From Bamboo Patch to Buckingham Palace with Sterling Betancourt

Vignettes of Pan History

Republished with the expressed permission of the authors from:  PAN - Fall 1985 - Vol.1 No.1

“Everybody was involved. Not just one person discovered this new sound. So it’s injustice to give credit to a particular individual.”

It has been said that the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know. With pan’s genesis still a head-scratcher even for trivia buffs, the history of the steel band still comes up fresh no matter who’s recounting the events that led from the bamboo to the steel pan.

Sterling Betancourt wears pan nostalgia like a family heirloom. Some 50 years after the birth of the steel band, he still finds it chic to perpetuate the five-note bass by including the venerable instrument in his steel pan trio, which has been playing the night club circuit in London for the past 34 years.

It was pan that introduced Betancourt to a lifestyle that seemed as remote from his wildest dreams as a youngster growing up in Laventille, Trinidad, as well..., the steel pan’s ultimate spinoff from the bamboo.

Back in the late thirties, bamboo music poured through the social outlet in the lower class communities across Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. Family bands weren’t uncommon, and Betancourt pounded out bamboo rhythms with the Bowen clan.

“We’d go all the way up Trou Macaque to select and cut the bamboo,” Betancourt reminisced. “Then, we’d cut the big stalks to various lengths, depending on the tones we wanted; punch holes in the sides, and play the thing on our shoulders while shuffling along the streets. However, we beat the bamboo on the ground when we were standing in one place.”

Mixed rhythmically with the tinny sounds of liquor bottles struck with spoons, this combustible cacophony left its mark on the decade as the newest, if not rawest, percussive music this side of Africa, from where the path led.

“Well, pan was inevitable when the government banned bamboo playing during the war (World War II),” Betancourt said. “But we weren’t to be denied of music, so we grabbed anything we could get our hands on—pots, pans, paint cans, dustbin covers and buckets.”

Severe abuse (with sticks, pieces of iron or whatever) of these surrogate “instruments” formed indentations on the surface, and, by chance, notes, albeit with pitch as harsh as the social demands of the war on the poor.

“The first (or tenor) pan started out with just three notes on an empty paint can. Everybody was involved. Not just one person discovered this new sound. So it’s injustice to give credit to a particular individual. But then, a chain reaction for producing better sounds and different types of instruments developed quickly and innovators were many,” Betancourt remembered the saga.

Sterling Betancourt: Dean of the London pan gigsters
Sterling Betancourt: Dean of the London pan gigsters

Experimenting with sawed-off oil drums and tone after the war was the next logical step in this rapid progression of the new culture. But the biggest step and the most sanguine approach at promoting the new art form came in 1951 with the forming of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra. Comprised of a dozen all-star steel band players including Betancourt, who was chosen from the Crossfire band, TASPO would tour the U.K. for three months during the Festival of Britain.

The band would capture the fancy of the upper crust by playing on unpainted drums that settled on the player’s knees, Toselli’s Serenade, the Blue Danube waltz and Climb Up on My Knee Satiny Boy, among other standards. And disbelieving folk would call the message black magic.

But a blacker trick was pulled on the unsuspecting British when Betancourt alone opted to stay in London and form a trio with Russell Henderson and Mervyn Constantine. That auspicious beginning would later prove momentous for the music departments of many a primary and secondary school in and around London.

Henderson, then a 28-year-old pianist, met Betancourt, seven years younger, in London, and was excited about redirecting his career toward pan.

“In 1948, Chuck Springer used to take me around to the panyards,” he said, “and I became involved by teaching panmen chords and melodies. So pan wasn’t new to me, and I played second pan in the trio.”

“Funny thing, Constantine, who’d never played pan before but now was playing guitar pan, found himself out of time quite a bit until he settled down,” said Betancourt. “Later, we hired Max Cherrie to play bass. He was the first to play the 5-note and shake the maracas at the same time.” Some 19 years later, Henderson was to develop a plan to introduce pan to the schools. “It was the only way I thought the music would get off the ground. We had to get the kids interested for it to be fully appreciated later down the road.

“Mrs. Ethel Fance, the headmistress of Croydon provided me the opportunity after several unsuccessful attempts at trying to break into the schools myself.”

Consider that two black men with tuned oil drums were employed to teach avant-garde rhythms to mostly white students and it’s easy to assume that resentment from the administration would be pretty much a sure thing. “The kids loved the pans, but some teachers in the music departments were jealous of us. With our music, we offered a sense of rhythm and discipline. Eventually, we prevailed (he once took the Elmwood Jr. band to the finals of the National Music Festival at Albert Hall), and now there are hundreds of steel bands throughout the U.K.”

Henderson and Betancourt have retired from teaching pan and have been performing cabaret-style around town. Henderson has returned to his original craft, but Betancourt, obviously thrilled that his trio has spawned clones throughout Europe, still plays at clubs, parties and wherever there is a demand for small units, or “gigsters,” as he calls his fellow itinerant panists.

In an era when steel bands in Trinidad are still performing at festivals with 100-man units, Betancourt’s style is both mobile and lucrative. He’s quick to tell you that Prince Philip once endorsed his thrifty but musically appealing ensemble during the group’s appearance at a party for the Queen a few years ago at Buckingham palace.

Betancourt: “He said, ‘I saw and heard very large steel bands while I was in the Caribbean, but now I see numbers don’t really count. You have a fine group.”

And that royal reference, plus some enterprising marketing, has taken a former bamboo cutter to playing dates in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Bahrain, Dubai, through Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland, where pan has logged enough testimony to be treated as an instrument, not as black magic.

Republished from -  PAN -  Fall 1985 - Vol. 1 No.1  

contact author Dalton Narine at:

PAN Magazine
Editor-in-Chief: Leslie Slater
Executive Editor:
Dalton Narine

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Reproduction in whole or in part of any of the contents of this article without permission is prohibited

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