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When Steel Talks

 

 

SPOTLIGHT

 

- Original PanMan -
Ralph Davis

New York - October 1,  2004 

What if we could take you back to the beginnings of the pan movement, and have you relive the experience as if you were actually there?  Hear about the iron fist of the legendary Rudolph Charles, and laugh about, yet listen in wonder to what people did for the love of the mighty Pan Instrument?  Then, meet Ralph Davis!

 

 

When Steel Talks was privileged to add yet another historian to its archives in the chronology of the history of Pan.  A living, walking and breathing institution of pan, Ralph Davis (RD), one of the original members of the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra from the Hills of Laventille in Trinidad (even before the mighty Rudolph Charles) shared his experiences as a pioneering teenager who loved pan.  He takes us right up to his present day activities in New York where he is still blazing a trail to perfect the Pan art form. 

 

 

Davis leads the global pan community on a journey back in time as he talks about the passion of playing pan which led him and others to do almost any and everything to that end.  He talks about the hardships, humor, pain and love that all early pan players had for the pan instrument.  So critical was the shortage of drums, that both ends were used whenever possible, as opposed to today, when only one end is ever used to make an instrument.  Remembering when it was time for panorama and procuring a pan was almost impossible, Davis laughs ruefully now about one of the regular practices to do just that, where the drums used to wash clothes by women in the community would be marked for the purpose, the clothes secretly thrown out and presto!  A pan was in the making...

The lure of the pan was too powerful and he tells of hiding from his father to stay out to practice.  He also remembers how true the old adage of "the village raises a child" was, when the villagers looked after him and other children just like their own; in fact they would call out to his father not to worry, that they would take care of him - and they did.

 

As a young player in Trinidad, he was equally passionate about sports, mastering nearly all there were to compete in and represented his village in many sporting disciplines around the country.  He was as well known for his pan playing prowess as for his sporting abilities, and was called "Mr. Laventille."  RD eventually became a skilled pan player who was versed in all pans in the orchestra, and rotated during performances as necessary; he is particularly fond of the Double Seconds.

 

RD pays homage to many of his own mentors including the late Carl "Bumpy Nose" Greenidge who was the first arranger he had the privilege of playing under.  Carl Greenidge was the uncle of present-day world-acclaimed panist Robert Greenidge.  Painting pictures of his experiences of the humble beginnings of the percussive instruments, RD reminisced about the tambu bamboo and single pans which were the forerunners of today's massive steel orchestras.  He talks about the coconut branches used as roof coverings for the bamboo constructions which served as panyards, the taboo of women in pan and how none were allowed.  He played and grew up with the likes of Knolly "Panther" Nicholas, Denzil Botus, Joseph "Franklin" Gerald and Glenda Forde-Gamory (G-Forde) - all of who were or are central figures in New York pan - all with Desperadoes' connections "from the 'Hill." 

 

RD's experiences are many, from being on the road in Trinidad, to being away from home at a young age as a member of Desperadoes' stage side contingent which performed in Dakar, Senegal - Africa.  Another episode occurred when he played for the queen of England on her visit to Trinidad and Tobago at the then-Governor-General's house.  He remembers her standing right over his pan.  But what she did not know, was that the shoes he was wearing, had no soles... For he could not afford shoes.  So the illusion was there, just the outer part of the shoe, while his feet had already been cut from sharp stones and bottles on his way to play for her Majesty.



Of Rudolph Charles, RD describes him as the then "George Steinbrenner of pan" in that he hated to lose, wanted to be the best, and when to any and all lengths to secure and recruit the best players, arrangers and tuners in Trinidad and Tobago - solely for Desperadoes.   RD played with the Fabled Desperadoes both when they first won their National Panorama in Trinidad and Tobago and also when they had their "Triple Crown Win," a clean sweep of the Panorama, Bomb and Road Playing competitions - in the same year.  Master arranger Clive Bradley is especially revered by RD, who played many of Bradley's musical masterpieces in his early years as Desperadoes' arranger.  That relationship continues up to today as Bradley is the also resident arranger for New York-based Pantonic Steel Orchestra, of whom RD is a founding member.

 

RD credits his own drive to succeed as the legacy of his Desperadoes experience and encounters with Rudolph Charles, which he encourages in Pantonic in their continued drive for excellence.  He describes it as the "Rudolph Charles' drive going to extremes to be the best."

 

Asked about the difference in the younger generation of panists of today, and those of his own generation RD said:  "We ate and breathed pan... it was food for the soul...  ...some of today's generation play pan as something extra for them to do out of school."  He additionally recommends in spite of the tremendous natural talent they possess, that the young pan players should learn to read music whenever the opportunity presents itself, thereby enhancing their innate prowess.

 

RD and Glenda Forde, president of Pantonic Steel orchestra grew up in Laventille like "brother and sister."  He talks about his respect and love for her and the integral role she plays in the North American pan world, and what she means to the wave of success that Pantonic has been riding for many years.  "She is a serious woman.  Without she Pantonic is nowhere!" says RD.

 

In lieu of playing, though, these days he prefers to be a mentor to the younger generation, and to also continue being one of the key personnel in the four-time championship band Pantonic Steel Orchestra.  He is also to be found on "Cowbell" in the band's "Engine Room."  Even though he has not played pan in years, RD yearns for the joy that could still be had in J'Ouvert, and which he enjoys annually, early Labor Day morning in New York.  However RD misses the camaraderie he had as a young player in Trinidad when the band would learn many tunes for J'Ouvert morning.  "J'Ouvert morning was it!" he proclaims.  He would like to see Trinidad return to J'Ouvert celebrations on the scale of all those years ago, or at least take a page out of New York's current version.  He does not enjoy carnival in Trinidad anymore because of the lack of Pan music after the panorama competition, especially for J'Ouvert, and no longer travels for the occasion.

 

Ralph Davis promised to consider playing for 2005, at least on J'Ouvert morning!  What a treat it would be both for him, and those who have not seen the maestro in action for many years, or ever!

 

by CP - Basement Press Corp.

 

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