Published on December 11th, 2010 | by Robbie Joseph1
Sixty Years of Steelpan in the UK.
The official steelpan journey to the UK started with TASPO’s visit to the Festival of Britain on the 26th July 1951 but Trinidadian born Arthur Aldwyn Holder (Boscoe Holder), dancer, choreographer and artist is credited for introducing this ‘young’ 20th century acoustic instrument and limbo dancing to the UK in 1950s and 60s. His dance company made many appearances in cabarets, theatre clubs, television shows and films. Boscoe Holder’s dance company, representing the West Indies, performed before the Queen at her coronation in 1953. They performed on a barge which made up part of the Royal Flotilla on the river Thames. Boscoe’s company also toured the Continent, appearing in Finland, Sweden, Belgium, France, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Monaco and Egypt.
The steelpan instrument was born out of a poor nation, oppressed by European plantation owners who ruled Trinidad & Tobago at that time. No one is sure who invented the first steelpan note and research is still be carried out by Pan Trinbago, the world governing body of steelpan, to try and establish all the facts surrounding the birth of the instrument. However, there is general agreement that the instrument first emerged in an organised form in the late 1930s.
Over the years, all the relevant sections of a conventional orchestra have been associated with the different types of steel pan instruments produced – Tenor, Cello, Guitar, Bass etc. The steelpan was found to be a very effective and expressive instrument as it allowed more subtle and complex harmonies to be created. As technology improved and became more refined, cleaner and sharper tuned notes were created from forty five gallon steel oil drums discarded by the oil companies in Trinidad and Tobago. Today, drums are made specifically by leading companies at great cost.
In the early days, ‘Pan’ was the main musical ingredient of Carnival and each steelband had a ‘Mas’ band attached to it. There were bands all over Trinidad and great rivalry existed. In the past being a panman was classed as a ‘Badjohn’, the colloquial term for ‘hooligan’. Today, Pan Players are now recognized as musicians and Pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. Most people want to be associated with it. It is so much a part of Caribbean life that scholarships to North America are awarded for playing steelband music.
By the 1950s there were over eighty (80) steelbands in Trinidad, which produced some of the greatest pannists and tuners, some of whom are still working and performing today. In 1951, Edric Connor arranged for the Trinidad All Stars Percussion Orchestra (TAPSO) to be the first steelband to travel to Britain to take part in the Festival of Britain at the newly opened South Bank Complex. There were twelve pannists selected from over 70 steelbands across Trinidad. The group, conducted by Lieutenant Joseph Griffith, made its debut on 26 July 1951. Within a few years, steelpan music started to grow in the UK and although the pioneers of pan in the UK were doing other jobs, steelpan music was their first love and their destiny. In 1961, ‘Dixieland’, the College Boys Band came to England to perform over the Whitsun Bank Holiday. They created history as the only steelband ever to win all four sections of the music festival, Zone Final, Quarter Final, Semi Final and Final. Most of those musicians are still playing pan in England and around Europe.
The first steelband to participate in the Notting Hill Carnival was the Russ Henderson steelband followed by Sterling Betancourt’s Nostalgia Steel Orchestra. By 1969, there were more bands starting to emerge and in that same year Islington Green School started the first school steelband under the guidance and teaching of Gerald Forsyth MBE. That paved the way for a number of Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) schools to start up steelpan classes in schools and by 1975 there were over 50 schools with steelbands.
In 1978, Gerald Forsyth MBE was appointed steelband organiser for schools, with an office in the Greater London Council (GLC) headquarters. By 1990, Gerald had over 150 schools with steelpan as part of their curriculum. The size, importance and significance of his achievement are apparent when compared to Trinidad, the birthplace of steelpan, where steelpan was not yet considered to be a subject in schools but is now part of the curriculum through the Pan in the Classroom Unit and Pan Trinbago.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a huge increase in the number of steelbands in London and across the UK, many of the bands have continued to flourish and grow: Nostalgia, Ebony, Metronomes, London All Stars, Mangove and Lambeth Youth (now Southside Harmonics), with many more ‘younger’ bands being formed in the last three decades. Eclipse, CSO, CSI, Pantonic, Pantasia, Real Steel, Hammered Steel, Sounds of Steel, RASPO, North Stars and North Tyneside Steel Orchestra to name a few.
The first ever Panorama competition in London was held in 1978 and was won by Paddington Youth led by Zack Herbert. Ebony Steel Band Trust has dominated the UK Panorama competition over the years winning nineteen times; capturing second place eight times and third place twice. This is a phenomenal achievement and sees them rank as the only steel band in the world to achieve this incomparable feat. Glissando Steel Orchestra, managed by Bertrand Parris and under the musical directorship of Pedro Burgess, were leaders in the Steelband Music Festival, an event organised by the GLC in conjunction with the London Brotherhood of Steel. Glissando dominated the competition for its first three years – 1981, 1982 and 1983.
Bands continue the tradition of steelpan music in England and have developed a musical fraternity to be proud of. Every year pannists look forward to Carnival and, in particular, to the National Panorama competition. This annual competition keeps steelbands together and promotes family values and has led to the birth of many more bands.
The British Association of Steelbands (BAS) was established in December 1995 to represent British steelbands and to further the musical, artistic, educational and social aspects of this art. The organization is funded by Arts Council of England and their annual program of events now include Pan Explosion (a competition to encourage the youth in composing, arranging and playing steelpan music), Pan in the Parks, Trafalgar Square Pan Jamboree, National Panorama competition, Jouvert, Pan on the Road for Notting Hill Carnival and their end of year BAS Awards Dinner. Pan Podium, the official magazine of the British Association of Steelbands, is also another positive venture that was launched in 1999 to highlight the hard work performed by steelbands, pan musicians and related peripherals. It is published bi-annually and is circulated worldwide. Pan Podium’s website, www.panpodium.com, was launched in May 2001 enabling the Association to reach its global readership. Pan Podium celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2009. The organization
• is run by an elected executive board. Membership is open to all steelbands in Britain, to individual members and other interested parties
• assists with the provision of training in arranging, playing/performing, management, administration, marketing, publicity and fund-raising
• provides information on all aspects of steelbands and steelpans
• promotes the history, culture and music of this art
• organises concerts, festivals, productions, shows, etc.
• acts as a booking agency
The creation of the UK Pan Tuners Guild in 2008 has seen the merger of good practices and the enhancement of quality instruments by all its members. The creation of this organization affords the artform continuity and provides the steelpan fraternity with an assurance of a supply of high quality instruments. BAS continues to work with its partner organisations and all interested parties to promote the steel pan art form, ensuring that this wonderful 20th century acoustic instrument is attributed the respect it deserves and attains its rightful podium. Through its efforts BAS has actively contributed to making the steelpan artform an important ingredient in the fabric of multi cultural Britain.