steel band tradition by Lionel McCalman -2

History of the Steel Band in Europe
The Genesis

The history of the steel pan is the story of ‘man’s ingenuity in trying to get beauty out of something that is absolutely waste product’ (Noel 1998, pp. 25). The waste product being referred to here is the oil drum which was available in abundant quantities in Trinidad and Tobago, after the Second World War. Around 1945, local craftsmen began to experiment with these abandoned fuel drums that seemed to be everywhere on the island, and the resulting product was the steel pan. This instrument soon replaced the Tamboo Bamboo as the musical instrument of choice in the annual carnival held every year on 1st August (Emancipation Day). This was the most important celebration as it commemorated the liberation of the black slaves from chattel slavery in 1833. Due to the British colonial administration’s suspicions of the islanders’ motives, Tamboo Bamboo was suppressed by the island’s police force, and this paved the way for the emergence of this innovation, the steel pan (Stuempfle 1995). The origins of the pan lie in the quest for rhythm (Ho 2000), and the technology went through many experimental phases; namely, dustbins, biscuit tins, petrol cans, etc, before the oil drum became the main raw material for pan manufacturing, and the steel band was born.

The steel pan came to Britain in 1951, with TASPO, The Trinidad all Steel Percussion Orchestra, the first steel band to leave the Caribbean and tour the European continent. The twelve musicians (pioneers of this musical genre) arrived in London in time for the Festival of Britain, and the band was well received by the British population. Considering that this was only six years after the invention of the instrument, it is a testament to the rapid progress that was made through the sharing of ideas, co-operation and technological innovation of the early pioneers.

Insights into the development of musical forms, patterns and ideas can be obtained by anthropological research, enabling us to see how individuals and communities have co-operated to develop new ideas parallel with, or diametrically away from the prevailing wisdom of the day, allowing us to test our assumptions about the developmental processes at work. Rennie (1999) pointed out that every time an idea emerged, other pan men would pick it up – experiment with it and improve on it, and the resulting technique would itself be picked up by others who would in turn carry out further improvements to the existing structures and forms. The steel pan is therefore not the work of a single individual but the resulting product of an entire pan community.

In the United Kingdom, TASPO’s legacy was a symbolic appreciation of the Caribbean’s musical expression through the steel pan, not only for its mockery of the classical tradition, but also for the way it converted derogatory stereotypes into attributes of power (Dudley 2002). Russell Henderson and Sterling Betancourt formed the first steelband in 1952, The Russ Henderson Steel Band (later to be renamed Nostalgia Steel Band), was the only steelband to take part in the first Notting Hill Carnival (1965). The carnival begun with the pan-around-neck tradition – the most pervasive symbol of decadence within the colonies, and a symbol of rebellion against the long established colonial power. Its introduction into the United Kingdom made it the ideal art form for all festivals and carnivals, as well as high society balls at Cambridge/ Oxford Universities and at Buckingham Palace. In carnivals and festivals, musicians and spectators mingled together and many on-lookers joined the procession, participating through the beating of iron (metal beating) or other such implements of percussion. Sterling Betancourt is also accredited with introducing the steelband to Switzerland which was instrumental in the spread of the steel band movement in Europe. All the earlier steel bands were mobile units with options for static performances. The instruments were made from carefully selected drums and stood the test of time. As Achong (1999) pointed out:

“With regards to steel quality, today’s drums do not compare favourable with older drums of the 1960s and 1970s. Recycled material? The fact is, the present drums are made to meet the minimum needs of the manufacturers and users. Pan-making is not one of those needs. When pans were invented, the drums carried heavy crude oil. Now one finds drums made to carry Vaseline and light oils being used for pans. They are made of soft thin steel that dent and deform easily. These drums were made as disposal items that would biodegrade quickly in dumps. Can they be expected to make quality, long lasting pans?” (Achong 1999, pp4).

