Silver Stars Steel Orchestra
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Junior and Edwin Pouchet of Silver Stars
A Tale of Two Brothers and Their Band
by Dalton Narine
Always, it seems, something’s going on down there in Cocorite. In the late 1940s and 50s, a steel band took shape in the backyard of Edgar and Carmen Pouchet’s home on the Slipway. The family had come from Newtown, next door to Valentino’s steel band, and accordingly, Edgar Junior Pouchet had an inkling about steel band men.
When he was 13, Junior and brother Everard, 12, stumbled upon and old mucked up tenor that lay half-buried in an old lady’s yard up Fort George Hill. Junior is the oldest of seven boys and four girls (“When Mommy shouted food’s ready, it was like roll call and if you didn’t reach on time, your meat gone,” Junior’s brother Edwin remembers.)
The 24-note pan might have afforded Junior a kind of baptism in pan, considering his plans for the instrument. But it couldn’t carry melody. Not because he washed it in the sea. So when neighborhood friends heard that Junior have a pan leh we go an’ see it, they laughed at the “strainer” he presented.
Carmen saved the day, however, when she snagged a red, white and blue Tripoli tenor for $25. Now he had a sweet pan. Everard wanted one, too, and his birthday was nearing. Soon, a four-note bass, a second pan and a guitar pan joined up. The Pouchet brothers studied at St Mary’s College and a couple of the players were school mates.
But Gold Coast, a growing ensemble of 14 teenagers named after the West African country that became Ghana after its independence, lacked musicianship. They attempted to straighten that out by enlisting Leroy Boldon, a St. Mary’s colleague from Behind the Bridge who brought along a Trinidad All Stars player he introduced as Strong Back. With six songs in their repertoire, the plan was to show off the band in the J’Ouvert of 1952. Edgar, a manager at Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, accommodated the group by driving them to the Queen’s Park Savannah, but Gold Coast ran afoul of the planned route by happenstance that morning.
“A couple of fellas that we brought in included a flag man and a guy with a brown bag,” Junior recalls. “He pulled out a bottle of rum and a small glass and gave each of us a sip, though none of us ever drank. Next thing you know, the flag man say, ‘All for town,’ and we had to cover our faces with our sombreros or sailor hats when we passed in front St. Mary’s because the priests had warned us about playing in a steel band. On our way home, we dropped by Valentino’s and everybody on the block was shocked. They say, ‘Look, the Pouchets have a band.’”
Both bands merged the following year and adopted a steel band name, Silver Stars, on account of decorations painted on the yellow drums. Selwyn Gomes assumed titles of captain and arranger, and that was OK with members. Then bad news stunned high society, prompting some parents to pull their sons from the band. Police arrested six players for disturbing the peace, but a magistrate ruled that steel band music wasn’t a nuisance if it was played before 10 p.m.
Everything seemed to be in flux. Gomes went on tour with Tropitones in 1954, so Junior filled the vacuum. He’d discovered a knack for arranging. He was capable because Gomes had allowed him “to pick out the bass.” Junior’s recruiting fattened the band, which included mas man Nicky Inniss, who designed Rogues of Sherwood Forest” in 1955. By then Junior had followed his dad at Port Authority, which served also as a centralized repository for non-skilled labour that attracted pan men.
In his spare time and whenever classical music played on the radio, Junior picked up most of his arranging skills by ear. Criticism dogged him, though. Supporters griped that the band leaned heavily on background pans, or the bass moved around too much, and changing keys had become routine. Yet, when the band recorded its landmark Bombs - classical music played up-tempo on J’Ouvert - pieces such as Elizabethan Serenade, Salut D’amor and Theme from Dr. Zhivago were paraded as hits alongside American pop songs on radio.
“I used to maximize the instruments,” Junior said. I arranged second pan solos with the brassy sound of double tenors. And the second pans, with lower rims, had a darker sound, so the mixture came off nicely. I never changed keys to be pretty. Rather, they were transitions to the instrumentation.”
Silver Stars was never able to silence critics who chided them for being a “white boy” band. Those who wrapped themselves in the flag of perception might have believed in a moral imperative to Africanize the culture.
“They used to call me ‘that li’l white boy,’ and I’m not white. When we played at the Country Club, people would say, ‘Them brown-skinned fellas playing good.’ Even cello player Rudolph Charles of Desperadoes became the talk of prejudice when he left the National Steel Band because I was one of its arrangers. He found it difficult to work with me.
“For years I didn’t know who I really was.”
In a world in which people tended to view life as a black and white matter, Silver Stars nevertheless enjoyed status as a popular fete band alongside Invaders, All Stars and Highlanders. Music notwithstanding, it generally enthralled with costumery, too - for example, shaking up the 1963 Carnival by winning Best Band title with a Russell Charter-designed portrayal of Gulliver’s Travels. In a historic year, they were the first to play in a new competition that the steel band body had christened Panorama.
