A harmonious sound forever
By Helen Drayton Sunday, October 28 2012
‘I started to tune pan from the time I got into it, because I wasn’t satisfied with what I was hearing. I was a young fella going to St. Phillip EC School up by the fly-over. Is around there I used to see Spree Simon and them with their pan and the fires and thing. That’s why I tried to light fire with an old pan. I nearly burn down the house. I was a little boy... I not checking to see what rubbish scatter on the ground.’
In a series of interviews with Bertie Lloyd Marshall, which can be viewed on TriniView.com, the aficionado of pan tells a compelling story about the steelpan. In that story, the viewer is taken into another time and sees, feels and hears life as it was on the Hill. Bertie takes persons where creators of a colourful legacy are ponging a pan and “they dentin-up the pans … and calling it a note”.
While Spree and others inspired Bertie to tune and play pan, it was the sound of the harmonica that motivated him to experiment for a harmonious sound. “That is what caused me to start to tune pan…Harmonica, rich in harmonics that is why they call it harmonica”.
“I used to walk from Laventille to Tranquill on Ariapita Avenue long ago. I remember I break biche for a whole month and take the money from the school fees, and buy a mouth organ. I started playing, with Harmonites and I used to end up tuning for Ebonites too, with ah fellah name Karl Greenidge (Bumpy nose) who is Robert Greenidge’ uncle,” Bertie said in the interview.
What makes people like the late Bertram Lloyd Marshall extraordinary? The psychologists and sociologists would say they had a talent, and from a tender age their parents or guardians encouraged them to nurture it. Bertie said he started to tune a pan just by being around Spree. There is something innocent and beautiful about that, and you smile… and wonder. It is exactly how children learn, by example, and experientially.
If today, a little boy experimented like Bertie did and lit a fire in an old pan and almost burn down a house, and if he is from Laventille and he breaks biche, he will end up in a youth prison. If he lives in another location, he’ll be on Ritalin!
Marshall’s rich, musical dialect reveals his hunger for excellence. “In them days you could tune eight tenors in a day, because the men not taking time to tune it, they just putting notes anyhow. That was the long-time band…it used to sound like it was more rhythm-like, and with a big set of iron, more rhythm, not musical. If you play back ah old Invaders record, you will see what I am talking about. Cobo Jack playing Lieberstrum and melody in ‘F’, you will hear how pan used to sound in those days.”
Bertie’s professional approach to tuning the steelpan came from a doggedness to get the tune right … from an innate desire to achieve excellence. It was a quest to get a pan to sound harmonious.
Indeed, the young man’s devotion to that mission manifested in the steelpan’s harmonious sound. By the age of 14 years, he had tuned a Tokyo Steelband pan. From 18 years of age, under the tutelage of Greenidge, he began to hone his skill. Marshall once led the Metronomics Steel Orchestra, and the Armed Forces Steel Orchestra, which eventually became part of the Laventille Hylanders, of which he was the leader.
According to Marshall, he originally used the name “Armed Forces Band” to appeal to the sailors, Marines and the Air-Forces down at the Chaguaramas Base where he worked. When the owner of Highlanders, a man named Kimloy Wong, asked him: let we join up for Carnival, he agreed. He felt he would not get a good following because people would think Armed Forces was a “badjohn band”.
Although the fellas were vexed, Bertie, encouraged by Kimloy, changed the name to get a “mas crowd. I joined up with them — Kimloy’s band — for their mas crowd … So when I did that, the first year we didn’t get into no fights. I used to practice down in Mango Rose trace too. The band originally wasn’t from there; it was from Erica Street Laventille. They used to bring an Indian Mas, and after, I say, nah, leh we bring sailors an’ t’ing. That time I used to get a good crowd”.
There are certain people I would not call “icons”. The word is just not adequate. What they gave to their country is unique. They laboured not to benefit themselves, although they had to satisfy the basic needs of life. They gave liberally not for praise and trophies. Their labour was a sacrifice of themselves on the altar of their art.
Artistes like Bertie Marshall, who devoted their lives to their chosen vocations, and families, had little time to think about material gain. He cared deeply for the advancement and survival of the most authentic, indigenous art-form, such was the depth and measure of his patriotism — something which successive governments have not understood, and still do not understand about artistes. Thus, the assistance he needed in furtherance of his innovative work during his most productive years never materialised.
“I could of shown Ellie Mannette something, I could have taught him a thing or two… I did everything on little funds… Pan Trinbago could do more for the pan industry in general. But if I ask them to assist me with the experiments … I would have time dead and come back in the next life. I have to go by myself.”
