published with the expressed permission of the author
My first knowledge of the man named “Jules” was when I heard my godmother, Norma Daniel, speak about him with reverence, as she considered whether to let her daughter Phyllis go for a ‘Las Lap’ jump on Carnival Tuesday night. “Las Lap” means the last jump with a band before Carnival ends on the Tuesday night. The period I speak of is the late 40s through to the early 50s, when some parents were very comfortable to let their children play ‘Mas’ with the band, simply because Neville Jules had a reputation for being firm with his charges and the band never got into fights. I was a little boy living on Edward Street, Port of Spain, at the time. Neville Jules was captain of the famous ‘Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra.’ He was a man who ruled with an iron fist. Jules instilled in those around him virtues like punctuality, respect for elders, grace in defeat and humility in victory.
It perhaps can be understood where Neville got his trait from merely looking at his youth. He was well schooled as he attended Gloster Lodge Moravian School, Eastern Boys School and Rosary Boys R.C. School. He was brought up with a sense of discipline.
I visited Neville recently, in Brooklyn, New York, to chat about his experiences in the Pan world. He said that his reputation of having an iron fist went way back. In earlier days, the majority of parents did not want their children associating with the band or the pan man. He said the parents were justified somewhat in thinking that way because in those days there were fights and riots among the steel bands. “Our band, ‘All Stars,’ was not into the rioting or fighting, so after a while, a number of people and their children joined the band. They felt safe because we had a lot of policemen in the band. Ours was the first band to go by police headquarters on St Vincent Street to serenade them on Carnival Tuesday night. Before that, other bands did not think of entertaining the police men and women, who were usually on duty and confined to Police Headquarters in downtown Port of Spain and so they had very little opportunity to see the Carnival. And so All Stars serenaded them. Soon after, the other bands in the neighborhood followed suit.”
Neville Jules said he originally came from Laventille, East Dry River, home of “Desperadoes Steel Band.” In those early years, there was no steel pan, only tamboo-bamboo. Around Christmas and Carnival time, the young men would go and cut the bamboo and perform with it on the streets. They would go from Laventille to Gonzalez, then over to John John, but everything was mostly on the hills at Christmas time. After New Year celebrations, they would discard the bamboo instruments, and the kids in the area would take them up and play. Whatever we saw them do, we did.”
As he spoke, he simply smiled wearing a grin on his face that spelled satisfaction. Jules continued: “Around 1939, I left the Laventille hills and came down to the city of Port of Spain, to a place called Mango Rose, at the corner of Piccadilly and Duke Streets. Today, it is a big open space where people can walk directly to Jackson Place. After staying there a while, I remember hearing the sounds of Pan in the distance. I walked towards Park Street and looked over in the river, and there I saw men playing pan; they were from Hell Yard. I stood leaning on the wall, looking over and listening to them. I saw a boy playing with them who used to live on the hill in Laventille with me, and came to the city a little before me. I ended up after a while in the river with these younger kids, including guys like Fish Eye.”
This is such a vivid interpretation of his experiences, He went on, “At age 14 or 15, I met this fellow named Hamil, who was about 19 years old. I used to be around him a lot as he tried to tune pan. In those days, the instrument was called the ping-pong, just a three-note pan on which no melodies could be played. They had different instruments, like the biscuit drum, and they would use the bass drum on a trap set. They had kettle pans. These instruments made up the band.
I remember a guy from Hell Yard named ‘Brassy’ who had a brother named ‘Tackler.’ These guys played the three-note ‘Ping Pong’ and people started singing songs from the rhythm they were playing. The tune came from a new movie that had just been shown at the Royal Cinema, ‘This Gun for Hire,’ and was very popular. The star was Alan Ladd, so they were singing, ‘Alan Ladd, Alan Ladd, this gun for hire.’ This was how it went on for a while.
