Shannon Dudley on Special Brew

Ray Holman is not only one of the most admired musicians in Trinidad; he is also the only active steelband arranger to have participated in the first Panorama competition in 1963. Panorama gave birth to a new kind of steelband music and Holman was one of the musicians that contributed most significantly to its new style. He won the competition in 1969 and 1971 with Starlift, and in 1972 he became the first steelband arranger to have his own composition Pan on the Move performed in Panorama. Since then he has consistently defied the standard practice of arranging a popular calypso, blazing a trail (where many other arrangers have followed) by doing his own music, or "own tune" every year.

"Special Brew" got its name from the unique combination of talents that went into its recorded vocal version. Music was composed by Holman and lyrics by Merchant (Dennis Williams). Brass band arrangement was done by Leston Paul, and vocals by Drupatee. Some of Holman’s writing, such as the repetitive tenor pan rhythms that sound like tassa drums, or the orientally tinged minor mode section, was done to suit Drupatee’s Indo-Trinidadian musical background. In general, however, the steelband arrangement is vintage Holman. Its overall form is typical for Panorama, essentially a series of variations on the verse and chorus, in different keys, with an introduction and coda. Holman stamps it, however, with his unique melodic genius.

The chorus, in particular, which begins with a phrase of just two pitches set to a distinctive rhythm, reappears in a number of meltingly sweet variations and motivic references. Holman’s exquisite melodic phrasing complements a background of bass lines and strumming that is rhythmically driving and gentle at the same time.

The "jams," especially long vamps between the variations built on a short repeated chord progression display Holman’s unique ability to resist the frenzy of Panorama, leave space, and let the music breathe and groove. The slow tempo of this performance, beautifully executed by the Destination Tokyo steel orchestra, only enhances the elegant rhythmic architecture and sweetness of Holman’s music.