Neville Jules - THE PANMAN WHO RELEASED THE “BOMB” TURNS 82 (91 in 2018)

by Dalton Narine

Neville Jules - photo by Gerry Carter

Global - Neville Jules turned 82 last week. At the Duke Street panyard, even the young players call him Cap. They see him around Hell Yard, a shrine to pan, but can’t fully fathom his weight. Founder of Trinidad All Stars, Jules led the band and arranged its music for 25 years or so. In either capacity, Cap wasn’t easy. If he were alive, badjohn Big Sarge would tell you he owed his failed confrontations with his nemesis to band discipline. And Invaders, the Harps of Woodbrook, can testify, though begrudgingly, to his groovy road music. As sweet as a lickin’.

Cap migrated to the States in ’71, and many a band was glad, not for him, but for that. Their leaders had figured the road would be clear of Jules’ stylish arrangements. They were fooled. For the past several carnivals, Cap has been back in the thick of J’Ouvert. His music, too. You can’t miss it. You can’t miss him, either. He wears a letterbox mustache the color of Chalkdust goatee. And it’s a rare day you catch his smile hanging out for all to see.

Trinidad All Stars
Trinidad All Stars on the road in 1960 -  photo courtesy Dalton Narine

I’d wager no one who’d heard Cap’s “Theme from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” would dismiss that J’Ouvert experience in 2007. Ennio Morricone’s tense score pulls you into the hearts of the film’s characters. But Jules’ playful adaptation had you chipping inside their soul. Not surprisingly, the band won every Bomb competition. Yeah, like the grand, old days.

Emerging from the bamboo era, and following a stint on Shango drums up Laventille Hill, Jules played the first melody on pan, a four-note ping-pong. (Ah-ah! They always say, never argue pan and religion. For, every man Jack has got an interpretation of how things went down in both Books, the Bad and the Good).

The melody was abridged from King Radio’s “Do Re Mi.” Jules shared his discovery with Fisheye, the panist who played the song when the band, then Cross of Lorraine, celebrated the end of the big war on the streets in fine style.

One of pan’s elite pioneers, Jules introduced the tune boom, a biscuit drum with four notes, to fatten the music like a box bass would. Later, a caustic soda drum captured the full-bodied effect he’d aimed for. Further experiments led to the “Chaguaramas bass,” which carried the lowest register of the day on 55-gallon drums. Jules also invented a pan to simulate the strumming of the cuatro. Furthermore, the Grundig, or cello pan, was his, too.

The 4,000-strong sailor band Trinidad All Stars’ “Fleet’s In,” circa 1960, plays a Neville Jules Bomb [tune] on Frederick Street author Dalton Narine wears a US NAVY T-Shirt -- photo courtesy Dalton Narine

Jules and I crossed paths while I was a teen in training to be a classical pianist (though my father couldn’t afford a piano). In 1958, Jules had hit upon a fresh confection in steel band with his J’Ouvert Bombs – classics [tunes] that were sweetened up like rouge on a pretty face and practiced during graveyard hours with just our fingertips. Targets were Invaders and Crossfire. Invaders, popular for its sugary jam, had been drawing supporters from rival bands, including All Stars. And, Crossfire kept Port of Spain abuzz in 1957 with “On Another Night Like This.”

Jules and I crossed paths while I was a teen in training to be a classical pianist (though my father couldn’t afford a piano). In 1958, Jules had hit upon a fresh confection in steel band with his J’Ouvert Bombs – classics [tunes] that were sweetened up like rouge on a pretty face and practiced during graveyard hours with just our fingertips. Targets were Invaders and Crossfire. Invaders, popular for its sugary jam, had been drawing supporters from rival bands, including All Stars. And, Crossfire kept Port of Spain abuzz in 1957 with “On Another Night Like This.”

With the impact of the first Bomb [tune], “Minuet in G,” still smouldering, I found a place where I could play music night and day without my father’s knowledge, without him low-thinking that I was an outcast. (He thought I was studying with friends in the East Dry River area where we lived.) One evening, a friend and I took nervous steps up a few stairways of a popular Charlotte Street dive to the famous Garret above. (We got to the top by weaving through a knot of women on the hustle and sashaying up and down the pavement – the sulphurous Mayfield and her prostitute friends; and we jittered like Cub Scouts as we walked through a men’s club, a gambling den, on the second floor leading to the Garret.) Boy, we reach! We had met the stern man himself, and formally joined his merry band. Hell with the piano. Mozart on steel had become chic. A tenor pan even had my name painted on the belly.

The Garret was a cramped, musty attic sitting atop the Maple Leaf like an old man’s bent-up hat. The “pan attic,” however, had an intangible quality. In abstract, it posed as a small museum where historical artifacts exhibited in the head and the works of art performed in the ear. It creaked and hummed and sang and, at nights during the carnival, it sent out a dozen calypsos. It hardly accommodated the full band. We played in shifts. The music was fed, through a small window, to the many scores who lined both sides of Charlotte Street to listen in the dark, so to speak.