There has been a heavy influence of American movies on the Trinidad society. They were popular especially among the youths. It was different; it engaged much discussion and sharing of perceptions. Jules continued, “The following Christmas, we went with another band, ‘Bar Twenty.’ We followed them as they were going over to Gonzales and this guy was playing a pan different from the ‘Ping Pong.’ I liked how it sounded so I asked him to let me try it. He shook his head and said, “No.” Next day, I went and got a pan and tuned it exactly like that one I heard. I think the guy called that pan a tenor kettle. Still, I was not playing a song, I was playing simple rhythm, all rhythms. It went one further, a Bele, which was played with a heavier rhythm. I remember Empire Day, 1945, I tuned a four-note pan. There was talk that Hamil had played a song on a pan, but when I was around him I never heard him tune a pan and play the song; it could have been possible, I don’t know, but I know when I tuned this pan, I had four notes on it. On V-J Day, (Victory over Japan), and of course on V-E day (Victory over Europe), the authorities allowed bands to play in the streets. During the war years, there was no Carnival, so for V-E Day, the steel bands were allowed to parade on the streets for about four or five days. On V-J Day our band was the only band playing a melody on a pan. By the end of that year and into the first Carnival after the war, there were other bands playing a song on their pans. I don’t say that I was the first - it is hard to prove who was the very first - but what I can say is that when I did it, everyone started doing it. The year after that, everybody started to hear about Spree. This misconception about Spree being the first man to play a song on a pan is not true. That’s the way I remember it.”
The narrating of this steel pan history is very important as it shows the commonalities of stories being told by the pan pioneers. Although their experiences were different and unique it was all going into a depository of documentation that proves them creative and ingenious individuals. Neville demonstrated what persistence and commitment would install in one’s effort to create. He took us back in time to when the birth of the instrument was occurring. Jules went on to describe his contributions, as he reflected on the first Carnival after the war. He said, “We were in a yard on Charlotte Street, next to the Salvation Army, and Fish Eye lived in that yard. Fish Eye is a very showy fellow; once you are in a crowd, you must know that is the fellow, Fish Eye. We used to do things together. We had this band, and he became the captain. The band was called ‘Second Fiddle’ because ‘Second Fiddle’ was the name ‘Hell Yard’ steel band had, so we used that name for the VE and VJ days, but changed the name to Cross of Lorraine. In the early days, almost every steel band took a name from a movie of the time, so we had ‘Cross of Lorraine.’ We lasted for only two Carnivals because of the captaincy of Fish Eye and problems with his father.”
Neville Jules continued to tell his story with a gratified feeling of pleasant nostalgia in remembering the times, “Around Christmas time, the authorities allowed the bands to parade in the streets from 6 to 9 in the morning; Fish Eye’s father would be in the band and take it here and take it there against the band members’ wishes. In addition, we played for a sailor band in Belmont. When it was time to get pay, Fish Eye kept the majority of the money for himself so the fellows said to me, ‘Look, this is it. You tuning the pan, you doing the arrangement, we don’t need Fish Eye. Let us start our own band.’ So we decided to start a band.”
Jules continued, telling me, “There was a guy named Rudder also known as Vats, who used to play in a very big individual Indian costume in those days. He and Errol Payne competed a lot. (Errol Payne was a carnival masquerader of high repute.) Vats was involved with ‘Casablanca’ Steel Band, and at the time, they had some problems, so he left them and came with us. He suggested, “You could get this person or that person to play and along with a lot of guys who are in the band here, you can call the band ‘Trinidad All Stars’.” So that is the way it came about. As a matter of fact, they wanted to call it ‘Black God and the ‘Trinidad All Stars’, meaning me, but I said: ‘Fellows, I am no god, name the band Trinidad All Stars.’ That happened sometime around 1946, 1947. From there the band settled on the name, ‘Trinidad Philharmonic Orchestra.’ For the record, our band was ‘TASPO’ before ‘TASPO.’ We were ‘Trinidad All Stars Philharmonic Orchestra’ and then ‘TASPO’ was ‘Trinidad All Stars Percussion Orchestra.’ So we were ‘TASPO’ before them.”
