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September 25, 2007 - Volume 1, No. 7

Hearts of Steel

On a beautiful summer Sunday (9/16/7) evening I attended a pan concert at the Hearts of Steel panyard. The concert was held at the band’s present panyard at 757 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. It was well attended. Many of the season over-fifty (who know this music) supporters found their niche in the panyard as they danced to the syncopation of the steel orchestra. The women were well-dressed and the men (a lot of long time saga boys) too. This band was a favorite for Jouvert 2007 and was very impressive. Their tune of choice for Jouvert was “Steelband Clash” by Blakie. As I listened to the band playing on Empire Boulevard, I said to myself: “This is the kind of band Brooklyn needs.”

Hearts of Steel Orchestra was formed back in June 2006 and regrouped in July 2007. The band is currently un-sponsored and is made up of about 20 veteran panists. Many of them stopped playing for a while but returned to Hearts of Steel. The leader is William ‘Mike’ Demas. The treasurer is Anslem ‘Teach’ Fritz. And, the secretary is Allison (good to have a woman on board). According to the band leaders, the band will not be going to the Brooklyn Panorama anytime soon or ever. The band intends to concentrate on the Jouvert celebrations and do concerts. Also, they intend to use their influences to engage the youth in the community and offer them educational training in computers and seeking employment. Mr. Demas informed me that the panists of Hearts of Steel were paid for participation in the Jouvert. This is surely an example
I wish the other steelbands would emulate. Last Sunday afternoon, the band gave a concert in Prospect Park. It was well attended. The band will be working on getting its incoporation and tax status papers soon.  

At present, the band plays a 1960s repertoire which I love and hope that they will keep. The arrangements are an updated four chord syncopation which reminded me of the 1960s. Their arranger is Lennox ‘Ned’ Stephens. Ned is one of the most underrated pan arrangers today. Ned is a good arranger from the Boogsie mold. As I listened to the band I wondered if the members of the orchestra knew the impact they could make on the Brooklyn pan community. Let me explain.

This is the band that can give Ned his due in the New York steelband world. The band should stay away from New York Panorama and concentrate on playing good music for the people. They should keep the 1950s and 60s repertoire and the syncopation beat. The last time I heard such a steelband was when Emmanuel ‘Jack’ Riley arranged for the band Invaders in Brooklyn. That year Brooklyn Invaders played in the Jouvert songs from the old Invaders repertoire. Jack, (who gave the pan world pan soloing and improvisation with songs like Syncopation in C, Melody in F, with a song in my heart, Theme from The Student Prince and Liebestraum), did some beautiful arrangements for the band. But, when the Brooklyn Invaders joined with Pan Ambassadors and entered the Panorama in 2001 it was the end of a good band. It was not long after that the band died due to a shortage of panists. The young panists do not join steelbands whom they deemed of having no chance of winning a Panorama. Hearts of Steel should not be tempted to enter Panorama and suffer the same fate like another steelband, Silhouettes.

The story of Silhouettes is worth mentioning. Silhouettes boasted that they would never enter a Panorama. It was a friend and family (veterans children played in the band) band with members from the old neighborhood in Trinidad. In 1989, they decided to enter Panorama. They hired the steelband icon Boogise to arrange for the band. Due to Boogsie’s following, every night their panyard was full to capacity with panjumbies falling out into the streets. The bar sold out many times every night. Panjumbies were betting the farm that the band would be among the top three for the Panorama. They were at their best that year. The band came fourth in the Panorama. Soon, there were accusations about missing monies from the band. People who were life long friends became suspicious of one another. Within a year the band fell apart. Out of Silhouettes came the steelband Marsicans. But, things were never the same again. The friendships remained strained. Soon, Marsicans broke up and another steelband, New York Marsicans was born. This time all the veterans left the band. I understand that the new band is run by young panists.

The Brooklyn pan community needs a steelband that can keep the syncopation tradition alive. I would strongly recommend to the management of Hearts of Steel that they should concentrate on playing the music of the 1950s and 60s. With that concentration as their niche, they should build a repertoire and become known as the steelband who reinvigorated the wonderful syncopation music of the 1960s. Now, I am not a purist. I am not saying that all steelbands should go this way. It is just that I get the feeling that Hearts of Steel could fill a vacuum that is surely missing with that type of music. If they build on that attitude they can carve out their own niche in the Brooklyn pan world. In 2008, Hearts of Steel should join the annual Sunday Last Lap steelband jam held at Prospect Park and display their wonderful music to panjumbies. They should give open concerts with other steelbands so that the community will get to know them and their music.

This year, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA) celebrated 40 years of Brooklyn carnival. Most of those years, the steelband has been a part of WIADCA. For those 40 years, WIADCA has followed the Trinidad model for its carnival shows (Panorama on Saturday, Demarche Gras on Sunday and Jouvert on Monday). But, there may come a time soon for WIADCA and the steelbands to start thinking about new model for Brooklyn carnival. My sources tell me that when the proposed Atlantic Yard Center is built, the Brooklyn carnival (Panorama, Demarche Gras, Jouvert and Mas) will be removed to the Atlantic Center grounds. No more Mas on the Parkway and Jouvert.

If this is true it means that the Brooklyn carnival is on its last to be taken away from Eastern Parkway and the Museum. Are the steelbands prepared for this change?  What about the Mas bands, are they prepared? And Jouvert, will that change too? Are stakeholders in the steelband movement meeting to discuss their place in this new model for Brooklyn carnival? And, will there be a new model for the carnival? Maybe the steelbands will give up their canopies for this new Panorama center. I am sure that the City would accommodate the steelbands by building an egg-shell covering (like Queen’s Hall) to provide acoustics for the bands.

