If one were to write a book on Halcyon steel band, the author would have to dedicate a chapter or two to the efforts of Victor “Babu” Samuel. It cannot be disputed that any other individual, has contributed more to the success of this band in recent times as much as this man. As drummer, captain, arranger - composer and disciplinarian, Victor “Babu” Samuel has served Halcyon Steel Orchestra with distinction.
Growing up in the Church Lane area in the 60’s Victor was introduced to pan in a rather strange way. Pat King, his uncle, would always take him along to witness the parades at carnival time. As a safety measure he (Pat) would tie Victor to him with a string so that he wouldn’t be lost. While there, they would spend most of their time around the steel bands in the parades. It was here Victor was introduced to and attracted by, the intense rivalry of the bands - something which was prevalent in those days. These rivalries had as their bases, the different villages from where the bands came. Church Lane didn’t have a band at that time but “Babu” vowed he would build one there.
Attending the St John’s Boys School, “Babu” met Carl “Rugs” Bradshaw, a person whom he describes as his early mentor. Carl’s family was very much involved in the running of the Rising Sun steel band from Pigotts. With this affiliation, he (“Rugs”) learned to play the various instruments in the band, including drums, an instrument which later brought him much fame. At school he would show-off his skills on the pans. This made “Babu” jealous. He was convinced that if given the opportunity that “Rugs” had, he would be just as good. “Babu” would never cease to prove this point.
In 1971 “Babu” began his real encounter with pan. As he vowed, he ended up playing all the instruments, excelling on the drums. He impressed everyone who saw him on the drums including the then-Headmaster of the Antigua Grammar School, Mr. Lloydston Jacobs, who in turn gave him a scholarship to attend the school as a result of the talent which he saw in him.
At that time, the Grammar School had an affiliation with
the Supa Stars Steel Orchestra of which “Babu” later became its number one (1) drummer. There again, he impressed
everyone including the band’s arranger Trinidadian Phillip
Vansupre, who once remarked, “If only I had that little boy playing for my band in Trinidad, no band would beat me.” Such comments were a fitting tribute to this little genius from Church Lane.
Although on the drums he was king, his ultimate aim was to become an arranger for a top steelband. In 1977, this aim became a reality. One evening, “Babu” was approached by some senior members of Halcyon Steelband. They wanted him to fill in for their drummer who was unavailable for some engagements for which the band had contracts.
Accepting their invitation, “Babu” seized the moment leaving everyone impressed with his performance on the drums. “Babu” eventually became the band’s permanent drummer - the ideal position he wanted so he could move his way up into the band and to become their local arranger. It wasn’t long before he started doing some arranging for the band.
In 1978, Halcyon re-entered the steelband competition after a year’s absence. This time the band had at its helm ace Trinidadian panist and arranger, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe. It was this man who would later become “Babu’s” idol - with Boogsie’s music influencing him every way.
In 1980 the band went through a period of metamorphosis. This was largely due to the exodus of most of the players mainly to North America and the U.S.V.I. “Babu” was then saddled with the Herculean task of rebuilding the band. This he did with distinction, stamping his personal trade mark which spells DISCIPLINE AND DEDICATION.
In 1982 Victor was invited to Trinidad by “Boogsie” Sharpe to drum for one of his bands, JEWEL 22, in the Panorama competition. From all reports, everyone was pleased with his performance. In fact what was intended to be a one-year stint, turned out to “Babu” being a regular member of Boogsie’s arsenal in Trinidad’s Panorama.
Although his premier task in Trinidad was to play drums, Victor did not confine himself to this instrument only. Instead he used the opportunity to broaden and sharpen his skills as an arranger, mindful of the fact that a decision was already made barring foreign arrangers from future steelband competitions in Antigua.
By 1985, Victor was now convinced that he was equipped with the necessary tools to win a local panorama. This was not to be, as the band was beaten into 4th place by Harmonites Steel Orchestra International, under the leadership of Fitzroy “Champ” Martin. He attributes his defeat to his late arrival on the island [at that time he was contracted to play onboard a cruise liner in Miami], which only allowed him to arrange one of the two tunes played that year, - King Obstinate’s ‘Hungry.’ Being the positive person that he is, “Babu” did not let this defeat dampen his spirit. Instead, he vowed he would bring the Grays Green Community in 1986.
Paying much attention to the criticisms levied by the judges, he began to work on the 1986 panorama tunes ‘Poet and Peasant Overture’, and his own composition, ‘Pan Getting Squeeze’. In a matter of three weeks both tunes were completed, ready to destroy all other bands in the musical war at Carnival City. All things went as planned.
The band played in position #1. Judging from the crowd’s response after their first rendition, it was clear that the other bands were going to have a long evening. Using the old boxing cliché mentality - when you have the opponent on the canvas you should aim to keep him right there - Halcyon went into their other selection full of confidence, executing the various parts with much precision, verve and gusto. At the end of the performance Carnival City erupted once more into the sound of thunderous applause. Victory which at that time seemed almost inevitable, eventually came at around 2:00 a.m. the following morning.
The judges’ comments speak for themselves. On Halcyon’s performance they have such beautiful descriptions: “A dramatic introduction”, “Well executed runs”, “A rather haunting passage”, “Skilled and disciplined players”, “All indications of a well rehearsed band.” In short, it was a dynamic performance. This was the first of six Panorama tunes the band would go on to capture from 1986 to 1995, the last 4 being consecutive - an unprecedented feat in the steelband world. All this done with Victor “Babu” Samuel as the arranger.
This man has other notable achievements, these include: the first foreigner to arrange for a steelband in Trinidad’s Panorama; the most successful arranger in Antigua’s Steelband history. He also “drilled” for the Phase II Pan Groove, one of Trinidad’s leading steelbands. Achievements such as these only confirm Victor “Babu” Samuel as the undisputed champion steelband arranger of Antigua.
His story is one that lends support to the theory that one can achieve his goal, provided that he is willing to work towards it with great discipline and dedication.
Finally, a quote from Mr. Pat Skerritt on Victor “Babu” Samuel. He said: “In the over 50 years of steelband in Antigua there has never been a more commanding presence.
“Babu” was appointed a member of the most precious order of Princeley Heritage M.H. for his services to Steelband music on the nation’s New Year’s honour’s list of 2001, and Director/Arranger of the National Youth Pan Orchestra.
Source: In Tune With Pan magazine, publication of the Cultural Development Division - Ministry of Education, Human Development & Culture, Antigua & Barbuda, W.I. 2008