Here Neville links the name of his band with the existence of the national representative steel orchestra that visited London, England. These words of Neville Jules chronicling how Trinidad All Stars came in to being were for me an amazing story. It surely reflected the level of respect his colleagues had for him. He assured me, “That is the way it all started. After the four-note pan, I wanted to do something else.” He said, “One Christmas night, a guy name Prince and I were walking along Duke Street, and these Spanish people were practicing Parang music. I stopped to listen to them. I listened closely to the guy strumming the cuatro (four string guitar) and I said to myself, ‘This is a good thing for me to do.’ So I went and got a pan, tune some notes and started to strum it like the cuatro, and called it a Cuatro pan. In those days, fellows in the band would meet and talk, and they talked about how I was bringing out this pan. ‘Wait, you will hear.’ When I brought out the pan, fellows from other bands came and listened. Philmore ‘Boots’ Davidson (‘City Syncopators’) heard it and went back and tuned the same pan, but called it a guitar pan. That’s how the name stuck to guitar pan.”
The instrument is today still known as the Guitar pan. Neville obviously was a creative persistent individual and he did not stop at that as he continued creating. He went on, “Besides that, I also did the tune boom. The tune boom is a biscuit drum and this is what gave me the idea. In the early days, there was a restaurant called Tantie Tea Shop, right at the head of George Street, near Duke Street, in Port of Spain, almost where ‘All Stars Band’ is right now, opposite the school. Late at night around one, two o’clock that place used to be open. As a matter of fact, it was never open during the day. You got all the calypsonians coming there, Melody, Kitchener and others would come to buy coffee, tea and a sandwich. They would sing their songs on the sidewalk.” This traffic of people encouraged movement and ideas. Jules said, there were people going around with guitars, and they had “this box with a big round hole in it, in front of it, like you get in a bass or box guitar. They screwed on three pieces of a motor-car spring, cut at different lengths, and the guy would be plucking the different strings, imitating a bass. He is not bringing any real chords, you get Pom. Pim, Pom, stuff like that. So I said, ‘You know what, I could do something like that, but I will put the right notes to it.’ So, I did that and I called it a tune boom. Well, that lasted for a while!”
This is described as sheer creativity in progress. I was delighted to hear Jules tell his story. I felt privileged as I was being exposed to kind of history very few would have been conscious of. He continued, “Then I did the Grundig! This was a heavier pan than the guitar pan, something below the guitar that is extinct also. We had certain rhythms we played in the early days when there were no songs, and it was real good. I figured if we could use these rhythms when we played the calypso as the chord changes from one chord to the next, you can use these rhythms in between, and it would be a good song. So I did that. I had some problems because whatever I was doing a lot of the guys couldn’t do it the way I wanted and it died a natural death. People say it is from that pan, the cello pan was created.”
Neville was somehow in a special space in the pan movement. He discovered a lot of new developments as he explored his creativity. He told me, “I tuned the bass. No other band had bass; everyone was still pounding on the biscuit drum. These are some of the elements of pan’s development I was involved in; other persons have claimed their respective roles. There are other instruments that I created, which other individuals also claim they created.”
The history of the development of pan is still completely untold. At the time of its creation the makers never envisioned creating a musical instrument that would be embraced by the world.
Initiating the steel pan instrument paralleled a spiritual movement that crossed barriers of class, race, age, color and complexion. Starting out as an expression of the underclass, it attracted wider attention from young men and women who desired to make a statement in a fashion that displayed some measure of self-determination.
There was no sophisticated record of the actions made at the time. When a design was created in one part of the island, the other was unaware of its existence, so recognizing that development did not happen. This created confusion in the pan-world in further documenting the instrument’s development.
Neville said Pan Trinbago has made repeated efforts to chronicle the development of pan. They gathered groups of the old steel band men together for a post-carnival session one year in the 90s, 1994 or so, and he was among them, as was Sterling Betancourt, a member of the ‘TASPO’ group that went to London representing the country. He said, “I remember when Sterling was singing, how the tenor kettles and the other pans were played before, a young man associated with Pan Trinbago called others to come hear what this guy is singing. They never knew this aspect of history. After speaking to different people, they decided to bring the guys together and present them as a panel so questions could be asked in session.
