Don’t break up my band
If you break up my band
Its war and rebellion
Don’t break up my band
If you break up my band
I’ll live in the station
I can remember this melody sang by my family Tamboo bamboo band, it was early 1930 in the Laventille hills of Port of Spain Trinidad. I was 5 years old and at carnival time I used to sneak out of the house to join the band, barefooted of course, with just a vest and no pants. Gin bottles half filled with water were beaten with a spoon; they were later on replaced by the steel hub. This song was aimed at the police and rival bands as, in those days there were many clashes between bands and other bands and the police. Stick fighting was also very popular. Alexander Rag Time Tamboo Bamboo band was the first to integrate paint and biscuit tin pans with the bamboo; the band was from New Town, Trinidad. I was about 9 years old when I saw and heard the band in a barrack yard in Prince Street, Port of Spain playing for a Bamboo band competition, singing:
Run you run Kaiser William
Run you run (repeat)
Hear what Chamberlain say
Cheer boys cheer
With charity and prosperity
We’ll conquer Germany
I stood there in awe, looking, admiring the band master standing tall and grand in his scissors tail coat and top hat, conducting the band, a baton in his hand. It was also the first time a Band Master was conducting a bamboo band. A year later, bamboos were removed from all the bands.
Gradually notes were discovered on the tin pans, from 1 tone to 2 to 3, it eventually became possible to play a melody, and the ping pong drum was born then in the 50s named the Tenor pan. As I am not here to write an historical article on the evolution of steel drums but only my personal musical history. At 10 years of age, I played with the Tripoli steel band. Joe Crick nicknamed the Fuhrer was the captain, as he always dressed up as a Nazi during carnival. I played the ping pong and also tuned with the official tuner Granville Sealey. At the same time I also played in a children band, ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ from St James, with Hugh Borde, his brothers and friends like Irwin Clement. At the end of the war, 1945 VE day, we were the first sponsored steel band to play on a truck advertising Robinson Crusoe rum cruising all over Port of Spain.
With Tripoli we played at steel band competitions usually held in cinemas, like the Empire, the Globe and the Roxy. At one of our gigs we played for John Wayne in a beautiful colonial house around the Savannah, he danced to our mambo music. Joe Crick known to be an amazing fighter once challenged any two Invaders members that he could fight them without weapons. Funnily enough Invaders declined. During my last 2 years with Tripoli, my pan tuning skills improved greatly. Granville Sealey, at ‘the after’ carnival thank you party was slightly drunk and became really offensive to me as rumours stated that I had become a better tuner than him which greatly displeased him. As a result I with my friends, decided to leave Tripoli and form our own band.
During this period there was a film, ‘Crossfire’ showing at the Rialto cinema, starring Robert Mitchum, we decided that it will be the name of our band. Gradually more players left Tripoli to join Crossfire, Mcfield was one of them, he worked at the Shell Company and organized to purchase a dozen oil drums for our new band, and through him we got a very good deal. We established our pan yard in Hyderabad Street, St James, in Cyril Jackman’s yard, a quarter of a mile from Tripoli. Cyril Jackman‘s house had enough space underneath to store the drums that I had made for our members: Eman and Roger Thorpe, Sam and Rudolph Boodoo, Eric Drayton (who lived opposite), Rubin Sammy, Rudolph Heswick, Coya Menard, Cynthia Davis, Roy Hunt, Buncans St Claire, Red Mike, Tolo, Duggy, Egbert, Kelvin St Rose (Zusie), I know that my list is far from being complete but I am unable to name them all.
Cyril Jackman was the captain of the band it was a responsibility that not many members wanted to take on, as often fights flared up amongst bands and police interference was inevitable.
When I left Crossfire, Eman Thorpe became the pan tuner with Zusie St Rose. He was undisciplined and well known for causing havoc wherever he went. He was a talented musician with a promising future who was also good at throwing missiles at the police. He was eventually taken to court, and then hiding on a ship he immigrated to England. Steel bands were evolving rapidly due to the intense experimenting with the drums; also evolving was the rivalry between bands. Riots were frequent all over Port of Spain and in early 1950 a steel band association was established to protect the national art form from bad publicity and to give it some dignity. Bands were asked to join the association to avoid the rivalry between themselves which was rampant.
Sydney Gallop, the first president of the steel band association, riding his bicycle one day bumped into Albert Gomes, a politician, who talked about the idea of sending a steel band to the centennial Festival of Britain. I met Gallop a few years ago and he told me that the brainchild of TASPO was in fact Albert Gomes. TASPO, (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra) was formed by the Association. Eleven top pan musicians were chosen from leading bands in Trinidad, affiliated to the association. Lieutenant Joseph Griffith from Barbados was chosen to be TASPO musical director; the eleven musicians were selected by the members of each band. I was one of them. The steel drums then, were just raw material, rusty and unpainted. New instruments were developed for TASPO. Anthony Williams made 2 drums called tenor bass; Ellie Mannette made 3 bass drums. Most of the members were able to tune their own drums.
