A walk with Roy Cape

Journalist Nyerere Haynes reports on his interview of famed musician  and bandleader Dr. Roy Cape, Trinidad Guardian Jan. 18, 2012.

I arrived at the home of legendary musician and bandleader Roy Cape; he’s already at his front gate signalling to me to park in the garage adjacent to his charming burgundy home. When I get out of the car he asks me if I made it to his place all right. He shouldn’t have worried, as his directions landed me right at his front door. Before we could get the interview started, he takes me to a room where his computer stands and proceeds to show me his moving performance of a song done by Black Stalin for his Honorary Doctorate acceptance ceremony on YouTube. We stand watching the performance silently…all the while, Cape is unable to remain still, and fingers an invisible saxophone with his knees slightly bent, as he relives one of the sweetest performances of his career. He goes on to tell me about the week of non-stop preparation for the performance where he re-worked the song and played it “into eternity” until he was finally satisfied. Yet still, at the ceremony, spontaneity ushers itself in an element towards the end of the song that was befitting of the occasion.

“I didn’t plan the phrasing of the final bars of the song, but in the moment, I was filled with so much happiness and appreciation that it happened that way,” Cape says in his soft, yet gravelly tones. “It was all about giving the fans a performance they would never forget.” We relocate to his living room and the first thing I notice are his trophies, accolades and pictures all proudly on display upon his television cabinet. The photos tell a story of his long journey and the labour of love that has seen Cape and his band through the years. He proudly states that music is his vocation and while he did other jobs periodically, it was the music that truly opened up the world to him. “In this vocation, people like myself pay a lot of attention to the needs of the audience. Through the years I’ve received awards through different bands but the greatest award is one from the public. They awarded me with love, appreciation and admiration for my service to the people and country. When this happens it creates a space for what has happened…me receiving an honorary doctorate for my life-long journey,” he says.

Cape’s love for music has been a passion that burned within his spirit since a tender age. As a child he would spend the majority of his time at panyards and by age of eleven he purchased his own pan. However, his mother gave it away—that wasn’t the life she wanted for the young Cape. Her death a year later would see Cape making a decision which would ultimately define him. The choices that lay before him were either to go to Grenada to live with his grandmother or to live at an orphanage that is now known as the St Dominic’s Home. He chose the latter and it was at that very orphanage where he would join the steelband (and later the music band) where he started playing the clarinet and later the alto sax.

He recalled the days of playing at the calypso tent Kingdom of the Wizard under William Munroe; the band that he would eventually lead. “When I was approached by Monroe to lead the band, I asked him if I would be able to determine the salaries of the musicians. He tell me to submit a budget and that was the beginning of what would become the Roy Cape All-Stars,” Cape relates, smiling. “We did shows, studio work and jammed on the road with some the best…(he counts them off on his fingers) Black Stalin, Sparrow, Kitchener, young Machel Montano, Arrow, Swallow, Beckett, Gabby, Duke, Super Blue, Shadow, Rose. Is so many people we work with, even younger singers during the Keskidee Caravan days like Homefront, Denise Belfon and Supa Chile. This was a nice time of mixing the music with that project by Mr Robert Amar.”

He goes on about the years of opportunities the band has had working with some of the most highly regarded calypsonians in the world. I ask him about his most memorable experience leading the Roy Cape All Stars. He rubs his bearded chin and thinks a bit as he mentally searches though his many salient memories. “Apart from playing the music…I would have to say performing as a Soca Monarch finalist in 1998 with a song called Jam Meh Mr Cape. It was an experience I had never thought about…it was like I walking in a dream. I placed ninth in the competition out of 30-something contestants. I have to say that I was very much satisfied with my involvement at that level,” Cape recalls.

I shake my head in agreement, expecting to hear more positive reminiscing. “I can still remember my first journeys outside of Trinidad. It was in 1961 that I was a part of an inter-island tour…we went Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and Antigua. Things could have gone wrong…things went wrong.” He drops a bomb. “We got thrown out of a hotel,” Cape says, and abruptly changes the subject. I steer him back to the topic because, well…I have to know what went down. Cape frowns. “The show buss nah; the promoter couldn’t pay the bill. We were lucky. Good Samaritans take us in and let us stay by them. Those things wasn’t strange in them days. Shows used to buss, shows does still buss.”

