The Steelband of Trinidad & Tobago - Out of pain this culture was born

Gerry Kangalee
Gerry Kangalee

by Gerry Kangalee
published with the expressed permission of the author

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

“Out of pain this culture was born”

(David Rudder)

The above quote from David Rudder’s kaiso, Dedication, a magnificent Praise Song to Pan, sets the scene for understanding how and why Pan arose and developed. The story of Pan is a narrative of pain and of triumph. It is a story of the fierce contestation taking place in the cultural gayelle between the Canboulay (Cannes Brûlées) and the Mardi Gras – a reflection of the class struggle that has raged from the post-Cédula genesis of modern Trinidad and that is still raging today. It is a discourse on the playing out of the contradiction between oppression and resistance, which is at the heart of West Indian history. A lot of grand claims for a humble instrument/movement created by a class of down-pressed yet resilient survivors!

Dedication (A Praise Song) · David Rudder

Out of the pain of slavery, indentureship, colonialism and imperialism and through continuing resistance to the causes of that pain, the working class in a tiny polyglot island in the Southern Caribbean created and shaped a culture central to which is this transcendent phenomenon called Pan - at once an instrument and a movement. The story of Pan, therefore, is a story of a movement of people up from forced labour, through colonialism and the false dawn of petty bourgeois nationalism toward genuine emancipation/human liberation.

Trinidad Map
Trinidad and Tobago

The foundations of modern Trinidad were laid in 1777 when a moribund Spanish empire, unable to defend itself against the predations of the British in the Caribbean, moved to settle Trinidad (the gateway to South America) which had been a colonial backwater for three hundred years. Unlike the rest of the now Anglophone Caribbean which had already developed slave-based sugar-growing plantation societies, some for more than one hundred and fifty years, Trinidad had just a few hundred inhabitants who operated on the edge of the empire and had neither economic nor strategic value.

WST Publisher notes

Some background on how and why the French settled in Trinidad.
From the The Arrival of the Rostants in Trinidad

In 1777, the Spanish Governor of Trinidad, Manuel Falquez, was instructed by the motherland to attract as many French settlers as he could, especially from those islands which recently came under British rule. He did this by promising them grants of land. Other immigrants, if Catholic, were also welcomed but citizens of Great Britain, Holland, and Denmark who were Protestant and considered hostile to Spain, were kept out.  The intention of what was called “the reforms of 1777” was to stimulate economic development.  Each immigrant, if white, received about 30 acres of land for each member of his family and 15 acres for every slave he introduced.

In 1765 the total population of Trinidad was 2,503, half of whom were natives. By 1797 the population grew to 17,643 of which 2,086 were white, 4,466 free colored, 10,009 Negro slaves, and 1,082 Amerindians, although these figures vary slightly from different sources. In February 1797 when a British fleet carrying a land force of 8,000 men arrived off Port-of-Spain, the tiny Spanish garrison on the island quickly surrendered. Trinidad formally became a British colony by the Peace of Amiens in 1802.

In the 19th century the French population and French Creole culture became dominant in Trinidad. Spain was no longer able to fulfill its imperial ambitions so the French in the West Indies most easily fulfilled the qualifications that a 1783 law encouraging immigration required.  Then in 1789 the French Revolution “stirred royalist or revolutionary fervor among all French-speaking people,” to quote the Area Handbook, so “an increasing number fled the exigencies of the revolutionary wars that had carried over into the Caribbean by settling in Trinidad…Although the French element later clashed with the British, their contribution to Trinidad’s development must not be underestimated.”  click for more

The Spanish governor of Trinidad Don Manuel Fálquez (1776-1779) in May 1977 held discussions with Roume de St. Laurent, a French planter based in Grenada, about encouraging immigration of French planters and their slaves into Trinidad. These French planters in Grenada and other Francophone islands which had been ceded to the British in 1763 after the Seven Years War were eager to move to Trinidad to get away from the British and to benefit from virgin territory and more land than they planted in their “home” islands. By the middle of 1777 planters and slaves began to arrive in Trinidad. By 1779, 523 free settlers and 973 slaves had settled and received land grants, among them Maurice de La Peyrouse, whose name still lives in the La Peyrouse cemetery in Port of Spain. In November 1783, the Cédula de Población was officially promulgated.

At the heart of the Cédula were provisions for settling the land. Any Roman Catholic national of a state friendly to Spain, who came to Trinidad and took the oath of allegiance to Spain, would be entitled to free land. White males or females were entitled to a personal allotment of about 32 acres of land with an additional 16 acres for each slave imported. Free Blacks and free Coloured settlers were entitled to half the allotment of the Whites. Between 1783 and 1797 when the British captured Trinidad, mostly French speaking planters and their Patois (Kwéyol) speaking slaves poured into the island from the rest of the Caribbean, although there were also Corsicans (Cipriani), Spaniards, Irish and a motley crew of other Europeans, Free Blacks and free coloureds.

