Steelband Paradise

The Trinidad Guardian
By Knolly Moses

For a sensitive musician like Ray Holman, the public’s cool reception to his recent compositions are especially painful. It bothers him that the music with much shorter shelf life than his seems to so easily dazzle the Panorama audience. Still, he adamantly refuses to give the North Stand gratuitous gimmicks. Nor will he entertain the slightest thought that he has “lost it”.

He certainly hasn’t lost his skills as an arranger and is obviously mining a wealth of ideas as a composer. When Carib Tokyo unceremoniously ended his tenure, his emotionally robust “Steelband Paradise” won sixth place in the Panorama finals for a previously inconsequential band. Holman’s prestige and panache immediately brought Hummingbirds Pan Groove national stature. “He brought new life to the band,” says Captain Fitzroy Henry who had played with Holman in Starlift and Pandemonium. Holman says Hummingbirds’ youthful energy lifted his spirits and inspired the music. He was particularly moved the first night he saw the humble structure and the chennette tree in the band’s panyard. “It brought back memories of my first involvement with a steelband and fed my creative juices,” says Holman. His experience and his mastery of melody did much to bring Hummingbirds to the savannah party. “Ray’s thematic consistency and precise chord structure makes his music compelling,” says Garvin Blake, a promising composer and steelband arranger who lives in New York. Veteran panist Winston Phillips believes the composer is getting better. “His music more than anyone else’s lives beyond Panorama!” says Phillips. Edouard Wade, musical director for the army band for 14 years, thinks Holman is a truly gifted composer and believes appreciation for his music is now growing.

Last year was a healthy creative period for Holman in many ways. After carnival he went to the United States to conduct workshops and perform in Wisconsin and California. The contrast with his usual duties as an arranger here stretched his potential. Then Ricardo Khan, a New Jersey theatre producer whose father is a Trinidadian, asked Holman to write the score for a musical. Khan, an ardent promoter of Trinidad’s culture, came up with the tantalizing idea to set in Port of Spain “Black Orpheus” --- a love story with Brazil’s carnival and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s music as backdrops. Holman refused at first, feeling a bit insecure of his ability to adapt his music to a dramatic production. Khan, who says that the play is about “our kind of love and poetry and is hooked into the honesty and rhythms of life,” persisted. The overseas calls multiplied. Holman thought about it some more. The idea began to appeal to him.

When he decided to do “Orpheus” the title of Khan’s production, Holman promised himself not to recycle old compositions. Between July 21 and August 7 last year, Holman wrote most of the music for “Orpheus.” Khan loved the material. They worked together to cut and lengthen the pieces where necessary. The play’s choreographer fed off the music for dance ideas. In the end, Holman was pleased with the outcome. Indeed, “Steelband Paradise” was first played in the theatre. The play was well received by the critics, and, of course, everyone loved the score. “His music ranges from lullaby to pure passion,” says Khan, “it is a quiet storm.”

“Steelband Paradise” is very much that. It is vintage Holman, as he himself will tell you, with his usual elegant lines and clever phrasing. The piece displays artistry that must come from discipline and hard work. Veteran arranger Clive Bradley once described Holman as a Mercedes, finely tuned and running smoothly. “Steelband Paradise” gave a turbo charge to Holman’s competitive instincts although the unassuming teacher at Fatima College is often modest about his talent. “I write music that’s honest, simple and has integrity, says Holman. Then in a short burst of enthusiasm he adds, “It should also make the Gods cry!” The quiet storm rages.