September 1, 2009 - Volume 1, No. 13
City Syncopators - The Steel Orchestra from Behind
This article is dedicated to the memories of two innovators of City Syncopators Steel Orchestra:
Philmore 'Boots' Davidson (first captain of the band) and Anthony Lynch (first and only maestro who brought the band its fame). Both musical stalwarts appeared respectively at the beginning and end
of City Syncopators Steel Orchestra.
Boots lived on La Resource Street in East Dry River with his mother, brother and sister. He stood over six feet tall and was black skinned with a slim body that made him lean when he walked. He was a gentle man and soft spoken. Boots belonged to a middle class family behind the bridge who owned a large two storey home. His sister was one of the first police women in the country's history. His brother was a carpenter. Boots family was one of the two families in the neighborhood with a piano in their house, which Boots often played. He played bass and tuned bass drums for the band. I saw Boots tune the six bass. Previously, bands used the four bass. He was the first tuner to tune a six bass.
Lynch horned in his musical skills that he learnt while growing up in Tacarigua Orphanage in East Trinidad.
It was his majestic conducting and drilling of the band that made it achieve its excellent musical skills to outplay North Stars in the 1966 music festival. He also stood nearly six feet and was lean like Boots.
He had a quiet temperament and was very patient and caring for his musicians.
The journey of City Syncopators steelband started on the forty-two steps in the bowels of the Casablanca Steelband on Oxford Street, Port of Spain. In the 1950s, Casablanca was one of the many steelbands from Belmont that had a large following on carnival day with their portrayal of "The Cross of Lorraine".
But, Casablanca was infamously known for its carnival fights with Invaders from the Woodbrook area.
Every carnival those two steelbands would meet either on Park Street or somewhere in Port of Spain and battle. Soon, a few of Casablanca panists decided to leave the band to form their own steelband. They grew tired of the constant fighting and rioting between Casablanca and Invaders, a few panists decided
to break away from Casablanca steel orchestra and form a new steelband, City Syncopators. Years later, when I met Boots at the Brooklyn Panorama he admitted to me that the reason for the breakaway was
the carnival fighting and rioting between Casablanca and Invaders. He said that he and some other panists decided to follow the lead of Renegades steelband who broke away earlier from Casablanca. He also mentioned to me that he was writing a book about the early days of pan. It was the first time I saw him since he left for England in 1951. He became a little grey but still stood tall and proud.
After the breakaway, the members gathered in Kenny Hart's house to organize the new band.
According to Cyril E. Stoute, one of the founders of
City Syncopators Steel Orchestra, he and Kenny Hart
gave the band its name.
City Syncopators panyard was then housed in Kenny's back yard on Quarry Street in the Crescent.
It was the band's first panyard. Among the early members of the band were Tanker, Fitzroy 'Lilbit' Hackshaw, Topsy,
Fitzroy 'Gaga' James, the Rahaman brothers (Boojoon & Ranga), Mobile, Fitzroy Shine, Desmond Prime and Monsegue (two policemen) Daisy McLean, Jocelyn and her sister Carmen, Merle Grant, the Christian sisters (Mary and Ming Ming), Ena Charles, Shirley Benjamin, Grace and her sister Joyce, Gloria Woods, William Turkey, Lennox 'Zorro' Bodkin, and the other Bodkin brothers, Bulb,
Cyril E. Stoute, Gubby Alleyne, Sweeny, Flizey, Jim Bill, Walker, Oscar and Harold Thompson (the community tailor). They believed that leaving Casablanca would give the band a new start. It proved correct. City Syncopators was one of the two steelbands that never got into a steelband fight on carnival day.
The other steelband was All Stars whose captain was Neville Jules.
My first recollection of Synco, as the band became known, was on carnival Tuesday in the early 1950s.
At that time there were four other steelbands in the area: Desperadoes (Laventille Road), Renegades (Basilon Street), Casablanca (Oxford Street) and City Symphony (St. Paul Street). But, not until Synco
was ready did I play my first mas in a sailor band. That year was also the year that City Syncopators Steelband made its mark on the carnival scene with its sailor band "USS Detroit'. Some said that Synco's sailor band was the largest in sailor bands history with over three thousand sailors of every description in the band. The band stretched from Lastique Street at the top of Quarry Street down to Observatory and ended at the corner of Charlotte Street, next to Royal cinema. The band turned left into
Charlotte Street and right into Park Street and then
right into Frederick Street, and headed towards the Queen's Park Savannah for the sailor mas competitions. In those days, most of the steelbands like City Symphony, All Stars (USS Fleets In),
Invaders and Tokyo played sailor mas on Carnival Tuesday. There are a few panjumbies that would swear that Tokyo was the largest sailor band ever to hit the streets of Port of Spain on carnival Tuesday.