Thankfully, the hardships faced by Cape back then are now replaced with lavish accommodations whenever he travels with the band. “People putting me up in five star hotels and all kinda thing now; I don’t need all that but they tell me it comes with the territory so I humbly accept it,” Cape says, grinning. We talk some more, until it’s time for me to head back. Cape gives me directions again to get on the road safe. We part and the music is still in my head. I can’t help but think about this humble man, who has accepted the honour on behalf of all the other musicians who have gone before him, those who currently strive to keep the culture alive and those who are yet to come.

He knows that what he has received is not easy to come by; his life is a testament to that. First published in Distinguished Gentleman December 2011/ January 2012 Carnival.

For original post: A walk with Roy Cape | The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper.

JaJah plays his last tune

Master drummer and instrument maker JaJah Onilu has passed away. Jah Jah, together with the Mau Mau drummers, came to prominence in the wake of the 1970 Black Power upheaval in Trinidad.

Master percussionist JaJah Oga Onilu died Friday at age 57. His family wishes to keep the cause of his death private. Onilu died at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Mt Hope, at 8.15 pm. In an interview yesterday, his youngest son Modupe, 25, said although his father’s health was “not 100 per cent,” his passing came as a shock. Onilu leaves to mourn his three children—Baba, Modupe and Oshun—as well as his wife and his 87-year-old mother, who lives abroad.

JaJah is featured in the following youtube video of a Jewels of Nature performance.

Modupe said: “His death came as a shock because we spent Old Year’s night into New Year’s Day, laughing and talking about plans for the new year.” He said his father’s last major performance was in Tobago last year where he played with Ella Andal at the Baba Maal concert. Onilu formed the band Jewels of Nature and was known for his organic music and musical instruments. Funeral arrangements have not been finalised. Modupe said there would be a commemoration of Onilu’s life at the Little Carib Theatre on a date to be announced.

For original post: JaJah plays his last tune | The Trinidad Guardian.

Trinidad All Stars: Fleet’s In

Dr. Kim Johnson discusses the sailor mas’ protrayal of the Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra and the origins of this style of masquerade from the independent organizations of the enslaved in nineteenth century Trinidad. Caribbean Beat Magazine, issue 113.

The Fleet’s In sailor mas might seem just a grown-up way of enjoying Carnival with a great steelband, Trinidad All Stars. Actually, it’s much more than that. It is a venerable tradition of the oldest steel orchestra in the world, a tradition that links us to the world the slaves made, and, through them, to the culture of West Africa.

Trinidad All Stars was once “Cross of Lorraine” and before that “Fisheye band”, and even before that, during World War II, “Second Fiddle”. When, in 1939, it was launched in the immediate wake of the first progenitive steelband, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, however, it was simply called “Hell Yard band”, after Hell Yard, an empty lot next to the band’s current home.

In the early, pre-steelband years of the twentieth century the Hell Yard crew played cricket and football. They gambled, wrestled, boxed and lifted weights.  And on J’Ouvert morning they produced one of the most famous sailor bands: USS Bad Behaviour.

There were other themes in plebeian mas in Port of Spain: African Ju Ju warriors and wild Indian tribes, for instance. But generally the largest bands, which represented each district of the city, were sailor bands. There were the immaculate, rigorously drilled military sailor bands, such as the USS Oregon from John John, Texas from Laventille, and Hit The Deck from St Paul’s Street.  And there were the dirty “knockabout” sailor bands, such as USS Bad Behaviour, which was drunk, dirty and disorderly – like real sailors ashore.

No one knows Bad Behaviour’s age, but sailor bands have been around for at least a century. In 1911 traditional “masks”, according to the Port of Spain Gazette, included wild Indians, bakers, Barbadian cooks, clowns, devils and sailors. Military bands go back even further. In 1834, describing the first Carnival after abolition of slavery, the Gazette complained of “a large crowd of idle negroes and little people, accompanying a party intending to represent the Artillery.”