While the steel band is experiencing an up-turn in schools and communities, the pan-around-neck steel band tradition is certainly in decline in the United Kingdom. It is a practice or style of playing the steel pan which involves carrying the full weight of the instrument, either around the necks of musicians, or supported from the shoulders. The single pan instruments are usually suspended by straps from four areas, which forms a harness allows the panist to play her/his instrument with both hands. A pan-around-neck steel band is a single pan ensemble and, with the exception of the tenor/soprano pans and the second pans, the instruments are usually not fully chromatic. This method first became acceptable practice in the early 1950s, after it was introduced by Villaroel, a pan player from Tunapuna. As reported by Rennie (1999):

“before TASPO departed to Britain, the tenor men then, held the pan on their laps with one hand, and played with the free hand until one Villaroel, from the Tunapuna/ Tacarigua area came and exhibited to them the use of straps around the neck and the two stick dexterity that it facilitated” (Rennie 1999, pp3).

The pan-around-neck tradition became very popular in the steel pan fraternity, and the innovation was described as “…within days everyone was on to it and …. It was widespread, … almost nationwide” (Rennie 1999, p.4). However, it has long been overtaken by new experimentation, new inputs of technology, new ideas and scientific advancement, that few of today’s maestros and virtuoso-players seem interested in. Today, in the United Kingdom, The Nostalgia Steel Band is probably the only remaining traditional pan-around-neck steel band that is wholly dedicated to the preservation of this art form. We stand by our tradition.

By the mid 1960s, newer London steel bands started to emerge; Melody Makers, Blue Notes, Bay 57, Tropicana, Max Cherrie and the Cherrie Pickers, The Tony Charles Steel Band. Most of the musicians in the emerging bands were Trinidadians. In 1961 The Dixieland Steel Band (the ‘white College Boys’ band’), was making history back in Trinidad. This band still is the only steel band to win all the four sections of the music festival, i.e. The Zone Finals, Quarter Finals, Semi-Finals and Finals, in the home of the steel band, Trinidad and Tobago. As a reward for their achievement, they were offered the opportunity to come to England to perform over the Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend, 1961. Many of the touring Dixieland musicians made the UK (London in particular) their home and continued playing the steel pan as professional musicians on the gig scene (La Rose and McCalman 2003). Miguel Baradas, Fred Toussaint, Curtis Pierre, Trevor Cumberbatch, Peter Joseph and Russell Valdez were among the celebrated musicians to join the Caribbean Diaspora in the UK. Other Trinidadian bands toured the UK, e.g. The Pan-Am North Stars Steel Orchestra, and the number of musicians joining the diaspora grew. Besides the growth of the steel band movement in London, there were also positive signs in Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, Bath and Leeds. The steel bands that emerged there could match the quality of the London bands, namely, Metronome, Ebony Steel Orchestra, Paddington Youth (later renamed the London All Stars Steel Band). Mangrove steel orchestra emerged from a very small pan-around-neck steel band to become a power-house in the British steelband fraternity. Mangrove is also a costume (mass) band with its brilliant workings of creative themes and aesthetic expressions – and boasts a very large fan-base in the carnival scene.

The multiplicity of carnivals in the UK required an injection of Caribbean music and this led to smaller pan-around-neck steel bands making their mark on the scene. At the early Notting Hill Carnivals, many of the Trinidadian musicians now resident in the UK, would turn out for one of the two pan-around-neck steel bands, namely, Nostalgia Steel Band and Tony Charles Steel Band. In the case of Nostalgia Steel Band, they would turn up with their instruments, and treat the carnival as a jam session. Most would learn the arranged carnival tunes during the long procession (not having attended the practice sessions) and most saw the event as a bonding session with friends. Practice sessions before the carnival became necessary, in an attempt to maximize innovation and creativity. Though the rhythms became more complex and the chord progression added new dimensions to the music, the players treated the event as a relaxed social event, to drop in and out as they pleased. The more change was introduced; the more things remained the same.

As the members of Nostalgia Steel Band in the 1980s and 1990s were largely gig-men, Carnival day was always predictable. It was not uncommon for the steel band to return to the pan-yard, after the carnival procession, with only half of the musicians that started out along the carnival route; the others having left the band during the procession. Every one understood the situation. They had left to fulfil an obligation to a client. After all, they had to earn their crust, and carnival days were no exception.

Pan Round Neck continued