After many intense rehearsals, concerts were given by TASPO to raise money for the journey to Europe and for the first time audiences were hearing orchestrated steel band music. Three months later, in July 1951, we all left Port of Spain on a banana boat, the San Mateo, collecting on the way bananas, in Martinique and Guadeloupe where we gave concerts and radio performances. After a couple of weeks at sea, leaving one man behind, Sonny Roach, in Martinique with tonsillitis, we finally docked at Bordeaux in France playing on the deck.
At windows, we could see faces with binoculars looking at us. I must say that we must have been a strange sight, all these black men with sweet music coming out of old rusty oil drums!
The same evening we got on an overnight train to Paris. On arrival at the station we were horrified at the way the porters threw our drums out of the luggage compartment onto the platform, they thought they were dustbins!!! When we told them that they were musical instruments they quickly apologised. The following morning we took a boat train to London.
We gave our first performance at the South Bank, outside the Festival Hall. There was a crowd around us, people laughing as we were setting up our drums. After the first tune laughter turned into applause, with people saying that it must be black magic.
Amongst the West Indians in the crowd, there were a couple of famous faces from Trinidad, Mc Donald Bailey, the runner, Ulric Cross a famous pilot during the war, the actor Edric Connor and his wife who were in charge of us in London. We played at the Savoy with Lord Kitchener, the Roaring Lions and Boscoe Holder Dance Troupe, at the Lyceum and at the St Pancras Town Hall. We did a BBC television show at Alexandra Palace and toured England, Scotland and Wales. We arrived in Paris in November to play for a couple of weeks at the Medrano Circus and also recorded an album with the Vogue label. When it was time to leave for Trinidad I made the decision to go back to London, alone with my drum. I think the cold weather had taken away some of the member’s good spirit to remain in Europe, but the words that my brother had whispered in my ear when I left Trinidad echoed in my head: “You’d be a damned ass if you come back”
I had been in London a couple of months when I met with Russell Henderson who was studying piano tuning and playing the piano in a night club at the time. We decided to form a band, I asked my brother in Trinidad to send me two steel drums, a second pan and a guitar pan. At the time, Mervyn Constantine, a school friend who was coming up to England, brought the drums made by Anthony Williams. I already had my ping pong drum with me. We did not know that Mervyn would eventually be part of our trio for a while. I started to teach Mervyn and Russell. As a talented pianist Russell quickly caught on. The Russell Henderson steel band was born. Our first gig was at the Sunset Club in Carnaby Street, we played there every Sunday for a while. When Mervyn left, Max Cherrie, a solo pianist and also a double bass and steel drum player, joined us. I then took drum lessons with Tony Kinsey, a famous drummer. We were a jazz band and a steel band. When Max decided to go solo again, his brother, Ralph joined us.
The Russ Henderson steel band performed at many prestigious events, for the Queen, the Queen’s mother and most members of the Royal family, for Princess Margaret’s wedding, (she loved steel band), the Oxford & Cambridge May balls and the debutant parties etc. In 1965, Russell and I were living in Bassett Road W11, everyone in the area knew about us having a steel band. Rhaune Laslett, a social worker living in Acklam Road W11, asked us to play for a children’s carnival that she organised for the neighbourhood in June. It was a gesture to bring the different ethnic groups together. The children dressed up in fancy costumes and rode on donkey carts. We played at the corner of Portobello and Acklam road when Russell suggested taking a road march (we always played with our steel pans around the neck). This road march took us all over Notting Hill gathering a crowd along the way, some enjoyed the music and others thought we were demonstrating, shouted that we should go back to our country. This was the birth of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Staying together during 1953-1976 proved musically beneficial to both Russell and I as we learnt a lot from each other, it was a very creative and interesting relationship. We made a few records, our first one in 1953, ‘Ping Pong Samba’ composed by Russell. Together we introduced steel band to schools, the first school where Russell taught and I tuned and made drums for was Elmwood Junior school in Croydon, followed by Latchmere in Battersea and Christopher Wren in White City to name a few.
In 1976, Errol Philip, Nelson Huggins and I went to Zurich, Switzerland, on a 3 months contract that lasted 3 years. I eventually made drums for people who got captivated by the sound and was asked to make some for a music store, my action proved to be an opening for many steel band men. I played for many events all over Switzerland, although I never learnt to speak the language. Witnessing the incredible speed with which the art form spread over Switzerland, I wrote a calypso, ‘More Steel Band than Snow’, sang by Crazy.
Over the years other contracts took me too many other parts of the world spreading the steel band culture. One afternoon, in 1985, at Selwyn Baptiste’s in Powis Square, liming with a few friends and mentioning how I had been searching for a suitable name for our carnival band, Philmore ‘Boots’ Davidson (TASPO player) looked at me tapping his feet on the ground and came up with the name Nostalgia. It sounded perfect to me and suited our traditional pan around the neck steel band. In 2005, with some sadness, I left Nostalgia behind, not only the band but the name as well. In 1993, the New York Folk Art institute invited the TASPO players to receive an award; Philmore was so looking forward to that event but unfortunately died just a few days before the trip.
By Sterling Betancourt MBE