Boogsie Sharpe: The Legend

Trapped Between Reason and Reality

by Dalton Narine

Republished from -  PAN -  Summer 1988 - Vol.3 No.1

										a fan after
										performance in DeKalb,
Boogsie obliges a fan after performance in DeKalb, Illinois

How many times has he heard the same review? He overarranges. He plays too many notes. He’s too jazzy. This is calypso—our music, they remind. And who are “they” but a bunch of amateurs strutting in his panyard a few nights before the 1987 North Zone steel band finals, running off at the mouth about his musical style. “Ay, Boogsie, you know what?,” they’d crow. “Maybe you could take this part out, put this one in and,... blah, blah, blah.” Such brass! Small wonder he escapes the din by hanging out his pride in the shadows of Phase II Pan Groove, his own big band of 100 players now rehearsing on gleaming chrome pans with steely tones. Here, amid the cacophony, he is secure. In the belly of the beast, Boogsie Sharpe, the world’s best panist-composer-arranger is home.

The beast would roar all night, dancing with itself in a mad narcissistic embrace and feeding the ego with bits of raw culture and large helpings of its creator’s “fast-food” orchestration. And a cult of believers would drift in and out of this musical consciousness well into the dawn.

This is the night life of Phase II Pan Groove after finishing in seventh place in the steel band preliminaries. The festival, aptly called Panorama, is the parent beast that annually burdens each of the nation’s 40-odd steelbands with a single 10-minute performance of a calypso. (Few arrangers offer their own original compositions.)

Pan Magazine with Boogsie Sharpe on the cover

None of the other finalists is undergoing such rite of madness. But then, no other band is quite like Phase II. The Phase is Boogsie, and Boogsie composes his own calypso music. The nerve of him. Well, his music is overarranged, say the judges of this marathon event. And they aren’t amateurs.

Now he listens. He’s never won this thing, and he needs a victory so bad the security of the Western Hemisphere depends on it. Ay, Carnival 1986 was in a funk when the Phase missed the darn thing by a solitary point. What to expect in ’87? Especially on the heels of the judges’ commentary? Nine long hours (we’re talking the graveyard shift here) of rebuilding a fresh arrangement of Feelin’ Nice, that’s what. And what do you know! Tonight, in the wake of the finals, the whole country will party en masse. Feelin’ nice. And a victorious Boogsie Sharpe would grow to be a big fish in this small West Indian pond. What more can they demand of him?

You fly into Trinidad, this dreamy hot spot seven miles east of Venezuela, this flashy pendant at the end of the Caribbean chain, and, armed with just a single, singular name, you begin to ferret out the personality. But what you get initially is only the legend: an early prodigy, an extemporizer and all that jazz, an enigma, and, though shy, an icon. A 34-year-old musician/composer who neither reads nor writes music. Where to find the reality? Deep into the subculture of Pan? In the very womb itself?

“His greatest deficiency is that he hardly listens to other kinds of music and other musicians.”

Sisters Nasha and Hana Sharpe, ages seven and six, respectively, wrap their attention around the living room TV. Saturday mornings bring playmates in Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny during the carnival season in February. In a few weeks, though, when the mas’ hysteria is over and the children’s father has spent the last of his creative sense on Panoramania, they’ll prod his responsibility with the cue: “Daddy, it’s Saturday. When are we going to the beach?” Only then, Janet, his wife of 8 years, will be certain that “there is no more audience, no more show, no more overseas tours, no more Carnival, just me, the children, Boogsie, and home. And I will be satisfied with that.”

For now, it’s see you later, baby. A man’s got to do what he’s got to do, no matter what the critics write in the newspapers. Boogsie will arrange Panorama music for seven steel bands, a feat unequalled in the 24-year history of the contest. More than 600 players performing eclectic harmonies on some 2,000 tuned oil drums, before an audience of 40,000 at an outdoor stage in the heart of the city. Wow! But that’s not the perspective Boogsie sees. He envisions all six of his conventional bands in the final 12. Scoring music for more than one band is a chore that few arrangers attempt, although an elite few can command up to (TT) $25,000 ($7,000 US) for their work. What is Boogsie’s motive? The challenge of competing with himself? Some steel bands simply want the best arranger. And, in 1987, Boogsie Sharpe won the north, south and Tobago zones, the old time steel band competition, and the grand national finals. It is no surprise that Potential Symphony has appealed to Boogsie for help. Once violence-prone and a chronic loser, the Malick steel band says community pride is at stake.