But, truth be told, Tokyo combined with two other steelbands to bring their sailor band, "USS Skipjack". According to Randy Babb (former policeman and captain of Hill 60 steelband), the other two steelbands were Fascinators and Crusaders. City Syncopators was one single steelband with over three thousand sailors.
The early years of the steelband movement saw one interesting development. Due to the involvement
of a few members of the African middleclass, a decision was made for the steelbands to play classical music. This group believed that if the steelbands could master the classics it would lead to better acceptance of the steelband by society. As a result, people like Beryl McBurnie (artist), Lennox Pierre (lawyer), Cannon M. E. Farquhar (priest), Edric Connor (actor) and Albert Gomes (politician) became
ardent supporters of the steelband movement.
On July 6, 1951, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) left Trinidad for England on the SS San Mateo to participate in the Festival of Britain. Eleven panists were chosen: Orman 'Patsy' Haynes (Casablanca), Elliott 'Ellie' Mannette (Invaders), Belgrave Bonaparte (Southern Symphony), Theo 'Black James' Stevens (Free French), Winston 'Spree' Simon (Tokyo), Andrew 'Pan' de la Bastide (Hill 60), Dudley Smith (Rising Sun), Sterling Betancourt (Crossfire), Carlton 'Sonny' Roach (Sun Valley), Anthony Williams (North Stars) and Philmore 'Boots' Davidson (City Syncopators). The arranger for the band was Lieutenant Nathaniel Joseph Griffith.
1951 was a happy and yet sad year for Syncopators. The happy part was that Boots was chosen (bass)
to join TASPO on their visit to England as a representative from City Syncopators. The sadness was that, after the festival Boots stayed in London, never to return to Trinidad until the 1970s. It would be the first major change for the band which would change the course of the band. After Boots left for England, Kenny Hart became the new captain. Kenny started tuning steelpans for the band. In those days the captain fulfilled the role of tuner, arranger and chief enforcer and protector against intruders of the band.
The band remained in Kenny's yard for a few years. Later, the band moved to Morgan Club on Fromager Street where Beah was the manager and 'Papers did the daily cleaning of the club. Morgan Club had
a large yard at the back of the club and it was there that Synco made their panyard, their second. The band would practice there for many years. Soon, more panists gravitated to the band: the Johnson brothers (Leon, Popwell), the Rahaman brothers (Ranga, Bounsin), the Thomas brothers (Winthrop and Baldwin) and the Ash brothers (Denis (Tash) & Herbert) joined the band.
One carnival season, there was a falling out with the manager of the club and Synco had to leave.
The band moved to Kenny's yard at the top of Basilon and Belgrade Streets. Kenny had moved from Quarry Street and was residing there. The band practiced there for a while,
it was the band's third panyard. After Kenny migrated to America the band moved to Flizey's yard on Mariquite Street, the band's
fourth panyard. By that time a few younger panists joined the band: Roland Harrigin, Selwyn and Curtis McSween, Bounsin, Andrew Barnett, Andrew Perry, King, James 'South' Simon, Stowe, Carlyle Warner, Morris Miller, Russell Carter, Gladstone 'Pecky' Roberts, Lennox Toussaint, Carlyle
and Tracy Wilson and Errol 'Chubby' Nicholas, who was chosen as captain of the band. Soon after, the band produced a favorite music festival tune Overture from 'Caliph of Baghdad' by Francois Adrien Boieldieu. The band next moved to Belgrade Street in Miller's yard, the band's
fifth panyard. It was from this panyard on Belgrade Street in 1966 that Synco gained its musical entrance
to the steelband hall of fame.
Years later, some of those panists (Baldwin, Winthrop, Tash, Shine and Popwell) would later leave Synco
to form Joyland Synco. Joyland's panyard was on Laventille Road. Among their great players were:
Lennox 'Zato' Jacques, Knolly 'Shine' Frederick, Lester 'Juicy' Jackman, Clyde 'Butu' Sampson, Leonard 'Boldface' Jackman, Denis 'Tash' Ash,
Eugene 'Gunga Din' Mclean, George Pringey, Clarence
'Box' Gore and Popwell. Later, there was an argument over finances and Winthrop left the band to form a combo, Five Fingers. Gunga Din and Tash left for Desperadoes. Boldface, Shine left for Renegades, Juicy migrated. Cliff Alexis became the captain and
tried to keep Joyland together but was unsuccessful. He too migrated and the band became defunct.
