Merry Tones Steel Orchestra - Trinidad: Then, Now and Beyond

Date: 04.25.05

Interview with Eric McAllister

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. Former captain Eric McAllister takes pride in introducing his band, Merry Tones Steel Orchestra in Trinidad, to the global pan community. He presently plays the quadraphonics, a physically demanding instrument. McAllister is now part of the executive management of the band. Merry Tones Steel Orchestra is a three-time winner of the Panorama title in the small conventional steel orchestra category - 1995, 2004, 2005. In the years prior to 1995 Merry Tones was a large band, the category which usually fields up to one hundred players and over.

When McAllister joined Merry Tones in 1974 (his first panorama), the band then had a membership of about 50-plus members. Their competitive fortunes began to look up in later years, toward the end of the decade. In 1982 - in the Pan Is Beautiful II competition, they placed fourth, then took third place in 1984, also winning the "Best Calypso" title with Blueboy's (Austin Lyons, now Superblue) "Blue Fever."

Merry Tones has a lot of history, and McAllister proudly says that he has documented a lot of it on the band's web site at Merry Tones is one of the five steelbands that played in Trinidad and Tobago's very first Panorama in 1963, and still surviving in 2005 - the others being Tokyo, Southern Marines, Desperadoes and Invaders.

Merry Tones Steel Orchestra, 2004
Merry Tones Steel Orchestra, 2004

In 2004 Merry Tones' arranger was Duvone Stewart, whose treatment of "Pan On The Road" helped the band capture the championship title (in a tie) that year. Because Stewart moved on to arrange for Patrick Arnold's large conventional steel orchestra - Our Boys - in 2005, Merry Tones approached Seion Gomez, who is currently studying toward his Masters in Music at Northern Illinois University; he eventually took up the reins.

Gomez is from Diego Martin in the western part of Trinidad, which is also home to Merry Tones and McAllister. Gomez' father is an original member of Phase 2 Pan Groove, and Seion himself was originally a "born and bred" Phase 2 (Len “Boogsie” Sharpe) player. Somewhere in the mid-nineties, Gomez joined Merry Tones and played with them for about one year.

The 2005 Panorama season turned out to be a stormy one for the band. Even though Gomez had committed to and began to work with them, he had to return to the United States to register for school - so former arranger and present manager of Merry Tones, Kendall Lewis, had to step in and fill the void. Gomez did eventually return, though, and the band resolutely pulled together. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As far as the 2005 Panorama competition journey was concerned, there were indeed changing fortunes for Merry Tones' positioning from preliminaries through their first place win in the finals, due in part to their arranger's afore-mentioned situation. The outlook was not rosy after the semi-finals, and McAllister says that even a pan player from Longdenville Claytones (the band with whom Merry Tones had tied for first place in 2004), had "written them off." Merry Tones had dropped from their third place in the initial phase of competition, down to fifth after the semi-final rounds, then entered the finals at that position, but came out the sole winners for 2005, retaining their championship title for a second consecutive year.

It was an important victory for the band as they regarded it as a "must win" situation because of the tie in 2004. This time around, their former "companions" Longdenville Claytones had to settle for second place at the finals. 2005 was regarded as a defining and assertive year attesting to Merry Tones' skill and undisputed right to the championship title.

The band also has an after-panorama presence like other steel orchestras, but unlike them, their configuration and name change. In May 2004, after having observed for a period of time, just how lucrative it was for single pan bands that played year round at various venues, they channeled their energies in that direction. This, coupled with the "fall-off" in the interest of some pan players after panorama, helped Merry Tones Steel Orchestra to decide to carry on as a single pan band, a ten-member clique dubbed the Ice Water Pan Ensemble, the name that Merry Tones actually went by in the forties and fifties.

