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Which is the Greatest Steel Band in the World?

A Look at the great steel orchestras of the past

       written by Dalton Narine

 

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

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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:

CASABLANCA
The cross of Lorraine may be the emblem of Casablanca, the Gonzales—East Dry River—Belmont (depending on era) steel orchestra, but a star-crossed history symbolizes the band’s attempt at greatness. Oscar Pyle and other die-hard ’Blanca folks poured sweat and blood (literally) into the band’s machinery during its Carnival heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. But like Rodney Dangerfield, Casablanca got no wide respect—until classical music dominated the band’s repertoire in the ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, the old “double cross” was transformed into a magic wand when (former police) Supt. Anthony Prospect conducted the band’s victorious 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky) in the 1982 steel band festival, and many more times after that in concert halls in Britain and North America. Still, with an anemic record at the annual Panorama championships (held over the long Carnival season) juxtaposed with achievements of other concert–oriented steel bands, Casablanca has yet to attain quintessential glory.

CITY SYMPHONY
One great and truly memorable performance is enough to qualify East Dry River’s City Symphony for Hall-of-Fame enshrinement. Cue the very early ’60s; listen to the syrupy sounds of the Bertie Marshall pans; focus on the new showcase instrument called the double tenor: lend an ear to arranger Cordell Barbour’s compelling refrain: why it’s an old weapon with a new fuse in the war of the “bomb” (classical or pop music performed in calypso tempo during Carnival street celebrations). It is Cole Porter’s standard, Night and Day.

CITY SYNCOPATORS
City Syncopators and ultimate greatness had as much to do with each other as dinner mints and kite flying. But dare we exclude the East Dry River group from consideration when its trip to fame as a “heavy road (Carnival) band” entertaining some 3,000 “sailors” on the “USS Detroit” during the late ’50s was forked by the band’s scintillating performance of von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant at a music festival not too long thereafter?

CROSSFIRE
Ah, Crossfire! It is easier for the St. James band under legendary Eamon Thorpe to get into the kingdom of Pan Heaven with a singular offering—a Carnival J’Ouvert presentation of the utterly captivating standard, On Another Night Like This—than it is for supporters and spectators to ever forget the indescribable 1956 achievement.

DESPERADOES
Presenting the Greatest Steel Band in the World: Desperadoes!! That is if one is judging from the percussion standards at the New York Daily News. Hailing from Laventille, Desperadoes may have been served by the greatest leader in pan history, Rudolph Charles, with apologies to Neville Jules and Ellie Mannette of Trinidad All Stars and Invaders, respectively (strong debate here—in defenses of Jules and Mannette, with apologies to Charles). But we won’t get into an argument on personalities. Or, Desperadoes may boast the most professional panist in the world in Robert Greenidge; the best pan tuner in the world in Bertie Marshall; the sweetest pans in the universe, and on and on. Reality, though, prevails. Truth is, Despers has the best Panorama record of any steel band: six victories, including championships in 1970, 1976, 1977 and 1983 with arranger Clive Bradley at the helm, and in 1966 and 1985 under the musical leadership of Beverly Griffith (current manager Robert Greenidge co-arranged in 1985). What an enviable achievement! Despers also won the 1986 Steel Band Festival with a rendition of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances, following a 16-year-hiatus from the competition. Moreover, Desperadoes perform in concerts around the world like a computerized entertainment machine, what with an array of calypsoes and pop songs programmed into their deep repertoire. But... close, this close.
Publisher’s note: since the original 1988 publication of this article, Desperadoes has also garnered Panorama championships in the years 1991,1994,1999, 2000.

EBONITES
Ebonites of Morvant, a Solo clone, appeared in the late ’50s as fresh as a snow cone. However, the band melted like the proverbial snowball in hell in just a few short years. Ebonites was long on good road music, though: Strauss’ Roses of the South and Liszt’s Liebesfreud jog the memory.

GUINNESS CAVALIERS
Strains of Guinness’ percussive style in the ’60s are evident in most Panorama performances to this day. The San Fernando band faded into oblivion several years ago, but should be remembered as those stout-hearted souls who, with the milk of a 1965 Panorama win still fresh in their throats, literally ran the competition off the stage in 1967 with an uptempo version of Mas, then converted the townsfolk into believers with a precocious hurry-hurry-come-for-curry pace on Carnival Monday.  Couldn’t curry favor with time, though, and expired with a whimper.