The year 1966 was an historical year for the band. It was the year that City Syncopators came of age in the pan world at the Steelband Music Festival. It was fifteen years since Boots left the band in 1951 and three years after (1963) the band entered the country's first Panorama competition. It was to be the year they dethroned North Stars in a classical competition. City Syncopators entered the music festival with on aim, to defeat North Stars. Earlier, in a previous music festival, one of the band's panists, Kelvin Hart won the soloist competition with his rendition of 'Stardust". Kelvin Hart (who now resides in Florida) was the brother of Kenny Hart. He was the first panist I knew that played all the instruments, tuned and arranged at the same time. That was long before the advent of the talented Len 'Boogsie' Sharpe. Kelvin represented the East. But, by 1966 Kelvin left the band and a new soloist, Selwyn McSween took over. It was Selwyn who would take the band to new heights with his soloing in the music of "Poet & Peasant"
Here is Selwyn McSween's reflection of that time: "Synco had rapidly completed their piece of choice,
the first movement of Beethoven's fifth symphony within about three weeks. One night, one of the carnival players, 'Pecky' interrupted the band's practice session stating that he had heard North Stars practicing. He advised the band to withdraw from the festival otherwise they would be destroyed by North Stars.
The leaders of Synco were so offended by the suggestion that they decided to confront North Stars by putting aside Beethoven's fifth and took on, even at that late stage, North Stars own tune of choice,
"Poet and Peasant" by Franz Von Suppe. The best 60 steelbands in the land competed in the festival.
By semi-final night, members of the audience knew they were witnessing a battle of two titans, North Stars and City Syncopators. At the end, Synco won the festival prize for their rendition of "Poet and Peasant". North Stars won the test piece. At first, North Stars was having some problems with the test piece.
Their final rendition of "Intermezzo in E Flat" (composed by Inspector Anthony Prospect) was unsurpassed. Even though Anthony Williams' (captain and arranger of North Stars)
grandmother died during the festival, he nevertheless reconstructed the test piece to win the competition. When the numbers were added up,
North Stars had two points more than Synco. As a result, North Stars was judged the overall winner
of the festival."
The band hired Anthony Lynch to conduct the band at the festival. Maestro Lynch was recommended
by a previous conductor of the band, police bandsman Mackie Boyce. Lynch became an integral member
of Syncopators forging close relationships with all the members of the band and community residents.
His untimely death, while a resident of New Jersey is still considered by all Synco followers as a major catastrophe. The young music conductor who also conducted the police band stood almost six feet tall.
He was very quiet and shy. But, he knew how to bring out the best in his musicians. He chose the overture piece "Poet & Peasant' by Franz Von Suppe as the band's festival tune of choice. For months, the band practiced every night on Belgrade Street in Miller's yard.
On a cool Sunday night, August 21, 1966, the air was buzzing. The adjudicator Jiohn Russell chose five steelbands for the competition finals: Savoys 'Dama Anatonia' (John John), Cavaliers 'Highlights from Carmen' (San Fernando), Starlift 'For unto us a child is born' (Woodbrook), North Stars 'Poet and Peasant' (St. James) and City Syncopators 'Poet and Peasant' (East Dry River).
The 1966 Steelband Music Festival was held at Queen's Hall concert hall at St. Ann's. The genteel residents of St. Ann's were in for a musical surprise. At that time St. Ann's was a white enclave with its sister community Cascade. They had a few African residents which did not deter their prejudices against the steelband and the African poor and working class. The hall was built with private money and its events were restricted to European classic music and operas. After Trinbago gained its independence in 1962,
the hall started to showcase local folk shows (prime minister better village competition), Audrey Adams, Beryl McBurnie and Julia Edwards dance troupes and the steelband music festival.
That night at Queens' hall was destined to be celebrated as one of the most magnificent musical competitions in steelband festival history. The other historical music festival was held in the 1950s
at Roxy cinema where Dixieland 'Agnus Dei' won the competition, outplaying Invaders steel orchestra
'In a Monastery Garden'. As each band played, the audience cocked their ears closely. There were whispers in the crowd as supporters listened. After North Stars played the test piece, 'Intermezzo in E Flat',
most panjumbies believed that they had won the complete competition.
In the semi finals, the adjudicator criticized North Stars for their rendition of 'Intermezzo', their tune of choice. On final night, everyone expected Anthony Williams (Muffman) to perfect the piece. But, Synco supporters knew that their band had rehearsed and practiced all week to perfect their tune of choice,
'Poet and Peasant', the same piece that North Stars selected as their tune of choice. Lynch put his heart and soul in correcting every fault to ensure that the panists got it right. We were confident.
