Hells Gate Steel Orchestra
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The group began as a Housecoat Band in 1945. The instruments then used were automotive clutch housings, hollowed pipes, biscuit cans, pieces of iron, etc. They were obtained from Townsend’s Blacksmith shop on Mariner’s Lane (now the only existing Blacksmiths shop on the island), and also from the then-main solid waste dump, which was called “Dung Heap” by the people of the Point Area.
In 1946, the transformation of the Oil Drum to the Steel Pan was done locally, having begun in Trinidad. Experiments were carried out at Townsend’s Blacksmith Shop and the burning of the pans was done at the “Dung Heap”, where fire was always available. The people of the Point Area gave the name “Hells Gate” to the Band. The name was chosen mainly because of the loud noise and variety of rhythmic beats produced from the instruments used. The official naming of the Band was done in 1947. Hells Gate’s first captain was Eugene Weston and the first manager was Ivan Edwards.
Eustace ‘Manning’ Henry a pioneer member, former captain, builder and tuner, along with his son, Veron Henry, the band’s vice-captain, are presently the builders and tuners of the Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra.
The first Steel band competition was held in 1949. The venue was the St. John’s Girl’s School, then located on the site of the present Economic Development Building, at the corner of Independence Avenue and Queen Elizabeth Highway. Governor Earl Baldwin of Bewdley sponsored this inaugural competition. The test tune was ‘Peanut Vendor,’ and Hells Gate emerged winner. Red Army of Green Bay/Gray’s Farm was second, and Brute Force of the “Bridge” area was third.
Steel band music was used as accompaniment for calypsonians in the early days. In 1957, Hells Gate Steel Orchestra provided accompaniment for eight (8) of the nine calypsonians while Brute Force accompanied by Hells Gate Steel Orchestra.
During the late 40’s the steel band movement was strong opposed by most of the aristocrats on the island of Antigua. They even went as far as to send petitions to the then-governor, Governor Baldwin, to outlaw the bands. Were it not for Governor Baldwin, who himself was a steel band enthusiast and a friend of the “grassroots people, along with the Antigua Trades and Labor Union, headed by the Rt. Hon. Dr Vere Cornwall Bird, Sr., who at the time was the Union’s President, and also The Worker’s Voice newspaper which was the mouth piece for the “Grass Root People”, the steel band may have long been extinct.
Cable and Wireless Hells Gate has also made financial contributions and material donations to such institutions as the Red Cross, Black Burn Ward (Holberton Hospital), Children Ward (Holberton Hospital), and the Adele School for Special Children. The band also performed at the Fines Institute (institution for the homeless), The Mental Hospital, Conference of Rotary International and many other fund raising activities for charitable causes, free of charge. Also financial contributions were given to fire victims.
Presently there are two bands on the island that are offspring of Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra. They are Harmonites International Steel Orchestra and Supa Stars International Steel Orchestra.
Between 1949-1960 the band made annual tours to St. Thomas and St. Croix U.S.V.I., St. Kitts and Nevis. At the end of one of its tours to St. Thomas, two band members decided to remain there. They were Bruce “Fundoo” Blood man and Alexander Roberts. While in St. Thomas they built a band which was named The Charlotte Amalie High Shooting Stars steel band.
In 1959 the band visited Trinidad, 1964 - U.S.A.: New York- World’s Fair, 1966 - U.S.A.: St. Louis, Missouri and Tampa, Florida; 1968 - Canada: Toronto- Caribana, Montreal; 1971 - U.S.A.: Minneapolis, Minnesota; 1976 - Montserrat; 1991 - Mexico: Mexico City, Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres; August 1992 - U.S.A.: Rochester and Manhattan. During this trip the band performed in a parade on main street Rochester, Factory outlet Mali, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Redwing Baseball stadium, the United Nations Library Auditorium and at the Church of the Crucifixions N.Y.
Also in 1992 - September: West Germany, Interboot Friedrichshafen; performances at the boat fair, Lindau Inseihalle, Mainau Island, Ball at Grafzeppelin Haus and the Hohentwiel-Ship on The Lake Constance. In February of 1997, the band members were invited to Aruba N.A., to assist in the revival of steel band music on the island. The instruments were built on Aruba by Eustace “Manning” Henry and his son Verona Henry; they had to demonstrate to the Arubans by performing on the instruments. As a result of the members’ performance and follow-up workshops, the Arubans started a Steel Band Academy.
Bertha Higgins, a qualified musician who resided at St Mary’s House on St. Mary’s was the first person to teach the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra from music, This was during the late forties.
