Cordell “Spongy” Barbour - Steelpan Great

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BIO of Cordell “Spongy” Barbour

written/submitted by Kathryn Barbour, his wife from 1979 to 1992
images provided by K. Barbour

Cordell "Spongy" Barbour
Cordell “Spongy” Barbour

On August 16, 1941, Cordell Delano Barbour was born in John-John, Trinidad, the firstborn child of Julitha Barbour and George Masanto. He was named after the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Cordell Hull, and the U.S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From an early age, he clashed with his father and was sent to be reared by his grandmother in John-John. The war years were hard, and his grandmother was poor. He remembered often being hungry and as an adult, would stress to others that no one could know of hunger by reading about it. They had to experience it.

He attended the Eastern Boys Primary School and Tranquility Secondary School, where his marks reflected a brilliant mind in pursuit of precision and perfection. Recognizing his promise, upon graduation the Coast Guard recruited him, but it was a decision they would soon regret as he honed his argumentative skills against any authority he found unworthy of his obedience.

But as a young child at school, Cordell could hear the steel band practicing, and soon followed the sound to the panyard. This dismayed his grandmother, who at one point “pantsed” him--hiding his pants to keep him from going out. Cordell wrapped a towel around himself and slipped away, nonetheless.

He gravitated to pan before it was accepted, when it was an instrument of and by the poor, early in its evolution and refinement. There, in the chaos and turbulence of creation and invention, he found the love of his life.

Cordell taught himself to read music, and taught others to do it. Concurrently, he taught himself to sink, groove and tune, and tried his hand with arrangements. He emerged as a classical soloist of the first order, playing Bach (Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring), Chopin (Minute Waltz) and Beethoven (Fur Elise), among others. In the 60s he made frequent appearances on TTT’s (Trinidad & Tobago Television) “Scouting for Talent” show, soloing on a double tenor or an Invaders soprano pan.

Cordell played with steelbands Tokyo, then City Symphony, arranging  “Moonlight Serenade” in 1964. He also played with the All-Stars, was a captain and did some arranging.

When members of the All-Stars were chosen in 1968 to go on a tour of the U.S., Cordell was devastated to find his name not on the list. If musicianship had been the only criteria, it was an obvious omission. Most likely diplomacy and predictability were also heavily weighted in the selection, but whether because of Cordell’s politics, his outspokenness, or the possibility that he might jump ship once he got to the States, the effect was to compel him even more powerfully forward.

The photo below, taken in the early 70s, shows Cordell on the porch of his grandmother’s house, now painted with his messages to the people, in the spirit of the 1970 Black Power Movement in Trinidad and Tobago. It was one of several photos he brought with him from Trinidad that he showed me (Kathryn) soon after we met in San Francisco in September of 1979.

Cordell "Spongy" Barbour on the porch of his grandmother's house
Cordell on the porch of his grandmother’s house

I took the following picture the day we met, on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, USA. It was one of three great photos, but in two of them, Patrick Prescod, the friend who introduced us, was in the middle of the crowd signaling frantically with his eyes for me to STOP TAKING PICTURES (so as not to upset Cordell).


Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco

As a street musician, Cordell fascinated visitors to Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square in San Francisco. For the next 15 years, he made and tuned his own instruments, and made pans for sale, both single and double tenors, for bands in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere in California, and in other states.

Cordell fascinated visitors to Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square in San Francisco
Cordell fascinated visitors to Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square in San Francisco

Cordell giving a private concert to my friends Patti and Sam.

Cordell giving a private concert
Cordell giving a private concert

Although Cordell’s greatest moments of recognition for his artistry and vibrant energy were forever surrendered with his departure from Trinidad and Tobago, the pattern of achievement against apparently insurmountable obstacles would remain in place throughout his life, even to the end.

Cordell lived in San Francisco from 1979 to summer 1984, then in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1984 to 1988. His assessment of each city was the same two words: “Place dead.” He got his green card in 1985, and we visited his family in Trinidad. Once there, I could see what he meant. The culture was lively and dynamic, like the weather. It was vital. From Cleveland we made frequent trips to New York City and Brooklyn, and one year went to Brooklyn’s Carnival, where I took the following photo.

 Cordell “Spongy” Barbour at Brooklyn’s Carnival
 Cordell “Spongy” Barbour at Brooklyn’s Carnival

We visited panists in Toronto and Minnesota. On a visit to Clifford Alexis one winter, he lost it as he watched Cordell tune his pan in the next room. “It’s in tune, dammit!” I heard him say, exasperated. The hammer paused but briefly, followed by a chuckle from Cordell, and “Eh? Just now...” as he resumed, working another 20 minutes on the note, then testing the adjacent notes before he stopped. Cordell visited the Panyard in Akron, Ohio. Panyard had a monthly magazine, and in 2002, would be the first to publish his poetry.

Returning to San Francisco in 1988, I rented a small house with a cavernous basement on a steep hill, which Cordell made his workshop. I grew used to the incessant sound of his tuning through 12 to 15-hour days. His workplace was immaculate. His hammers were artworks in themselves, well over a dozen in different sizes, with rounded heads polished smooth and handles cut short to reach all sides of the notes near the rim, from both top and bottom.

Cordell relocated to Austin, Texas, in 1993 and lived there for the next 24 years, until his death on February 13, 2018. He filed for and achieved U.S. citizenship in the early years of this century. By that time, his legs were already failing him, and he needed a scooter at first, and then a power chair, to get around. Luckily, Austin had a handicapped-accessible bus that could pick him up for shopping if he called 24 hours in advance to schedule a trip.

We talked on the phone frequently, and from his ground floor, wheelchair accessible apartment, he always expressed the same desire, to have a place where he could “pound pan.” Even with his disability, he kept his home and himself spotlessly clean. His mind never faltered, nor did he lose his sense of humor and positive outlook.

Throughout his life, Cordell kept his own counsel and his cardinal rule was to be true to himself. He was scrupulously honest, ascetic in his tastes, managing his resources well enough to play the lottery each week. He was generous when he could be, and encouraging to those in need, especially children. In his interactions with those around him, whether friends or family, casual acquaintances, or strangers encountered in passing, he shared his truth when it was asked of him, with conviction, eloquence and humor, in words not easily forgotten. In this respect, his gifts were legion--bestowed in daily life upon whomever he met, wherever he lived, over the years.

One night in 2014, while Cordell was crossing a street in his chair, an SUV making a left turn hit him in the crosswalk, throwing him onto the road and totaling his power chair. Alone he waged a two-year struggle to replace his chair, and finally won, but by then his right arm was weakening and his right hand was losing its ability to grip.

My last visit to him was in early December 2017. I came to help him, but he told me he needed no help, cooked rice and chicken for us, and put out a plate on the front porch for the neighborhood cats. His freezer was crammed with unopened Meals on Wheels trays that he would not eat. But a month later, when Meals on Wheels Austin called me in San Francisco to say he did not answer the door, I phoned the police to check on him. They found him unconscious and called an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

Seton Hospital personnel could not comprehend how he had managed, living alone.

His daughter, Donna, began a weekend rotation to his bedside from her home in San Jose. We were so relieved to finally have Cordell in the hospital. However, four surgeries failed to fix his problem, and he was moved to hospice a month after his admission, where he lived only days before passing on February 13, 2018. A brick in the Hospice’s courtyard bears his name, and is to date his only memorial.

see Cordell “Spongy” Barbour’s Poetry...

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