Scrupulously observing the minutiae of naval or military ranks, such bands catered to the needs of African slaves to found their own social and ritual hierarchies. They were worlds complete with their own divisions of labour, ranks, chains of command and degrees of prestige, all outside and independent of the grinding racism of the wider, white-dominated society.

They were descended from Trinidad’s slave convoys or regiments, groups dedicated to holding dances on holidays. These – the Cocorite, the Macaque, the St George and the Sans-peur, with up to 17 different ranks, kings, queens, princes and political, legal and military personnel – terrified the whites in 1805. They considered the bands insurrectionary, and cruelly punished their members.

The vicious reaction of the whites was a product of their own hysteria, of course; the slave gangs were formed for nothing more than to hold drum dances and compete against one another. But in another sense, the slave owners’ instinctive fear had grounds, because those bands, built on rules and responsibilities independent of the slave society’s, were forged from no less than the love of liberty.

For original post: Trinidad All Stars: Fleet’s In | Caribbean Beat Magazine.

When steelband took London by storm

In the following articles, published in the Caribbean Beat Magazine (issue 113), Dr. Kim Johnson discusses the reception of TASPO, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra and the importance of its 1951 tour to London, England.

Taspo gives its first performance at the South Bank Exhibition in 1951, under Lt Griffith. Photo: George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

On July 26, 1951, some black men unloaded a pile of rusty steel drums in Southbank, London. It looked like junk. Garbage cans. The pedestrians milling around weren’t even curious. The men with the rusty cans sat with them on their laps and at a gesture swung into “Mambo Jambo”. By one newspaper account, “jaws dropped and eyes widened”.

This was the first modern steelband, and its impact still reverberates in Britain. As for its significance back home in Trinidad, nothing would ever be the same after the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (Taspo), neither musically nor even politically. Yet, a mere six years previously, the Legislative Council had prohibited the playing of “noisy instruments”, ie steelpans, in public.

“Fancy you having a musical evening and inviting these gentlemen of the steel band to provide the music for you!” Sir Courtney Hannays, KC, postulated to the council. “Fancy at any exhibition of the fine arts Trinidad represented by people who beat the steel drums!”

Generally, however, attitudes shifted in the opposite direction. Steelbands blossomed in intelligence and beauty, seducing more and more Trinidadians, until in 1951, six years after Hannays derided the idea, the colony was represented at the Festival of Britain in London by Taspo.

Generally, however, attitudes shifted in the opposite direction. Steelbands blossomed in intelligence and beauty, seducing more and more Trinidadians, until in 1951, six years after Hannays derided the idea, the colony was represented at the Festival of Britain in London by Taspo.

It was the first band whose pans were all made from oil drums, and thus had a more consistent timbre. More important, all were tuned on the chromatic scale at concert pitch, which allowed them to harmonise with other conventional instruments. Taspo also introduced the idea of multiple drums, which allowed the three-bass and two-cello pans to play full scales in the bass range.

Yet the inspiration for Taspo didn’t come from Trinidad. On January 21, 1951, before the thought struck anyone here, the Guardian reported that: “Hell’s Gate Steel Band of Antigua is likely to represent the West Indian steel bands at the Festival of Britain which will be opened in London on May 3.”

By March the Trinidad & Tobago Steel Bands Association had decided to send a representative steelband to the festival. The government refused their request for $6,000, so the association decided to raise the money, and a team of the most gifted panmen was chosen.

This was at the height of the fighting years, when respectable society recoiled from the steelband movement in fear and loathing. “You think they would ever send a steelband to England with them set of hooligans in it?” sceptics told Tony Williams. “Boy, you’re only wasting your time.” But committees were established. Fundraising began. And the steelband movement, riven by warfare between bands, closed ranks. Bands held benefit performances all over the island: Fantasia and Mutineers in Princes Town, for instance, and La Lune in Moruga.

The musical director of the band was Lt Joseph Nathaniel Griffith, the steelband movement’s greatest unsung hero. Born 1906 in Barbados, he joined the police band at 14. He left Barbados in 1932 to play clarinet and sax with an American jazz band, but was soon in Martinique arranging for the Municipal Orchestra. In 1935 he took over the St Vincent Government Band and founded the St Vincent Philharmonic Orchestra. Then he led the Grenada Harmony Kings, before joining the Trinidad Police Band in 1938. He taught at the Tacarigua Orphanage and led its band, and conducted the Royal Victoria Institute’s orchestra.