Presently, the steelbands are leaderless but they can get their act together for this new model if they prepare now. There is still time for steelbands to unite under one organization and elect people to seek their interests at the table. I warn the steelbands. If the carnival is removed from Eastern parkway and you go to this new center without a legitimate organization to represent your interests you will be history in this town. There is a renaissance taking place in Brooklyn. There will be no place for leaderless groups.

WIADCA entered the Panorama in 1974. Since that time (except 1979, 1980, 1986, 2001 and 2002 they have managed the New York Panorama. Although WIADCA has been involved with Panorama since 1974, the steelbands do not seem to be happy with WIADCA management’s style. New York steelbands continue to complain about the Panorama. There is much dissatisfaction among the steelbands about their prize monies and the sound system.

In 2001, the steelbands broke away from WIADCA and operated their own Panorama.

Unfortunately, due to financial disputes the bands left that organization and returned to WIADCA. The steelband is an intricate part of the Brooklyn labor-day carnival. Of all the shows held at the back of the Brooklyn Museum, the Panorama draws the largest crowd. Every year, panjumbies come out in their large numbers to support the Panorama. And yet, every year the steelbands return to WIADCA in spite of their legitimate complaints. Perhaps, there needs to be a new model for the steelband movement in Brooklyn. But, who will lead this movement?

Now back to Hearts of Steel. What impressed me so much about this band was how its panists played. The panists in Hearts of Steel played with a style that I thought was lost. Hearts of Steel can bring back that style. There was a time you could go to any panyard in Trinidad and listen to panists improvising while they played just for the fun of it. They were not preparing for any competition. Hearts of Steel retained that style of playing. The band should train a new generation of young panists to play in that style. (I call it ‘Cobo Jack style’). It is that style that will give them their special place in the Brooklyn steelband movement.

As I watched the panists of Hearts of Steel I imagined this band leading the Brooklyn pan world with their improvisations. Most of the Brooklyn steelbands do not have panists who improvise while playing. I attended a few of the pan concerts and failed to hear that style of playing. I often wondered if it is the arrangement or that the young panists don’t know how to improvise. That’s an art that I hope hearts of Steel will bring back. I do not know what Hearts of Steel plans are for the future. Are they in this for the long haul or is this just a temporary pan side? Do they want to make pan history? Are they going to look at the past bands and learn from their mistakes? Will they take their own destiny into their hands and stay away from Panorama? Hearts of Steel can contribute to the development of a cadre of panists who can improvise as they play. Will they become a pan school teaching young panists the Cobo Jack style? Will they teach their young panists the history of the steelband movement?

During the 1950s and 60s, many panjumbies will remember hearing Invaders Steel Orchestra coming up Tragarette Road to Port of Spain playing their famous Jouvert tunes. One could see and hear Jack on his soprano (tenor) pan improvising as the band played. The famous pan battles on the streets of Port of Spain on Jouvert morning were a spectacle to behold. A band would be moving down Park Street and another band would be passing alongside. All the star panists in each band would begin to improvise as their members and onlookers danced to the music. It was fun to look at panists like Cobo Jack, Horse, Spongy, Mouthabe, Kelvin Hart, Shoreland and the saga boys from Hilanders.

Travel with me. It is the 1960s at five o’clock Jouvert morning on Tragarette Road. Starlift and Invaders are coming to Town. They are joined by Silver Stars as the bands reached Cipriani Boulevard. Now the crowd gets larger and larger as Woodbrook residents join their favorite steelbands into Town.  You could distinguish Silver Stars by the sound of their bass. They were known for a deep sounding bass. Starlift, the youngest of the three bands would be playing tunes (Sonata in C, Penny Lane) arranged by Ray Holman. Invaders would display their colorful sounds (Liebestrum, Syncopation in C)) with pans tuned by Ellie Mannette. Suddenly, the sounds of All Stars could be heard coming down Park Street playing one of their favorite bomb tunes (In a Persian Market, Anniversary Waltz or Barcarolle).

Names like Boogsie and Master Clive Bradley had not yet entered the arranger lexicon of steelbands. The arrangers that reigned supreme then were: Neville Jules, Junior Pouchette, Ellie Mannette, Ray Holman and Bertie Marshall (Hilanders). Bands like Desperadoes, Renegades, Exodus, Skifflebunch, and Fonclaire had not yet entered into the lexicon of Jouvert bombs. The bands that reigned supreme during the 50s and 60s Jouvert were: All Stars, Invaders, Starlift, Silver Stars, Hilanders and City Syncopators. The Jouvert stage was led by these bands until the 1970s.

Today, Jouvert in Trinidad is more masqueraders than steelbands. It is pitiful to watch the steelbands with very few masqueraders in the band. The large Jouvert crowd is gone. You do not hear the sweet syncopation of yesteryear. Today, the bands (those lucky to come out) play one tune for the whole Jouvert. In the 50s and 60s a band would have about three or four bombs to play for Jouvert. When the captain saw people tired he switched to another bomb. I remember hearing about four bombs (one Jouvert morning) from All Stars under the melodious arrangements of Master Neville Jules, the originator of the bomb.

I wish Hearts of Steel all the best in their steelband and community ventures. They should strive to be a community steelband and interact with members and the business people of the Caribbean community. They should seek the support of the local businesses and invite them to their concerts. Hearts of Steel, this is your moment. We support you.

P.S. For any carnival, steelband or local terms used here, please go to the Port of Pan ABC,
or you may contact this writer. Thanks for reading.

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