A historical look at Steelpan In Guyana

Down Steelpan Memory Lane With Rudy Bishop
By Ruel Johnson
Reprinted with the expressed permission of the
Guyana Chronicle


February 8, 2004

Guyana Flag

In a 2001 article, Guyanese Godfrey Chin writes, “On February 6, 1945, there were born two boys, different parents, different countries – one in Nine Miles, St. Ann, Jamaica – the other, David St. Kitty, Guyana. And JA, the great African God of Music, looked from the heavens, blessed the two boys, and ordained – I assign you, Bob, to take Reggae to all parts of the world – Rudy, you are to do the same for Guyana [sic] steelband.”

The `Bob’ that Chin was referring to in this little bit of harmless mythopoeia is, of course, none other than the legendary Robert Nestor Marley. Bob Marley has been reggae’s foremost ambassador, taking the Caribbean genre worldwide, touring places like Gabon, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Spain, France and the US.

Less is known, or has been documented, about the other man Chin refers to, especially at this time when steelpan music does not enjoy the unbridled popularity that it did during the exhilarating post-independence period when steelpan bands commanded a frenzied following and drew the sort of crowds that the big stereo sets do today.

Rudy Bishop, is one of the few people who can live up the cliché, “a man of many talents”. Chin described him as “an indefatigable hustler, entrepreneur, missionary, diplomat, conductor, a veritable Steelband Moses.”

Though, as he related to Sunday Chronicle, his endeavors in the area of community development - especially his work in developing the Camptown community group - are notable in themselves, the thing that Bishop is most renowned for is his organization of the Chronicle Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. Bishop recounted how this seminal steelband came about; the trials it went through to establish itself; the heady days of success; and the subsequent decline of the band.

When the Kitty-based band called the Skylarks, managed by Rudy Bishop, split up after playing in the May 26, 1966 Independence celebrations, some of the members decided to form another band. Without a building to play in, and no suitable venue to practice at, they began to go to the seawall at the Kitty foreshore to hone their pan skills.

Pan-tuner Calvin Whyte tuning a steelpan

It was while they were tossing ideas for a name around that band manager, Rudy Bishop struck upon an excellent idea for a name. Since the band was concentrating on playing symphonies and since they practiced with the chorus of the mighty ocean in the background, he suggested that the band be named `The Atlantic Symphony Orchestra’. The other members of the band agreed.

The next year, 1967, the Chase-Manhattan Atlantic Symphony Orchestra brought third in the National Steelband competition. In 1968, the band brought second in both the National Music Festival and the National Steelband Competition – the winning band for both events was the formidable Demtoco Silvertones.

The 1969 Steelband finals saw a repeat of the previous year’s result, but Rudy Bishop insists that this time, something strange went on.

The bands were asked to play a warm-up piece, and a classical piece. The practice was that the winner band was selected on the basis of its classical piece. Bishop says that after the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra had scored the most points with its Anvil Chorus, the organizers of the Competition, in an unprecedented move, gave the competition to the Roy Geddes-led Demtoco Silvertones on the basis of their warm-up piece.

A sort of justice came in the fact that the Silvertones never went up for the national competition again after that. This, however, did not mean that the annual runner up was due yet for the spotlight. It seems that the Silvertones’ success was due to the band’s arranger who, after 1969, defected to the Demba Invaders. The Invaders began to dominate the annual steelband competition in much the same way that the Silvertones used to.

Small glories

The Atlantic Symphony Orchestra had to make do with other smaller glories. Like after the 1971 competition when Carl Blackman, then editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, called Bishop to his office and informed him that in his (Blackman’s) opinion, Chronicle Atlantic had won the event. Blackman offered his sponsorship through the newspaper’s Crossword section and the band became known by the name that is most remembered by, The Chronicle Atlantic Symphony Steel Orchestra, or CASSO.

In 1972, the band won a competition for best arrangement for that year’s Carifesta theme, and was chosen to perform it for the documentary film that was done on that first of the Caribbean Festival of the Arts. They were also chosen to play at the event, along with other Caribbean steelbands including the famous Trinidadian band, the Catelli All Stars.

It was in 1975 that the band, now sponsored by Chronicle, finally got their due, by winning that year’s National Steelband Competition: they went on to win every single competition until 1979 when they retired from participation.

That initial victory in 1975 heralded 20 years of unrivalled steelpan successes that made the Chronicle Atlantic Steel Orchestra almost synonymous with steelpan music both in Guyana and in several countries abroad.

Their first overseas gig was to perform in Cuba in 1976 as part of a cultural diplomacy event. There, Bishop says that they met the winning 1974 German World Cup champions led by football legend, Franz Beckenbauer.

That same year, they were invited to perform in Suriname and were invited back the next year to perform again. However, the really big break for the band came when the then Brazilian ambassador saw CASSO perform and invited Bishop to carry the band over. The Brazilian Embassy funded Bishop’s undertaking of an initial reconnaissance trip.