The trip to Potential in Boogsie’s compact is akin to a symphonic adventure. The ride from his townhouse atop Dundonald Hill overlooking the capital city to the panyard destination is interwoven with variations on a market day theme. Overloaded taxis rush shoppers to the center of commerce, then speed them back home in a blur. Calypso music booms from ubiquitous ghetto blasters and reverberates from maxi taxis that are really minibuses. Pedestrians affect a soca (calypso) gait on the hot pavement. Some of them recognize Boogsie, a beard covering his chin and cheeks beneath smiling eyes. He is wearing his trademark peakless royal blue leather cap and a flowered shirt. “Bogsay!” they hail. “Oi,” he shoots back, lighting a cigarette. “Last Thursday,” he says while dodging antsy traffic, “I worked all morning with Scherzando (some musical terms are enunciated the way local panists play music—by ear. So, like everyone else here, he pronounces the playful musical sobriquet of the Curepe band, Scherzando, rather than Skertsando.) Then I went down to San Fernando and arranged Skiffle Bunch (old time steel band). Went home at 6, shower, eat, and hit Starlift that same night.” He waves to a passerby. “I could do a tune in an hour, but I have to make sure the band gets each part right before I move on. Each one, teach one until the whole band in sync. All I do is lay down the creativity, then it’s up to the band to execute it.”

Squatting on a low hill, Potential’s practice site has the country’s famed bird sanctuary in its cross hair. It is a dichotomous view of reality. To many youths, the community is but a prison that politicians conveniently keep out of focus. Who protects the teenagers, the nation’s true wildlife? Trapped by indifference and unemployment, this faceless, symbolic mass of untapped energy relentlessly searches for the tiniest crack of relief in society’s pressure cooker. A few hundreds of this underclass are released as vagrants. Some struggle but cope. Some turn to drugs to “ease de tension.” Potential Symphony offers an expedient outlet: panyard vibes with Boogsie Sharpe.

Boogsie drives up to the makeshift community center and parks facing a dilapidated band shell. To the left is a “shoe box” pan theater that serves as a storehouse for instruments, assorted mobile racks, a tumba, cartons of empty beer bottles, a box of black cable wire, an old Potential flag, some 22 tenors or lead pans encased in protective vinyl bags, parts of a drum set and several colored drawings of Zulu warriors and lion hunters advertising the band’s Carnival theme. “No obscene language,” a sign warns. “Stag, the beer of Potential,” says another. Twenty-one players are rehearsing their parts as a man shouts above the music: “Traps man (drummer), where de traps man?” When Boogsie arrives, everything comes together.

When Boogsie alighted on this mortal earth on October 28, 1953,  everything fell in place at the Crossfire panyard in St. James. For this was home to parents Randolph and Grace Sharpe. Len Sharpe was conceived when his mother was in her ’40s, 16 years following the birth of his second brother. Folks say he was born with pan in his head, referring to the Crossfire steel band that conducted nightly rehearsals below his bedroom window. “Police used to come with horses to control the overflow crowds,” Mrs. Sharpe recalls- “My friends begged me to move, because they thought the music would drive my son crazy. But it never bothered Boogsie.” She had christened him Len, but took to calling him Boogsie when the moniker came to her “just like that” while she was reading the bible. “That’s why I believe he’s a special gift from God.”

One bright morning, God’s child slipped out of his crib, crawled to the front door, down the five steps leading to the big yard where chickens scratched the dirt for sustenance and steelpans lay idle and mute. “I knew the yard was empty of people,” Mrs. Sharpe is saying now, “but I was hearing pan sounds.” She looked outside and saw Boogsie pounding an old pan with a small stone. She was shocked. He was only nine months old. From this seminal experience would one day emerge the leghorn of panyard birds. In the meantime, when he was three years old, a precocious Boogsie, restricted from playing Crossfire’s pans, pounded on grapefruit juice cans his father - brought home. Young Sharpe employed mango stems and pieces of road tar as surrogate sticks. His thirst, however, was for the real thing.