In 1949, the Hon Edmond Hawkins Lake volunteered to be the president of the first Steel Band association. Hells Gate Steel Orchestra and Brute Force Steel Orchestra were the two most popular Steel Bands then.
In 1954, the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra was part of historic demonstration. This was the first time an English Cricket Team visited Antigua and Len Hutton, hailed at that time as the world’s best batsman, was part of the English Team. Antigua’s Hurbert Anthonyson, hailed as the best fast bowler in the Leeward Islands was not selected to be part of a team which was selected from amongst the Leeward Islands.
The excuse for Anthonyson’s non-selection was not accepted by the grassroots people on the island thus a massive demonstration resulted. The Trade Union, The Worker’s Voice Newspaper and other local groups took part in the demonstration, Hells Gates Steel Orchestra was asked to support the demonstration, and they did so.
Hells Gate’s involvement was reported to Governor Blackburn and as a result of this he never again invited the band to perform at Government House during the rest of his tenure of governor. Governor Blackburn was very much unlike Governor Baldwin his predecessor.
In 1950 Hells Gate Steel Orchestra was the first steel band to perform a church in Antigua. The band performed at the St, Peter’s Anglican Church in Parham Town. Since then the band has performed in other churches throughout the island, viz. Roman Catholic, Methodist, Moravian, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, etc. The band has also performed at schools and for charitable organizations. Performances at churches, schools and for charitable organizations are for free.
In 1955, The Hells Gates Steel Orchestra performed for Princess Margaret at the Government House. Her visit coincided with the dedication of the Princess Margaret School, The band also performed at Clarence House in English Harbour.
In 1960, Princess Margaret returned to Antigua. This was the same year she got married. Hells Gate Steel Orchestra performed again at Government House and at Royal Cove Beach,
On March 2nd 1960, Sir Winston Churchill arrived in Antigua on The Yacht Christina, owned by Onassis. The yacht was docked at Nelson’s Dockyard. Hells Gate Steel Orchestra performed on the Christina.
The Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra is the oldest existing steel orchestra in the world. This can be attributed to the strong determination of the pioneers of the band, and also that of the present membership to keep the steel band as an integral part of our cultural heritage.
The band has had the support of the Hotel Industry by means of providing entertainment for tourists. Also over the years both local and foreign entrepreneurs have provided financial and moral support for the band. The West Indies Oil Company had provided sponsorship during the early half of the 1970’s. Cable and Wireless Antigua and Barbuda had been the band’s sponsor since August 1st 1989.
It must be noted too that prior to the West Indies Oil Company’s sponsorship, and also before our longest-serving sponsor Cable and Wireless Antigua and Barbuda took on the sponsorship of the band, many small businesses did come to the assistance of the band viz. The New Look Store (St. Mary’s St.), Askas Shop (The Point), Destin’s Hardware Store (The Point), Robert’s Constructions, Maurice J. Michael, Joseph Dews Ltd, to name a few.
In 1978 the band performed at the opening of the Economic Development Building. Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh were present.
The first steel band competition was in 1949 which was won by Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra. The band went on to win every other competition which was held. 1958, was when carnival officially began and the years that the band won are as follows: 1958, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1967, 1976, 1990, 1991, 2002, 2006, and 2007. [*2018 note: The band has additionally won the title in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018].
Due to the fact that the Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra was a force to reckon with, it’s main rival Brute Force Steel Orchestra in 1967, hired a Trinidadian pan builder to build their instruments. This was the first time any band hired a builder from outside of Antigua. To date, the Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra, is the only steel orchestra that has maintained all Antiguan builders, tuners and arrangers on the island.
Clarence Simon served as manager from November 1980 to February 1997. Since then all the band’s affairs are being handled by its executive committee of which Stafford Joseph (Captain/Secretary), Veron Henry (Vice-Captain), Alston Henry (Treasurer), Devonson David (assistant Treasurer), and Gene Roberts (Public Relations Officer).
The Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra has had the privilege of working with such renowned musical composers and arrangers as Foster Hill, Knolly Hill, Haggi Daud, “Jagger” Martin (fmr. member), Donald “Iceman” Weston (fmr. member), Mussington “Mussy” Joseph, Rufo Odor (Aruba), Winston Bailey, Yvonne Maginley and Alan “Cannon” Michael who is presently the band’s composer and arranger. *
Presently the band has contractual engagements with the department of Tourism, Club Antigua (guest entertainment and weddings) and from time to time can be called to perform at parties, weddings and just about any function where music is required.
Source: In Tune With Pan magazine, publication of the Cultural Development Division - Ministry of Education, Human Development & Culture, Antigua & Barbuda, W.I. 2008
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