Honours for 12 Pan Legends

By Luke Raymond
November 30, 2000
Trinidad Guardian

Twelve men who have contributed massively to the development of the steel-band will be honoured by the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute in a Tribute To Legends of Pan.

They are: Clifford Alexis, Wallace Austin, Clive Bardley, Ray Holman, Herman Johnston, Neville Jules, Bertie Marshall, Curtis Pierre, Junior Pouchet, Emmanuel Riley, Earl Rodney and Jit Samaroo.

Les Slater, Chairman of the Folk Arts Institute’s Board of Governors, explained the criteria used. “We set the mid-1970s as the cut-off period for any qualifying individual to have already established himself as a important contributor to the art form. Our intention was to focus on the earlier period of steel-band history, as opposed to the last couple of decades or so, so as to give proper recognition to some key players of that ear who significantly impacted on the steel-band’s growth and development.”

Those selected have made their contributions in the areas of performing, arranging and composing music; instrument design, building and tuning; and teaching or mentoring activity which has markedly helped the global spread of the steel band.

Six live in Trinidad and Tobago : Bradley, Holman, Marshal, Pierre, Rodney and Samaroo. The others – Alexis, Austin, Johnston, Jules, Pouchet and Riley – all live in the United States. The out-of-town winners, are expected to be brought to New York for the weekend activity honouring their work, which will culminate in a gala presentation on April 22 at Brooklyn’s Farragut Manor.

The Folks Arts Institute has organized much activity in the past that has centred on the steel band. Several of the symposia and panel discussions the Institute has conducted since its founding in 1991 have had a pan theme. And the Institute has already honoured a number of individuals who have distinguished themselves in the pan music fields.

The late Lord Kitchener was hounoured for his phenomenal outpouring of music targeted to the steel-band at a gala pan salute in 1992, at which many top pan soloists were featured.

The surviving members of TASPO, the Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra of 1951, were honoured in a major tribute in November 1993. And Ellie Mannette was given the Institute’s premier award, the Citation of Merit, in March 1993.

The “Legends of Pan” Honorees

Clifford Alexis was a product of the Invaders band in Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain. He migrated to New York in the early 1960s, continuing his steel-band involvement and emerging as a very able builder and tuner in addition to his playing and arranging. In the 1960s he was in the forefront of steel-band activity in New York as a pivotal presence in the BWIA Sunjets band. In the early 1970s his expertise brought him to the Minneapolis, Minnesota, school system, where he spent 12 years as a high school instructor in steel-band music. In 1985 he joined the Music Department of Northern Illinois University, where he continues to share with students his vast knowledge of the steel-band idiom, and in the process has been an invaluable ambassador for the art form.

Wallace Austin became, by the 1960s, a tuner well known in steel-band circles for producing instruments of exceptional tonal quality. His craftsmanship enhanced the sound delivered by such top-tier bands as Trinidad All Stars, Solo Harmonites, Silver Stars, Ebonites, Desperadoes Dixieland and Tokyo. He moved to New York in the 1970s and continued to make his pan-making talent available to both groups and individual players in the New York City area and elsewhere in the US.

Clive Bradley belongs to a select group of gifted conventional musicians who gravitated to the steel-band movement and achieved notable success there as well. A keyboard player and arranger, Bradley showed his mettle by working with a number of calypsonians, including Kitchener, on their albums. He first gained steel-band fame when he signed on as Desperadoes’ arranger in the 1970s, a link that has produced multiple wins for Despers in the Panorama contest. He has done arrangements for several other bands in the Panorama, including Nutones, which also won the title. Much sought after as, in the opinion of many, the consummate steel band arranger Bradley has been a winner in the New York Panorama as well.

Ray Holman, an outstanding young player with Invaders in the 1950s, stepped into the limelight as a trend-setting arranger with the splinter-group Starlift band in the 1960s. He was a trailblazer, having decided to compose for pan, particularly for Panorama. He doggedly did so, beginning in the early 1970s, and ultimately came to see other arrangers follow his footsteps. Starlift won two Panorama titles under him as arranger. His arranging skills have been tapped as well by several other popular bands. Holman’s status as one of pan music’s pre-eminent figures has become known to an international following of enthusiasts, in countries as far away as Japan.

Herman “Rock” Johnston first knew the big time when he played a celebrated, on-of-a-kind lead instrument in the fabled Pan Am North Stars band in Trinidad in the early 1960s. He would subsequently leave North Stars to head his own group, West Side Symphony, which won the national Steel Band Music Festival on its first attempt in 1964.

Johnston later spent 13 years in Bermuda as a player-tuner-arranger with the Esso band. He took up residence in New York in 1980 and formed the Johnston Fantastic Orchestra, a concert-stage aggregation, comprising family members, which kept a busy schedule of appearances for several years while based in New York and after Johnston relocated to Florida.