“If I get a big contract, sure, I’ll leave Trinidad. I’ll have to bear with it. But right now Panorama is my lifeblood, after my wife and children.”

His mother remembers when he was five. “He could play every tune the band played,” she says, “so we allowed him to play bass during the Carnival propped up on a drum.” At eight, Boogsie was teaching melodies to adult tenor panists well past his bedtime. After the celebrations, his father would take him on a road show of sorts. And Boogsie would play the pan in schools, at concerts, and talent shows. Audiences were awed. Was this the Mozart of the steelpan, as American composer David del Tredeci would rechristen him 22 years later? “We wanted him to learn music on the piano,” Mrs. Sharpe says, “but we couldn’t afford the lessons. I was a domestic and my husband was a male nurse with the Police Force. Besides, we couldn’t keep him away from the pans. He picked up everything he knew just from listening. Nobody ever taught him anything.”

Monty Alexander, the outstanding jazz keyboardist with whom Boogsie has performed, has expressed a preference for having “the baddest panist” around permanently.

Young boys amble into Potential’s panyard propelling discarded bicycle rims with pieces of wood. Stray dogs pan the area for food. Boogsie is laying down a passage of This Party Is It, beginning with the tenor, and, in turn, double tenor, double seconds, triple seconds, guitar pans, quadrophonics, cellos and finally bass. He is like a symphony in motion as he moves from one section of the band to the next, showing key players new bars, with particular emphasis on phrasing. In a few minutes, the entire band is playing this short section repeatedly. A newcomer grabs an iron (brake drum) and spices the riff. “After I put down the verse and chorus,” Boogsie says during a break, “I sit down and listen to the band. Then I get an idea and I rush to teach them the part. They run that, I sit, get another idea, and, bam, I fly back in, ‘come, take this one time, fellas.’ ” He springs up, suddenly, and dashes to the quads section to admonish an errant player. “He wasn’t phrasing it right,” he says. “I think for everybody, so I can hear when a player makes a mistake.” Boogsie admits the new quads are difficult to play. They require good coordination skills because one pair of pans sits on waist-high racks, and another pair is suspended at eye level. “I like the range and tone of the quads,” he says. “You could put a whole different dimension of music on them to enhance the tune itself Some arrangers use them to fatten the melody. I use them for voicing and color. Music is color, too, like Carnival.”

Finally, in this, his fifth two-hour session, Boogsie completes the band’s orchestration. “Among the seven, Potential is special to me,” he says on the drive east to Curepe. “They respond to my ideas. I’m sure they’ll win their zone (finals).” He exults in the moment, but his demeanor is calm, like a leisure fisherman expecting a bite. How much satisfaction does he need? If he matched last year’s output of four victories, would he retire from Panorama and settle abroad? How much longer must the rest of the world hold its breath for the inimitable panist to break into the big time? What’s the catch? “If I get a big contract, sure, I’ll leave Trinidad,” he says. “I’ll have to bear with it. But right now, Panorama is my lifeblood, after my wife and children (Boogsie is father to two other children— son Din, 11, and daughter Adana, eight).”

“He doesn’t see down the road far enough.”

Like the country’s steelpan tuners, every panyard has a distinctive ambience. Scherzando occupies Curepe’s old market on Evans Street adjoining a “shirt factory.” Curepe sits in the lap of a mountain range and the scenic hills provide psychological relief for the bustling, predominantly East Indian town. In the marketplace where hagglers once fought to save a penny, a community of panists now strives to save a steel band. A Scherzando split in 1975 produced Sforzata Steel Band but no gains thereafter for either orchestra. A band’s got to do what a band’s got to do. Enter Boogsie Sharpe. “Now that we’re reunited, our ambition,” says Captain Keith Thomas, “is to emulate Phase II and win the big prize as an unsponsored band. We can do it with Boogsie.”

