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Canada Steelpan Musician, former Trinidad & Tobago National Steelband member Alton C. Clarke remembered

by Dougal Williams

Canada - Alton C. Clarke, or “Clarky” as he is known to all pan players and pan lovers in the Canadian Midwest, brought an awareness and appreciation of the steelpan instrument and its music to the province of Manitoba between the years 1971 to 1984.

Clarke, who passed on December 11, 2010 was also a member of the first national steelband of Trinidad and Tobago. His life was devoted to furthering the outreach of pan, which he thoroughly accomplished in Manitoba, outside his native Trinidad and Tobago. The latter’s government honored Alton Clarke along with other members of the national steelband in November of 2006.

As leader and arranger of the Unicity Pan Harmonics Steel Orchestra since 1972, “Clarky” was able to attract and train players ranging in age from 12 to 50, most of whom had never before played the instrument, and some who had never even been aware of its existence. The popularity and acceptance of the orchestra in a relatively short period of time is testament to the skill, perseverance and love of the art form that Clarky brought to the panyard every day.

In his efforts to raise the awareness and profile of the steelpan, “Clarky” sought and was granted membership for his orchestra in the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce, the Manitoba Folk Arts Council, and the Manitoba chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. This strategy helped to firmly established steelpan as a legitimate musical instrument in the province of Manitoba.

Requests for the orchestra’s services were soon coming, not only from locations within the province of Manitoba, but from cities in Northern Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.   In fact, the first major engagement the orchestra undertook, was to represent the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce at the Ranchers and Farmers Association Winter Festival in Edmonton, Alberta, in December, 1972.  During this festival, “Clarky” provided well-received workshops on the history and development of the instrument.  The orchestra was also a mainstay at the Folk Arts Council’s annual cultural exhibition, Folklorama, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which drew visitors from around the world each year.  Again, “Clarky’s” workshops and the orchestra’s performances were among the most popularly attended and received.

The increasing popularity and acceptance of steel pan in the Canadian Midwest was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in 1981 when the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), the national radio and television network of Canada, approached “Clarky” and his steel orchestra to record a number of musical pieces for airing on its radio programs.  In recognition of the multicultural makeup of the Canadian society, “Clarky” did not limit the orchestra only to pieces indigenous to the Caribbean, but provided a variety of selections with appeal to all cultures.  The recordings were a resounding success and were aired for many years following the initial taping.

Without a doubt, Alton C. Clarke was one of the pioneers of pan in Western Canada whose influence and tireless dedication to the instrument has ensured its place on the cultural and musical landscape of Canada.

Information provided and submitted by Dougal Williams

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