Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music
I found this interesting perspective on the East Indian involvement in the development of the steelband in T&T.
By Terry Joseph
May 24, 1998
It is bad enough that the Indian contribution to the development of the steel orchestra has so often been under-rated, but what is infinitely worse, is the misguided view that pan is an African thing.
Indeed, the very Indian population has fuelled the devaluation of its own input by cowering to African claims of exclusivity in any discussion about the origins and development of pan.
Africans have jealously embraced pan as part of their culture and frequently limit any mention of the Indian input to only the latter-day shining lights (most notably Jit Samaroo). Indians, under the perception that they were diluting their own heritage, have not been vocal about their achievements in this area either, making for a near-complete obfuscation of the facts.
Influential Indian religious leaders have also indicated to their followers that pan-playing and education were mutually exclusive concepts, and since pan cannot accomplish sruti, an integral part of their music (which sometimes requires quarter-tones in tremolo), the instrument was foreign to their aesthetic.
The thrust at that time was to ensure that if government attempted to introduce a pan-in-schools programme, it would have to also consider supplying and equal number of harmoniums to the classrooms.
The Indian community, therefore, also saw pan as African, and a seven-year-old girl, who had the temerity to attempt a bhajan on a tenor pan, was publicly admonished by her elders.
But history is difficult to hide. Fact is, Indians arrived in the panyard since the 1930s and have been there ever since, fully involved in the development of the modern steel orchestra, to an extent that may shock large constituencies on both sides of the ethnic divide. Some of their direct inputs still serve as benchmarks in pan's evolution.
Nestor Sullivan, better known as manager of the Pamberi Steel Orchestra, but himself a tireless researcher of pan history, last October delivered a lecture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, on "East Indian Influence in the Steelband Movement in Trinidad and Tobago", which documents some astonishing truths.
While admitting that his work was by no means the definitive piece on the subject of Indian involvement in pan, Sullivan identified several key figures among the hundreds of Indians who have been involved with pan over the past 60 years.
One of his more striking discoveries is that some Indian families have actually produced more than one pan icon. Although Bobby Mohammed became a legend in the 1960s with his band Guinness Cavaliers, his brother Selwyn was, at the same time, the resident arranger of what is now the Amoco Renegades.
San Fernando also produced the Lalsingh boys, and San Juan boasted Lol and Jack Bactawa, while of all the most unlikely places, Couva gave us the Zackarali brothers.
Sullivan notes as well that since steelbands in the early days were strictly community-based organizations, those villages, which were predominantly Indian, perforce, produced its pannists from that grouping. Princes Town, Rio Claro and Tunapuna produced steelbands whose membership was virtually all-Indian.
Jimmy Bridgenarine, leader of Golden Dukes and subsequently Curepe Scherzando, was, up to the time of his death in 1987, one of the stoutest defenders of the steelband (and the Curepe community). Bridgenarine's role is seen by Sullivan as "not only pivotal to the development of Curepe Scherzando", but to the steelband movement during the 1970s.
The Samaroo Jets, originally an orchestra comprised exclusively of members of an Indian family, has evolved into the most travelled steelband in the history of the instrument. In existence for over 30 years, all members of the Jets are full-time professionals and musically literate. The band has also enjoyed the longest-running steelband contract, playing as house band at the prestigious Hilton Hotel for more than 25 years.
An entire section of the Sullivan paper is devoted to Samaroo, whose work with Amoco Renegades has produced a stunning hat trick of Panorama wins, among the record nine times he has taken the band to the top of the national standings. It is noteworthy that the Renegades panyard is located in the patently urban African setting of Lacou Harpe in Port of Spain.
Speaking to the Sunday Express, Sullivan explained that in areas like St. James and San Juan, the ethnic mix delivered bands comprising equal numbers of Africans and Indians. "And a kind of cultural cross-fertilization also occurred," Sullivan said.
"Bobby Mohammed's influence is among the more striking examples," Sullivan said. "It was his creative use of the bass pans that won the national title for Guinness Cavaliers in 1965 and 1967, causing bands from north Trinidad to follow that style, in the hope of improving their chances."
Sullivan added that Mohammed created an impact never before experienced in pan, and did not limit his resulting victories to Panorama. The Cavaliers were also successful in steelband music festivals, and the band toured extensively in the wake of those successes.
He added: "Another Indian arranger, Steve Achaiba, led Hatters to winners row in 1975, and later South Stars to glory at the national level as well, taking the revolution started by bobby in the sixties, well into the next decade.
Also operating at creative decision-making levels at that time was Henry "Bendix" Cumberbatch, an Indian arranger from San Fernando's Antillean All Stars, who took that band to several Panorama final during the 1970s.
Sullivan, who is currently doing a research assignment on popular Caribbean culture for the University of South Florida, took his work one step further, to look at the results of social integration and the work of Anthony Williams and Roland Harrigin.
Williams, who led the Pan-Am North Stars to several Panorama wins, introduced a major change in the design and structure of the tenor-pan. His "spider-web" design forms the basis for today's fourths and fifths tuning patterns, and gave the instrument a leap in the quest for standardization.
Harrigin is the preferred tuner for some of this country's top steelbands, including Phase II Pan Groove, Pamberi and current Panorama champions, the Arima Nutones. He is also master-tuner at Panyard Inc., the world's most sophisticated pan manufacturing company in Akron, Ohio.
But some of the examples of social integration are even more curious. Unlike Samaroo, Dudley Rouffe was an Indian-born and bred in the heartland of urban Port of Spain. He became leader of what is now Carib Tokyo, a band from John John, the heart of Orisha country. Rouffe not only led Tokyo, but also became a respected community leader, passing on the mantle to his son, who now represents the band in North America.
The view that pan is an African thing with a few Indian interlopers is, therefore, fundamentally inaccurate. Although the feeling first surfaced in the 1970s in the wake of Black Power agitation), with no move to dispel the perception coming from Pan Trinbago over the years, the players and those who are most passionate about the instrument and its music are least troubled by ethnic considerations. It is they who will tell you that pan is not exclusive to any ethnic group, but belongs to Trinidad and Tobago.