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February 19, 2016 - Volume 1, No. 19

Mirror, mirror on the wall which is the greatest steelband of them all?

The steelband was born out of the pent up energies of the Laventille youth, crying for a place in the sun, in a community teeming with talent. The history of the steelband is to a point parallel to the history of social struggle in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. In this way the social and economic struggle of the people of the Laventille community is also parallel to the historic development of the steelband. Courtesy of “Voices from the Hills” by Ancil Anthony Neil. In his outstanding book, Mr. Neil did a sociological study of the steelband Desperadoes and its community Laventille. As a former resident who lived in the community, Mr. Neil was able to get the stories from the ground and tell the story of a community and its steelband. More than any other steelband, Desperadoes Steel Orchestra represents an idea and a community that was told it could not succeed in a class-oriented society.

Mr. Neil’s main theme was that the Desperadoes steelband was the community’s path to recognition and acceptance. His conclusion was that this musical instrument transformed their thoughts, environment and the Laventille community. Today, Desperadoes is one of the last remaining community steelbands. And, although it no longer practices on the Hill for panorama, its supporters still come down from the Hill every carnival season braving their self-styled curfew to hear their band and support it. For Laventille it is personal. This year it was ‘a different me’ because the band had a new space (Greyfriars Church yard) and a new arranger. Mirror, mirror….

This year I am writing only about the greatest steelband in Trinbago’s steelband history due to its accomplishments in the panorama; classical and other steelband competitions. As I listened to every rendition (preliminaries, semi-finals, on the Greens and the finals) of the band’s tune of choice (Different Me) for Panorama 2016, I could hear the echoes of the pulse of a community which lost its main brand, the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. Truth be told, the band has become like a homeless child due to the horrible changes in Laventille. Those changes weakened the protection that was afforded the band from its inception in the 1950s to the 1980s. Beginning in the 1980s, most communities in the East West corridor of Trinidad began to change due to the drug and gun culture that started to take hold. As I watched the video, I saw what escaped many. Here was a steelband that was reclaiming its place in the panorama fraternity. It had changed its arranger, hiring Carlton “Zanda” Alexander who replaced its former arranger Robert Greenidge (Robbie). Robbie was a member of the Despers tribe. Zanda was an outsider who didn’t belong to the tribe, but that was accidental.

Since I lived down the hill from the band and shared a behind the bridge culture, I knew what that changed meant. But, I also knew that the band made the right choice. I knew Zanda’s music with Steel Xplosion from Tobago and Deltones from Siparia steelbands. I loved his arrangements with both bands. When I forstheard his arrangements with both bands, I wondered if he would get a large steelband to play his music because I watched how those panists struggled with his music. I believed that if he had a large band he could win a panorama. This arranger needed a band with a killer instinct.

The question was: Which steelband? Phase 2 was out unless Boogsie died. The other three top panorama steelbands, All Stars, Renegades and Exodus already had their arrangers who seemed to be permanent. And Starlift got Robbie. Which band? Be careful what you wish for. Yes, I wished that the band had alternatives for Robbie because it didn’t seem that Robbie was making it anymore with the band.

So, when my friend sent me a text that the band fired Robbie, who then went to Starlift and they hired Zanda, I knew that the die was cast and the mold was fixed. Here was the arranger whose style was similar to Master Clive Bradley (and this is a compliment to Zanda) but I had not heard the tune. These days the steelbands choose tunes many panjumbies had not heard before unlike the 1960s through the 1990s when a band’s tune was played on the radio so many times that it allowed panjumbies to get acquainted with the tune. Well, there is youtube. I went on line and listened to the tune. I have to admit that I liked the tune event though my peers said that they didn’t understand the tune. You have to understand that my generation has to understand a tune before they like it, lol.

Anyway, the question was how could Zanda fit this into the band? This is a band that was spoiled over the years with the best arrangers, namely Beverly Griffith, Clive Bradley and Robert Greenidge. All top panorama arrangers that steered the band to winning ten panoramas. For fifteen years they have been in the doldrums of failing to win a panorama. But, now they needed a win to get their grove back. This was no time to be bickering about tunes.

I can remember when Rudolph Charles was the leader of the band a few of the members did not like the tune of choice that Master Arranger Clive Bradley chose for the band. Rudolph called a meeting. Everybody had their say. Finally, Rudolph stood up and addressed the players and told them that he agreed with Master Bradley and he did not want any more dissent. Well, when the Hammer spoke everybody listened and the discussion ended. I have been following the band since grade school and knew, through observation and body language when the band is going to follow the arranger. Now that Rudolph was no longer around to instill that discipline, who would do it? Again, I know this band well and Rudolph taught them discipline and respect for arrangers. Also, the elders in the band can tell when the band is on its way to victory and you can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices.

