Culture History Music

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.


Notting Hill carnival: fraught with risk, but the show goes on

Simone Ramdeen, 20, tries on a headpiece for the Notting Hill carnival at Mahogony in Harlesden, north-west London. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

Behind the nondescript shutters of a shop unit in Harlesden, north-west London, a small army of creators from the Mahogany mas camp – one of the Notting Hill carnival‘s most flamboyant groups – are busy at work.

Giant scarlet dragons jostle for space with azure lions, while workers mould shapes from piles of lightweight foam, apply sequins to headdresses and hand-paint strips of material. In the back room, sparks fly from a noisy blow torch.

In little more than a week, this mas – or masquerade – camp will dress more than 200 people for the Notting Hill carnival, which participants insist must go on despite the civil unrest that sparked widespread riots and looting in London two weeks ago.

“Carnival absolutely needs to happen this year,” said Clary Salandy, a designer and director at Mahogany mas camp who has been creating costumes since the 1980s. “The Caribbean community needs to rekindle its identity. Carnival is an opportunity to demonstrate that we have a creative culture that England can benefit from.”

Doubts about whether the carnival – a celebration of African-Caribbean culture that brings an estimated one million people on to the streets of west London over the bank holiday weekend – will be held have been raised since riots broke out first in Tottenham on 6 August before spreading across the capital and to other major UK cities.

The event will go ahead, Met police chiefs said this week, but it will close early at 7pm on both evenings. Extra officers, at the carnival and around London, will be on duty.

“We totally encourage the earlier start and finish times of the event this year, given what has recently happened in London,” said the Met in a statement. “The Notting Hill carnival is an important event in the capital’s calendar, and we support it going ahead this year. Troublemakers are not welcome.”

  Carnival this year is an opportunity fraught with risk. If it passes without incident, the police have a chance to reassert their authority, and show that normality has returned to London’s streets. But in the past the event has been seen as a thorn in the authorities’ side and, if there is trouble, some fear it could be the kiss of death.

There is little chance of that, insisted co-director Ancil Barclay who said hundreds of extra volunteers had come forward this year in the wake of the riots. “We have got so much support from people saying we have to keep the spirit of carnival alive – lots of people who have been against carnival in the past are now in favour,” he said.

Taking a brief break in a local west London restaurant, after a meeting that had lasted all day and before another likely to last all night, fellow co-director Chris Boothman agreed. “Londoners are back in control of London,” he said. “If you wanted to cause trouble, this is really not the year – Notting Hill is going to be one of the safest places to be in the city.”

Not holding the event would have a dire impact on London’s image, added Barclay. “This is such an important year, it is a trial for the Olympics in 2012 and a chance to show the world that London is open and ready for business. Can you image the image it gives to potential visitors if it didn’t go ahead?”

Carnival brings in an estimated £97m to London every year and acts as an “escape valve” for the city to let off steam, said Boothman, who, like Barclay, has a full-time job and works unpaid to make carnival happen. This year’s event was a chance for carnival to rediscover the role it played in its early years, when the Caribbean community took to the streets in part as a reaction to race riots in Notting Hill.

“Protest is part of carnival – but it is creative rather than violent. It is a much better way for people to make themselves heard,” he said. “Lots of people see it as a street party, but it is a celebration of Caribbean cultural heritage and art that if we do not foster will die out.”

There have been grumbles from some that the early finish will cause problems – floats will have to start preparing at the crack of dawn, and the magic twilight hours, when costumes shimmer in the newly lit street lights, will be lost. But, for once, there are likely to be few complaints about a beefed-up police presence. “The police will be here to protect people,” said Barclay. “It is an opportunity to repair a relationship that has been damaged.”

This year’s event is also a chance to show the world what London does best, said Dexter Khan, band leader of the Cocoyea mas, who has been involved in the carnival for 44 years. “After what we have seen, this is vital for the community,” he said. “The riots have given a bad impression of London to the whole world, the carnival has to show that London thrives and that we can do these events on a big scale.”

Richard Gallimore, band leader of the Bachanal mas, a relative newcomer to the mas scene, said his camp was going “full-steam” ahead. “Shit happens but we are moving on,” he said. “We are not going to live in fear of these hooligans. Obviously you have to take precautions but we are determined to give a positive image.”

Back in the Mahogany workshop 20-year-old Koya Greenaway-Harvey, who first came here on work experience when she was 14, explains that this year’s carnival has the chance to turn “a negative into a positive”.

Cutting strips of foam, which over the next week with be transformed into a spectacular flight of fancy, she says: “The riots were scary; that’s not the London I know. But carnival is completely different – the music, the people. You just get possessed by the spirit of carnival. It shows that people coming together can be a wonderful thing.”

For the original article: Notting Hill carnival: fraught with risk, but the show goes on | Culture | The Guardian.