It must be borne in mind that the French revolution broke out in 1789 and the Haitian revolution in 1791. The two are intimately connected. African slaves in the Caribbean were not averse to liberté and egalité. The titanic struggle of the Haitian people for freedom triggered fresh waves of immigration into Trinidad, agitated the slaves throughout the region and led to anarchy and chaos in the streets of Port of Spain as Republicans opposed Monarchists and spies and saboteurs infested the landscape. After the British conquest these were joined by Venezuelan revolutionaries, in particular Francisco de Miranda, who, with a wink and a nod from the British, used Trinidad as a base from which he attempted to overthrow Spanish colonialism in its Venezuelan version. Trinidad became a frontier society with contempt for authority and a tendency towards braggadocio and picaresque behaviour, characteristics which, some insist, it has since retained.

Thomas Hislop - National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago - photo: Gilberto Jaimes-Correa
Thomas Hislop - National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago - photo: Gilberto Jaimes-Correa

After the British conquest in 1797 [Sir Thomas] Hislop and [William] Munro two military governors continued the system of land grants, but on an ad hoc basis, because the Spanish Cédula had obviously lapsed. Of course there was much corruption in land distribution. Englishmen, with or without slaves, received land. By 1812: settlements and estates were springing up in South Naparima, Couva, Carapichaima, Caroni, Chaguanas, Savonnetta, Diego Martin, Arouca, Maraval, Carenage, St. Ann’s, Laventille, San Juan, Santa Cruz, Maracas and other areas. Some recipients of land were free coloureds with no slaves or just one or two. The majority of free Blacks and coloureds were small holders, domestic servants or skilled artisans. There were also a few free coloureds who were owners of large plantations and many slaves, particularly in Naparima where by 1813 Coloureds possessed 35% of the estates and 30 % of the slaves.


In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation promising freedom to all slaves who deserted and fought for the British. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to the British lines. Britain having been later defeated in this war, was asked to find a home for their soldiers. Huggins:

“Unwilling to send them to England, and not being able to settle them either in Canada or Australia…the British finally decided to send them to their newly acquired possession…Trinidad.” This transportation took place in the early 19th century and the Afro- Americans and their families were sent to Trinidad in six batches or Companies.”

Upon arrival, the settlers were deposited in the southern part of the island. The British kept its promise and gave the head of each household 16 acres of land and freedom from slavery. This land became known as “blood land” due to the nature of its acquisition.

Thee “company” villages are situated along the Moruga road, and are five in number - 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th. The 2nd never reached Trinidad and is rumoured to have landed in Jamaica.

These “Merikins” (mutation of the world American) as they came to be known, numbered 574 in all, and settled in the middle of the jungle... 

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In 1816 another thread was woven into the tapestry of Trinidad society when de-mobilized Africans who had served in the British army during the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans were settled in the Company villages in Moruga, Hardbargain and New Grant. These “Merikin” soldiers were slaves in the USA who were promised their freedom if they fought for the British. Each head of household was granted 16 acres. They did not speak Patois, were not Roman Catholic in religion, were proud of their free status and developed into a land owning free peasantry and eventually entered the civil service and the professions.

Later, de-mobilized soldiers of the West India regiments were settled in villages between Arouca and Manzanilla. These were largely West Africans who served in the British imperial Army. They included a company of Muslim soldiers who settled in Manzanilla, built mosques and tried to keep their culture alive. Dr. Brinsley Samaroo, the Trinidadian historian has done extensive research on these Muslims. It seems that the Jamaat al Muslimeen had their spiritual ancestors in the nineteenth century.

Another tributary in the Trinidadian stream was former Mandingo slaves, who were manumitted and who, under the leadership of Jonas Bath, pooled their resources and bought the freedom of enslaved members of their group. By emancipation in 1838, they were involved in trade, money lending and agriculture. They owned cocoa estates and pre-emancipation they owned slaves and houses in Port of Spain.

From this account of the early settlement of Trinidad, it becomes clear that Trinidad was initially and largely settled by other West Indians. This pattern of immigration continued after Emancipation and throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and into the twenty first century. Another pattern that becomes clear is that not all people of African origin in Trinidad were slaves. Some were even slave owners, particularly those of mixed race, although the free coloured at no time received more than five percent of the land grants. A third pattern that can be discerned is that racism was a foundation element in the settlement of the country viz discrimination in land grants.

  Who are the Merikens?

Another group that settled in Trinidad during the nineteenth century were Venezuelan pyongs, largely of Afro/Amerindian extraction. They opened up the Northern valleys to cocoa cultivation on behalf of the Francophone plantocracy, planting and tending the cocoa trees until they matured and then they moved on. They brought parang music to Trinidad and their music had a heavy influence on the calypso music of the early twentieth century as can be heard in the music of the great Lionel Belasco. Brian Lara and Dwayne Bravo are descendants of this group.