Indeed, inspirational slogans greet the visitor at every turn. “We, not I,” and “Let’s mind our own business—music,” clearly reflect the band’s revamped competitive edge. Welders are building new racks; painters are masking the burnt exteriors of newly-tuned drums; cooks are preparing I-tal (salt-free and meatless) meals; and the remainder of the band is coasting along in a babel of sounds. Boogsie calls everyone's’ attention by knocking the sides of a tenor pan with his sticks. He is about to begin his final workout of Scherzando’s calypso, a Boogsie composition called Hard Times. It is a paean to domestic strife in the twin republic. “I’m trying to give the effect of hard times with a jam,” he was saying earlier. “Like you go home and there’s no food, so you come down to the panyard and you’re just jammin’,” he says, an edge of rancor in his voice.

Screaming a riff on the tenor, he draws not only learners but also a knot of admirers. Soon, he’s on the four-pan belting out a melody line. In time, he imbues each family of pans with his wizardry. When the complete band achieves his satisfaction, it begins to emulate Phase II. And the captain is pleased.

“Each one teach one until the whole band in sync.
All I do is to lay down the creativity,
then it’s up to the band to execute it.”

Boogsie then trots off to the john. He returns with a tenor salvo that portends a nation in the throes of riotous conditions. The music now becomes ambivalent, with its mixture of joy and sorrow.  “Each of my bands sounds differently,” he says “I’m conscious of it. I can’t relax, because of my pride.” And if a band such as Scherzando beats out his own Phase II for the national championship? “I wouldn’t feel as bad as how the fellas would feel.” Is he overextending himself as a prolific arranger? “III turn down any band, they get upset. They don’t want any arranger. They want my work. I have no pension coming, no gratitude. Panorama to me is like a sport, like horseracing. I’m like a trainer taking care of seven horses. I never approach anybody. They come to me. So it’s all jealousy on the part of my critics.”

When Boogsie first arranged music for a steel band, his peers couldn’t fathom the depth of his genius. He was 10 years old and he had organized his own group with leftover pans from his defunct alma mater. Crossfire’s legacy of quaint themes (including a 1956 Carnival performance of the standard, On Another Night Like This) spurred Boogsie to orchestrate The Theme from The Sons of Katie Elder. In a sense, it was an auspicious moment when he presented the work at his school’s Christmas concert in 1963. If his teachers at Woodbrook Presbyterian Elementary School felt he was lagging in his school work, they found his excuse on the stage properly orchestrated. In truth, Boogsie had graduated and they had nothing to do with his education. Neither had Progressive, the high school where he played a scoring role on the soccer team. Instead, the Starlift panyard in Woodbrook held the keys to Boogsie’s advanced training. It was here that he would hone his dexterity and composing skills under another young, astute panist/composer in Ray Holman.

Boogsie joined Starlift at 14, but he played for the avant-garde Holman. “He was very supportive of me and what I was doing with the music,” recalls Holman, a Spanish instructor at Port of Spain’s Fatima College. “When everyone was criticizing me for writing music for the instrument rather than copying calypsonians, Boogsie and a few others were backing me. I relied on him. I never taught him anything twice. He was very careful, always making sure what he was playing was what I wanted.”

Despite Boogsie’s prodigious talent and computer memory, Holman shrank from bestowing superstar status on his protégé. Holman, though, advised him to approach the art form as a professional, because of “his tremendous potential, his gift of the instrument, his special sense of knowing all the notes on any style pan no matter where they are placed.” Hyperbole? Consider Boogsie Sharpe at 17, performing with Starlift’s stage ensemble. He is late for the band’s appearance at a public dance. Rushing on stage a moment before the music plays, he finds that the drums of his six-piece bass are woefully out of sequence. A predicament? Not to Boogsie Sharpe. In a flash, he adjusts mentally and saves the night. “I had conditioned myself to do that kind of thing,” he says, as level as a steel beam.

By age 20, Boogsie believed that he could compose music like his mentor. Moreover, he was convinced that he was prepared for the next step in his development. In 1973, he was mature enough to help found Phase II Pan Groove with a nucleus of Starlift players. Strangely, at Starlift’s request, he would return 15 years later to arrange a Ray Holman composition for the 1988 Panorama.

