When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music


Republished from PAN Summer 1988 - Vol.3 No.1
Provided by, and republished with the expressed permission of, PAN Magazine

by Dalton Narine

The best you can say about anything is that it is the greatest in the world. Greatness is an absolute distinction that shouldn’t be measured or taken lightly. And it is in such regard that this writer must take issue with a New York daily which, several months ago, touted Desperadoes as the greatest steel band in the world. Now, hype is hype, but “pan talk” is a serious preoccupation in down-to-earth Trinidad and ‘Tobago, the land of, well, the greatest steel bands in the world. And, there’s the rub.

The names of several bands rush to memory when superior quality and character are considerations in the best-steel band debate. In alphabetical order, the list includes Casablanca, City Symphony, City Syncopators, Crossfire, Desperadoes, Ebonites, Guinness (actually, Cavaliers), Highlanders, Invaders, Pan Am North Stars, Phase II, Renegades, Silver Stars, Solo (or Harmonites), Southern All Stars, Starlift, ‘Tokyo, and Trinidad All Stars. Here is a rundown, as well as the lowdown, on how these bands stack up against each other:

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Thanks for the history of the high points of the major bands of the home of Pan. Despite a few inaccuracies, it is a breath of fresh air to look back on the days of sweet pan.

Starlift was not born of Invaders, but a group of QRC boys which was later augmented by a contingent from Invaders over a further two year period. They rose to prominence playing Handel's For Unto Us A Child Is Born under the watchfull eye and ear of Philo James. When Ray was a front line tenor player and was concentrating on his studies and his soloist efforts for the music festival.

They were the avant garde of Pan, the first steelband to take to the streets playing an advert tune "Phosforine" by Sparrow and a successful pan mas band with Ceremony of the Red Men 1964 Feast and Festivals 1965 and Splendour of the Himalayas 1966.

Undoubtedly all the bands mention in your article would at some point in time have been thought of as the best in the world.

Old Oak Casablanca (At the top of the 42 steps) too had their moments. Although my only memories of them and Syncopators was at Christmas time in the 50s when they used to take to the lanes of Gonzales at night to play Christmas carols. Ending in the inevitable chase by Police.

Over the whole period I would give it to Desperadoes.

They are the Best in the World

Good memories

hello Randisc, you definitely have information on Starlift for which i have great respect. But you obviously do not know much about Casablanca and to a lesser extent Synco (City Syncopators. We had bands which the Public referred to as "Good Road bands"  The reasons (1) They played extremely good on the road and (2) they always played mas and had a large following. The bands which came out in the road at Christmas were Casablanca, Desperadoes,Renegades (Lawbreakers), City Syncopaters and sometimes Sunland.  While Sunland did not come to far down, the others could have gone over the hills and escape the harassment by the police since there was a law which prevented "noisy instruments" been played on the road. Lock up sure, pans thrown in the Black Maria. 

Kim Johnson in his reply a little further down went into certain aspects of Casablanca. The First Steelband to play with a Pianist, Professor Walter Katz playing with soloist Ellis Thorne. The this info may be still in the museum. The First Steelband to perform a Classical piece in a local competition, "The Bells of St. Mary,s" arranged by Arthur De Coteau, using the tuned hubs of IRON to get the sound of the Bells, at the Grand stand Queen,s Park Savannah. The Bomb competition was as big as Panorama, without the Pomp, finance and Glory, but it was big. Casablanca was one of the main contenders on J'ouvert morning, maybe that is why All Stars had to practise their bomb tunes with their fingers in the "Garrat" Arthur De Couteau designed the Chromatic five bass, because as a guitarist his instrument of choice was the Bass guitar. By the way Arthur De Couteau is the Father of Ronnie Mc Intosh.

I f you want the history of the Pan Yard Theatre in Argyle Street, i can provide that at will. Between 1968 to 1984 the band was under the Musical Directorship of Supt. Anthony Prospect(deceased), one of the Greatest Steelband arrangers to transpose Classical pieces to Pan, also to compose music for Pan, Have you forgotten 1812 Overture in 1982, Zampa Overture in 1980? Actually in 1984 Casablanca performed a piece composed by Tchaikosky and arranged by Prospect,  The piece was written as a protest against the British Monarchy by the composer, Casablanca was thrown out of the preliminary round, reason by the English judge: The tune was not appropriate for the competition.

Casablanca is one of the few bands that has performed in The Royal Albert Hall in London in the presence of Royalty. I can continue writing pages of the development of this great band. I was there. The first Pan Yard where a Mass was held by Arch Bishop Anthony Pantin after been ordained.

Good to hear some history about Casablanca, didnt know too much of them but I knew of some of the members when I was growing up, like Oscar Pile, Patsy Haynes, Auzie, Baron or Barker. I knew bout Syncopators just after "Boots" days.I remembered one Carnival tuesday night the sagaboys of Synco wanted to just jump up with their girlfriend and not beat pan for the last lap and Kelvin Hart and his brother was the only ones that was playing and the band had the biggest Tuesday night jump up, those were the days.

i would also give the title of "greatest steelband in the world" to the great desperadoes. my reason for saying that is because they have stood tall since being born. it is one of the few organizations that can actually unite laventille.and finally with 10 panorama victories (the most gained so far by any band) and a "hat- trick" in music festival, former Pan in the 21st century champs, former pan fiesta champs and many other titles under them, i think they have done what many other bands may never be able to achieve.