After emancipation in the 1830’s, there was a period of frenetic importation of labour to keep the plantation society alive. Small amounts of workers came in from Madeira and from China, although some Chinese came in 1806, but most of them died out. In the 1840’s the planter class turned to India for labour. Interestingly they also imported labour from among Black Americans, from other West Indian islands and from West Africa. Many people do not know that there were indentured Africans in Trinidad. Many of them were sourced from non-British slave ships. Britain having abolished the slave trade in the early 1800’s, mounted raids on other European and American slave ships and brought their human cargo to Trinidad as indentured servants.

But, as is well known, the most successful immigration scheme was the importation of labour from India. Between 1845 and 1917 143,000 Indians came to Trinidad. Less than one in four returned to India. The descendants of this group have had a strong and growing impact on the social, economic, political and cultural topography of modern Trinidad.

Eastern Caribbean

It is surely not co-incidental that in its relationship with the Indians, British colonialism contested as fiercely as with the Africans on the cultural front. Just as they attempted to suppress the Canboulay, the British expended much energy and resources in attempting to suppress the Hosay until the great massacre (the Muharram/Hosay) was perpetrated against the Indian masses in 1884. This story is as deserving of historical and literary analysis and elucidation as the story of the struggle of Canboulay to grow and prosper. It is also not co-incidental that at the heart of the unease with both the Canboulay and the Hosay was the question of the drum!

This cauldron of ethnicities, classes, languages and world views, in a situation of colonial oppression was the foundry within which the distinctive culture of Trinidad was forged (from the love of liberty).

The French brought their Mardi Gras to Trinidad. This was celebrated by the White and Coloured émigrés. Their carnival season began at Christmas when martial law was declared, grand masked balls took place, with the adoption of fictitious roles, masking in the streets etc. Interestingly, French planters often adopted the role of negre jardin or field slaves and French women adopted the role of coloured women, in the words of one commentator “pretending that their husbands desired them as they did their mulatto mistresses.”

While the free coloureds suffered great discrimination at the hands of the British rulers they stood with the planters in expressing their Frenchness through the carnival which became a celebration of Catholic, Latin culture, an occasion steeped in sexual fantasy, a great bacchanal, when the illusion first arose that all ah we (White and Coloured “Frenchmen/women”) is one.

Of course, the historical record does not elucidate, as well, the festival of the enslaved Africans. What is clear is that the traditional West African masking and festival making morphed under the conditions of plantation slavery into the Canboulay which was to dominate the carnival after emancipation until it was forced into retreat in the closing years of the nineteenth century when the Mardi Gras gained the ascendancy.

The Canboulay, after emancipation, ritualized the burning of the cane, what with the lighted torches, the “bands” of ex-slaves, the songs of defiance and rebellion, the stick fighting and at the heart of it all, the drumming.

The fear of the African drums by the slave owners throughout the Americas is well established. The struggles of the planters and their colonial state to keep the ole niggers and the coolies in their place had as a central point of contestation the attempt to suppress, failing which the attempt to sanitise cultural expression at the core of which was the drum.

Throughout the nineteenth century the ruling classes attempted to control, suppress and clean up not only Canboulay but also Hosay. There were numerous attempts to stop Hosay through the use of the police and even British marines. It is certainly not co-incidental that in the 1880’s there were the Canboulay riots and also the Hosay massacre of 1884. The colonial government and the plantocracy understood the awesome power of cultural expression to invigorate and sustain the oppressed people of the Caribbean in their struggle for freedom and self-determination.

The nineteenth century is a tale of uprisings by the ex-slaves and as the century wore on increasingly by the plantation Indians. There were laws passed to restrict and strangle the festivals of Canboulay and Hosay, to ban the drums, to eliminate “obscenity” and “uncivilized behaviour” and the masses resisted. Over and over they had to wheel and come again in their struggle to suppress the Canboulay, because the carnival for the African masses came to represent their struggle against oppression and their capacity to carve out their own space.

After emancipation the ex-slaves joined the carnival with such force that the ruling classes fled from the scene. By the 1840’s, Canboulay was tacked on to carnival with street parades beginning immediately after midnight on Carnival Sunday. There was a lot of ridicule aimed at the upper classes, including satire and parody. This obviously is the genesis of the ole mas as we know it.

There were also bands that played out the experience of slavery. One spokesman for the upper classes described a carnival scene in 1858 thusly: “commencing with the orgies on Sunday night, we have the fearful howling of a parcel of semi-savages emerging God knows wherefrom, exhibiting hellish scenes and the most demoniacal representations of the days of slavery.” The tone of the previous quotation conveys the loathing and fear that the ruling classes held for the people’s mas’. Carnival was limited to two days and public masking was prohibited. Influential ruling class voices called for the banning of carnival altogether.

Attempts to interfere with the carnival were met with fierce resistance throughout the nineteenth century and from the 1840’s to the 1880’s, the jamettes, the underclass, the invisible slum dwellers gave the carnival their peculiar flavour and established much of the ritual we accept and act upon today. According to one commentator the carnival became dominated by “singers, drummers, dancers, stickmen, prostitutes, matadors, bad johns…makos and corner boys, that is to say, the jamette class.” There was, according to cultural researcher and journalist Kim Johnson, “no question of gay abandon here…the anti-heroes of Western culture were celebrated, the Indians and robbers, devils and imps, vampires and mummies…an irreverent and ribald sexuality, for example in the transvestite “pissenlit” masque and the matadors ‘habit of throwing open their bodices and exposing their beasts.”