Work for artistes like Bertram Marshall was not about ten days, despite not having money. It was about exploring creativity to the fullest, even when people did not appreciate the value of their creativity.
“When I was asking for reward, which is money to help me with pan experiments, only awards I getting. I have so much awards, that if I put them to burn, the Fire Brigade would come and say, ‘wat kinda fire is this mister?’
“Pan Trinbago had promised me fifty thousand dollars ... I still have a recording of that. If I was them, I would have felt ashamed. They never gave it to me and they never called or anything. They never have money.”
“That money was to help open a foundation so that I could have done further experiments.”
Yes, the beautiful and scintillating sound of pan today had its genesis in the labours by the legends of longtime bands. As we reflect on Bertie’s life, we could hear the sweet sounds. On a Carnival Sunday night back in those days, if Trinis opened a window and listened to the universe they would have heard echoes of thousands of steelpans throughout the land. It was a unique sound, like millions of chimes in the night. Steelbands back then had pride of place in Carnival — clashes, cutlasses, bottles, stones and all —– byproducts of keen competition, and communities on the fringe.
Calypso Blakie immortalised the era: “It was a bacchanal ah-ha! 1950 Carnival ah-ha, Fight for so with Invaders and Tokyo, and when the two bands clash, mamayo if you see cutlass, never me again to jump up in a steelband in Port-of-Spain.”
These were communities which had been alienated by bourgeois hypocrisy grounded in the bigotry of colonialism. In those days, to be a panman was to be a “wutless, low-class” person from a “low class”, bacchanalian community. The steelpan artist was not valued.
Together with Rudolph Charles, among others, he took his incredible sound of steel to the world: “I went Cuba, Canada, England and all those places…The place was very cold. I said, ‘but Rudolph whey yuh bring meh here for, yuh trying to kill meh?’”
Marshall’s relationship with Rudolph Charles started through another character of the Hill called George Yeates — the ‘red one’ they called the Pope. It happened that the Desperadoes tuner was giving “trouble”. “The tuner for Despers before me was an alright fellah…He went crazy on what he smoked so he started to tune some pan that you could not understand!”
The “Pope” got Bertie to help out Rudolph, and this was how, in 1970, Bertie ended up being the tuner for Despers. Together with Rudolph, they devised the chariot pan, quadraphonic, 12 bass, and the Marshall tone-a-6-pan one-man band. Bertie promoted widespread use of the strobe tuner.
Marshall had issues with the Panorama competition and judging in the panyard. He felt that although the panyard judging saved money, playing on the savannah stage for the preliminaries was motivational to the youngsters: “although it is saving money, the point is, when a young fellah come and beat pan, he glad to go on the stage and play in the Preliminaries”.
With reference to Boogsie taking a band to Tobago, Bertie said: “If he could borrow some money or someting and carry the winning band to Tobago… it would have been the better way to ‘sh*t’ up Pan Trinbago, because you have to take money out of your pocket, although you were the winning band.”
Whatever, the bacchanal of the day, Bertie Marshall kept focus on improving the quality of steelpan music. He tested pans by listening for balance. He listened to his own work critically, and was passionate about exposing the youth to ‘nice’ music and much training.
He would tell his people it was important to observe whether the ‘G’ sounding nice, beautiful, and then follow through. He was the protagonist of the G pan. He measured up to no less than the best professional musicians anywhere.
Bertie was not only a tuner, pannist and harmonica player, he made shoes.
“My mother had never liked me to be a panman. She sent me to learn shoe-making by Mr Jones … I was a young fellah then … I used to sew on welt too, long time my shoes had welt. You feel that is all I could do, pan alone?”
Marshall had earned both the Chaconia Gold National Award and the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Looking back at my career now, one of my greatest achievements is bringing the pan closer to orchestras; otherwise pan would not have been qualified.”
Farewell to Bertram Lloyd Marshall of Hylanders. Farewell to a tuner par excellence, pan aficionado, the jazzman, harmonica player, shoemaker, legend, leader extraordinaire, and family man.
Farewell to a man whose Hylanders had dropped a carnival Bomb with the hymn: “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.”
“In 1965 it had ah big fight by the hospital …(with Facinators): my poster man, stuck our poster on their own and tore down one of their own…, and in 1968, I remember that was the year I break beat with ‘Every valley be exalted’ — from the ‘Messiah.’…When they called us to play in the church we played that godly tune.” And so, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.” Isaiah 40:4.
The legacy of Bertie and other sons is the fertile soil upon which Laventille will be exalted.