"Ray Saga" Touches the Stars

Newspaper: Sunday Guardian
Date: February 20, 2005 
Writer: Michelle Loubon

Phase II Champs 
Splashed across the newspapers were ebullient pictures of ace arranger Ray Holman, and captain Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, flanked by the Phase II pannists, supporters and well-wishers. Undeniably, the victors were savouring the taste of sweet success, in the aftermath of Panorama finals 2005.

Prior to copping the coveted title, Holman and Boogsie had collaborated on the winning composition Trini Gone Wild, written by journalist Anthony “Lexo” Alexis and sung by former Pan Monarch, Colin Lucas.

Strumming on his guitar at his Hunter Street, Woodbrook home, Holman said he had returned a favour to his long-standing friend Len “Boogsie” Sharpe.

“People don’t know it, but we have always had a close friendship. We have been able to relate in a way that most people don’t know how to. There was a year when I asked him to arrange for Pandemonium, out in Belmont.

“I had a lot of projects that I was doing outside. He took up the mantle. I was happy to help him. He and I have always been close.”

“It wasn’t difficult for me. I knew a lot of the people who had played in Starlift, Harmonites, Pandemonium and some of my students from abroad. It was not a strange atmosphere.”

“All I did was revive ‘Ray Saga’,” he grinned mischievously.

Childhood in Woodbrook 
An only child born to Iris and Theo, now deceased, Holman grew up on Ana Street, Woodbrook. Memories of his childhood include playing football, cricket, running jockey in the canal, and racing up and down Ana and Gallus Streets, and playing at Pompeii (now King George IV park) with his friends. Later on, he learned to swim and made regular treks to Invaders Bay.

His passion for swimming never waned and whenever the Seattle-based arranger is at home, he heads to Macqueripe Bay, Chaguaramas. A true devotee, he even penned two odes to Macqueripe- Dancing On A Wave and Moon Over Macqueripe.

Holman, 60, insists it was a happy childhood, except he was plagued by tonsillitis up till 20. While he could indulge in cricket and football at his whim and fancy, he recalls that there was no encouragement for his curiosity for the steelband.

“I remember Hit Paraders coming up the street. The Fernandez brothers would be coming up the street playing. We were not allowed to go outside. My friends and I were little boys and we would be peeping through the window. In those days, steelband did not have a good reputation.

“Then, at 13, I started attending QRC. We had moved to Roberts Street. I was now close to Invaders Pan Yard. I was in close proximity to the sounds of pan. I suppose it is there it all started. It was there I made my first contact with pan.”

Completely seduced by the music emanating from the steelpans, Holman abandoned his plans of becoming a priest.

“My friends and I would frequent Little Carib Theatre, with Beryl Mc Burnie. Ellie Mannette had made several pans for Invaders. I remember we went around the yard. Ellie was there and he kind of called us in. We kind of liked it. We would play in the pan yards. We had Vernon, Ellie and Cecil “Coy” Forde who sort of looked out for us. They were our protectors there. We started to feel comfortable and it is there I learnt to play.”

By 1975, Holman had aced pan playing. Then, in 1961, at age 17, he began arranging for Invaders. Songs like Dance Of The Reed Pipe, and Back In My Arms, formed the genesis of "Ray Saga."

As “Ray Saga” began to spread, Holman was asked to revive the defunct Starlift steelband, on the invitation of Albert “Philo” Smith.

Eager to keep “Ray Saga” alive, Holman said: “I arranged a song, I Feel Pretty. By 1963, the band had become quite popular. All of the young people started following the band. Fellas left Invaders and came over there with me. We had men like Keith Agard, Ronald, Winston, Harris and “Mouther B” Phillips.

Then the Holmans moved from Roberts to Damien Street. Holman regretted the move, “since all my friends were there,” but welcomed Andre Tanker’s friendship and invitation to play pan with his group

“I can safely say he was one of the first people to introduce pan into his group. I still kept on with Starlift though. We had Scofield Pilgrim in the group. We performed a lot of gigs on campus.”

