By Ray Funk and Andy Martin
Year after year, the loud and busy streets of Notting Hill Carnival are a joy for the senses. Look closely and you’ll see a small man with a big smile, a pan man, the scratcherman for Nostalgia; that’s Cyril Khamai. This quiet man with a big presence loves pan, early on built pan, and plays pan and percussion, has made pan an integral part of his life since he was a child in Trinidad. Chasing a dream, Cyril came to the UK in 1957 and has been playing pan in his new home ever since. Pan has taken this small man from a small island to big things and Cyril has traveled the globe from Russia to Hong Kong and all over Europe playing pan with a number of different bands.
Cyril started playing pan as a child in Trinidad with the Free French Steelband in San Fernando. The band’s leader at the time was Theo Stephens who had been a member of TASPO. Stephens’ TASPO stories inspired the young Cyril and he would later set his sights on traveling to the UK. From the Free French Steelband, Cyril moved on to another San Fernando steelband called Melody Makers. Here, in addition to honing his playing skills, Cyril became a self-taught builder/tuner of steel pans during his time with Melody Makers. He then went to another steelband in San Fernando called Rogues in the Irving Park neighborhood and for a short while in Rhythm Stars with Nerlin Taitt. Indeed, it was as a builder/tuner that Cyril got his chance to leave Trinidad for the UK in 1957.
In Cardiff, Wales, a homesick batch of Trinidadian boxers wanted to have a steelband and Cyril was just the man for the job. He built the instruments and played with the band, staying about nine months. Cyril then decided to move to London where he became part of one of the earliest steelbands based in the London area.
Once in London, Cyril joined a band known at the time as the Tropicana Steelband many who had been part of the Rogues band in San Fernando. It featured brothers Carl and Winston Jones, Tony Charles, Karl Boyd, Kay Sammie, Sonny Hart, and Lynn Kenkaran. The group started in 1959 and rehearsed in a basement near the Chelsea Art School. One day, students from the art school heard the steelband rehearsing and invited them to play for a party and later to play at events around the school. Building on this early success, the Tropicana Steelband moved on to various extended nightclub residencies as well as popular shows at the Royal Festival Hall in 1960 and Royal Albert Hall in 1961.
Later in 1961, the band trimmed-down to five members and embarked on an important month-long booking in Spain where they played in clubs and restaurants all over the country. The Tropicana Steelband thrived on the road and from Spain the band continued to travel and perform throughout Europe. England served as a home base for these intercontinental tours and Cyril and company worked the London nightclub scene where they were popular at the Latin Quarter as well as university and hospital events scattered throughout the area. They worked with the top band leaders to do balls and society functions all over the country.
One of the most exciting tours for the Tropicana Steelband of this early period came in 1968 when the band was brought to Germany. In West Berlin, the band recorded an album under the name The Original Trinidad Steel Bandand then moved on to playing in nightclubs and doing a film in East Berlin. From Germany, Cyril and the band launched a tour of Russia. Groundbreaking on many levels, Cyril and the Tropicana Steelband have the distinction of being the first steelband to tour the Soviet Union, going to five republics. The tour was part of a variety package of Latin American performing groups led by the Paraguayan band Los Paraguayos and featured several other bands from Mexico to Chile. The tour was based in Moscow. Over the course of ten weeks, the band performed all over Russia and the former Eastern Bloc countries of Georgia, Ukraine, and Estonia. Cyril has fond memories of this tour, especially the five pan players and two limbo dancers that comprised his portion of the show. Coming back from the tour of Russia, a four person version of Tropicana went on a 9 month non-stop tour of England, Scotland and Wales.
Throughout the early to mid-1970s, Cyril performed in several steelbands at spots all over England and Europe. Notable among these steelbands was the Caribbean Trio with the late legendary panman Selwyn Baptiste as well as continued work with the larger Tropicana Steelband. The Caribbean’s Trio went to Switzerland in 1964 playing at mountain ski resorts, U.S military bases in Germany, NATO bases in France and hotels and other gigs throughout Holland. In 1972, Cyril was the lead pan man for the group that played music for the ‘Play Mas’ production that included actors Rudolph Walker, Corrine Skinner, Steve Caliper and Norman Beaton.
In 1975, Cyril spent the summer performing with a steelband in St Tropez, France. In 1979, he was booked as a single pan player to accompany the German-based Trinidad-born calypsonian, Lord Ambassador, for a three months’ tour of Hong Kong. As the years went by, Cyril continued to play pan with countless steelbands. In addition to fronting his own bands, Cyril was a regular with bands led by Russell Henderson and Tony Charles. He remembers playing a regular gig entertaining the audience at the Goodwood horse racing track in Surrey during the summers. With Tony Charles, he was there playing at the opening of the Dubai International Hotel. Little known was his leadership for a couple years in the Seventies of the steelband for the Buddhist Association of England.
Recently he keeps winning awards. In 2006, he won the Black History Month award. In 2011, he was one of the pan legends honored by the Commonwealth Arts and Cultural Foundation with the High Commissioner of Trinidad. He still plays pan on occasions but more often plays various percussion instruments, mostly scratcher. For London Panorama, he has appeared with Ebony, London All Stars and Metro on scratcher and on the road with either Nostalgia or Pan Nectar. Though, once a pan man always a pan man, and Cyril has been known to jump up and play with almost any pan side when the spirit takes him! He played this year with Nostalgia both for Notting Hill Carnival on the road and for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Indeed, young folks in these bands have no idea that the gentle man with the big smile next to them is, in fact, a legend who has taken pan all over the world for well over half a century.