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Daddy Sparks, Seventy-eight years young & still playing the Steelpan

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Fitz-Gerald Sparks
Fitz-Gerald Sparks

Trinidad, W.I. - Come carnival 2010 Fitz-Gerald Sparks would be 79 years young and still playing tenor pan for his beloved Starlift Steelband for Trinidad & Tobago panorama even though he has been confined to walking on crutches over the last eight years.

“Daddy Sparks” as he is fondly called in the home circle of Lady Hailes Avenue in San Fernando, south Trinidad, has seen it all and done it all in the name of steelpan – from tuner to arranger to captain to manager of a host of steelbands throughout the length and breadth of Trinidad.

Sparks’ career in the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago started in 1942 at the tender age of eleven in Palo Seco, south Trinidad, with a band called Sunvalley Serenaders which would later become Eight Army and then Black Eagles As a student, Fitz-Gerald Sparks - who became a construction worker - originally attended Coffee E.C. and Forest Reserve E.C. Primary Schools, and Fyzabad Intermediate Secondary School.

Following carnival in 1946 Sparks went to live in Oropouche where he tuned his first pan for Carlos and Gabriel Rose.  Sparks believes that he might very well have been the first panist to perform at social events such as garden parties and social evenings where the guests were strictly white folks.  That was at the  T.L.L. (Trinidad Leaseholds Limited) Forest Reserve Manager’s Residence as well as the staff club.

In 1947, since his father was employed in the oil industry – Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd. – he went back to Palo Seco to live, and as fate would have it he inherited the captaincy of the steelband upon the departure of the then-captain Mickey Smith.

In those war days, Sparks affirmed, to be captain you had to be able to tune pans as well as arrange music.  He claims to be the first player to use two sticks to play the ping pong and affirms that from his knowledge Mikey Smith was the first man to tune a pan from an oil drum - that was in 1945.

In 1949 Mikey Smith returned to Palo Seco and restructured the band which included a name change to Casbah Steel Orchestra.  In 1951 Sparks regained captaincy of the band which saw him introduce the caustic soda drum in replacement of the biscuit drum for making bass pans.

Sparks then found himself being chosen along with Allan Gervais and Vin Courtney, among others - to tune and assist other bands in the Southern Region of Trinidad who were without pan tuners.

All was not lost for Sparks in 1956 when Casbah Steel Orchestra met its demise, since that led to the founding of yet another outfit in Federal Steelband, for which he was the tuner/arranger.  He was also playing the tenor and double seconds with three sticks for which Sparks posits that Allan Gervais, his contemporary, from Point Fortin invented.  While with Federal Steelband, Sparks was still rendering assistance to other steelbands in need of tuning and related services.

The pan maestro had a playing stint with Merry Makers in 1956, then with Casablanca in 1958, Trinidad All Stars from 1959-1962 and 1964, and with Sundowners in 1963 since Trinidad All Stars did not participate in the national panorama that year.  The year 1965 saw him formally gaining membership in Sundowners where he became the Public Relations Officer and later ascended to Vice Captain and eventually Captain.

“Daddy Sparks” and family
 Rear (l-r): Anthony, Tono, Akeem & Shaq
Front row (l-r): Nicholas Gosine, ‘Daddy Sparks,’ Dianne Sparks (daughter), Darion (baby) & Racine James
Kneeling: Kafele & Renee

In 1967 the ace panist joined the ranks of Texaco West Stars for the national Music Festival where upon he was asked to remain.  He obliged and became a committee member, receiving the Vice Captaincy in 1974 and eventually took over the helm in 1979.

Upon the demise of West Stars in 1989, Sparks’ penchant for percussion did not wane.  He became a member of Hatters from 1990 to 1996, then Skiffle Bunch from 1996 to 1998, Casablanca from 1998 to 2000, and finally Starlift in 2000 to present-day.

Sparks boasts of having played every instrument in the pan family and has a good knowledge of all of them, but his pan of choice is the double tenor; and at the moment he plays the single tenor. 

The proud pan elder feels elated in stating that many prominent panmen, arrangers and tuners have gone through his tutelage.  To date ‘Daddy Sparks’ has produced three generations who have continued in his genre of music, inclusive of eight of his ten children, twenty-one of his twenty-eight grand children - and so far, two of his seventeen great-grand children.

They, like the family patriarch, have played with many steel orchestras including Hatters, Skiffle Bunch, Antillean All Stars, San City, Achaiba Steel Orchestra, Golden Hands, Point Fortin New Creations, Ole Tech, Mt. Moriah Pan Movement, Invaders, San Juan All Stars, Fonclaire, Moods, ADLIB, Deltones, and Fyzabad Secondary.
 Editor Note - Fitz-Gerald "Daddy" Sparks passed on November 26, 2014 - see more

by Hollis Clifton
Pan Diaspora Visionary



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