At preliminaries, I listened to the band. I knew then that this was a winner. Every panists was into the tune: the women on their basses and the front line players seemed comfortable with the tune. Pinhead and Tash got it right. The band was ready to take back their heritage. They made it to the semi-finals. I always like the semi-finals music of a steelband. It seems that they put out their best for the semis because it is your best or home to watch the panorama on TV. Again, the band displayed how things had changed. Phase 11 Pan Grove placed 1st and the band placed 3rd tying with Renegades. Now it was on to final night. The commentators were having a little trouble with the band’s introduction. On final night that was remedied.

The ‘Dead End Kids’ and ‘Spike Jones’ came together to form Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. According to Mr. Neil, “In the mid 1950’s the steelband in the Laventille community took on a new image. A group of young men calling themselves ‘Spike Jones’ started a small steelband in the central Laventille area. This band was later incorporated into the original Desperadoes Steelband. The merging of these two bands developed into the best steelband in the country.” Mr. Neil you were right.

The fact that the band won the panorama for 2016 and seems to regain its prestige does not mean that it can return to the Hill. Events over the last 25 years have changed the community that once protected its band from all invaders. No longer do the Elders have any control of the youths, many of whom are terrorizing the community with their drugs and gangs warfare. Gone are the days when young people could be scolded for their bad behavior. Today, many of the Elders are afraid of their young ones, especially the young men. The ‘good old days’ are not returning. What has returned is the pride and dignity of the greatest steelband in the world. Why greatest? Check the steelband records of panorama and classic festivals, travels, innovations and arrangers. Desperadoes Steel Orchestra outnumbers them all.

These days the winning steelband does not get to travel abroad like before in the 1960s and 70s. Much has changed in the steelband movement. This year’s panorama shows went smoothly and on time. The North stand was unusually quiet. Some people complained about the increase in prices. The visitors were just happy to be at the panorama. Some say that panorama and the carnival are dying. To those I say that panorama will never die. Pantrinbago will continue to function because it is one of the few institutions that Africans control together with calypso and they will only give them up with a revolution. We are going to have changes because every generation decides its interpretation of culture. I was happy to see more Indian young people participating in the steelbands and a few Africans participating in the Chutney Soca. Today, the women are the majority panists in most steelbands and that is a good thing.

Here some of the accomplishments of the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra:
- The first steelband to visit the continent of Africa.
- The first steelband to record an album exclusively of classical music.
- The first steelband to qualify 46 times out of 47 semi-finals.
- The first steelband to make 48 finals out of 53.
- The only steelband to win the panorama in every decade since 1963.
- The only steelband to win 11 panoramas with four different arrangers.
- The only steelband to make the finals 43 times out of 48 attempts.
Courtesy of Ian Franklin

I compliment Mr. Carlton ‘Zanda’ Alexander for giving the band this victory on his first try with a large steelband and after it took fifteen years for the band to rebound. A special prize should be given to Desperadoes because they are the only steelband to win a panorama after failing to do so for fifteen years. Also, they have won in the four major steelband competitions: Panorama, Music Festival, Bomb and Pan in the 21st century. They are one of the last remaining steelbands that entered the first panorama in 1963.

On February 9, 2016, these two articles were published by the Trinidad Express:

“After years of having to conduct rehearsals away from its beloved steelpan complex in Laventille, newly-crowned 2016 National Panorama champion Desperadoes Steel Orchestra will be back home for Carnival 2017. Despers captain Curtis Edwards told the Express yesterday the band will soon move back into its complex in the hills of Laventille. The new building is almost finished, which will enable the steel orchestra to return home and allow the various community activities to again take place comfortably at the much-cherished venue. “We had outgrown the building and also the sound quality was not what we wanted. This new facility features a decking on the top of the building where the band will rehearse from. This will allow us to have a much better sound,” Edwards said.”

“Machel Montano was well on his way to claiming his eighth Road March title with his 2016 offering, “Waiting on the Stage”. It was the song most played by bands crossing the South Quay judging point in downtown Port of Spain, yesterday. While Soca Monarch winner Voice’s “Cheers to life” and Bunji Garlin’s “Touch the Stage” were played intermittently among others, it was Montano’s hit that dominated the day, being played in heavy rotation. Spectators who may have been tired of hearing the song over and over however received a welcome treat, in the form of a mini pan concert put on by Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. The 2016 Panorama winner consented to entertain the crowd during a lull between bands, and for 20 minutes or so, the sound of pan replaced the sound of soca, much to the appreciation of the enthusiastic crowd.” An indication, the carnival was over……..(Kitchener)

I just saw Khalick walking around the panyards begging them to put up a list of their band’s pioneers on their walls. Mirror, mirror on the wall…. 

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