When Synco appeared on stage, the audience became silent. After the announcer introduced the band the signal was given and the band began. The introduction was magnificent and clean. As the percussionist hit the tympani my blood grew cold. Another silence as the audience fixed their eyes on the band. A few bars and the drum roll. Then a crescendo. Next, the sopranos. Then, the cellos. The bass accompanying the lead instruments. The drummer Sealy keeping tempo. Suddenly, it was time for moment which every Synco supporter longed for. The band continued in unison. A little cymbal hitting. Then another drum roll. The band became soft. And then began Selwyn's solo as it came crashing through the night. After ten minutes of great music by the band from behind the bridge, it was over. The audience clapped and stood up celebrating Synco and the magic of the steelpan that became the nation's national instrument.
It was a night to behold when City Syncopators dethroned the famous North Stars to win the 'Margaret Russell Trophy', named after the adjudicator John Russell's wife. That prize was given to the best playing steelband. Although North Stars won the festival for their rendition of the test piece 'Intermezzo in E Flat' composed by Inspector Anthony Prospect of the police band, it was the first time that they lost the tune of choice award since entering the music festival. Synco won with its tune of choice 'Poet and Peasant' and went into the Steelband Music Festival Hall of Fame. They received many accolades from the adjudicator John Russell who described Synco's rendition of "Poet and Peasant" as "the sweetest piece of music I have yet heard on steel." He also paid tribute to the excellent musical skills of the panists and their conductor Anthony Lynch. Synco is the only steelband to surpass North Stars in the performance of a classical piece.
Some of the panists who performed at the festival were:
Sopranos: Selwyn McSween, Monsoor 'Bounsin' Rahaman, Ranga Rahaman, Ashton 'Change', Errol 'Chubby' Nicholas and Andrew Perry.
Guitar Pans: Andrew Barnett and Cliff Lezama.
Cellos: Morris Miller, Vernon Mills and Carlyle Warner.
Double seconds: Peter 'Foodman' Romain, Fitzroy 'Colpoke' Holder, Glen
Ramsey, Hector 'Polecat' Vincent, Clyde Mitchell, King and Stowe.
Bass: South, Cecil 'Jomo' James.
Tenor bass: Earl 'Son Son' Ramsey
Tympani: Frank 'Chicken' Taylor.
Percussion: John Sealy.
Conductor: Maestro Anthony Lynch.
As a result of the band's victory at Queen's Hall, it received a sponsorship from Sanbach Industries.
In 1967, the band traveled to Texas to perform. An idea that was meant to be the beginning of the band's journey to success turned out to be a disaster. That journey provided the panists of the band an opportunity to seek greener pastures. As a result, most of the panists who went on that trip remained in Texas leaving only the instruments to be returned to Trinidad. Later, a second trip was arranged.
This time all the panists (stage side) remained abroad. It was the end of City Syncopators. The band never recovered from that significant loss. Later, Lynch migrated to New York. While in New York, he arranged for Exhibits steelband (Brooklyn). Later he arranged for Harlem All Stars (Manhattan) steelband. Meanwhile, Roland Harrigin and a few band members tried to keep the band alive, which by that time had moved to the Duke Street quarry, their
sixth panyard. He failed. The quarry was the band's last stop to the steelband cemetery. The band died there. The memory of City Syncopators will always live in the international steelband hall of fame.
It was my distinct pleasure and honor to be associated with City Syncopators from its early beginnings.
I will always be a City Syncopators. The band introduced me to the classics as it rehearsed nightly for weeks for the steelband music festival. It was the days of community steelbands where residents spent much time in the panyards of their respective steelbands. Those were the days when you joined a steelband and stayed until death or a serious falling out with the captain of the band. If you left the band, seldom did you join another steelband. It was the days of community tribalism. Today, I know of only one steelband that continues in that tradition, the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. My memories of Synco stem from the proximity of the band. They practiced in Morgan Club which was opposite my home. I spent most of my early years playing in their panyard. It was in Synco's panyard behind Morgan's club that I learned
to play the steelpan. My first teacher was Fitzroy Shine.
I want to extend a special thanks and appreciation to Selwyn McSween and Moonsor 'Bounsin' Rahaman for providing me with the pictures and articles of the band. An extra special thanks and appreciation goes out to Norline for getting Selwyn to search his archives and deliver the articles and pictures to me in a timely fashion for this article. I tried to include all the names of Synco panists and early members as I remembered them. Of course, there were some that I left out. But, that was not intentional. I could not get all the names, even though I tried desperately. Therefore, I urge all who have names or anecdotes, to write me and I will include them as I receive them. Thanks for the memories.
Some pictures and articles frome the archives -
click to maximize