HILANDERS
Now, here's a band that could have been the greatest ever had it not been blinded by its own brilliance (read pan tuner Bertie Marshall’s brilliance).


Dalton Narine was a double tenor player with Highlanders for Carnival 1971 in Trinidad, when the now-defunct band offered a Mozart piece, Divertimento in D major as its “bomb” tune.

Marshall eventually joined that other Laventille band, Despers, thereby imbuing it with a sense of perpetual greatness). Highlanders were innovators of the double tenor, truly amplified pans, jazz-based classical arrangements (probably influenced by Invaders’ jazz phrasings and “Professor” Les Slater’s tinkering of the band’s early works) and the ultramellow tone. Hey, during the ’60s, the colorful Highlanders forged ahead of its time by some 25 years. (History and prevailing steel band trends could widen the disparity.) And the orchestra was as comfortable playing exotic arrangements of calypso fare as it was blazing a hard trail with music from the masters, calypso-style—Gounod’s Faust, Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers, Handel’s Let Every Valley be Exalted, and Haydn’s Gypsy Rondo, among other scores.

INVADERS
Invaders was Ellie Mannette and Ellie Mannette was the Boss long before Bruce Springsteen picked up the moniker. Invaders spawned Starlift, which, in turn, begat Phase II. One of the oldest steel bands, Invaders, too, existed in the ’60s but played then at an exciting ’80s level, considering tonal quality and the band’s stylish locution on its very own family of instruments. Liebestraum and With a Song in My Heart were provocative Carnival themes 29 years ago, but Invaders meant much, much more. Invaders was Woodbrook (a bedroom community west of Port of Spain), a cultural happening, middle-class values, Shell Oil. And yes, Invaders were the “harps of gold."

PAN AM NORTH STARS
Defunct Pan Am North Stars of (St. James) shot to fame when it won a festival in 1962 with Strauss’ Voices of Spring. Thereafter, the band won successive titles in ’63 and ’64. But Pan Am’s greatest achievement came in the late ’60s–early ’70s while touring around the world with pianist Winifred Atwell. Leader Anthony Williams is revered as a pioneer and former cultural ambassador and the band is fondly remembered as one that carved an unparalleled niche in pan history.

PHASE II
Phase II of Woodbrook joins the elite steel band group by virtue of its back-to-back Panorama titles in 1987 and 1988 while playing its own compositions as an unsponsored band. Its music is arranged by Boogsie Sharpe, arguably the best complete panist in the world.
Publisher’s note: since the original 1988 publication of this article, Phase II has romped home with the championship no less than four more times in the years 2005, 2006, 2008, 2013.

RENEGADES
Many years ago, a man left his mountaintop retreat in Surrie (Lopinot) and became an urban renegade in Port of Spain. His name was Jit Samaroo and the guys he hung out with were called “Renegades.” He had a swagger all right, but it was in his music, his mellifluous arranging style. In 1982, when Renegades won their first-ever Panorama title, a young band member boasted of playing more than 200 notes in less than a minute while capturing a stylish interpretation of the melody. Renegades retook the title in 1984 and won again in 1985, as they adhered to a trend of playing Lord Kitchener’s treacly compositions. It became trendy, too, for Renegades to place among the “big five” in major pan contests since that fateful day when Surrie lost a son.
Publisher’s note: 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997 were additional years of triumph for this legendary band since the original 1988 publication of this article.

SILVER STARS
Formerly known as “the ‘B’ class college band,” Silver Stars under Junior Pouchet can make a legitimate claim to “Best Steel Band” title by virtue of its vastly underrated performance “on the road.” The Woodbrook band never won a pan title, yet rival steel bandsmen gave Silver Stars an ‘A’ for its consistent record in the ’60s: Military Polonaise (1960), Salut D’amour (1961), Die Fledermaus (1962), Ghost Riders in the Sky (1965), Elizabethan Serenade (1964), Wonderful Land (1966), Dr. Zhivago and Gaudeamus Igitur (1967).
Publisher’s note: 2009, 2010 were years of triumph for this legendary band, adding the Panorama champion title to their accolades - since the original 1988 publication of this article.