“Ray Saga” kept rising. Starlift placed third with his arrangement of Sparrow’s A Fool And His Money in 1963. The band came second in 1968 with Sparrow’s Jane.

“We won in 1969 with Kitchener’s Bull. In 1970, we came in Panorama with Pennylane. In 1971, we had Queen Of the Band. In 1971, we recorded Pan On The Move and Pan Right On.”

The critics claimed Holman had stepped into unknown territory in 1972.

“It stirred hornet’s nest. A whole controversy erupted over whether Starlift should be allowed to play the tune. Before, people were only playing Sparrow and Kitchener tunes. A meeting had to be called to decide whether we should play Pan On The Move or not.

“They said I was a madman. To them, it was unthinkable to compose and arrange your own song,” he said.

Patting himself on the back, Holman said: “I saw myself as a pioneer. It is the genesis of what is taking place today. Pan On The Move was about the clash with the Invaders. We had to leave our pans and run and hide when the fighting broke out. We were the top band and we had to be the leader.”

Once again Holman had his friends support. Boogsie was one of the young pannists. He was always supportive and he backed me up. He was very well-disciplined. He always believed in me and what I stood for. It is the same thing that happened with Phase II this year.

“I told him and them (the players), we have not won Panorama yet. We only won the semis. We cannot be overly confident. We have to keep focused and work on winning Panorama," he said of this year’s performance.

Following that ground-breaking feat in 1972, Sharpe and his friends left to form Phase II, and Holman began arranging for a Huggins’ employees band (1964-1983), then Panyard Vibrations and the Pandemonium.

Use of illegal drugs in the latter band was a problem and Holman hired out himself as a freelance arranger for Tunapuna’s Exodus, Carib Tokyo and Humming Bird Pan Groove. Again “Ray Saga” worked its magic. Humming Bird Pan Groove did well, coming third in the North finals.

“It was one of the greatest achievements of my life,” Holman mused on how this band wasn’t known for doing well, was moving up to the top.  

Moving on in Pan 
While Holman was arranging for several steelbands, he still found time to play the guitar and compose melodies. He even juggled his time as husband to Annette and father to his five children- Sheldon, Dale, Dianne, Rhysa and Tricia.

A teacher at Fatima College, Mucurapo, Holman also found time to read for an Upper Seconds BA degree in Spanish/Sociology at UWI, St. Augustine. But, despite his passion for pan, guitar and composing, the duties began to take a toll. Holman needed time out.

“I went to Miyazaki, Japan… I got a job as a visiting artist. I met a lot of musicians and my career took a different turn. I started doing workshops in 1989. A professor heard my work and invited me to Manitoba. He said my music was the best music he heard at Panorama.

“I went there in 1990. I started to travel. People started hiring me out to concerts,” he said.

As one of the defining moments of his career, Holman cited being honoured by the West German Government along with pannist Andy Narrell and calypsonian David Rudder.

“It was a wonderful feeling to be honoured. It was one of the highlights of my career,” he said of that event. Compounding that honour, Holman wrote the music for Black Orpheus produced by Cross Roads Theatre/New Jersey.

“New York Times compared it to what Lennard Bernstein had done for West Side Story. The feeling was indescribable,” he remembered.

Holman also found time to co-write songs with deceased Merchant and Winston “Joker” Devines; he plans to release them on a 2005 compilation.

He is also currently involved in the Music Literacy Trust, UWI, St. Augustine, with cultural flagbearers like Frenzy’s composer Mark Lo Quan, Pat Bishop, Liam Teague and Jit Samaroo.

“I had to postpone the project while I was working on Phase II. I’m writing songs which the students will score. The music will be put on a disc. The students will have the audio/the music. I have a lot of new songs I'm writing. It was a great pleasure to be invited on that project." he said.