By the time Boogsie exits Scherzando’s marketplace, an orange sun is laying down an arrangement of color in a quadrant of the western sky. It is nightfall already when he comes “home” to the Phase II panyard. The players have gone home save for key “family” members, with whom he shares an hour discussing the band’s Carnival direction. His real family, whom he refers to as “my greatest achievements,” won’t see him until 8:10 p.m. His wife greets him at the door. “Boogsie,” she asks in a low voice, not unlike Scherzando’s humming bass, “is this the hour you’ve come home to take me out like you promised?” The adulation he has garnered all day long, the wealth of talent that he carries, the creativity that he shoulders—it behooves him to doff the accoutrements of his craft at the door. And, why not? What is the name of the Phase’s 1988 Panorama theme? Woman is Boss? Yes, woman is boss.

“He is too quiet and unassuming. 
They take advantage of him.”

For lo these many years, calypso, more often than not, has denigrated women, treating them as repositories of sex, as philanderers and nymphomaniacs. A woman’s place was no longer in the home, but in calypso. Phase II would change all that. “We don’t give women the recognition they deserve,” Boogsie admits. “And I believe that woman is boss because of the important roles they play in our lives. That’s why I composed the music.”

Jamming with a small group during a New York gig
Jamming with a small group during a New York gig

The Phase II panyard is wedged among a row of middle-class homes, an apartment complex, Roxy Theater and the Starlift panyard. Neighbors don’t raise noisy complaints with authorities as they used to — with good reason. The band was widely acclaimed as the country’s best leading up to 1987, when it finally won a Panorama contest as an unsponsored band—the first such steel band to do so. Phase II is confident of replicating the feat. Indeed, the band is on a mission to avenge more than a decade of blighted Panorama decisions. In the past, whenever it has failed to score with the judges, Boogsie amply filled the breach. He participated in pan “shootouts” with ace panists Robert Greenidge and Earl Rodney. At one performance, he raised eyebrows when he turned the tenor pan over and extemporized on its belly. Then he brought the audience to its feet after playing a popular calypso by sequentially feeding a line at a time to four different instruments, and without missing a beat. In 1985, American panist Andy Narell joined Boogsie in an “international shootout” that later prompted this Narell comment: “Boogsie has his own musical vision that makes his music sound very distinct from everybody else’s. He plays harmonies right out of Tchaikovsky and you hear real jazzy elements in his songs and arrangements.”

When Narell returned to Trinidad in 1986 and 1987 to join Phase II in the Panorama, the experience was to help him later in the production of his now popular “Hammer” album. “Before then, I never played some of the instruments Boogsie had in his band, like the quads, for example. Now I use them, but I love the roles he assigns the instrument.”

During Phase II’s lean years, Boogsie toured extensively as a solo artist and with his own pan/jazz group. A Who’s Who list of artistes he’s gigged with includes Randy Weston, Grover Washington, Ralph MacDonald, Gary Burton, Wynton Marsalis, and Monty Alexander. Boogsie left impressions at jazz festivals in Berlin, Barbados, Montreux (Switzerland), Holland, Hamburg, Tokyo, and Vienne (France). Says Scofield Pilgrim, Caribbean representative of the National Jazz Foundation: “Boogsie is phenomenal because music is really sounds, not notation. Notation is a way of recording sounds. Boogsie may not know what he’s doing in the language of music, but he knows what he’s doing.” Clive Nunez, a cultural activist in Trinidad says he’s convinced that Boogsie is nourished by “a master brain” that other geniuses tap into. Harvard University researcher Dr. David N. Perkins is more down-to-earth: “In a broad sense, we shouldn’t see him (Boogsie) as uneducated. We need to make a distinction between the academic culture of music and the informal culture of music,” he says. “There has always been a thriving informal or non-academic music culture. Jazz has been an important contributor to that culture. But it takes a decade of deep involvement, no matter how talented you are, to become a really masterful performer or composer or whatever.”

Boogsie’s decade was winding down by 1987. After his Panorama victory that year, Chief Judge Marjorie Wooding said: “He’s full of imagination, and I feel he has led the steel band into a new era. I said years ago that one of these days, we, as judges, would have to deal with this man, because I was able to appreciate his change of style. I was seeing an emerging jazz style coming through, which I admired. It was different—the chording, the rhythm, everything; and I don’t like stagnancy.”

“He’s the best tenor player, the best double second player, the best quads player...shoot, he’s the best panist in the world.”

