On a humid afternoon in July, Ray Holman plopped down into an armchair in the lobby of the Hotel Morgan, located in downtown Morgantown, West Virginia. The interview location was improvised as a quick solution by Ray after we walked a few blocks in the hot summer sun. Holman and 87 other players and clinicians had just completed the final concert of the Mannette Festival of Steel.
Despite the heat, Holman didn't seem the worse for wear. His face was stern and serious, eyes burning with the intensity of a hawk searching for prey. Despite his greyed hair, and being 71 years old, his youthful exuberance would rival that of a teenager. Based on his demeanor, Holman comes off as a man who believes in unfiltered honesty while promoting kindness, love and the undying power of music.
Holman has achieved legend status both in Trinidad and globally as an expert composer and player of the steelpan. His accolades include being the first arranger to compose an original piece for Panorama and being a three-time Panorama winner.
When did you first fall in love with pan?
“When I was 13 years old. I lived close to Invaders. I heard them playing and I liked it. I started playing the drums and felt I could achieve something. That was my first experience with music. Pan was the first thing I played. I learned guitar later, which I now use to compose. Solo, I play pan.”
Do you prefer to write out a song using sheet music, or do you prefer to write it out in your head first?
“I use to do it all in my head, then started writing it out on paper and later on the computer. It takes a lot of time to write out but saves time in the panyard because section leaders can learn the part and teach the rest of the section by rote. But rote is fine. It can be quicker for shorter tunes.”
After joining Invaders as a teenager in 1957 and working with Ellie Mannette, who was the leader of the group at the time, what were some of the primary lessons Ellie taught you?
“I learned how to strike the drum. I used to watch him while he was tuning. Strike it too hard and the note is distorted. Because his notes were true, I could develop my ear. All the notes had the same timbre. I learned how to play fluidly to match the timbre of his drums and I never lost it. Other tuners tuned their drums to be played louder. On Ellie's drums you can't do that. They're not meant to be played at a loud volume.”
How did your career as an arranger progress?
“The first piece I arranged was called April Love by Pat Boone. It was easy to arrange. At the time I didn't have any musical knowledge but it had a nice melody that attracted me. From those days I wrote a piece called Ray's Saga. We recorded that song in 1961 and it was very popular. Then I went to Starlift. They were defunct and I revived it. I arranged music for them from '63 to '74. Then I started to freelance and went to Pandemonium for nine years.”
What was the inspiration for you to break tradition by composing the first original composition in Panorama history with Pan On The Move?
“I thought of it like this: I had already won Panorama twice and thought that to be at the top you had to set the standard. I was kind of revolutionizing arranging styles with chord structures, utilizing elements of Jazz, Classical and others. So I thought when you go to a Calypso tent, you never hear the same song twice from tent to tent. But steelbands were all playing the same songs. Wouldn't it be nice if every steelband played something different? The pan men at the time were tied to this tradition where they had to wait until a Calypsonian sang something to arrange it. I thought, ‘We can't keep doing that; things have to change.’ That's when I did it; I called it Pan On The Move because it was a revolutionary step from one stage to another. Also, because it was for Panorama. In those days, you had to play while moving onto the stage. Because of that you had to make music that made people dance. It's not only for listening. It's for dance. Any rhythmic music like African or Cuban is made for dance. We moved from the feeling of gayety and moved to a regimented style. Now the band sets up on stage and plays stationary. That is what changed it.”
What is your favorite piece that you have composed or arranged?
“My Band. We have about 45 percent East Indian population in Trinidad. I grew up in Woodbrook, and up the street there were a lot of Indians who would play Tassa drum music. I just thought of my band and the Tassa drum bands and thought, 'that's like my band too.' So I thought, 'I want to mix that sound with the steel band,’ but I did not use any Tassa drums in the piece. I had the band play and have the effect. It encompassed the culture.