“I saw the festival as a great generation point for the steel band.” said Junior, whose band had never won during his captaincy. That role seemed to be tailor-made for Edwin, a younger sibling by 20 years or so.
When he was 10, his mother Carmen would take Edwin to the pan yard on Tragarete Road, she chatting up the night with friends and he soaking up the sounds under a fig tree. Edwin always left the yard in sorrow. “I was blown away by the pan business - by Junior’s leadership. Once or twice he had the whole band laughing when he cracked a joke. Junior has real ole talk.”
With Junior’s stage side under contract in 1968 in Bermuda, and later Los Angeles, Edwin knocked around on a tenor at home. Carmen taught him how to hold the sticks, how to play, everything she knew about the instrument. In 1969, when Edwin expected his father’s approval to venture out on his own, Edgar, a Desperadoes fan, banned him from playing pan in Silver Stars, or elsewhere.
To their horror, mother and son, their ear to the radio, experienced the nightmare of Silver Stars placing dead last in the Panorama because the frontline was out of synch with the background pans the whole journey.
“She cried and cried, and I promised that I’d play the following year to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
But Edgar stood his ground, leaving Carmen to think on her feet to get Edwin to the pan yard. He’d walk out the door in ordinary clothing and she’d throw him steel band gear from upstairs. The session over, she’d open the back door so he could sneak back in.
“I thought I was fooling him,” Edwin recalls, “but on final night I was drinking a cup of tea before I left for the Savannah when he calmly walked up and said, ‘Edwin, you really think you’ll beat Desperadoes tonight?’ I was speechless. Of course, Desperadoes won the Panorama [with Margie, arranged by Clive Bradley].”
Meanwhile, Junior enjoyed a hiatus from his Disney job every Carnival.
“If I were in Junior’s shoes, I’d have done exactly what he’d set out to do - that is, arrange the Bombs and party music and not worry too much about Panorama. Because you go to Panorama and what you get? Two bottles of rum and $1,000? That was an every night thing with Silver Stars. So it was, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ll go Panorama.’”
Edwin might want to believe that he and his brother didn’t travel divergent paths, but theirs was a parallel universe only in terms of success. Younger brother was so enamored of the older one that he even imitated how he held a cup of coffee.
“I believed in him. I idolized him. I got so involved in his arrangements that I thought he was mad,” Edwin admits.
In 1973, Junior pushed for Edwin to join the Silver Stars octet at Disney. He played all the instruments; watched his brother move his chords and structure the basses; and learned rudimentary stuff about running a band. But Junior “was too popular to notice me.”
“The world, in a sense, came to watch them play,” says Winston James, whose mother Monica Tatum encouraged the band to utilize her backyard in Los Angeles as a pan yard while Junior waited for the Disney gig to open up. James played bass alongside Claude Dottin, his brother-in-law, who had played for Silver Stars in Trinidad. “Pan was new to the world in the 1970s,” James says “so the band was in demand.”
For 29 years.
It’s why observers referred to the Disney stint as a lifetime contract.
Meanwhile, Silver Stars went down the drain in1975, and the following year when Carmen passed, Edwin returned home. He arranged The Will by Scrunter for Invaders in 1982. The band placed eighth in the finals. By 1983, when his brother named him arranger of a satellite band on contract for seven months at Tokyo’s Disneyland, Edwin at last had found his arranging voice, which he graded as an extension of Junior’s. After 11 years in the cold, Silver Stars resurfaced under Edwin’s captaincy. His arrangements won Panorama titles in the medium and large band categories and bragging rights in the Pan in the 21st Century competition. Mild-mannered as they come, and not just because of problems he’s been having with his heart in the past few years, Edwin would not deign to trumpet his success in pan. But just as his brother, Junior, railed against critical comments about his music, so does it befit Edwin to respond to hairsplitters of his style.
“While everyone else was predictable, ours has been a refreshing sound,” Edwin says. “You need to be different to break through.”
As different as one band from the other. Yet in synchronicity with victory.
Junior ruled the road, the radio playlists and the fetes. Unlike Edwin, though, he never won Panorama, yet it behooved Les Slater and the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute in New York to cite him as one of the 12 legends of pan honored in 2001.
|Silver Stars began functioning in Newtown, Port-of-Spain, in the 1950s and was initially made up of students from St. Mary's and Queen's Royal Colleges. Under the leadership of Edgar "Junior" Pouchet, the band made several popular recordings during the 1960s and 1970s, but never achieved much in musical competition until 2009 when it won its first Panorama competition. In 1963, Silver Stars became the first steelband to win the Band-of-the-Year competition with its presentation "Gulliver's Travels," which was produced by Russell Charter and designed by Pat Chu Foon.|
|Compiled by Ronald C. Emrit|