It was the year of Barcarolle, Intermezzo and Liebestraum. Jules’ Bombs had helped recruit 4,000 “sailors” for the annual road show of music, dance and comedy. For me, the thrill of the Bombs happened in front of thousands fo’day morning on Carnival Monday as the orchestra formed up, the racks stringing out down a ways on Charlotte Street. No one, not even the players, could foretell how the music would sound. When you play pan with your fingertips, it’s like an underwater experience to the ear. The Bombs were numbered, one through four, and played in sequence. It was all a blast, those stationary, avant garde concerts in the cool of dawn.

Over the years, we played Musetta’s Waltz, Ballet Egyptien, In a Persian Market, Fingal’s Cave, Cara Nome, Anniversary Waltz, Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, Barber of Seville, Countess Maritza, Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s Horn Concerto, among countless others.

The Bombs, which largely supplanted the piano lessons taught in Ms. St. Aude’s living room on Abercromby Street, counted for only part of the whole experience. For example, Cap’s influence for the good has impacted my life -- dedication. Of course, his predilection for the “bad” (the Bombs) altered my taste in music. And he addressed the ugly in pan through police barracks discipline – through Prince Batson, the first panman to wrap the sticks in rubber, according to Jules.

 All that to say, Cap made a difference in my life because I never drank, or cussed (until the army indoctrinated me), or illegally bussed anyone’s head. And I’ve not been overly late for anything. You couldn’t mess with Cap’s Riot Act. You’d be fined for any infraction. That included visiting other panyards.

One night, during an after-hours fingertip session, Mano, a tenor player, said he couldn’t stay. “Look the door there,” Jules said. “But if you leave, don’t come back.” Well, Mano practiced through the wee hours until he passed “the exam.”

Another time, a best friend of Jules brought a drink into the Garret during rehearsal, ignoring an earlier warning. He racked up so many fines he didn’t get paid after the Carnival. Though the slight unsettled him, he was back the following year.

New guys didn’t receive a penny in their first year. However, the rule endowed each the privilege of being an All Star. (Hear Jules – about the band’s name change after World War II: “Some Casablanca fellas was listening to us rehearse one night, and one said, ‘All ah all yuh is stars, boy.’ And the rest is history.”)

Discipline notwithstanding, the Bombs and the Garret defined the band’s moxie in the ’60s. Bully, a second pan player, put the word “Bomb” into the lexicon of pan after telling a rival band, “Wait till we drop the Bomb on all yuh Monday morning.” Bully had suggested “Intermezzo” to Jules, though he was unaware it was classical music. He’d heard it as a bolero at a dance. Jules also received a supply of symphonic records from an enthusiast who lived Behind the Bridge. Mainly, though, Jules’ inspiration came from the cubicle of a store on Henry Street that catered to sportsmen as well as highbrow music lovers.

Trinidad All Stars
Trinidad All Stars band members, including Neville Jules with trophy - and band sponsors (Catelli) celebrating a successful Carnival 1968  - photo courtesy Dalton Narine

Like its repertoire, the band had its share of sterling as well as offbeat characters. Jules counted on Alex Mitchell, a tenor panist who also played for Sel Duncan, to help him with chords on Mitchell’s piano. Roy Gibbs, the hammer man. He literally carried All Stars on his back. Eddie Hart, who made it as a soccer league organizer and politician. Bass players Guns, the consummate one, and Shurland, the flashy other. Big Head Hamil, the tough guy who started the movement in Hell Yard. Musical director Gerry Jemmott, who gave the band status and upliftment. Rudy Wells, the band’s first Panorama  winner (Rainorama); Leon “Smooth” Edwards, who won five championships; and Beresford Hunte, the current leader. But Cap was the man.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the watershed moment a few years ago when a young fella scolded Jules – who’d owned up to a mistake he’d made on the iron during a Panorama rehearsal. Mind you, Jules was absent the night before. Edwards, the arranger, had inserted a stop. “Wey yuh was? Yuh shoulda been here,” the guy shouted from behind his pan. Cap, not amused, put down the iron and walked away, for good, the poor fella ignorant of the cross this man bear for pan.

Happy Birthday, Cap.

Dalton Narine wrote a version of this story for the Trinidad Express in 2007. When he called to birthday-up his former captain, they talked for about 45 minutes. They talked about pan.

The author Dalton Narine grew up in Belmont, East Dry River and Success Village, Laventille.  He played pan for Trinidad All Stars for 20 years and Highlanders for a Carnival season.

Published with the expressed permission of the author, Dalton Narine

Dalton Narine
About the author, Dalton Narine

Dalton Narine watched a movie among friends and was harassed for watching the credits roll. He was 12. They laughed at his quip that someday his name would be scrolling like that on a movie screen somewhere. Little did they know it was a prescient warning.

A similar scene played when Narine stopped learning the piano and walked into a panyard. Nobody believed him until they saw him playing classical music on pan on J’Ouvert. Eventually Narine co-founded the iconic PAN magazine and became senior editor.

Narine, an award-winning writer for two newspapers and a magazine, started working on a novel. But the chair of Columbia University film school steered him toward a screenplay instead. Your story is a movie, the professor said. Today Narine is working on his final draft, with two more screenplays in his head.

contact Dalton Narine at:

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   Trinidad All Stars - Have I Told You Lately That I Love You - Steelband Bomb Tune...arranger Neville Jules.

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