then based near Holman’s home in Hunter Street, and he passed the Invaders yard on Tragarete Road every day on his way to school. But it was the legendary Beryl McBurnie at the Little Carib Theatre who started Holman’s musical career. She provided the pans, the encouragement, and the place to practice. At the age of 12, Holman was performing in concerts; he formed a small group to accompany productions at the Little Carib.
He had a lucky start: his pans were made by Ellie Manette himself, and McBurnie was a visionary whose passion for the arts remains unsurpassed in Trinidad even today. Ray was also fortunate in that his mother, Iris, unlike many of her contemporaries, had the wisdom to allow him to play pan as long as it did not interfere with his schoolwork.
QRC was strong on music in the 1950s. The late Scofield Pilgrim, who taught Latin at the time, formed a jazz band, which included pan — possibly the first pan-jazz group ever. The QRC boys were able to use pans from the Invaders after Manette invited 13-year-old Ray into the band in 1957.
The young musicians played at concerts, functions, and dramatic productions at the school, but in those early days pan was not part of the official curriculum. Instead, seasoned panmen like “Cobo Jack”, Emmanuel Riley, Gerald Forsythe, and many others undertook Holman’s further musical education. He received a solid grounding in the technique, the culture, and the philosophy of pan in the Invaders yard.
Steelband music was, from its early days, synonymous with Trinidad Carnival.
The “town” bands were fiercely territorial; some had grown out of criminal gangs, and they defended their turf with passion. On Carnival Monday and Tuesday, flagmen cleared the road in front of the processing bands, setting limits: here but no further! If two flags claimed the same corner, it was war. When bands met on the city streets, their clashes were notoriously bloody.
The Woodbrook bands were less warlike, but for many years they could not pass the intersection of Park Street and
St Vincent Street — “Green Corner” — to enter downtown Port of Spain during Carnival. In 1957, lives were lost in a steelband clash outside the General Hospital on Charlotte Street. The authorities considered banning steelbands altogether, but, since that had been tried unsuccessfully before, it was decided instead to channel their rivalry entirely into the music.
The result was the creation of the annual steelband competition, Panorama. It offered prize money and prestige, and largely succeeded in pacifying the warriors. (Whether it has benefited the music is a matter for critics to argue. Certain technical advances are obvious, but we will never know what direction the music would have taken if left to its own devices.)
Holman was only 17 years old when he composed and arranged Invaders’ tune for the very first Panorama competition in 1961. Ray’s Saga was the first ever “own tune”, or specially composed piece of music, to be played at the event.
Like Jit Samaroo with the Renegades Steel Orchestra, Holman was a tender youth directing “hardback” men who were also seasoned musicians. He saw this as a special honour; but the fact is that, in the pan movement, the music rules — the nuance of tone, the turn of a phrase, the perfection of rhythm and harmony, are all that matter. Musical skill is respected above all else, and Holman’s lack of years was not a disadvantage.
In 1963 he left the Invaders to join Starlift, and during the 11 years he spent with this steelband he solidified his reputation as a composer and arranger. Starlift placed third in the 1964 Panorama, playing a Sparrow tune, Bullpistle Gang; then, five years later, took the coveted crown, winning the 1969 title with Kitchener’s song The Bull. Sparrow’s Queen of the Bands helped them tie for first place again in 1971. By the age of 27, Holman already had two winning Panorama arrangements to his name. But it was at the 1972 Panorama that Holman added daring to his combination of talent and hard work, earning himself a major place in the history of pan.
Starlift went to Panorama that year not with a calypso of the season, as was customary, but with the specially composed tune Pan on the Move. Uproar ensued when Holman once again brought an “own tune”; there were threats, abuse, formal protests. But, as he points out, this all happened only after the band had won the north zone finals and placed third in the national competition. And it was the calypsonians, not rival panmen, who complained. They wanted more exposure for their own music, and felt threatened by Holman’s pan composition.
Pan on the Move was followed in 1973 by Pan on the Run a tune inspired by a rare clash between Starlift and Invaders in Carlos Street during the 1972 Carnival season. Later it was recorded by the Chaconia Singers. “It was advantage, / They went on a rampage,” the lyrics (by calypsonian Merchant) went. “It was pan on the run, / Every man and woman, / It was pan on the move.”
After graduating from the University of the West Indies with degrees in Spanish and sociology, Holman taught at Fatima College in Trinidad until he retired in 1998. The music, his real career, was relegated to after-hours and vacations.
But Carnival does not coincide with school holidays, and the panyard task of “putting down the tune” involves scoring, arranging, and relentless practice. The players are drilled to perfection well into the night, every night during the season, which lasts from Christmas until Carnival Tuesday. The original arrangement undergoes many changes along the way. The tune presented at the Panorama preliminaries is usually a simple version; it becomes increasingly complex as the stages of the competition progress.
