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February 28, 2015 - Volume 1, No. 18

Panyard Stories - 3 of 4

THE PANIST


As a young man, Leroy loved to play the pan. Today, he still belongs to one of the top steelbands but now he plays iron in the engine room in the band. As a young boy living on Basilon Street, Leroy joined the local steelband down the Hill. Up the Hill there was another steelband. But, he refused to join them because of the steelband fights. At the time he joined the band, the band had just moved from Lodge Street in the Crescent. Like some of the steelbands, the band broke away from a larger steelband. First a few members who were dissatisfied left. They formed their own steelband. Later, another group of members left but they stopped playing pan. He was a leading panist in the band and played the double seconds pan. Also, when the band entered the music festival he was the band’s soloist. He won the soloist competition with his tune of choice ‘Stardust’.

In the late fifties, the island saw the beginning of a new era in politics, the steelband, calypso and attitudes. A new political party came into power under its powerful and charismatic leader whom everyone called “The Doctor”. The new political leader was a graduate historian from one of England’s top universities. He had spent some time teaching there but left for and American university. Later, after falling out of favor with the American government he decided to return to Trinidad and worked at the colonial commission. Later, he was fired from the commission. He decided to enter the political arena under the auspices of a new political party.

The rise of the new political party gave the steelband movement a lift as the new party embraced the steelband movement. Before, the steelband movement had no access to any political party. The people from Laventille, Belmont, Morvant, Gonzales and East Dry River totally supported the party which won the elections. The new premier, as representative for South East Port of Spain won his seat in parliament. The steelbands and their panists in the area formed a particular relationship with the new party.

Leroy wondered why after fifty years of that loyal relationship the steelbands didn’t have their own steelband hall. He thought to himself: ‘Why isn’t there a Steelband Center? Why aren’t there musical classes for panists so that they could master the theory of their instrument?’ ‘Why is it that the steelbands had to depend on the government for everything? If they want to throw a block party they have to get money from the government.’ The irony was that in spite of the steelbands total support for the government, the steelbands were not really taken seriously by the government. Their support was taken for granted. Their artistic contribution to the nation was seen as a cultural phenomenon rather than art.

The middle classes did not fully identify with steelbands. They disliked local culture and looked to Europe for their artistic expressions. They seldom offered any of their expertise unless it led to some personal recognition for them. Some became judges for the different steelband competitions. Others became steelband conductors and arrangers for the steelband music festivals. None of their children played in the steelbands and they saw the steelbands through the eyes of the 1950s and 1960s. They viewed panmen as hooligans and their music simply excessive noise only to be tolerated during the carnival celebrations. A closer look at the membership of steelbands would show mainly the African and Indian working classes.

For the first time, politics, calypso, young people and the steelband would come under the banner of the government. Before the present government, steelband and calypso never had a government patron except the late Portuguese leader who championed the steelband and the Baptist religion. But, with the entrance of the new government, the steelband and calypso became its twin cultural arms. The new leader knew its powerful political force and used it.

Leroy never joined any political party. But, his allegiances lay with the ruling party. He was known all over the country as the best steelpan soloist. He performed at shows in Port of Spain, San Fernando, Tobago and throughout the Caribbean islands. When the government had its functions he was called to play. At the party’s last convention, Leroy was asked to bring his steelband to perform for the political leader. The year that his band won the national festival, he was chosen with his steelband to travel to an African country as cultural ambassador.

Over the years, Leroy’s steelband developed a close connection with the ruling political party. They were invited to all the party’s events and became the envy of the other steelbands. Soon, the other steelbands started calling the band ‘the government band’. That did not bother Leroy. He used to say: ‘They could say what they want, they don’t pay me.’ The band became known for its discipline and arrangement style which they received from Leroy and the arranger.

One night, Leroy was invited to perform at Queen’s Hall concert by the local Jaycees organization. Leroy was a hit as he played his favorite piece ‘stardust’ and other jazz standards. The band now had a sponsor and was traveling. First, the band traveled to other islands and then to Europe. It was on one of these European trips that Leroy stayed off.

The band was invited to visit Sweden for a two weeks trip. Everyone in the band was in high spirits as the band planned its repertoire. By now, the band had learned about twenty five tunes from their classics, Latin, jazz and calypso repertoire. For the last four music festivals the band won all four. The band also won six panoramas and was formidable even when they did not win. Every year in panorama, the band was a force to be reckoned with. They were the band to beat. People used to say: ‘to win the panorama you have to go through that band.’

 

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