Trinidad and Tobago, W.I. - Well, what d’you know. Right there, in book, chapter and verse, it was Abel's blood that sprinkled on Cain’s conscience and made his brother vagrant and vagabondish.
True, there is a bitter irony of circumstance that the arrangers of the two best steelbands in Panorama have been longtime friends. Yet it is the blood of Phase II Pan Groove that made Trinidad All Stars blood boil, erupting an out-of-character behavior In the large band finals at the Queen’s Park Savannah. Shucks, the Stars’ old Hell Yard instincts kicked in with vengeance the way the tussle came off back in 1986 when the Phase all but had their first victory locked in with Pan Rising as the drama in the Rama pushed to a head.
It started off crazy as hell.
“Blade, blade, I warning everybody, and both sides sharp,” the late Elibank Crichlow, renowned Phase II lead player, shouted above the midnight din to a coterie of pan music buffs near the insane asylum in St. Ann’s.
If, as warned, Pan Rising would be the blade, double-edged for richer (or bloodier) spoils as it were, amid the mystery of Panorama Phase II’s leader Len “Boogsie” Sharpe would metaphorically sweat blood - from a self-inflicted wound.
Trinidad All Stars on stage for Panorama 2015 Semi Finals - photo by Robbie Joseph
Fast-forward to the 2015 Panorama and all you see or hear on the Drag and in the stands, on Facebook, in nooks and crannies everywhere, is the notion that Trinidad All Stars are in the business of chromaticisms. Their music is encumbered by too many; more runs than an ol’ whore’ s stockings (Let’s clear the air here; those fancy lines by the tenor panists are controlled extemporizations.) All such talk, though, is no botheration for Cool Hand “Smooth”, a k a Leon Edwards, the band’s arranger with a new role as ambush strategist.
“Smooth” would choose senior band member and composer Clive Telemaque’s composition, Unquestionable, and manager Beresford Hunte would see it like a layman - a song with such a high degree of difficulty as to scare curious supporters, though nary a player. Indeed, Telemaque’s first offering was rejected out of hand, and he must have recalled 1986 when pan talk focused on the Phase’s rising pan, as well as All Stars, who Town had long dubbed “the final night band.” With much reason.
Now, here’s Telemaque in the panyard delivering Unquestionable to the maestro. The song reaches the arranger as motifs, idioms and counterpoint language. How cool!
“Smooth” right away plays it on the pans and exults over its possibilities. “This is it,” he tells Telemaque.
Fine, but will he dust off the template? Supposedly serious steelband people may want to know.
About those runs that critics decry year after year, do they have a point, you ask him.
“This year’s song was easier to arrange,” “Smooth” said after the semifinals. “It would’ve been more difficult if the idioms were scarce. Carnival is participation and our music is very syncopated. Makes you want to dance and prance. Look at it this way, Trinidad is syncopated. It’s why the foreigners have a hard time chipping. Follow the middle pans, is your answer. And the basses. Hear the conversations.”
Imagine that! Slosh it around in your head. Now, rewind to ’86. In mid-stream of the orchestra’s performance of The Hammer, the night still clung to Phase II. Such pressure! It inspired Catelli, the band’s erstwhile sponsor and nickname, to pull out all the stops.
The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.
“Smooth” translated American author Amelia Earhart’s maxim as an array of dissonant chords that sang about Rudolph Charles’ pain, The Hammer, wracked by diabetes and a bad leg, having passed away the previous year in the aftermath of the carnival.
A tribute to the band’s championship skills, those chords mattered, for the arranger had climaxed the rendition with a nifty embellishment of the chorus line. The intention to mimic the destruction of mariners beguiled by the song of the Sirens in Greek mythology was a seductive vision, and benefited plenty. De crowd start to roar, channeling in Woman on the Bass.
Meanwhile, Neville Jules, a steelband pioneer and former captain of Trinidad All Stars, who had flown in from his digs in Brooklyn, New York, dropped this bomb:
“I don’t know why all these people seem to forget that we are Catelli Trinidad All Stars . They don’t know about this man, “Smooth”, who relishes giving rival bands a heart attack at this time of the year. What we have is not a hammer, but a sledge hammer. Ah, they don’t know.”
Said Edwards, uncharacteristically, after the predawn workout, a TV camera in his face: “It was sick, those semitone and whole tone trills. You can’t just trust us.”
Trust the judges to award them victory over the Phase by a single point.
Phase II on stage for Panorama 2015 Semi Finals - photo by Robbie Joseph
“Where did we lose the point? How could we fail by a single point?” Boogsie squawked. His eyes looked like bird eggs floating on the asphalt lake in La Brea. Heartbroken by the decision, Boogsie appears to distance himself from the dissonance.
Leave it to Clyde Lambert, the late TV analyst and former Panorama judge, to weigh in. “You can make a case for either band, but the bottom line was the virtuoso performance of All Stars.”
Thirty years later, Lambert’s spirit hauntingly returns, and “virtuoso” is emblazoned in lights across the stage not even the sun could see.
A sense of déjà vu floats like the scent of abattoir blood. And Phase II’s coda from 2014 brings back the memory of him alluding to the classical flourish that captured the heart of the judges. “Smooth” has come prepared, unleashing not one, not two, but three mini codas that crescendo like encores. It was a dirty little device from a nice fella like “Smooth”. To do that to a brother? Raising cain like that?
This time, the separation balloons to a hefty six points. While Panorama Dragsters always want to call the shots, they don’t rate. It remains to the judges to call the tune.
Look, watch mih, as man, in the back and forth of the hat-trick wars, there really are no winners or losers. Just fierce competitors who always make for a great Panorama.
If anything, the Phase got lucky. They could have been consigned to a deeper depression, what with a bloodbath that rocked, first the Savannah, then panyards, and - after Trinidad All Stars lit up the mood with an operatic firecracker that gave most of the Grand Stand a run for their money - many a patron of the arts streaming out into a city bedazzled by the uproar, so much so that if you take a selfie as you stride away, you’d be surprised how the Savannah, NAPA, Memorial Park, all such appear blurred as you beat it home. The night pestering you and you want to be alone.
You tink it sorf?
Some things you can’t shake. And losing has forever been a universal disease of the ego.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding the critical hosannas for Pan Rising, it wasn’t until 1987 that Phase II began a string of seven victories that rocketed them to fourth place on the list of Panorama champions.
Desperadoes sits atop the chart with 10 wins, followed by Renegades and Trinidad All Stars tied with nine. “Smooth” Edwards orchestrated eight for the Stars, but Jit Samaroo remains the top arranger of all time.
Beresford Hunte: Even non-supporters and radio commentators praised the band for its “outstanding performance.”
Leon “Smooth” Edwards: I want to compliment the players, especially young panists, for their service, rehearsing in the late, late hours, proving that hard work pays off. Now they’re champions.
Dalton Narine joined Trinidad All Stars when the band played in the Garret, the attic of the building housing Maple Leaf Club on Charlotte Street. While serving as a Carnival and Panorama commentator and interviewer on Trinidad & Tobago Television for more than 20 years, he continued to play the Bomb every J’Ouvert until he switched to filmmaking.