Hi guys,

I'm sorry, but I really think trying to label anything as "the best in the world" does more harm than good.
The term doesn't make any sense, since a great new band can pop up tomorrow, or people's preferences can change.
Furthermore in which category should the "best in the world" band be? Within traditional calypso, large steelbands, jazz, small steelbands, classical, or other genres?

I believe that segregations of this kind discourages the musical creativity and the abillity to conceive new ideas in the steelbands around the world. Whenever somebody tries to be the worlds best, they will have to do it within the judges's boundaries, which are usually set from a perspective on the past. What we need is diversity, new ideas, blossoming creativity and music for today and tomorrow - not yesterday.

Do you not think you maybe out of line here?

It is always said that in order to know where one is going, one must always know where one has been. And the time where one has been is termed "yesterday."

Therefore, do you not think that the young pan people of Trinidad and Tobago (and the world) should understand the greatness of the national art form, established by these great orchestras - and should therefore be happy that there are orchestras that could be labeled "the best in the world"?

And you say to people "What we need is diversity, new ideas, blossoming creativity and music for today and tomorrow - not yesterday." Where is the conflict there? Can homage not be paid to those who came yesterday, while creating anew?

Don't you think your outlook can be seen as ignorant? Or is it more convenient to "reset" the counter, leave "yesterday" in the "past", so the field can be leveled or brought closer to where those who would not ever be considered "great" - can now actually have a chance to register?

Would you begrudge pan people in Trinbago, the living memory and importance of the steelband art form of yesterday, and the GREATNESS of their early orchestras, and the opportunity for future Trinbago pan players to build their legacy - on "yesterday?"

Do you not think that you are out on a daring limb here?
easy now:-)
I think that you jump to conclusions I have never stated.
I'm not saying that it is bad to know one's history. And you are right - there does not need to be a conflict between looking into the past and creating new ideas/concepts.

I just think that this forum, which has so much potential, should perhaps also look a bit into the future as well seeing things in retrospect.
Most of the discussions (also on the old board) are related to carnival/panorama/great big bands of T&T. This is great, nothing wrong with that. I just try to say that it would great if that could be coupled with people sharing their thoughts and ideas on where music that includes steelpans is/will be in other contexts, or where it might be in the future in all the different parts of the world.
With all my respect, but: are we talking about "ART" or capitalistic production?
Of course every artist should be able to live a decent life!
It's difficult to single out a single greatest band, but I can suggest four: Casablanca, the most musically and culturally innovative band in the 1940s; Trinidad All Stars, which took up that mantle in the 1950s; North Stars, the most technically and musically advanced in the late 1950s and 1960s; and Desperadoes, the student who improved most until he's now first in the class.
Why do we have to choose a "greatest"? Each fine band lilsted offers something particular to its audience, and their individual approaches all enrich the world of steelband. Instead of trying to outrank each other on paper, let's be grateful for the tremendous musical talent we find everywhere in Trinidad.
I commented before reading the story, so let me expand. First, there are several errors in your story, which affects your assessment. First: Casablanca was the most musical band of the 1940s. Their concert with lyric tenor Victor Soverall and pianist Walter Katz in 1949, and their performance of “Bells of St Mary’s” and Chopin’s “Nocturne” that year, showed Trinidadians that what the instrument was capable of. It paved the way for TASPO and inclusion in the Music Festival in 1952. Significantly, if TASPO comprised 11 of the best panmen in the country in 1951, three of them originally were from Casablanca: Andrew De Labastide (who moved to Hill 60), Philmore “Boots” Davidson (who moved to Syncopaters), and Patsy Haynes. The band also produced the greatest calypso arranger, Arthur De Couteau. Captain Oscar Pyle was involved in organizing the steelband movement from 1949, and made his band the most progressive. They had the first steelband theatre in the 1960s (with Roaring Lion).

Note: Invaders importance, notwithstanding Ellie Mannette’s gift for tuning and for teaching, was as much owed to the support of middle-class Woodbrook inhabitants.

Second: North Stars captain, tuner and arranger Anthony Williams created the standard Fourths and Fifths pans, the cello pans, made the entire ensemble out of oil drums, put it on wheels, showed people how to arrange a Panorama tune. He was the most progressive captain, never refusing anyone who wanted to join, never using intimidation, paying everyone who contributed, even the pan pushers. He has never compromised his beliefs for financial, political or other gain. For intelligence, humanism, creativity, no one has ever come close to Williams.

Third: Trinidad All Stars, which introduced the Bomb, the “competition” which taught arrangers music by showing them how to attempt more complex music minus its boring unsyncopated rhythm. He created the guitar pan and built an organization that is the longest surviving in the steelband world.

Fourth: Desperadoes. Despite what people think, they were bottom of the class in the 1940s and 1950s, with no music abilities and pans that sounded like they were tuned with a rock (they were). The band’s early contribution was in the field of mas (Wilfred Harrison) and politics (George Yeates and Rudolph Charles). Yeates was always a force for peace-making in the wartorn steelband world of the 1950s. He negotiated the Special Works make-work project for Despers and Tokyo, and pioneered the relationship between the band, the community and the political party, and it was taken up by Charles, who also disciplined the band into a tight musical force. He decided to build a musical organization, not just a bunch of mas men and fighters, by importing the assistance of Beverly Griffith (from Clarence Curvan and Starland), Artie Shaw (from the Police Band), Cobo Jack (from Invaders), Clive Bradley (also from Clarence Curvan), Pat Bishop (from the Lydians).
great history.A pleasant ride back in time. One must look back, to move forward, every building, start's with a foundation.---Thank you.----H


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