“Now, you're getting older, you look back and see the weight of it. When I was 30, I missed things then. When I look back now I see that we had a bias towards people of African decent. We had a bias thinking we were the rightfully privileged group and owners of the island. That our culture was first dominant and we had the right to determine what was correct. So I thought, ‘how could that be right if we have 45 percent that are of Eastern Indian descent? What about Chinese people or people from Lebanon? They have culture too.’ So I was kind of in rebellion against that idea and the suppression of other cultures.
“That was the reason I left Invaders. I was 18 years old. We were doing this piece by Tchaikovsky called, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. There's a part in the middle of it that had a rhythm. In Russia at the time there was a large population of Asian people. Tchaikovsky got an idea there to use Asian rhythms. So I brought in Tassa music to Invaders in 1962 seeing the same thing. I saw that people danced to it. It wasn't accepted at the time so I left the band.”
Do you feel Panorama compositions ar e less focused on musicianship and more focused on virtuosity and power?
“Yes. One of the best pieces I wrote was Queen of the Dance. That had all the elements. It had elements of classical, Jazz and Calypso, and it made people dance. I find now that Panorama has lost its nice exciting feeling. Very few pieces now can make you feel the dance. Composers need to think about it differently and try to make people dance and not worry about what the judges think. The winning bands now are all about appeasing the judges.
Pantrinbago appoints the judges. If you ask them they say they can't get people to be judges. For me a good judge would be someone with a musical background. Someone with no musical background can't judge. Panorama, when it started, was judged by newspaper writers and academics who couldn't play without sheet music in front of them. They weren't performers. Of course, they judged to the limit of their knowledge and experience. That has been the standard ever since.
“Then they decided they were going to have criteria. So they hired a musician, a Trinidadian who taught at Berkeley. He saw what the bands do and figured he would organize it in an order that made sense and it made it worse! I said to him, ‘You know what you're doing? You're going to destroy Panorama music.” Everybody now is going to do the same thing and everybody judging now doesn't know enough not to follow the criteria. It was better when we did not have that. I am in favor of scrapping that criteria. Then you'll have to have good judges to score.
“When I've judged competitions I have noticed that I'll add up the scores and see that the band I had first did not have the best music. It's because it becomes mechanical. When they should be listening, they are looking at the criteria and writing.
“To judge, they should get people that know the classics, Jazz, popular music, who have been practicing musicians. They could get someone foreign to judge from the outside. From my experience, people who run programs in the U.S., who are practicing musicians and steel band teachers, know more about the music than the judges in Trinidad. They're more familiar with the idiom, are better musicians, would be more impartial. We could have a mixture of foreigners and natives.
“What I'm saying might not sound good. I'm not trying to bring anyone down with this. But it's the truth. I want Panorama to improve and this is the only way it can. How else are you going to improve if you don't look at it and say 'how can we do this better?' I've spent my time trying to make the steel band sound beautiful, which is not easy to do.
“In Trinidad, pan is too focused on competition. Competition is good, but if you're only focused on what I call “competition music,” then that is the worst kind of music you can produce.
What is the best way to promote pan throughout the world, by having competitive festivals or festivals with only groups playing for the sake of music?
“It could be a mixture. You could have a festival like Virginia Beach [International PAN Fest] where it's about playing for the love of music. Competition is helping to kill steel band music. As a composer/arranger you're writing to please the judge, not for the music. When I played with Invaders, pan was POPULAR. You used to hear pan at parties. Now you can't hear pan at a party. They're focusing on one tune over and over. I was telling them that in the 1980s. If they continue to do it that way, they're going to kill it.
“The audience today is getting smaller. Most of them are in their sixties. When I was coming up, pan was popular with teens and twenty-somethings. The judges need to change or Panorama will die. I don't care who gets upset. I will challenge anyone to prove me wrong. You could probably count the people who have tried to do something unique at Panorama on one hand.”
What's the best thing about being involved in the pan world?
“For me, it's when you have produced a piece of music, it sounds good, is well played and it makes people happy. And when someone can hear it 20 years down the road and still appreciate it, it makes me feel good.”