When Steel Talks

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.

It is written by the late Trinidad Express journalist Terry Joseph, a scribe who truly had his finger on the pulse of Trinidad culture.



By Terry Joseph
Sunday Express
May 24, 1998
Page 16

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.

Views: 251


You need to be a member of When Steel Talks to add comments!

Join When Steel Talks

Comment by Andre-Roger Dellevi on August 9, 2020 at 7:58pm
Comment by jerome ebenezer clarke on July 14, 2011 at 6:19pm
Short fast and nasty i,m originally from guyana living abroad ,a pan maker also,,i always tried to get to the root of the reason for te introduction of the steelpan, earlier steelband in trinidad and tobago,, if ever anyone can answer this question then ,,,end of discussion,,i do have an idea about the coming about of the making of the steelpan, maybe repression, bondage,,revolution,,mark my stayment,,,Maybe!,,,, ! but i,m not from T & T,therefore i leave this to the original trinidadian and tobagonian.
Comment by jerome ebenezer clarke on July 14, 2011 at 6:04pm
Upon joining this website i think that i had mentioned the samaroo Brothers steelband  playing at the hilton hotel which i heard on the radio in suriname in 1983 and these guys were  good,,,now!!!  if i can recollect quite clearly earlier what i had read wa a negative reaction towards the indians playiny the steelpan because of some sort of comparison to the indian indian instruments,, well let me edify those that may be ignorant of this fact,,,MUSIC HAS NO BORDERS,,,NO RACE,,,NO  ORIGIN,,, NO DISCRIMINATION,,IT,S INTERNATIONAL,,WRITEN IN ONE MANNER,,,NOTE  FOR  NOTE  AND TONE  FOR  TONE,, whether it,s chinese,,negroes,,indians,,whites,,arabians,,it,s written on the score in only one manner,,,whenever playing one party does not play  the instrument in hindi and the other plays his insrument in africaans,with the follow up of the other playing in chinese,,it,s one language man, the language of music,,no matter what instrument,, same note,,,same tone,,praise the lord.
Comment by Bugs on April 26, 2011 at 11:42am

@ Tony Blackman

You said -

The music was heavy stuff, because Sco was a sheet musician

What does this mean?


Comment by Tony Blackman on April 26, 2011 at 9:35am
I'm not certain they were from South Trinidad, but they are Trinis anyway.... in the 1960's while at QRC, Valmekhi and myself were the same year group, and we played at that time calypso/jazz actually, in the college band,under the tutelage of a college master and jazz musician Scofield Pilgrim. A fusion of steel, piano, percussion etc. but steel pan dominated in terms of amount, we had the full range, tenor, second, guitar, cello and tenor base. The pans were donated by Ellie Manette, red and yellow Shell Invaders pans. The music was heavy stuff, because Sco was a sheet musician, and Valmiki was the go to guy, he was the crackshot, because he could play what ever notes, bars etc. Sco called out. He and his family band were the stars before Samaroo Kids, they were on TTT very early, Holly Betaudier etc. were marketing and promoting them heavily at that time.
Comment by Terry Robinson on April 26, 2011 at 2:42am
There was a small family band called "the Maharaj Kids" from south Trinidad who eventually migrated to Winnipeg,Canada.Mickey (Valmekhi) was on single tenor and sister Ranie was on base.Mickey an accomplished guitarist now resides in Toronto.
Comment by ted christmas on April 25, 2011 at 10:38pm
And Errol Moore was the man who tuned the basses for Bobby ,he was from Charlotteville Tobago .BY Zzappe
Comment by Mercer Ramdoo on April 25, 2011 at 8:32pm

I find the article particularly interesting. Is Dika saying that there was no Indian influence? Is it about Indian music in pan or Indian Influence via players, arrangers?

I would say though, that it is "An African thing" for reasons I would rather keep to myself. Someone else may be able to figure it out.

Comment by Glenroy R Joseph on April 25, 2011 at 8:11pm

Interesting rebuttal, Dika.

 Too bad Terry Joseph isn't around to defend his perspecitve, since it certainly is debatable.

Comment by Dika on April 25, 2011 at 7:54pm

The conclusion of this article and many of the statements by the people posting are very mistaken or deliberately false.  Pan is an "African" thing.  If you close your eyes and listen to the music of the people who spoken about in this article you would not come to conclusion that they were of Indian decent anymore than you would if you were listening to the music of people who were not Indian.  When you listen to Jit  you hear his Western (particularly Spanish) and African influences. Jit has said many times Bradley is the man who influenced him.

Were there people of Indian decent involved in pan? Of course.  Did they bring major Indian music influence into the pan scene? No! That never happened.  An instrumental version of Chutney never happened in pan. Any move to suggest that is a lie.

There are some musical tributes to India in panorama tunes depending on the theme of the song, but again that has nothing to do with Indian musical influences on pan.

When you visit the pan yards of the world in the past and currently - there has never been a significant presence of people of Indian decent. If you study the reasons to why that is - you will come much closer to the truth and the realities of Trinidad and Tobago's class, race and social problems.

© 2020   Created by When Steel Talks.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service