“At this forum, the name, Ellie Mannette, was brought up and I indicated that Ellie was the man who sank the pan in. That was called concave. We had it beaten out in concave fashion. Ellie reversed that and grooved the pan so various notes could be played. Although word has it that he was the first to tune the 55-gallon oil drum, I am unaware of that. Ellie and I played in a competition on Eastern Main Road in Tunapuna. It was in a theatre, I cannot remember the name. Tunapuna had two movie houses, the Palladium and another on the main road the Monarch. I entered as a soloist, so did Ellie.
Our band, ‘All Stars,’ entered the competition, too. I used a small pan; I held it up with my hand and played it, and so did Ellie. As a matter of fact, everybody except one individual played the small pan. This guy came on stage with a 55-gallon drum, and the whole movie house laughed at him; to them it was a big joke. They had never seen a pan this large. This guy had to sit down, put the pan on his knee to play it. Everybody was laughing at him but within a few months everybody was using that pan. The pans we used held about ten, twelve notes. There were times I wanted to play certain songs and couldn’t. I had to tap out certain notes to get the key. Here you had a big pan, so it was more usable. The next time Ellie and I met in a competition was in a stadium where boxing matches were held, in Mucurapo near the cemetery. Ellie had a big pan. I had a big pan; all the players had big pans. The person who won that competition was a guy named Chick Mc Groo, whose real name was Springer. First prize was a bicycle; I came second or third.”
Competition was indeed a factor in the development of the steel pan. Many of these performances took place at different locations throughout the country. Today, this is still a practice in the steel pan movement. Such an event brought out individual creativity. Exercising one’s prowess on the steel pan demanded a commitment to perform well, to practice, and to bond with fellow band members.
Neville Jules’s career reflects a tremendous measure of discipline, love and commitment to the development of the steel pan. A determination to advance the plight of the pan man in a fair and positive way was always his mantra. He could easily have been a part of the ‘TASPO’ group that was picked to represent Trinidad & Tobago at the Festival of Music in London in 1951, but he and his fellow pan men lived in a very prejudiced atmosphere during that time.
He said, “I was very wary of these people who were now trying to embrace pan, because in the early days you would hardly get a pan man walking with sticks in his back pocket. You had to be a real ‘Bravay Dashay’ guy, you know; people pointing their fingers at you. You don’t even want to walk with your pans. When we get the urge to play, which was often, we go up on the hill, because that is the only place we could play; we had to sneak at night around eight to nine o’clock, as we were near the river, we jump down in the river and we gone up the hill and play our pans up there, and come back down. When I hear they opening a steel band association and all the middle-class people, people in the upper echelon involved, I say, boy, something isn’t looking right. So I hold back. When my name was called, fellows in the band responded, ‘Jules is not a member and you shouldn’t pick him.’ To me it was fine, I didn’t worry about that.”
Neville’s recollection of how the pan man was regarded brought something to my mind. He was a very weary and concerned person when he encountered individuals who suddenly showed interest in the pan movement with opportunistic tendencies. He kept them away.
During my research on the pan saga I encountered a man named Mr. Harold Blake who described forming the first Steel Band Association in 1949 with permission of the then Colonial Secretary. At the time, prominent citizens in Port of Spain came forward and took up the mandate of the steel band man and assumed leadership of the movement, leaving Mr. Blake out of the exercise. Mr. Blake described how he played the role of providing an opportunity for the pan players to communicate with each other, often times using his own home as a gathering place.
Jules said there were a lot of people who tried to help them at one time or another. Albert Gomes, the Chief Minister of Trinidad, at that time, was one such individual, along with others. “There were times I went to some of the meetings they held, but as a young man I was totally involved in this steel band thing and I was not working. I was unemployed, so sometimes when I wanted money, I did not want to hear anything about meeting. There were a lot of meetings I did not attend, but there were quite a few I participated in. Eventually it helped.”
Dialogue is one of the tools when exercised brings solutions to indifferences and encourages camaraderie. Through the development of this musical instrument, different social classes, had an impact on each other. Without their contributions to one another, it is unknown what direction Trinidad society would have taken. The influence of ‘Invaders Steel Orchestra’ impacting on ‘Trinidad All Stars’ steel band can be traced through to their two leaders, Neville Jules and Ellie Mannette.
