The Bahamas and the Steelpan Art Form
-- Cecil Dorsett
This is a brief account of how Pan came to the Bahamas, and the starting of the first all-Bahamian all-Steel Drum band.
From Skin Drums to Steel Drums—Trinidad, West Indies
In the twin Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, the cosmopolitan population traditionally observed the ascetic Catholic season of Lent, which spans the Eastertide, for forty days, starting with Ash Wednesday.
Canboulay, or the “Burning of the canes” custom, practiced by the descendants of African slaves, which took place on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, was a violent activity practiced among groups, accompanied with much beating on skin-headed drums; and continued through the Monday and Tuesday J’Ouvert street Carnival.
The Colonial Authorities regarded all that drumming with suspicion… as sending secret signals; and the skin drum was banned in 1848; but the drumming continued illegally until 1931, when it was banned completely.
By this time the various Canboulay/Carnival groups had become reformed into disciplined competitive bands, using various sizes of cut bamboo, struck with sticks, and referred to as Tamboo Bamboo. In 1935 this too was banned.
The revelers resorted to the use of pots and pans; biscuit tins; dust bins; kettles; caustic soda drums; and even the cut-off heavier 55-gallon oil drum; all struck with a stick or the palm of the hand. These were the instruments of choice until Carnival was discontinued during the years of the Second World War, 1939 to 1945.
It was during this time that discovery was made that the pitch, (sound) of a kettle drum could be changed; so that, by deliberately making dents in the drum, the tones doh, re, mi, and sometimes soh was produced. This drum was dubbed the “Ping- pong.”
This discovery is attributed to Winston “Spree” Simon, who is referred to as the “Father of the Steel Band.”
With the limited amount of notes, the early Pan-men played only simple Nursery Rhyme songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb;” and is the reason why it is the first song in my Instructions booklet, “First PAN Solos,” “The Circle of Fifths Everyone Can Play.”
By the time the war ended, due to the innovations and enthusiasm for the new instrument; and the interchange of ideas among the Pan-men, the ping pong had increased to 15 notes; and “Spree” who was in the vanguard of the invention, in the 1946 Carnival, to the amazement and enjoyment of spectators played “Ave Maria,” ‘The Bells Of St Mary’s,” and “God Save The King,” among other tunes.
During the War Years, the United States and Britain made a “Lend-Lease Agreement,” in which the Americans gave the British a much-needed 50 battleships, in exchange for the establishment of military bases in its overseas territories, extending from Nova Scotia in the North to Argentina in the South, and including the Bahamas and Trinidad-Tobago.
At the end of the War, the Americans left the Naval Base at Chaguaramas, Trinidad, leaving behind a large quantity of 55-gallon oil drums, which was already becoming a favourite among the pan makers.
In 1947, Elliot Mannette, instead of raising the face of a drum, as was previously done, hammered it in, making a concave surface; adding more notes, the edges of which was seamed with a cold chisel or nail punch. For this reason he is called the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum.”
With the proliferation of bands, big and small, all over Trinidad; the competitive spirit of Carnival; and the adding of corporate sponsors, there was an explosion of ideas, which sometimes overlapped; such that, with the absence of patents, one would be hard pressed to identify who was responsible for this or that particular thing which raised the identity of the steel band, from the novelty drum associated with the youth among the common folk, to its acceptance as Pan, the only percussion musical instrument invented in the 20th century.
In addition to it’s unique sound, the standardized “Circle-of-Fifths” Tenor Pan is like the manifestation of the “Circle-of-Fifths” discovered by Pythagoras, the ancient Greek Philosopher/mathematician who, working with strings, established what became the basis upon which the scales and modes of Western music was founded and developed. In fact, Pan is so “user friendly,” that it has the potential of replacing the piano in the teaching of music theory and composition, and is in increasing demand by teaching institutions and musicians all over the world.
In 1950, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, (TASPO), consisting of the best players among the band leaders was formed to go to England for the “Festival of Britain,” 1951.
Pan Comes to the Bahamas
In 1957, Dudley Smith, who had made a name for himself in Trinidad as a band leader and Tenor Pan soloist, was brought to the Bahamas by Mrs. Toothe, the widowed owner of the up-scale “Buena Vista Hotel and Restaurant,” located at Delancy Street. The band of eight performers went under the name “Katzenjammers.”