Preliminaries — “prelims” — used to be held two weeks before the finals, with a zonal competition a week later, and the semi-finals on the Thursday night before the finals on Carnival Saturday. After the semis, positions were revised, the tune pulled apart and put together again.
Excitement built and expectations rose to fever pitch. In that space of no sleep and little food, great music happened. Surprise arrangements were practiced in the dead of night, when only the most trusted players were around. But the dual burdens of full-time teaching and overtime rehearsal took their toll.
“I don’t like to remember those days” says Holman now. “They were too painful to the body.”
Painful or not, Holman continued to compose and arrange for Panorama. He left Starlift in 1974, becoming a freelance arranger for bands including Exodus, Pandemonium Tokyo Phase II Pan Groove, and Hummingbird Pan Groove. Although others have followed Holman’s lead and composed tunes specifically for Panorama, popular calypsos still usually win. Crowd response remains an important factor in the final reckoning. But Holman’s fellow musicians and discerning pan aficionados alike revere the work he has done as a composer.
In 1990, Lord Kitchener — with whose tune Starlift had won its first Panorama crown 21 years earlier — paid tribute to Holman with his calypso Iron Man. In 2001, Holman returned the compliment, composing and arranging Heroes of the Nation for the merged Hummingbird-Odyssey steelband. Kitchener was one of Holman’s three heroes; the other two were Ras Shorty I the father of soca, and Merchant, the brilliant songwriter and calypsonian. All three had died in 2000.
Merchant — his real name was Dennis Williams — who wrote the lyrics to many of Ray’s compositions, had an elegant turn of phrase, a genuine concern for his fellow man, and endless energy. Even in the last few days of his life, almost too weak to write, he was calling on Holman to bring more music. And there was plenty to bring — Ray Holman has a house full of music. Cupboards and chests spill over with scores, just waiting for some lyrics and a play. He estimates that he has composed and arranged around 300 songs, but the total number, if you include the work that hasn’t yet been arranged, is far greater.
Since Holman made his first recording with Starlift in1970, he has enjoyed a successful international career, with soca and calypso compositions, ballads, opera scores, and blends of Brazilian and jazz rhythms. He has performed as a soloist, musical director, and arranger worldwide. During a live television programme broadcast in Germany in 1997, Holman was delighted to perform his music alongside calypsonian David Rudder, American panman Andy Narrel, an assortment of jazz musicians, and the West German National Symphony Orchestra.
He has recorded consistently over the past 30 years, but many of his early works were lost when a fire at West Indies Records in Barbados damaged the vinyl record stamps. In 1994, Delos Records in California released a CD called Steel Bands of Trinidad and Tobago in Tribute to Ray Holman. It is a nostalgic retrospective of his Panorama tunes, as played by Exodus, Tokyo, Phase II, and Hummingbird Pan Groove, all bands that Holman has composed and arranged for over the years.
He has also achieved a distinguished career as a pan teacher. Since 1998 Holman has been a visiting musician at the University of Washington in Seattle, designing and teaching pan programmes, and he conducts annual workshops and courses in playing and arranging for the instrument in several other colleges in the US. But, as he has no formal music education, he cannot do the same in Trinidad. The legacy of the British education system, still influential in the Caribbean, puts accreditation before talent, skill, and experience.
Most recently, Holman has founded a pan-jazz group — taking him back to his roots at QRC — combining pan, saxophone, bass-guitar, keyboard, and flute. The Ray Holman Quintet has already recorded an album of all-new Holman compositions, of Caribbean-Latin-jazz genesis. Somehow, in between recording with the quintet, teaching in Seattle, and returning to Trinidad for the Carnival season, he has also in the last year or two directed a massive gathering of 275 players in the Pan Jamboree Finale in Sanka Falls, California, and composed and arranged the entire score for a Bruce Weil musical about the history of pan, which opened earlier this year in Cincinnati.
Pan has become a world instrument and Ray Holman has been part of that process for nearly 40 years. But his great hopes for the future of pan are tempered by his knowledge of the many possible pitfalls and limitations. Pan has no limit he says, but the politics surrounding the music are limiting. He laments the lack of apprentices to the old pan tuners of Trinidad, while newer and more scientific methods for making and tuning pans are being developed elsewhere.
The musical trend in Panorama arrangements is also a source of concern for Holman. Too much emphasis on pleasing the judges is detrimental to the music, he feels. Technical excellence and tricks of the trade are thriving; what’s often lacking is true heart.
Yet — although “pan gone”, although inventions and improvements have been made worldwide, although one pan-tuning process has now been patented in the US — in the end, no one can beat pan like a Trini. There is more to pan than the instrument itself: it is a culture, a history, a philosophy, a love. No one can ever take these away from the people of Trinidad and Tobago. It is part of their birthright, their heritage.
And Ray Holman is one of its chief custodians.