As far as the masses were concerned carnival was certainly not about colour, but about claiming hegemony over the spaces where they could exercise whatever power they had carved out for themselves within the framework of a paradigm characterised by the whip, the jail and the warship.

According to the late JD Elder, the seminal Tobagonian anthropologist and tireless carnival field researcher: “The White upper class…condemned the Africans (as pagans) for entering carnival, a Christian religious ceremony. On this basis cannes brûlées was deemed a savage pagan ceremony - in a Christian Catholic society. This to them was heresy for which Africans were persecuted cruelly for years.”In the 1840’s the British governor attempted to forbid masking in public. The masses responded with organised resistance which was put down by the military. The masses had begun to develop the forms that are still familiar to us, Red Indian bands, pierrot grenades, diable molassi. For the next forty years there was a more or less persistent struggle to suppress and/or change the direction of the mas’.

Carnival was condemned as being an immoral and obscene outrage. There were attempts to suppress the festival through legislation and police action. African drumming was subject to restrictions and, at times, to outright banning. This was the origin of the laws dealing with “noisy instruments” which steelbandsmen had to endure in the late forties and early fifties, in particular, and which, if memory serves me well, are still on the books. Attacks were made on certain types of dancing, especially that associated with stick fighting (kalinda). Yet in the face of these attacks, Canboulay became established, starting at midnight on Sunday. The withdrawal of the “respectable classes” from the carnival was all but complete by the late 1860’s.

The carnival at this time took on a distinctive tenor, despite, or maybe, because of the concentrated attacks of the colonial state. It became the jamette carnival, referring to those who lived below the diamètre or line of respectability, something akin to the underworld, people of the underclass. This period saw massive migration into the urban areas, particularly Port of Spain, the growth of the barrack yards and barrack yard culture, massive unemployment, petty crime, gambling, prostitution. The shift was beginning away from Patois (kwéyol) toward English. There were English bands, “French” bands, bands organised according to island of origin in rivalry with one another. Clashes between bands at Carnival were not infrequent. Some of the territorial bands in Port of Spain were: True Blue, Black Ball, Golden City, D’jammettres, Maribones, Bakers, Corail, and S’Amandes.

David Trotman, in his study of crime and violence in nineteenth century Trinidad states: “Unemployed youths in their prime, condemned to a life of marginality because of the color of their skin and their refusal to be subjected to unrewarding employment on the plantation, were the major perpetrators of this violence. They used their untapped energies and endless time to focus on what they considered to be invasions of their territory, insults to their manhood, and alienation from the favors of their women by those whom they designated as rivals. Minor insults became major reasons for strife. They found many areas of activity in which they competed, and this activity resulted in numerous violent clashes.” It does sound eerily familiar, doesn’t it? David Rudder describes it thus: “the tribes they re-grouped again for their wars on a brand new plain.”

The jamette bands expressed their rivalry through the kalinda, at once a martial art/stickfighting and a dance. The bands, with their sticks, torches and drums were led by a chantwell, who eventually evolved into the modern calypsonian, and a chorus. They performed boastful songs of their fighters’ abilities and challenged rivals to fight. They used the call and response form which is ever present in African-derived music and also used the extempore/freestyle/toasting form.

  Camboulay Riots reinacted Trinidad Carnival 2008

In 1858 the governor decided to stop the masquerade. Troops were ordered into town from St. James and there were clashes on the streets. In 1859, the masses routed the police on Prince Street.

During the 1870’s the proponents of the mardi gras grew increasingly strident. They attacked the Canboulay for its “degeneration” and “obscenity”; its violence. One description of the Canboulay in La Brea by a Roman Catholic priest captures the fear and the loathing with which the upper classes held the carnival of the people. : “At midnight I was woken up by the sound of several horns and numerous cries coming from all sections of La Brea. It was the beginning of Carnival. On Sunday everything is quiet. Carnival starts by what they call the Cannes Brûlées. From the time of slavery fire was often started in the fields of cane by the slaves who had complaints against their masters or the overseers. It is a fact of this kind which they want to recall. Some negroes place themselves at a certain distance one from the other at different entrances to the area. These are the ones who have the horns with which they sound the alarm.

Shouts answer them from within the village. From all sides negroes appear, some armed with sticks, others carrying on their heads what they are known to have most precious (utensils). All run towards a central point where there are other negroes who have lighted torches and who simulate a field of cane on fire. Then sticks, rags, anything that comes to hand serves to put out the fire. It is impossible to get an idea of the disorder which takes place at that time.