Neville said that in the early 1950s when he was captain of ‘All Stars’ and tuning and arranging the band’s music, ‘Invaders Steel Orchestra’ was very popular. “When they entered town on Charlotte Street, they would carry a lot of people with them; as they returned to Woodbrook, they emptied the town. So I say, ‘No, no, no, something has to be done about this.’ I decided to do a tune and with about two or three guys, I tell them, you all go down Park Street, stand up by Green Corner some place and check out where ‘Invaders’ are coming from, and we go jam them. This is where full rivalry started. We used to look for ‘Invaders;’ we wanted them to be playing, we behind them, so people could compare and we could get a little fame too.”
It is natural to get the competitive juices flowing. Both bands were from two different segments of the town, so naturally the competition urge would be apparent. This kind of practice grew and other steel bands participated in the exercise. It became so prominent that whenever ‘Invaders’ met ‘All Stars,’ everybody wanted to jam at ‘All Stars.’ Jules said, “Because of my passionate desire to beat them (Invaders) so badly, I decided to play a tune that no one else had heard and wouldn’t hear until Carnival Monday morning. So we went up in the garret (an upstairs attic) and started practicing very, very softly. Once an ‘All Stars’ man was arguing with another pan man, one of the guys said, ‘Well, all right, you wait until Monday morning, when we drop the bomb, you will hear.’ It got so serious that guys were practicing even with their fingers upstairs in the garret. They could never get a good grasp of the classic piece or whatever song until they played it out loud. This is how the ‘Bomb’ tune came about.”
The ‘Bomb’ tune tradition evoked a tremendous response from band members and patrons who appreciated the friendliness and camaraderie displayed by the steel bands who embraced the opportunity to surprise each other with their tune of choice. Neville continued telling me about his saga. He said, “In 1951, at Christmas time when I did the first ‘Bomb’ tune we went down to Woodbrook at ‘Invaders Steel Orchestra’ home base and serenaded them. The entire band listened to us play and we had a couple of drinks. As we left Woodbrook for home, all of ‘Invaders Steel Orchestra’ came out to bid us farewell.”
‘Katzenjammers Steel Orchestra’ was the band that eventually enjoyed the greatest success with the most “bomb” tunes. The majority of their pans were tune booms. The ‘TASPO’ exercise provided a good opportunity for some of the guys who chose to stay in London. Some came back. Jules remained in Trinidad. He said, “I was here doing whatever I had to do for ‘All Stars.’ There were pans I tuned that I did not make. I remember tuning a double second before anybody had it. I had one pole; we put on some bolts on either side of the pole and bolted the pan on to the stand. The outer side of part of the pan was hanging on both sides, so the notes on the outside were good, but those that were bolted to the pole had no sound. The notes had changed, so I just unbolted it, put it down, left it there for a while and I went on. I was tuning a pan called the trombone pan then suddenly I heard somebody had a double second.”
Neville in his cool demeanor remained creative for many years while living an interwoven life influencing youths and adults alike in advancing pan development.
The ‘Bomb’ still exists in a competitive way in the Carnival Jour Ouvert tradition. ‘All Stars Steel Orchestra’ is still one of the top bands in the country. ‘All Stars’ has purchased the abandoned property next-door to its present home yard on Duke Street, Port of Spain. Jules said there is a goal desired which is for the band to be self-sustainable, self-reliant and not depend on sponsors or government agencies. The band leadership is supposed to have demolished the building on the property to refurbish it so that it can be income-generating. A management team is being established and advisors from the community sought to formulate a proper plan of action to enhance its development. He went on to say, “Although I am retired from the band’s daily activity, I am still closely involved with its management. Like a parent watching its child grow, I continue to be observant of All Stars’ advancement. At one time, I was the tuner, the arranger and the sponsor as well. When “All Stars” had no sponsor it was my money purchasing the pans; when the band started to grow and it was too much for one man to tune, arrange and take care of certain responsibilities, I stopped tuning. But if the band needed something, no one else came to the fore financially, so I had to put my hand in my pocket and take care of the situation until we acquired a sponsor.”
