Remembering Joseph Nathaniel Griffith and TASPO

by Roger Gibbs- Singer-Songwriter-Guitarist at Shak Shak

Provided by and published with the expressed permission of, the author

‘Everybody wondering how the steelband start

When you get to know, well it’s going to break your heart’

Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts)

Lt. Joseph Nathaniel Griffith
Lt. Joseph Nathaniel Griffith

The Grandmaster sang this classic calypso road march in 1975, a tribute to Winston ‘Spree’ Simon, anointing him the one “who invented pan”. This moving tribute should not be taken literally. It was in reality a plea from Kitch to his countrymen to show more generosity to the aging veterans of the steelband movement, of whom they were many, in particular, members of TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra). In 1951, TASPO hurriedly assembled the top tuners / players from various emerging steelbands in Trinidad and sent them to represent Trinidad & Tobago at the 1951 Festival of Britain Exhibition in London, U.K. TASPO members were all highly talented individuals worthy of high honour. Barely in their 20s, they were a few outstanding names – Ellie Mannette, Tony Williams, and of course, Winston ‘Spree’ Simon. What we do not generally know about this first initiative to represent Trinidad’s cultural identity internationally through the steelband, was that it was spearheaded by a Barbadian musical maestro – Joseph Griffith.

Joseph Nathaniel Griffith brought a vision and musical rigor to the steelband concept. In 1951, steelbands were basically rough musical percussion collectives, fit for street Carnival but little more. The top steelbands of the day were made up of a number of lead pans or ‘ping-pongs’. These lead pans played melodies in unison with limited alto versions adding a few harmony notes. The rest of the band was made up of biscuit tin drums with 2-3 notes each adding some basic lower parts and accompanied by an assorted percussion. The sound of this early steelband music was raucous, lively, spontaneous, polyphonic, polyrhythmic – but also very uneven in tones, lacking instrumental clarity and pitch, and with inconsistent balance and blend. Add to that, steelpan protagonists had reputations as hooligans and lawbreakers and were not considered respectable members of society. Band rivalries were fierce and violence was common when bands clashed. There was a deep stigma of shame and revulsion towards the steel drum community from the wider society, a legacy of colonial attitudes.

At this seminal moment in 1951, Joseph Griffith was brought to Trinidad to lead TASPO. He was recruited from St. Lucia where he was then working as Director of the St. Lucia Police Band. He had an impressive résumé and earlier on had spent many years in the 1930s and 40s in Trinidad teaching music, forming several musical groups and presenting concerts. He was a virtuoso musician who played sax and clarinet and with an extensive musical education. Griffith had spent his younger years cutting his teeth from 14 years old with the Barbados Police Band, and later in Harlem, New York in his 20s as a freelance musician. In addition to his stint in Trinidad, Griffith had a fascinating career leading bands and orchestras in Martinique and St. Vincent. Put in charge of TASPO, Griffith implemented a vision of the steelband we recognize today. He was a no-nonsense type of guy who was also known to love a drink and had a good sense of camaraderie. He transformed the ragtag sounding steel percussion band into a full Western European-styled concert orchestra. He took the street bacchanal steelband sound of the late 1940s and re-imagined it as a concert presentation.

TASPO Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra at the 1951 Festival of Britain
TASPO Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra at the 1951 Festival of Britain

To do this he needed instruments in each section that could play all the notes, pans which sounded more uniform and blended better. Here’s what happened. Working with gifted tuners from TASPO like Tony Williams, Ellie Mannette, Spree Simon, and others, over a few months he oversaw the creation of a whole new set of instruments in preparation for the group’s trip to London. The biscuit tins tune-booms were ditched and replaced by steel drums to provide fully functioning alto pans, cello pans with longer skirts were created to play tenor parts, and full-length drums were added to play the bass parts. When challenged by the tuners that a drum could only hold 3 or 4 bass notes, he suggested using several drums to create the bass pans we see today. He further insisted that all drums be tuned to concert pitch and not undetermined as before.

Even more significant, Griffith taught the members of TASPO music notation, and several learned how to read and write music. Later, when TASPO members came back from Europe with new-found international fame and returned to lead their respective bands across Trinidad, the knowledge they gained from Griffith’s leadership and tutoring was disseminated throughout the steelband movement. The sound of the steelband changed dramatically in a short period. This was the creation of the full steelband orchestra that became to new norm. This new type of steelband now exploded beyond the confines of the poor, disadvantaged black urban communities, and across class barriers. Attitudes towards the humble instrument quickly started to change for the better as people realized the potential of the steel drum. Griffith’s multi-part TASPO arrangements of musical styles – calypso, waltzes, rhumbas, marches, boleros – created a sensation in London and back in Trinidad. He created the template that subsequent steelpan arrangers copied and built upon.

Griffith returned to Barbados in the mid-50s and eventually became of the Director of the Barbados Police Band for a few years before his untimely death in 1966 at sixty. He tried to do similar developmental work in Barbados but his efforts were not appreciated because of his run-ins with officialdom and the negative class-attitudes towards steelpan, in spite of its wide popularity. Griffith was very progressive for the era. His style of playing was different from the more classically trained contemporaries in the Barbados Police Band. His years working in NYC, Martinique, Trinidad St. Lucia, St. Vincent and other islands had given his playing and arrangements a more cosmopolitan, jazzy flair. The younger members of the band loved him. Not so much so his more conservative colleagues. He was very blunt and used strong language at times which didn't help his cause with officialdom. According to one observer (A. Atkinson), Director Griffith brought brought the band's music alive and by introducing more calypso made it ‘relevant’.

His contribution to the development of the steelband orchestra in Trinidad was barely acknowledged and all praise was instead heaped on the local TASPO players who went on to become the leading stars in the heyday of the steelband movement in late 1950s and 60s in Trinidad. But it was Joseph Nathaniel Griffith who envisioned and created the steelband model we see today and who contributed enormously to the musical development of the early steelband.

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