A certain number receive severe blows. More than once blood has been spilled because what begins as a farce nearly always finishes in a tragic fashion because of the drunkeness of the participants. They are nearly all masked or have some sort of disguise for this sport of cannes brûlées. The kind of frenzy which takes possession of them, the abominable dances to which they give themselves up, the cries of the beasts of prey which they utter, the hideous masks which they have on their faces, the clash of the batons, the noise of the knives which many carry in their belt, sometimes the cries of distress of the unfortunates gravely wounded, all that in the light of the torches carried by more than half of these negroes, produces a spectacle both frightening and truly diabolic. On Monday and Tuesday the roads are full of people masked or disguised. Nearly always they divide in many bands which provoke each other and come to battle in which usually blood flows.”

In 1868 legislation was introduced to make the carrying of lighted torches an offence.

Something had to give and during the 1880’s the Canboulay gave. The mardi gras went into the ascendancy and, at least on the streets maintained that ascendancy for decades after, though not quite being able to snuff out the Canboulay.

In 1878 and 1879, the infamous police chief captain Baker had strictly controlled the carnival and made stick-fighting very difficult. The police made pre-emptive arrests of known band leaders. In 1880, Baker went for the jugular. He called for the surrender of sticks, torches and drums. Catching the bands by surprise the carnival passed peacefully.

The Port of Spain Gazette an upper class newspaper had this to say: “The Carnival of 1880, as of the past few years, unlike the Saturnalia of former times, brings back with it the agreeable duty of congratulating the Police upon the gradual success with which their efforts are being attended each year towards the entire extinction of all that is most objectionable and shocking in our Shrovetide orgies.

A serious inroad has this year been made into the enemy's stronghold by the deathblow which has been so judiciously dealt to the institution popular­ly known by the name of Can-boule. Of the two most objectionable features of Masquerade here, blood-shed and obscenity, the chances of the former have happily been reduced to a minimum. The savage hordes who used to do most of the fighting, have capitulated to Captain Baker's terms, the most important stipulation of which was that they should surrender their sticks, drums, and flambeaux.

It never­theless required the activity and bravery of the Inspector­ Commandant, assisted by Acting Inspector Concannon and Sergeant-Major Brierly, on horseback throughout the two days, to prevent disorderly conduct and rioting on a small scale wherever and whenever a fray was expected by the eager multitude, which throngs each corner of the streets to the East of the Town as stand-points of observation on these two days. Thither and then, with mathematical precision, would Captain Baker or one of his assistants, ride up in time to dis­appoint the combatants. These tactics were repeated with the punctuality of a previous rendez-vous; and with the exception of harmless skirmishing here and there, the wishes of those who expected hard fighting were not gratified.”

It is instructive that the columnist used words like “enemy’s stronghold” and “savage hordes” to describe the masses and yet there are those who claim not to see the pursuit of class struggle as being central to the attitude towards Canboulay. The upper classes thought that the Canboulay had been suppressed, but there was life still left as 1881 would prove.

The masses organised for the 1881 carnival. The leading bands in Port of Spain united and agreed not to fight one another, but to organise against the police. Poui sticks were prepared and houses in Duke, Charlotte, George, Duncan, Queen and Prince Streets were prepared as depositories for bottle and stones. The barrack yards of East Port of Spain prepared for the battle. Individuals and bands from outside of the city were drafted in to strengthen the mass forces. By Carnival Sunday tout moun knew that a great battle was in the offing. In the words of the historian of the French Creole, Roman Catholic priest, Anthony De Verteuil,”…the people felt that if their traditional right to play to was thwarted then they had a right to fight against the alien authorities.”

Canboulay Riots Re-enactment, Trinidad Carnival 2010

That famous figure in the labour, political and cultural history of Trinidad and Tobago, Lennox Pierre said in an interview with Tony Hall: “J.D. Elder and I were fortunate to meet an old lady [Frances Edwards] in 1954 at 87 years of age, and she gave us this eyewitness account of the Canboulay Riots. What had, in fact, happened was that Captain Baker, who was the Superintendent of Police at the time, had attacked the Canboulay revelers in 1880 and taken away their torches. And in 1881 the Canboulay revelers prepared for Baker.

According to the eyewitness account Edwards gave, the Canboulay revelers from districts outside Port of Spain came into Port of Spain. And you had a Neg Jardin stickband that took the length from Medical Corner at the corner of Park Street and Tragarete Road, [i.e.) Park Streets and St Vincent Streets, right down St Vincent Street into Park Street. When twelve midnight struck that year, 1881, the Canboulay revelers moved out from the Medical Corner and the band moved in darkness and without drums. And the old lady told us how there was an old patois woman at the front of the band. And she called out

“Mssrs, Captain Baker et tout I'homme" (and all his men), "au cour de la rue" (at the corner of the street, just about where All Stars steel orchestra have their headquarters now.) And at that signal the fellows light their torches and start up the drums and went for Baker. The story that she gave ... was that the Canboulay revelers swept the ground with the police.”

