At 75, more still to come from Rodney

The following, which pays homage to steelpan great Earl Rodney, was written by Zahra Gordon and published in The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, June 25th, 2013.

At the peak of his solo career, musician and arranger Earl Rodney was travelling frequently between the UK, the US and Trinidad performing at various events. Since 2008, he’s been based in Trinidad and has remained largely out of the public eye.

According to Rodney, travelling was rough and a well-deserved break was needed. The 75-year-old Point Fortin-native has spent a lot of time working on his garden, finishing his home, and generally relaxing.

This does not mean, however, that he’s given up music. During an interview with the T&T Guardian last week at his home in Point Fortin, Rodney said he is still learning.

“I keep playing all the time. I’m improving. Everyday I go on my pan and find out things I didn’t know before. It’s like you’ve never seen the pan before. I haven’t reached a bottleneck yet. It’s like out there (pointing to the sky), there’s no end.”

A few more “outings” are turning up for Rodney this year, however. During Carnival he performed at a Trinbago Unified Calpysonians Organisation (TUCO) event and in May was featured in the Point Jazz concert as part of Borough Day celebrations. Last weekend he was also the featured artist at the birdsong Benefit Concert held at the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA). Working with birdsong, Rodney has been introduced to young musicians whom he can envision future work with. Making a connection with real musicians, who have both talent and dedication is a rare occasion, according to Rodney.

Although Rodney said he’s able to bridge generational gaps, he doesn’t see himself fitting in with today’s local music industry.

“All over the world there’s a downgrade in music. You go to England you’ll hear the same complaints. In between there’s some good ones that could last a few years,” he said. “But these people who are into the Carnival thing, I wonder if they can remember the Road March or the Soca Monarch from last year. I hate to say that and I wish I didn’t have to say it. People used to sit down to write and arrange music for people to dance. It’s a different time and these people are enjoying their time, but for me, the music isn’t going anywhere.”


His disappointment with the industry will not stop him from producing. He has a few projects under his sleeve. He hopes to build a studio and has the scores of numerous compositions waiting to be recorded piled up at home. He also wants to work on scores for film or theatre as this is one area in his vast career that he has yet to venture into.

Rodney may best be known for his winning Panorama arrangements for Solo Harmonites and his work on iconic calypso music. As a member of the Troubadours he arranged seven albums for the Mighty Sparrow. He has also arranged and played with Lord Kitchener, Arrow, Black Stalin, Valentino, Lord Melody and Explainer, to name a few. Although Rodney has worked extensively in calypso, he admitted that his favourite genre is Latin.

“Almost everything I do has a little Latin in it,” he said. Rodney shared that while growing up in Point Fortin, it was Latin music that filled nightclubs.

Rodney is also remembered for his 1972 recording Friends and Countrymen. He has recorded two other solo albums: Steelband Music (1999) and Pure Original Music (2002). Rodney said he has all intentions of recording another album and developing new methods to record live steelband music, which can often be difficult.

“We need a good way to capture pan and I don’t know how come we haven’t come up with one yet,” he said.

His formula for longevity and the large body of work come from an undescribable source, he said.

“For me it’s not a labour really because most of my compositions just come to me. Sometimes I do sit down and manufacture something, but other times it just comes from nowhere. I’ll be watching TV and just hear music in my head. These things are magical. Music for me is a natural thing.”

Earl Rodney was co-founder of Tropical Harmony Steelband and a former member of the T&T National Steelband. He was also a bass player in the band Dutchy Brothers during the 1960s and 70s. As arranger for Solo Harmonites, the band won four Panorama titles.For the original post:

At 75, more still to come from Rodney | The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper.

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.

Ban on steelbands in Leeds West Indian Carnival parade Central Leeds

DOWN THE PAN: Members of the steelband that won’t be playing at the Leeds West Indian Carnival – from left, Ashley Hendricks, Victoria Jaquiss, Katie Smith and Varshika Patel.

Traditional Caribbean steelband music has been banned from the 44th Leeds West Indian Carnival parade.

The carnival committee of 13 members took the unanimous decision to have no live music in the parade itself at an emergency meeting this week.

Members said due to recent “unrest” in the Chapeltown area they felt they had no option but to make this year’s carnival “a bit calmer” with no steelbands playing on any of the floats.

Chairman Arthur France said: “We are not putting any steelbands on the road in the parade this year. It was a decision taken as we are being extra cautious following recent unrest. In light of violent events, and after careful consideration, we decide that we will not use any steelband on the road, which means no live music.

“We want to keep things a bit calmer. We fear it may cause trouble. It isn’t the noise, we just don’t want any interference on the road.

“We have been placed under a great deal of strain following the national youth uprising and other issues which have been local to our city.”

Music will be provided on a float by DJs and a sound system by Leeds Carnival Committee.

But Victoria Jaquiss, steelpan development officer for Leeds Music Services and band leader of the Foxwood Steel Bandits, The Leeds Silver Doves and Steel Rising, said: “Steelpan should be part of the carnival parade. It is the highlight of the musical year for some members, to play in front of their home crowd. I doubt very much that middle aged women and kids would attract any trouble.

“We performed at Otley Carnival in June and we were at Manchester Carnival last Saturday, following the riots there and it was brilliant atmosphere.”

She said they had been expecting to play at this year’s event and were bitterly disappointed after receiving a call and letter from the committee stating steelbands would not be invited.

Mr France who was founder of the first carnival in Leeds in 1967, one of the first in Europe, said: “At one point last week following an arson attack on carnival headquarters we were not sure whether the carnival would go ahead at all. This was a committee decision, not involving the police, but we have regular meetings with police to keep them updated.”

A steelband from Leeds, New World Steel Symphony Orchestra, will perform on stage in Potternewton Park after the carnival parade is over on Bank Holiday Monday.

Around 15 floats will travel the carnival route through Harehills and Chapeltown and feature people from the city dressed in colourful costumes as well as the carnival Queen, King and princesses.

For original article: Ban on steelbands in Leeds West Indian Carnival parade EXCLUSIVE – Central Leeds – Yorkshire Evening Post.