When their 3-year contract at the “Buena Vista” ended, they went to the “Royal Victoria Hotel and Gardens,” located at Shirley Street, where they performed in the “Silk Cotton Tree House” from 1960 to1962.
During this time at the “Royal Vic,” Joseph “Little Joe” Winder, became acquainted with them; (the set-drummer of Katzenjammers becoming his brother-in-law), learned from them, and was the first Bahamian to master the Steel Pan.
“Little Joe” and his “Calypsonians,” a Combo comprised of Tenor Pan, guitar, bass, and conga drums, replaced the Katzenjammers in the “Tree House” of the “Royal Vic,” when they went to the “Emerald Beach Hotel” on West Bay street, where they enjoyed two consecutive 3-year contracts.
Pan On Bay
In 1965, the West Indian community in Nassau, under the leadership of Chesterfield Moseley, a Terrazo flooring specialist from Trinidad, and Dudley’s Steel Band, at the New Year’s pre-dawn Junkanoo parade, gave the spectators a demonstration of the Trinidad Carnival.
They went to Bay Street as the “Great Indian Up-Rising;” the Katzenjammers with “Pan-round-the-neck” jamming the calypso song ‘Angelina.’
They made one lap of the parade route, then back to the Panyard at Fort Fincastle, taking a large portion of the crowd with them.
The First Bahamian Steel Band
On that day, January 1st 1965, the “First All-Bahamian All Steel Band” was born.
I (Cecil Dorsett) immediately went in search of barrels and colleagues to help in building the band.
That same year, an interesting development took place.
Because of some disagreement between Moseley and Dudley, on hearing that there was a Pan-side being formed in “The Grove,” Moseley came by our Panyard, asking if we would provide the band music for him on New Year’s Day 1966.
We embraced the opportunity to learn more alongside persons such as Vernon Deane and Franklyn Gibbs, (both from Katzenjammers), Leslie “Little Sparrow” Hoyte, an excellent Tenor Pan player and tuner from Barbados, Franklyn “Count Bernadino” Ellis, among others. So that year, there were two Carnival Mas groups on Bay Street: Moseley’s - as “The Aztecs,” and Dudley’s - as “Somewhere In Africa.”
Although the members of our band all had day jobs, we were busy with lots of parties, functions, Sunday brunches, and evening barbecues, starting with The Nassau Beach Hotel in March 1966.
Cecil Dorsett and the First Bahamian Steel Orchestra - 1967
Cecil Dorsett and the First Bahamian Steel Orchestra
The members of the band were:
Vernal Rolle—Second Tenor
Spence Deane – Second Pan
Kermit Bostwick—Second Pan
Cecil Dorsett—Lead Tenor/Tuner, Master Tuner & Master Musician
In August of 1968, we were introduced to Stanley Warner, a Pan tuner from Trinidad who told us at the time that, of all the Pan Tuners in Trinidad, he was among the top three.
Band in Canada, 1972
Stanley became my mentor, and was with the band when we went to the “Guildwood Inn” in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, for 3 months of the summer of 1972, playing for Dinner and Show.
Belgrave “Bill” Bonaparte came to Nassau in the early 1970s; and whether he played Calypsos, Pop, Broadway, or Movie Themes his nightly shows displayed such high level of musicianship, and rapport with his audience, that at the end of every presentation he would get a standing ovation!
As for me and the “First Bahamian Steel Orchestra,” I was able to adjust to the changing “temper of the times;” and thanks to the encouragement and confidence shown from friends, family, customers, and patrons, turned what started as passion for an interesting hobby, into a potentially growing business venture.
The tuning of Steel Pan Drums has progressed to such a state that when a note on a well-tuned drum is struck, it “rings.”
Actually, the human ear is hearing simultaneously, (according to the great Bertie Marshall), the fundamental and the octave of the note. A sound unlike that produced by any other musical instrument.
Going to AUTEC, U.S. Dorsett and Munroe with Stanley Warner
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A. 1971
In Grand Bahama, 1969
I salute the Pan Tuners of Trinidad (and elsewhere), who have—in one life-time—brought Pan from humble beginnings, to where it is the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and much sought after by Pan aficionados everywhere.
Cecil A. Dorsett--2015
Published with the expressed permission of Mr. Cecil Dorsett
Silver Cecil Dorsett performing Aria (J.S. Bach)
Leave a comment in the WST forum