The authorities beat a tactical retreat and the people celebrated the rest of the carnival in triumphalist spirit. While Port of Spain celebrated Tuesday in peace, there were disturbances in Couva. But it was the beginning of the end. In 1882, while no attempt was made to suppress the Canboulay, two Warships were stationed in the harbour; troops and volunteers were on full alert; the fire brigade was ready; plans for evacuating the governor were made; special magistrates had to stay at their posts; government officials were under arms and surgeons were ready to deal with the wounded. There was no violence .Bandleaders called for peace and the carnival passed peacefully.

In 1883, Canboulay reverted to type and there were clashes in Port of Spain between bands representing English speaking West Indian immigrants and Patois speakers. It is said that the police protected the immigrants and instigated attacks on the patois speakers.

In 1884, an ordinance was passed giving the Governor power to prohibit public torch processions, drum beating, any dance or procession and any disorderly assembly of ten or more persons armed with stick or other weapons and the playing of musical instruments before 6:00 in the morning of carnival Monday. This was the death knell of the Canboulay. Heavy military preparations were made involving the mobilisation of special constables, the calling up of volunteers and the military. Police were issued with firearms and British marines were on call on the HMS Dido in the harbour. Squads of men were located throughout the city. The Carnival was locked down in Port of Spain, but in San Fernando, Couva and Princes Town there were great battles against the colonial police and masqueraders were shot and killed.

The historian Bridget Brereton summed up the aftermath as follows: “The purging of carnival proceeded slowly in the years after 1884. The general consensus about the government's new policy was that it had succeeded, despite the bloodshed in the south. Canboulay was for ever abolished, and so were the large stick bands and the band fighting. In 1890-1 the control over the festival was extended by a proclamation prohibiting the throwing of missiles, including flour, at onlookers. Another new regulation in 1893 was that persons intending to mask as Pierrots had to register with the police in advance. Steelband players on the road today still have to register with the police. … The Daily News quoted approvingly the words of the Chief Justice that the carnival was a disgrace, and that "in two days the whole year's work of the clergy and the schoolmasters was destroyed" … the carnival regulations for 1895 added a new clause: it was illegal for persons to appear masked "in the dress or costume commonly called and known as Pisse en Lit.

As a result there was none of the grosser obscenity in the 1895 carnival, very little transvestism, and only a handful of obscenity arrests. The way was clear for the respectable classes to re-enter carnival, and for the festival to develop slowly into a "national" event. Clear signs of this movement can be seen between 1885 and 1900. In the former year a "relatively large number" of respectable persons felt safe enough to mask and play in the streets. Citizens of worth were seeing people they knew playing masked. Three years later there was a small band of courtiers whose "propriety and reserve stamped them gentlemen in the midst of the surging mass of coarser masqueraders. There was a lady among them"

By about 1890 businessmen were beginning to realize the commercial benefits of carnival, especially for the dry goods stores. College boys and store clerks began to organize bands. In the late 1890s Ignacio Bodu, a borough councillor and patron of carnival and calypso, organized competitions for "pretty" bands in Port of Spain……The decision to end the two features of the carnival which were most enjoyed by the jamettes, band fighting and Canboulay, was taken by the government response to pressure from the middle class, and their own reaction to the carnival.

The decision was carried out by force in 1881 and in 1884, and both times the maskers resisted, in 1884 with fatal results. Once the fighting and the Canboulay had been forcibly put down, the middle class turned its attention to public indecency, and this was largely suppressed by 1895, again by police action …. It was only then, after carnival had been licked into the shape they wanted, that "respectable" persons began to participate… the jamette carnival was purged, controlled, remade, and "social incorporation" of the middle and even upper strata into the festival began (or resumed). The dialectical relation­ship between carnival's anarchic elements (including violence and obscenity) and the push to control and sanitize it would continue and develop in the twentieth century”. The Canboulay, it seemed, had suffered a decisive defeat. But appearances can be deceptive!

The carnival began to succumb to the blandishments of capitalist commerce – sponsorship of bands, paid competitions, the re-entry of the “respectable” bourge…”college boys” organising bands, attempts to sanitise and control the thrust of the Canboulay – pre-figurations of what the Steelband movement went through in the fifties and sixties

Although, the Canboulay went into retreat, it did not die, but was forced to change its form. With the restrictions on drums, the masses developed the tambour bamboo. The stickfighting retreated, in large part, to the barrack yards and began to revolve around individuals and not bands. Drumming continued, but it did so more in the environment of Orisha feasts and off the carnival streets. Of course, there were numerous occasions when the restrictions were defied and torch lit crowds roamed the streets on carnival Sunday night and there were occasions when bands clashed as of old.

  Tamboo Bamboo

The use of bamboo was not peculiar to Trinidad. It occurred in West Africa and was utilised in other Caribbean islands and in Venezuela. The bamboo bands used three basic instruments – the boom (bass); foulé (mid-range) and cutter – of different lengths and thicknesses. The boom was struck on the ground. The foulé was struck end to end and the cutter was struck with a stick. Of course there were variations on this basic framework. The boom could also be struck with a stick and thus produce more than one pitch. An essential part of the tamboo bamboo band was the bottle and spoon, which sometimes were filled with different levels of water to produce different tones, foreshadowing the tuned drums that made up the steelband. The bands also used shakshaks and scraping instruments which were akin to the scratchers used in the modern steelband. The bands did not play melodies, but they did have a range of tones and produced polyrhythms as a foundation for call and response singing by the chantwells who led the bands and their choruses.