SOLO HARMONITES
The Desperadoes of the East, Solo Harmonites of Morvant won Panorama titles in 1968, 1971, 1972, and 1974. Solo’s music was renowned for its kinetic energy—to wit, The Wrecker, St. Thomas Girl, and Bongo—and its fiery arranger Earl Rodney, who once attributed his supercharged demeanor to “the struggle of the steel band man” in him. An adept panist in the genre of Boogsie Sharpe and Robert Greenidge, Rodney still clings to the fame he acquired almost two decades ago with “Friends and Countrymen,” a critically acclaimed jazz-laced LP recording.

SOUTHERN ALL STARS
Southern All Stars’ rush to glory: Consider the San Fernando unit besting top Port of Spain bands at Roxy Theatre in 1954 in a striking Music Festival performance of Anna, complete with extemporization by Theodore Stephens, and believe that fame can be fleeting.

STARLIFT
Memories of Starlift, circa the 1960s, are dog-eared with “ole talk.” Small wonder. The “Lift” with Ray Holman as avant-garde composer-arranger supported by pan groupies, redefined entertainment in the panyard as well as in the dance hall. With I Feel Pretty as prologue, Starlift was the story on the West Side in 1961. There followed a succession of Beatles’ hits and Holman ditties, and, by dint of musical wizardry, the Woodbrook band became the toast of the entire country. Starlift didn’t have style, but panache. And when Holman left to explore the universe, after copping pan honors in 1969 and 1971, Herschel Puckerin took control of the good ship and gave Panorama judges “pan ache,” with an explosive version of Sparrow’s Du Du Yemi in 78.

TOKYO
Tokyo, the John John band with a hoary past of conquering foes, struggled in Panorama contests but never could win the biggie: always the bridesmaid and never the bride. However, theirs was a marriage of sweet pan and hot asphalt, for the “road” was their altar: Finlandia was their theme song. And, lately, Ray Holman has been their savior.


The venerable Trinidad All Stars hate amassed impeccable credentials for their run in the “best ever” derby.

TRINIDAD ALL STARS
Finally, Trinidad All Stars — notorious for its odd slant on history as a 53-year organization, perhaps the oldest steel band on earth; for its lockstep with discipline; for its long embrace of former leader Neville Jules, who gave the band character and success and still had enough leftover humility for himself; El Merengue, arguably the first-ever pan “bomb” (mid–’50s); cluster bombs, as in Intermezzo, Bacarolle, Liebestraum, and Humoresque (1959); a 3,500-strong “sailor” band mimicking Gene Kelly to the strains of Anniversary Waltz and Musetta’s Waltz (1960); notorious for 4,000 supporters costumed as sailors and cavorting to Cara Nome on the city’s streets (1961); successive years of “Bomb” victories (Marriage of Figaro, Countess Maritza, Ballet Egyptien, Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony); tonal excellence; classical music (local stage); classical music (festival); classical music (international stage—Africa, Asia, Europe, North America); Panorama victory (1973)— Rudy Wells, arranger; festival victories (two firsts and two seconds in past four attempts); Panorama success under Leon “Smooth” Edwards (1980,1981,1986); 50th anniversary concert of classical fare— including music by Bizet, Massenet, Mozart, Glinka, Telemann and Tchaikovsky—under direction of Gerry Jemmott (1985); notorious for its 1987 presentation of “Classical Jewels VI,” a varied repertoire that featured pan and choir, pan and clarinet, pan and opera singers, Rhapsody in Blue, In a Monastery Garden, and Kalinkoft’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, 4th movement (Jemott again); notorious for its “Hell Yard” birth (East Dry Driver), its earthy virtues and heavenly sounds; and ta-da, its deserved sobriquet as “The Greatest Steel Band in the World - it’s the best one can say about this band, with no apologies to the aforementioned.
Publisher’s note: since the original publication of this article in 1988, Trinidad All Stars has captured the Panorama championship in 2002, 2007, 2011, 2012.

contact PAN Magazine
Editor-in-Chief: Leslie Slater at - slater.pro40@gmail.com
Senior Associate Editor:
Dalton Narine at -  narain67@gmail.com

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