It is Carnival Saturday night. The national finals are on. Boogsie is by no means stagnant. He is on a roll, really. A few nights earlier, he won the East Zone finals (a tie between Potential Symphony and Scherzando); the South contest with Deltones, and the North with Phase II. In addition, he was victorious with Skiffle Bunch in the old time steel band category. Now, he’s got Potential, Scherzando, Starlift and Phase II competing against each other in the final 12. The competition is keen and by the time Phase II appears last at 4:15 a.m., it has become airtight. In its homage to womanhood, Phase II cuts loose with a performance flushed with conflicting moods. Now the band exalts the better half, then it articulates her vulnerability. Here - the joy in her smile, there - the sorrow in her tears.

In short, the music brings out the Scorpio in Boogsie. And the classical ending reminds Phase II fanatics of Moods in the First Movement, a classical work composed by their hero in 1984. Afterward, Boogsie and his wife immediately head home. They follow the results on the car radio. The arena is in an uproar. Phase II repeats as champions. Janet hugs Boogsie. She, more than anyone else, believes that it is time for him to take his own show on the international stage. Boogsie, however, doesn’t even have his own manager.

“Boogsie is a very nice person, but he’s not a businessman,” says Pilgrim. “He tends to be unreliable at times. Once, I arranged for him to perform at a concert, and, when it was too late, he tells me he’s already committed. It’s very difficult to pin him down. He’d say yes to anybody, then one day you’d hear he’s out of the country.”

Once, the story goes, a group of French promoters was rebuffed by Phase II management. They had come to Trinidad to hammer out a contract with Boogsie and his group for a recording contract as well as performances in Europe and French Africa. Then the promoters heard that Boogsie wouldn’t talk about an agreement until after the Carnival, a few months hence. “He has security in the panyard,” says Pilgrim, who believes Boogsie can become a jazz star of international renown. “He takes pride in being on tour, but he seems to thrive in the panyard. Phase II is his anchor, and he’s so concerned about Panorama, it’s unbelievable.”

Pianist Monty Alexander is unconcerned about all that. His working relationship with Boogsie transcends psychoanalysis. In 1986, he had taken Boogsie to jazz festivals across Europe. And, last November, he showcased Boogsie as a guest artiste at the Blue Note in New York. “I’ve asked him to consider joining my group because he’s unique and we work well together,” says Alexander, “but I agree with him that his family comes first in a way. He should do whatever is necessary for him, though.” Cliff Alexis, tuner-composer-arranger for the Northern Illinois University steel band in DeKalb, Illinois, notes Boogsie’s dilemma and says: “Sure, he wants to make it big abroad, but you can’t blame him for looking forward to something like Panorama, because that is the mentality the festival has placed on arrangers like Boogsie. He was born into it.”

“That may be so,” says his wife, Janet, who holds a university degree and is a credit officer at a local bank. “Panorama is his home, his culture, it’s how he established himself. It is important for him to be in Trinidad. But I’d like to see him do more with jazz musicians outside. I don’t want to stand between him and his career. But he’s adamant. He doesn't want to leave his family.” And Phase II?

April 1988. Boogsie Sharpe is appearing with the NIU steel band in DeKalb, west of Chicago. Life can be heavenly. Last December his country awarded him a medal for his contribution to native culture. In a few weeks, he’ll be performing in Barbados, Jamaica, San Francisco, New York and Australia. Now, G. Allan O’Connor, NIU’s musical director, is introducing the man everybody came to hear. “What can I say about this man?” he begins. “Boogsie Sharpe is like the Chicago Cubs (baseball), the Chicago Black Hawks (ice hockey), the Chicago Bulls (basketball) and the Chicago Bears (football), all winning their respective championships in the same year.” Unlike the audience, Boogsie is unmoved. He can’t wait to get home. He sees himself trapped between reason and reality.

“Daddy, it’s Saturday. When are you going to take us to the beach?”

Boogsie’s got to do what he’s got to do. Is life a bitch, or what?

Republished from -  PAN -  Summer 1988 - Vol.3 No.1  

© 1987 PAN Magazine - All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part of any of the contents of this article without permission is prohibited 

   1987 Phase II Pan Groove at Panorama 1987

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