Merry Tones Steel Orchestra, 2004
Merry Tones Steel Orchestra, 2004

This post-panorama metamorphosis proved fortuitous for the organization, and according to McAllister, the response has been tremendous "spreading like wildfire," materializing in over forty gigs around the country between May 2004 and the present. This year, depending on the younger players' interest and response, the intention is to also maintain a stage side of the conventional Merry Tones Steel Orchestra fielding about 30 players, while simultaneously continuing with Ice Water Pan Ensemble as a single pan band. Ice Water - its core players being from the "old dinosaurs" as McAllister affectionately refers to himself and them, continues with its commitment and the musicians come out to regular rehearsals.

McAllister admits though that Ice Water plays a lot of music the older members themselves grew up with as youngsters, and these selections are not that popular with the young people, most of which they are unfamiliar with because it was before their time. That has dampened the enthusiasm somewhat of Merry Tones' younger musicians to be part of Ice Water. But as McAllister puts it 'for expediency, and finance-wise...Ice Water just works," definitely taking care of business in general. The 10-12 member single-pan band plays out almost on a weekly basis in the post-Panorama season in Trinidad and Tobago, and will carry through for the rest of the year.

Making it clear that there was still room for the 25 to 30-strong stage side of Merry Tones [with a different repertoire] to operate during the year, McAllister said however that it was up to the young people if they wanted to pull it together, and come out to practice. If not, Ice Water would prevail while the conventional orchestra Merry Tones remained on hiatus until the 2006 Panorama season, though they preferred to maintain the Merry Tones' presence especially as they were Panorama Champions for this year [2005]. Ice Water Pan Ensemble has already proven its mettle for 2005, having copped third place honors in the Single Pan Band category of Pan Down Memory Lane on April 16, 2005, staged at the Queen's Park Savannah and organized by Pan Trinbago. Arranger was none other than band manager, Kendall Lewis.

Asked about Pan in general in Trinidad and Tobago, and about his overall thoughts, Eric McAllister remembered that when he was growing up in the sixties, there were a lot of youth-oriented groups and sports activities. With the state of crime in the country, he feels very strongly that avid encouragement for youth involvement with, and their actual playing of the national instrument, would channel their energies in a positive direction.

Additionally, the executive member of Merry Tones weighed in on the decision of the world governing body for Pan, Pan Trinbago, to allow selections from previous years into this year's Panorama competition. He sees it as a dangerous precedent, and remembers that it was not the first time in history that it turned out to be a short pan season. And when it had occurred, such "a measure to presumably counteract alleged unavailability of musical material" was not implemented. McAllister also does not agree that there is a need for the word "pan" to be mentioned in a song to make it eligible or more desirable as a panorama selection. To prove his point, McAllister notes several classic calypsoes that have been panorama favorites in previous years, even citing Desperadoes Steel Orchestra's winning years ago, of the competition with "Imelda" which had nothing to do with, and did not mention, pan.

Eric McAllister - former Captain, Merry Tones Steel Orchestra
Eric McAllister - former Captain, Merry Tones Steel Orchestra

Placing the responsibility for the lack of popularity of current songs written with steel orchestras in mind squarely on the shoulders of the country's radio stations, the former captain of Merry Tones Steel Orchestra notes that none of them really gave airplay to the 2005 crop of "pan tunes," such as Trini Gone Wild, composed by Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, and performed by Phase II (who won the 2005 Panorama championship large conventional steel orchestra title), or Mystery of Pan sung by Eunice Peters. According to McAllister, a few years ago - from the sixties through the eighties - when there were essentially two radio stations, this was not the case. However with more than a dozen broadcast facilities crowding the airwaves in Trinidad and Tobago, he lamented that now the opposite was true; less local music was being heard, and "that is where the problem lies" he declared.

As far as their own band is concerned, Merry Tones has a clear advantage with a membership that comprises members who have a long-standing relationship with the band. They bring with them decades of experience as pan musicians and organizers; and they also have renewed vigor through an infusion of young people from today's generation. This combination of experience, dedication and talent ensures that the Pan instrument and steelpan art form in Trinidad and Tobago are in excellent hands.

C. Phillips, Basement Press Corp.

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