In 1947 he was appointed bandmaster of the St Lucia Police Band, and there he was when he was asked to lead Taspo. “If I going to England with you, you can’t play any sort of wrong thing,” he warned the panmen. “You have to play real music.”

And he set about teaching them. He put numbers on the notes and wrote scores. He taught them a repertoire that included a waltz, a rhumba, a samba, light classics, a foxtrot, a bolero, calypsoes, mambos. He made them tune an alto (second) pan with 14 notes. He also insisted the bass have at least 14 notes. When told that they couldn’t fit, he replied, to everyone’s surprise, “Then use three drums.”

Griffith’s tutelage leavened the genius of men like Williams and Ellie Mannette, and they produced better pans than they ever had before. Williams invented the oil drum two-cello, and discovered the technique of tuning two tones in one note.

“‘Come down an afternoon when we practising,’ Ellie told us,” recalled Maifan Drayton, then in Invaders. “When we went we were shocked to see one man playing two pans. Boots was on bass, Sterling Betancourt was on guitar and Tony Williams on cello. We were mystified.”

The public was even more dazzled. After a concert at Globe cinema, the audience emptied its pockets into the pans. Now that Trinidad realised what a steelband could accomplish, even the elite and big businessmen supported them. Bermudez donated drums, Fitz Blackman offered uniforms, the Himalaya Club, the Little Carib Theatre and the Jaycees held fundraising dances. The tourist board and Sir Gerald Wight each offered $500. Governor Sir Hubert Rance’s aide-de-camp organised an auction: Winfield Scott bought a case of whisky and returned it to the auctioneer, who promptly sold it again.

Hindu leader Bhadase Maraj donated generously. Edwin Lee Lum, a non-smoker, bought 2,000 cigarettes. Thus Taspo, and by extension the steelband movement, forged the multi-class alliance which was for the first time nationalist in scope.

Taspo’s first engagement was at the BBC, after which they performed at the Colonial Office, and at the festival. “A revolution in music reached London today, and experts predict it will sweep the country in a new craze,” reported an English paper. “Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra sat outside the Festival Concert Hall and tapped sweet, swingy music out of rusty pans still with steamer labels stuck to them after their trans-Atlantic voyage.

“Londoners, hearing a steelband for the first time, passed the verdict: ‘The music is sweet and liquid similar to the xylophone but not so harsh’.”

They rehearsed in the basement flat of musician, actor and singer Edric Connor. They got a two-week contract with the Savoy, after which they toured Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and Manchester. They performed with calypsonian Lord Kitchener, with Connor and with Boscoe Holder’s dance troupe. (Holder had actually been playing pan in London since the previous year.)

In late November Taspo returned to Paris for a two-week circus engagement and to catch the boat home. Betancourt, Bonaparte, Davidson, Haynes and Williams had plans to stay in England, but homesickness, an oncoming winter, and a fight between Bonaparte and Davidson changed that. Only Betancourt, with tears rolling down, returned to cold London, having found an Irishwoman there to keep him warm.Fifteen years later, Betancourt and two other panmen would transform the small, private Notting Hill garden party into what is now the largest public street festival in Europe. By then Trinidad & Tobago was an independent nation, able to boast of having created the century’s most important acoustic instrument.

TASPO members

Theo “Black James” Stephens, 17, Free French
Orman “Patsy” Haynes, 21, Casablanca
Winston “Spree” Simon, 24, Fascinators
Ellie Mannette, 22, Invaders
Belgrave Bonaparte, 19, Southern Symphony
Philmore “Boots” Davidson, 22, City Syncopaters
Sterling Betancourt, 21, Crossfire
Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide, 23, Hill 60
Dudley Smith, 24, Rising Sun
Anthony “Muffman” Williams, 20, North Stars
Granville Sealey, 24, Tripoli

(Sealey was later replaced by Carlton “Sonny” Roach from Sun Valley)

For the original post: When steelband took London by storm | Caribbean Beat Magazine.