Neville Jules is one of the important pioneers of steel-band history. His involvement dates back to when, as a young man in the East Dry River section of Port-of-Spain in the 1940s, he was among the early experimenters attempting to fashion musical instruments from assorted steel containers. He is said to have introduced certain instruments, which later became part of the pan family, such as the bass and guitar pan. Jules was a member of the Hell Yard band, later to become Trinidad All Stars. His talent as an innovating instrument-maker, along with his natural musical gifts, landed him in the leadership role in All Stars, a position he occupied until he migrated to New York in 1971. Jules piloted All Stares through many landmark happenings in the 1950s and 60s, including the tradition of the J’Ouvert morning ‘bomb’ tune, in which All Stars became renowned for a string of reconfigured classical pieces in calypso tempo. Since moving to New York, Jules has continued his long-term association with pan music as an arranger and teacher.

Bertie Marshall is unquestionably one of the visionaries of the steel-band world. Possessing a natural facility for things scientific or technical, Marshall applied this to the tuning of pan when his involvement in the art form began in the early 1950sm driven by his uncanny musical sense as well. His constant explorations in tuning technique and instrument design led to his conceptualizing of the double tenor, an instrument that all bands would soon incorporate. He also introduced the concept of covered racks for pans on the road, having determined that direct sunlight on the instruments impaired their tone.

In the early 1960s Marshall examined how electronic technology could be beneficially applied to the steel-band, leading to amplified pans, which he first used publicly in the 1964 and first brought on the road for Carnival 1965. his experimentation with electronics also produced the eye-popping Bertfone, in which a foot pedal system for enhanced tone control was added to an amplified double pan. Along the way, his musical acumen, both as a player and arranger, contributed to a very distinctive musical sound. This was particularly showcased in his Highlanders band in the1960s, which became defunct, Desperadoes would become the prime beneficiary of Marshall’s expertise in tuning.

Curtis Pierre was one of the key figures who helped to trigger some significant sociological dynamics in the early history of the art form. Because, both from the standpoint of ethnicity and economic background, Pierre was not the typical steel-band player of the period, the Dixieland band he led attracted a following that was markedly different. The ranks of steel bands and their supporters were infused with a new diversity. Peirre and his so-called “college boy” Dixieland band achieved musical success as well, soaring to their greatest triumph by winning the 1960 Steel Band Music Festival. In latter years Pierre has run a pan school in Port-of-Spain.

Junior Pouchet led what was perhaps the most successful of the “college boy” bands, Silver Stars. By the early 1950s he was thoroughly immersed, and on his way to a life-long preoccupation. The resulting musical output from Silver Stars, arranged by Pouchet, included many selections that are considered classics. Silver Stars’ run as a popular band lasted through the early 1970s. Among the band’s highlights was winning the title of masquerade Band of the Year in 1963 with Gulliver’s Travels, the only steel-band ever to earn that distinction.

By 1970 Pouchet had moved to the US and soon found himself in another ground-breaking role as leader of the resident steel-band at Disney World when it opened in 1971. The Disney World stint would last a spectacular 28 years.

Emmanuel Riley, because of his exceptional playing ability, holds a hallowed place in steel-band history, primarily by virtue of some celebrated recordings he did with the Invaders in 1959. exhibiting a jazz-influenced style, Riley captivated the public, which had never before been treated to anything quite like his progressive approach. In addition to his ability as a player, Riley proved adept at tuning. Long identified as the epitome of the Invaders sound and style, he made a major shift when he opted to sign on with Desperadoes, largely, he says, to pursue his serious interest in tuning. Riley migrated to New York in the 1960s, continuing his active steel-band involvement primarily as an instrument maker for several New York bands.

Earl Rodney is another all-round musical talent. A competent player of several conventional instruments, notably bass and keyboard, Rodney is also a very skilled arranger/composer. His talents in that realm have led to his arranging calypso albums for some of the biggest names in the business, including Sparrow and Kitchener. And one of his own albums, Friends and Countrymen, which he did in the 1970s, is considered a benchmark recording. But his interest inpan had begun while still a youngster in the 1940s. so alongside his accomplisHOMEnts in conventional music he was also putting in much quality time on the steel-band front. He arranged for such bands as Ebonites and Solo Harmonites, the latter achieving multiple success at Panorama under his guidance. In his own performing, he developed a preference for the alto pan and has long been considered one of the steel-band world’s premier soloists. The pan milieu continues to be the main focus of his musical activity as a player, arranger and teacher.

Jit Samaroo can be considered one of the most forceful testimonials to the power of pan. His initial foray into the pan world in the early 1960s was a player with the band Camboulay, which was located in his home vicinity in eastern Trinidad. Taking private lessons, he enhanced his knowledge of music and was soon leading a family band, the Samaroo Jets, which would gain acclaim as a very accomplished performing unit. His reputation having been firmly established, Samaroo was asked, in 1972, to take on the arranging responsibilities for Renegades. His affiliation with Renegades has continued ever since, an affiliation that has seen them rack up a staggering nine Panorama champion.