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Remembering Anthony Rouff: Pan Activist and Omniscient Narrator of Steelband History by Peter Noel

Before he suddenly passed away on May 24, Anthony Rouff, who relished the style of injecting searing “picong” into conversation and polemic writing, was looking forward to celebrating 2022: this would be the 50th anniversary of the publication of his disputatious “Authentic Facts on the Origin of the Steelband” in Trinidad and Tobago. A self-confessed “controversialist” and iconoclastic grunt—and one extremely contemptuous of critics and naysayers—Rouff was an omniscient narrator of said steelband history. Perhaps no one articulated the backstory quite like him.

Not only did Rouff play a major role in shaping the mindset that nothing so unique as the steelpan had ever been created, he singlehandedly hardened the popular narrative that the only musical instrument invented in the twentieth century, originated from established “lore and disorder” John John—the flashpoint community in Port of Spain notorious for its rebelliousness and initiating culture wars (Tokyo v. Casablanca; All Stars and Tokyo).

The maddening argument over who invented the steelpan had raged for decades among so-called “big pappy scholars,” “rum-shop-and-snackette” erudites and myriad other historical revisionists. But Rouff long has maintained he was at the front row of history in the making, and never shied away from claiming he was an authorized biographer of Winston “Spree” Simon, the man whom he insisted with his dying breath had “invented pan” and became the stuff of legend.

“I did not do any research to find out anything,” Rouff wrote in his 16-page pamphlet, in 1972. “I was there from the start to the present.”

Rouff’s “little book” that could—considered incendiary (even groundbreaking) in its time—unequivocally argues that the pan is the manifestation of Spree’s own ingenuity, experimentation and desirable discovery by accident at the onset of World War II. As stories of baldfaced pretenders claiming to have pioneered the instrument spread in every direction, Rouff debunked the myth that there were many inventors, but that Spree wasn’t among them.

“John John was the worst place in the whole of Trinidad; no one ever wanted to go to that place, not even the police,” he wrote. “This is why what ‘Spree’ had achieved was kept a secret.”

Time and again, Rouff told me that the “big pappy historians” had warned him he had no right or authority to make such a claim. These critics, he said, besmirched the reputations of the locals for concocting the story that pan beating or pan playing, once invented, was developed and perfected in John John.

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