Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - It was my first ever night time assignment. And my first foray into steelband journalism, if we can call it that.
Being the kind of boss that he was, the late Editor/Publisher Patrick Chookolingo called me into his office and asked whether I could make it while assuring me that he had assigned a photographer who would ensure that I got home safely.
The assignment: to interview all the conductors of the bands participating in the 1982 Steelband Music Festival—Pan is Beautiful Two—that was being staged at the Jean Pierre Sporting Complex (JPSC) in Port of Spain.
So said so done. It was just a few months into the life of the T&T Mirror newspaper of which I was a founding member and Choko (as he was fondly called) was all about getting the news that needed coverage. He was more than motivated by the fact that the mainstream media ignored almost all things related to steelband where he saw excellence.
Enthusiastically, I went on the assignment and came back with stories from folks like Desmond Waithe and even the late Anthony Prospect who conducted ISCOTT (Iron and Steel Company of Trinidad and Tobago) Casablanca which eventually won the Festival with a still mind-blowing rendition of the 1812 Overture.
Prospect’s son, Sarge, worked with us as a proofreader, at the time. And there were more. Sadly, my recollection is not as vivid as it should be.
It was published as a spread (double page) with the headline “Conductors are people too.” Under each photo of a conductor at the semi-final stage of the competition was a little human interest story, as much as my naivety could have harnessed from these iconic musicians.
Thus started the journey, 36 years ago.
Two years later when I moved into Port of Spain to live, it became clearer. My first Panorama in 1984 found me walking from my home and meeting strangers from Phase Two as they pushed racks up to the Queen’s Park Savannah for the Panorama preliminaries. By the time I got there I had a few new friends whose names I did not know and a Phase 2 T-Shirt. It was the year of Boogie Sharpe’s own composition ‘I Music’ which I followed enthusiastically, but always from a safe distance, until the band bombed out after a “slow count” from Boogsie on the final night.
Later that year my fate was sealed. On a full moon night, no less mystical it was, I made my first journey up the Hill to Desperadoes with journalist Keith Shepherd who walked the ground and gave room for culture in any newspaper that he edited.
The late Pat Bishop was called in to help prepare the band for the music festival of 1984 when they played Tchaikovsky’s March Slav.
Dr. Pat Bishop (Photo: The Lydians)
It was another moment in history because, after Merle Albino-de Coteau, Pat was the first woman to musically command an army of steel band men.
In between there, the memories, in no particular order, include a brave and fearless me walking up to the man reputed to be unapproachable, the late Rudolph “Charlo” Charles, who was in a wheelchair at the Savannah at the time after hurting his leg in an accident on Independence Square in Port of Spain, to be interviewed for Radio 610AM, the State-owned radio station that recorded and also provided live coverage of all Panorama events (and Music Festival). “Charlo” was amused, obviously, and so went to our broadcast team willingly. It was a kind of feat. The usual broadcasters were not anxious to approach him.
And then not long afterwards attending his funeral at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and watching them place his coffin in the Chariot pan (his invention) for the journey to Caroni for cremation.
Add to that the precious memory of being turned away, with a sweet smile, by the late Dr. Jit Samaroo, after the Renegades performed, because he just did not give interviews. I was forewarned but dared to go ahead.
There were long nights for years after that when we trolled the Savannah for off-beat stories for the Mirror, or whether as part of the support team of the 610 broadcasters or jamming in the North Stand. And then pushing racks, or being squashed unto a rack, on J’Ouvert morning with whoever the Panorama winner was.
Fast forward a decade. And a daughter arrives. And the scope of long nights changed. The reporting dried up. Taking her to the drag- and watching her reaction- for Panorama was the highlight. By that time the drive for excellence which I got in my introduction seemed to have disappeared.
And then, as a player, she took me into the belly of the beast. There, for the first time, I struggled, for weeks on end to keep my health and myself and my life together as I joined a small group of parents at the Silver Stars panyard where I got a bird’s eye view of Liam Teague working with the youngsters. None of it can be reported on. I was trusted to be there in my capacity as a parent, only.
So the snippets of information I got from the iconic conductors in 1982—and how I wish I had more experience at the time to be able to chronicle more than what my naive questions delivered to me—was nothing really.
A whole new world opened up. Teague had not just the Trinidad players but a host of foreign students for whom he was their treasured teacher. He has a unique skill in pulling it all together, standing in front of them like a classroom- and then heading up to the rhythm rack from where he motivated them all. And the children loved him.
In between, I would drift to other panyards to get a sense of what was happening.
It is always evident that the person most under pressure in any steel band at Panorama time is the arranger. He is jammed between a rock and a hard place. Because everyone is a judge.
Fast Forward, again, to 2019. The daughter is a sophomore at a US college and I am working hard again. There is no money in steel band journalism, really.
But there are countless stories to be told.
Once again, Teague is leading the charge at the Silver Stars. Up in Lopinot, Amrit Samaroo, also bubbling with sweet music, as well, is toiling to bust through the status quo.
And even the veteran Robbie Greenidge, up to a week ago, had only a semblance of a band to work with until the players flocked to birdsong and took their energy there. A man, like Teague, of international stature in steelpan and who is not given respect at home.
They, along with Carlton “Zanda” Alexander and Leon “Smooth” Edwards and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and Arddin Herbert are among the most hardworking people in the country at this time of the year, at least.
Each night, in Port of Spain alone, they command hundreds of people towards musical excellence. Many times, without structural support.
Liam Teague (left) and Robbie Greenidge (right)
In both Liam’s and Robbie’s case, they have, through experience, been refined into pure gold overseas.
Here [Trinidad], each year they are put through the alchemic process, again, as if they are less than gold and that we can make them into gold, again. There is no known way to get gold from steel- and these men have accomplished that.
I can say the same for young André White- who, in his final year at Berklee College arranged for three steelbands in London and the US. He arranged for Mangrove, the winners of the 2018 Panorama in the UK. I suspect he will be put through the process as well. Trinidadian arrangers go overseas and win Panorama after a short stint with a foreign-based band. Teague and Greenidge are automatically made to step down from excellence, in order to achieve our version of excellence.
I have danced and been healed by Clive Bradley’s music. How did he die? The iconic arranger was thrown out like garbage.
Scores of smart young musicians—and the makers of instruments too—in Trinidad who want to move forward in steelpan can only head out of Trinidad for a fate that awaits them like Liam and Robbie.
And that is because we have not created any avenue for the talent that we have. Panorama is the only avenue and these men are thrown into the sea of tribalism and tossed around. It must be a stressful experience for a professional.
Arrangers, dear folks, are people too. They are not made of steel. I write with experience, compassion and understanding.
Next up: The Renegades Revolution.
A Journalist/Editor based in Trinidad and Tobago, with 35 years experience in print, broadcast and digital media. As a founding member of the T&T Mirror Newspaper, I served as photo journalist, columnist and editor over 23 years.
My experience in broadcast journalism started and ended at the now defunct National Broadcasting Service (Radio 610 AM and Radio 100 FM). I honed my skills in broadcast journalism at the Radio Netherlands Training Centre (RNTC) and I am a certified media trainer.
Single-handedly, I established a small but effective News Department at Trinidad and Tobago Radio Network Limited (TTRN). As a seasoned news woman I am skilled in photojournalism, parliament and court reporting, writing and producing for print, electronic (radio and video) as well as digital media and promotions. I have mentored and trained a few younger writers and producers along the way. For this and more I earned a National Award in 2012, the Humming Bird Medal (Gold). I am the mother of a young scholar, an undergrad at Columbia University in New York, and a lover of steelpan music.
contact Sharmain Baboolal at: email@example.com