Bishop’s findings were promising. When he returned to Guyana, he organized a contingent of 45 persons – CASSO musicians and members of the National School of Dance, which was led at the time by local dancing icon, Daphne Rogers – and set off on a whirlwind three-month tour of Guyana’s gigantic South American neighbor, playing major cities like Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia.

It was on this first actual tour that Bishop says he really learned the ropes in organizing performances abroad. He says that he realized that a song and dance act made more sense than playing strictly steelpan and since the band had already started to include brass instruments and vocals in their performances outside of steelband competitions, he decided to give Chronicle Atlantic a new face…and name. The band known as the Chronicle Atlantic Symphony Steel Orchestra formally became the Chronicle Atlantic Symphony Steel and Brass Orchestra and Dance Troupe.

The decision not to take part in the 1980 National Steelband Competition was met with ridicule and claims that the band was fearful of participating, by the rival bands like the Bidco Invaders who, in the absence of CASSO, easily stole that year’s show.

The next year, Bishop decided to prove a point. He carried CASSO’s youth arm, The Young Entertainers, to the 1981 competition and, much to the chagrin of the older more experienced bands, the newcomers walked away with first prize.

But that was all after he took the new group to Moscow, political centre of what was then the Cold War behemoth, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, on a four-week goodwill tour. Russian audiences were delighted to hear not only Guyanese steelpan compositions, but also the band’s rendering of classical pieces such as Khachaturyan’s Sabre Dance and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Guyanese singer, Dawn Shultz was also there, performing the James Bond film theme song, From Russia With Love.

Then there was the tour on the other side of the Iron Curtain. A little after they returned from Moscow, the band was solicited by the owner of the GuyAmerica Airline, to take a trip to North America to play.

Another whirlwind tour took saw them playing venues in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and in Palm Springs where they spent a day at the home of the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. While at Ali’s home, they were filmed for a documentary chronicling a day in the life of the boxer.

Legendary status

It was while they were playing at the Caribbean Basin Festival in Manhattan, that they were sighted by the then Minister of Culture for the British Honduras (know today as Belize), Mr. Said Musa. Unknown to the troupe, Musa called his Prime Minister, George Price and suggested that Price arrange with President Burnham to have this Guyanese band present at the Central American country’s independence celebration.

After hopping over to Canada and touring Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, the band returned to Washington to play at a United Nations function before heading back home to Guyana. After a brief rest, it was back again to play at Carifesta IV in Barbados and then on to Belize to play at that country’s independence ceremonies.

With so many achievements under its belt, Chronicle Atlantic achieved a sort of legendary status at home. Their success inspired Bishop to try to put together a Festival of the Guianas. Originally conceived by himself and Rudy Buttse of Suriname, the idea was soon adopted by the French Guiana Department of Culture.

The first Festival of the Guianas was held in Suriname in 1985 and was so successful that by the time the second one was held in French Guiana, persons from Brazil and Venezuela had signed up to participate. The third Festival was to have been held in Guyana but Bishop says that when he asked a Department of Culture official for funds to help host the event, he received the complaint that there was not enough money in the coffers to assist in such a project. The Festival of the Guianas idea was subsequently abandoned.

In 1989, Rudy Bishop entered CASSO into the National Steelband Championship for what was to be the final time. The band proved that all that traveling hadn’t made them forget their roots. Chronicle Atlantic Symphony Steel Orchestra swept the prizes away, carting away the Best Performance, Road March, and Best Dressed Band Awards.

In 1992, Rudy Bishop moved to the United States. Having had some small experience in electrical work, he successfully qualified himself to work first in cable television installation and then satellite television installation and repair.

While he worked (first for Cellular Vision and then Prime Star), he still kept in contact with members of the band and in 1995 they were sent an invitation by the UN to perform at the organization's 50th Anniversary celebrations.

This invitation was to set the stage for the band’s denouement. Since the band received part-sponsorship by Demerara Distiller’s Limited, they were not allowed to access funds from the UN since sponsorship by an alcoholic beverage manufacturer is against UN policy. With costs incurred to pay for traveling, accommodation, and meals, Bishop says that he suffered huge losses.

In addition to that, the band’s other part-sponsor, Guyana Airways, folded leaving the band holding return tickets in the name of an airline that no longer existed. There was, understandably, much trouble in the golden paradise that was once Chronicle Atlantic.

Some of the members married American girlfriends and settled down over there, while the others got help from family to return home.

With the band gone, Bishop focused on working to upgrade his skills and providing for his family in Guyana. That was not to say that he left the organization of steelbands all together.

He once put together a steelband in Brooklyn called, like his former youth band in Guyana, the Young Entertainers. However it is not this namesake that seems to have pleased him the most. When a Jamaican pastor, having found something on the Young Entertainers online, contacted Bishop to do something similar for his increasingly restless young church members, Bishop put together the Young Acolytes.

The Acolytes made a name for themselves all across New York City and Bishop received two citations from the area assemblyman for his work in the community.

Rudy Bishop was recently in Guyana, not to work on steelbands, but to look after his former football team, Camptown. Camptown was formed after Bishop saw some neighborhood boys, accustomed to playing “scrubbies” among themselves, defeat the mighty Lodge Rovers…but that is another story.

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