The barrack yards that spawned the kalinda band, now housed the tamboo bamboo bands and the spirit of the Canboulay lived on.

The decline of the Canboulay marked the increasing influence of the small professional middle class that struggled for leadership of the masses. This class had its genesis in the Coloured middle class of the nineteenth century. During the attacks on the Canboulay they adopted a seemingly contradictory position. They supported the position that the Canboulay was violent and obscene and a degenerate festival of the lowly ex-slaves, but they defended the festival against the attempts by the colonial masters to suppress and eliminate it on the grounds that it was a Trinidadian festival.

This reflected the in-betwixt and in-between social position of this class. It is they whose interests are reflected in the all ah we is one position today and it is their interests that are served by presenting themselves as the “true Trinidadians”. Around the turn of the century they began to exert political influence over the African masses and the history of the twentieth century is a history of the unity and struggle between them and the masses against colonialism and for political hegemony in the society. But that is a story for another time…another forum.

The working class movement took off after the First World War and reached a tremendous high point in the period 1935-1937 which is a seminal period in the modern political history of T&T. The anti-colonial insurrections and general strikes of 1919 and 1937 ushered in the period of bourgeois democracy and eventually led to independence and neo-colonialism. It is no co-incidence that this is the very period when the modern Steelband came into being. At the very time that the working class was fashioning the trade union and political instruments to carry its interests forward it was fashioning the Steelband to carry its cultural interests forward.

Let us be clear. There are a lot of ‘nancy stories’ going around about how somebody in a tamboo bamboo band snatch up some old pan on the roadside during carnival in the thirties and it sound good and gradually take over the carnival and about which band invent Pan and which man invent Pan. History is much more complex than that.

The truth is metal percussion is widespread in Africa and the “New World”. Bells, iron cymbals and hoe blades have been used widely as percussion instruments. Antigua is famous for its iron bands. There are reports of tin kettles being beaten on the streets in the 1848 Canboulay. There are reports of olive oil containers being used post-emancipation and that large biscuit drum basses were in use in the early tamboo bamboo bands post-1881. By 1912, bamboo bands included old tin pans, graters, pot covers, pitch oil tins (favourite percussion of the diable molassi), tubs, triangles, buckets and bottles and the knockabout sailors of the twenties and thirties (who deserve a study of their own) used chamber pots as costume and as percussion.

During the 1930’s metal containers appeared more frequently and the balance shifted in their favour over the bamboo as time passed. Metal was more durable than bamboo. It gave out a more intense sound. It possessed a wider tonal range. Bamboo often shredded and had to be discarded during the course of the day. Metal was more at hand and was easy to acquire and metal had the capacity to be tuned. While this was recognised for hundreds of years, the genius of the Steelband lay in that it created a mechanism for the metal to preserve its tuned notes. It is on this foundation that the increasing sophistication of Pan developed.

Trinidad and Tobago

What is clear is that the transition toward the Steelband took place in the late thirties and that what differentiated the Pan from previous percussion agglomerations is that Pan is a percussion instrument that began to play simple melodies and through a process of creative experimentation from the late thirties to today has developed not an instrument but a family of instruments capable of playing the most complex melodies and chords. The thirties was the period of transition. Research into the period of the thirties shows that, once we put away our big city bias, the transition to the Steelband was taking place all over the island. Newspapers which reported on the 1937 and 1938 carnivals are replete with stories about the use of metal instruments in Tunapuna, San Fernando, Arima and Princes Town. By 1940, Pan had become according to one commentator “a clearly identifiable part of carnival festivity”

By 1941, steel bands had begun to dominate, particularly in Port of Spain, although there were still a range of bands that were semi-steel and not yet all steel. The British banned the carnival from 1942-1945 as a danger to the war effort. Interestingly the leader of the nascent workers’ movement which came to the fore in 1937, Uriah Butler, was held in detention for the duration of the war for the very same reason.

The original steelbandsmen came through the tamboo bamboo experience and the panyards were the original yards of the bamboo bands. Meadow Williams, an early Pan pioneer in San Fernando says that his Grandmother and Great Uncle played mas with the bamboo band situated at the corner of Coffee and Drayton streets, where Windsor Hall was located. “It had a big open yard in the back. Even as a lil fella from 8 years I beating bamboo.” It was known as German Camp.

Meadow was born in 1926, so he spans the period from bamboo into Steelband. He further states that there were two other bamboo yards in San Fernando – one on the Wharf and the other at Tollgate (corner of Cipero and Rushworth Streets), a historic spot where in 1884 the colonial authorities massacred indentured workers who came into Sando with their Hosay which was banned by the colonial government. According to Meadow, Bamboo bands in San Fernando only died out in 1946. Interestingly Meadow Williams says that he used to play tassa for Hosay and credited that experience for helping with his technique in the early pan round de neck days.