Several steel bands have always been the benefactor of individual members who financially contributed to the upkeep of the steel orchestra. All Stars was no different. Neville said he has always made an investment in the band himself. “For example, on Carnival day we portrayed a Sailor ‘Mas.’ The band was extremely large, with no rivals of similar size in sight. When we were on the road, we had wall-to-wall people, several blocks long. One year, I had to divide the band in half so people in the front might hear music and people in the back might hear music as well. On Carnival Tuesday, especially after lunch, when you enter ‘All Stars Band,’ you saw all kinds of masquerade, Indian too, you saw everybody.”
The band was attractive, it was appealing to the patron as many persons opted to jump and play ‘Mas’ with them. In those days, people would hire the band for various events and activities, so whatever money was gotten from being employed during the season, for dances, competitions, being on the road were all tallied. “We then held a meeting. I said, “Fellows, this is the amount of money collected.” There was of course in the band, a Secretary and a Treasurer who would administrate the full details. It would be provided in a report that detailed money spent in expenses, “money I invested and other items of note. I would be repaid my investment and the rest put away. That is how things went, until we were playing at the Hilton Hotel and the fellows playing there were trying to hold on to the job and they called the band ‘Hilton All Stars.’ ‘Doing that, they sought to secure themselves,’ they worked year round. As long as tourists came to Trinidad, they had a job.”
This development became very conflicting. Neville further described for me, “We needed some pans, so I went to a guy down south in Point Fortin. He listened to me and charged me reasonably and I paid him. Now the guys who were working at the Hilton were buying their own pans. However, the person they purchased their pans from delivered as good pans as we got, so we decided we had to do something about this situation. No sponsor would consider us because the name Hilton All Stars led them to assume we had a sponsor already. So we decided to look for a sponsor. The Green Giant people were considering us and wanted to review the band. I took the pans I purchased up to the Hilton Hotel. We used a different uniform from what the Hilton guys normally used and started to play for these people from Green Giant. When the manager of the hotel saw the band and heard their sound, he asked the guy who was in charge of the fellows who normally played for them, ‘What band is this?”
The outcome raised eyebrows. The guy told him: ‘All Stars.’ The manager said, “But I am seeing different people, different pans, and different uniforms.” Then the guy said, ”This is Jules, he has these pans, and he had them down there and wouldn’t give it to us.” The gentleman told him, “All right; if you get your own pans then you have the job.” “So we tried to break away from this Hilton thing.” The avoidance of the hotel label was a contributive factor to the band’s advancement.
Neville continued, “These guys changed their name, calling themselves ‘Boston Symphony’ but did not last very long. We continued and eventually acquired the Catelli sponsorship to become ‘Catelli Trinidad All Stars.” This acquisition permitted us to further develop our status in the community. The steel band was able to acquire needed skills support to advance their outlook and presentation. One step was the acquisition of Mr. Gerry Jemmott who became the arranger and musical director and he took the band to greater heights. Gerry was an officer and conductor of the Trinidad & Tobago Police Force Band.
When Gerry Jemmott came to the band, he arranged primarily classical music and some other light forms; the calypsos were done by someone else. Of course he would give his input. Len ‘Smooth’ Edwards and those guys were now acquiring a taste of their own so whenever they were arranging, he would provide guidance and good contributions. Mr. Jemmott composed all the classical jewels (performances) that the band accomplished. He made many contributions which changed the demeanor of the band, something the other bands weren’t doing at the time. This began to separate ‘All Stars’ from the rest of the bands as they became distinctively different in sound and character.
Jemmott got involved in the steel band in 1968, because of a music festival, and ‘All Stars’ leader, Neville Jules, had no one to conduct the band’s test piece - Benjamin Britten’s ‘Sunday Morning’ - at the time. Jemmott called it a ghastly exercise, “because symphony orchestras or concert bands do not like to play that sort of music.” This was his baptism of fire in the movement, as he called it, “one we approached very seriously, and we won that festival.”
Neville Jules subsequently migrated to New York, USA
An excerpt of the book “Voices of Pan Pioneers of Trinidad & Tobago written by Von Martin
WST note: The legendary Neville Jules passed on February 20, 2020
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