While Pan developed all over the island, Port of Spain was undoubtedly the centre of innovation and development. Meadow says that Tall Boy, Julian Benjamin, befriended him and introduced him to the burning of pans. He took Meadow to Port of Spain, to Hell Yard where he met Fish Eye, the legendary leader of what became Trinidad All Stars. He recalls that all day pan was being beaten, dice was being rolled and cards being played. Meadow says there was ping pong with 4 notes, kittle, grumbler, boom, biscuit drum and bugle. They played a tune called This Gun for Hire. He spent three days at Hell Yard and tried his hand at all the pans. He was still a minor. He started going to Port of Spain “regular” and he got a pan from Fish Eye. He began to tune; played Mary had a little lamb and put in an extra note on the pan. He played old bamboo tunes like Fire Brigade and Brown Girl. He said when he thought he had made progress with his tuning, the guys in town had already been there and done that.

While the bamboo players morphed into steelbandsmen, the development of pan brought a whole new cohort of youth onto the centre stage. They had no connection with the bamboo. They were infants at the beginning of the war and were young teenagers by the time the war had ended. They were fascinated by the new instrument and plunged into it wholeheartedly.

Angus “Stranger” Lalsingh one of the famous Lalsingh brothers (the others were Kenrick and Steve) of the Fighting Sea Bees speaks of the children in Mon Repos, San Fernando, six seven and eight years old being fascinated during the war by the new instrument. They used to pick up any metallic object and beat the hell out of it as they saw the older guys in bands like Bataan on the Coffee; Pearl Harbour (Meadow’s band) on the wharf and Free French in the Bideau.

The captain of Bataan, a noted bad john named Teddy gave them a ping pong, a pan that was pressed upward, no more than six notes and held in one hand while beaten with the other. Lalsingh says: “a lot of people in the area use to complain about the noise…” “Miss Taitt used to get vex and at one time throw down all the pans in a big canal down the hill.”

Miss Taitt was the mother of Nerlin (Lin)Taitt, one of the most skilful panmen to come out of Sando, a man who had a profound effect on the shaping of Reggae music and who is a leading jazz musician in North America. Lalsingh continues: “…we used to thief pans, rubbish pans; people couldn’t put out rubbish pan in the area…as we thief them we used to paint them overnight… Nerlin Taitt is the first among us who started to tune pan. We try and try from we own experiences because nobody had time with anybody…so we developed our own thing through Nerlin…”

Lalsingh’s testimony was just a variation on a theme that was being played out throughout the country. The youth, during the war invested a lot of effort and energy into developing the Pan, so that by the time the steelbands hit the streets on VE and VJ days in 1945, the Steelband of 1940 was a distant memory and a whole new world had begun to open up for this latest vanguard of the Canboulay, which over the next thirty years moved back into ascendancy over the Mardi Gras against, once again, police attacks and the disapproval of the newly ascendant professional middle classes.

The cycle was being repeated yet again. If you can’t defeat them, co-opt them. The businessmen moved in; the middle classes joined the movement to attempt to steer it in their direction; the commoditisation of cultural expression began to sideline the new vanguard of the Canboulay on the fringes of the carnival and boxed it into the Panorama syndrome, at once a boon for Pan as an instrument and a lethal blow for Pan as a movement.

The story of the track taken by the Steelband movement from the 1940’s to today is, in essence, no different to the story of the nineteenth century Canboulay, except that conditions had changed to that of an increasingly moribund, increasingly dysfunctional capitalism that turns all human relationships into a commercial nexus.; one that says carnival is colour and colour is Kodak; one that pretends that pretty mas is what carnival is all about and steupses and frowns when steelbands come on to the road at carnival and grumbles that ent panorama gone…like dey ent see dey holdin’ back the big truck…

This article is not geared to examining in detail the process of the struggle to survive of the early steelbands, the victory of the modern vanguard of the Canboulay as the country hurtled toward independence on a frenzied wave of baseless optimism, and the increasing pressure that the movement has been forced to endure over the last thirty years as the old enemy transformed itself into more insidious forms. Some of these forms include the planting of false consciousness within the movement itself and the growing influence of the neo-colonial state on the cultural expressions of the masses to ensure that it conforms with the face of modern imperialism under the smoke screen of a so-called globalisation that in its frenetic effort to survive subsumes man’s cultural treasures to its function of capital accumulation and concentration at all costs.

Maybe a detailed examination of this period should be undertaken just as a profound look at the struggles of the Indo working class from Hosay to Indian Arrival Day must be done to understand the role of culture in sustaining the children of the indentured who, like the children of the slaves, fought tremendous battles to survive on the cultural front and who at the very time when their cultural forms are becoming more sophisticated, its content is becoming more banal. In the final analysis, aren’t we all children of the plantation?

Gerry Kangalee

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