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Examining the Roots of Steel Band Activity in New York

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Les Slater
Les Slater

New York, USA - Enlightening, passionate, humorous, controversial, intense, confrontational, educational, emotional and engaging - are just some of the words among many others that can be used to describe the forum “Examining the Roots of Steel Band Activity in New York.”  Indeed, this discussion facilitated by the Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute in conjunction with the School of Professional & Community The discussion was moderated by Les Slater, director of the Folk Arts Institute and featured panelists Rudy Estwick, Lennox Leverock, Jessie Lampkin and Roy Sangster.  Two other major historical figures on the New York steelpan music scene Reynolds “Caldera” Caraballo and Horace Morancie were also scheduled to be on the panel but could not attend. 

Mr. Slater indicated that the institute felt “it was important to examine the role of the steelpan in New York as it is one of the important  centers that developed away from the Caribbean.”  In addition, Mr. Slater pointed out that an examination of the history of the art form in New York was something that they “needed to do.”

The Panelists

  • Roy Sangster - migrates to New York in 1949.  Former affiliate of  - Black Swarm, Torrid Zones (steelbands out of East Trinidad)

  • Lennox Leverock - migrates to New York in 1953.  Former Green Eyes (1949) and Invaders player

  • Rudy Estwick - migrates to New York in 1951.  Former Invaders player (1947)

  • Jessie Lampkin - Former Sunjet Serenaders player, former Trinidad Steelband (Rudy King) player (1955)

Rudy Estwick
Rudy Estwick

Lennox Leverock
Lennox Leverock

Roy Sangster
Roy Sangster

Jessie Lampkin
Jessie Lampkin

Pan in New York  has a very long, rich, fascinating and colorful history that goes all the way back to the late 1940’s.  This history has yet to be accurately documented and acknowledged.  Moreover, what was obvious at this forum is the wealth of experiences, stories and knowledge still available through the very people who were there, “lived it” and were active characters in the New York steelpan music experience.

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The panelists provided critical information based on their personal interactions, recollection of dates, names and locations.  In addition, many in the audience also provided valuable information and/or corroborated the information provided by the panelists.  This live reality/recount by the very people who were, as Mr. Slater so aptly calls, “hands-on participants,” was at times riveting, and should have been ‘required attendance.’

Some Forum Notes/Outcomes

  • 1949 - Rudy King introduces pan to America

  • 1950 - Rudy King plays pan in Harlem Day Parade

  • 1950 - Carlton Munroe, one of the first African American to play the steelpan instruments is invited by Rudy King to join his band (1950 - 1953).  Carlton plays with Rudy King from 1950-1953, when he enters the military.  In 1958, upon his return from the military, Carlton stars his own steelband called "Brooklyn Steel Harmonic".  The band is made of three Black Americans and four Trinidadians steelpan players.

  • mid-1950s Rudy King shows up at Harlem parade on Lenox Avenue with a steelband - ‘Trinidad Steelband’ (20 players) - Jesse Lambkin creates T-shirts for the band with their name “Trinidad Steelband”

  • New York-born Trinidadian Lawrence “Pops” McCarthy starts Harlem All Stars in early 1950’s

    House of Flowers album

  • 1954 - House of Flowers features steelpan on Broadway. House of Flowers is a musical by Harold Arlen (music and lyrics) and Truman Capote (lyrics and book), based on his [Capote’s] own novella.  This was Capote’s only musical, and is the first theatrical production outside of Trinidad and Tobago to feature the then-new Caribbean instrument - the steel pan. The cast included Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston, and Geoffrey Holder

    Geoffrey Holder Steeldrum Trio Steelpan players were Michael Alexander (tenor), Roderick Clavery, Alphonso Marshall

  • 1955 - There are three steelbands in New York - Rudy King: Trinidad Steelband, Conrad Mauge: Trinidad Serenaders, Lawrence “Pops” McCarthy: Harlem All Stars

  • 1956 - Reynolds “Caldera” Caraballo comes up from Trinidad and joins Rudy King

  • 1957 - Rudy King performs at the Apollo with Harry Belafonte

  • 1958 - Lawrence “Pops” McCarthy, founder of Harlem All Stars instrumental in getting African Americans to play pan

  • 1958 - Reynolds “Caldera” Caraballo leaves King and starts Moderneers

  • 1958 - Conrad Mauge leaves King to form Trinidad Serenaders

  • 1959 - Carlton “Tarzan” Munroe is first American to play with Rudolph King (Munroe attended the forum and contributed this info)

    Rudy King 1960
    Rudy King (second from right)- 1960

  • 1961 & 1964 - Steelband incidents lead to suspension of Harlem Parade/Carnival - ultimately leading to the carnival coming to Brooklyn

  • 1961 - Steelband Music Festival in New York - held on 44th Street town hall - five bands participated - Sun Jets, Moderneers, Murray Narell’s (Andy Narell’s father) band, Harlem All Stars and a band from Connecticut

  • 1964 - New York BWIA Sunjets performs at Macy’s Day Parade

  • 1964 - BWIA Sunjets performs at the World’s Fair - first steelband in New York to receive sponsorship

  • 1965 - First New York Steelband Recording - [BWIA] Sunjets, credited on the album as The Sunjet Serenaders

  • 1965 - Mellotones --> West Indian Steelband --> (the West Indian Steelband) became The Sunjet Serenaders Steelband in March 1965

    Steelband Spectacular LP Jacket

  • 1966 - Released on Columbia Records in 1966 (Columbia CL-2460) -- ‘Steelband Spectacular - The Sound of the Caribbean’ - The Sunjet Serenaders Steelband
    New York Amsterdam News - (Aug 20, 1966) p.22, col.6
    (MANAGER Horace L. Morancie)
    Lennox Leverock and Courtney Proctor - bass
    George Hinds and Thomas Jeremiah - triple cellos
    Joseph Holder - double guitars
    Lennox James, Kurt Nurse and Clayton Greene - double seconds
    Arthur John - double tenors
    Clifford Alexis and Patrick Alleyne - tenors (Alexis was also the arranger)
    Archibald Parris - cymbals
    Jessie Lampkin - congas
    Patrick Ayoung - bongos (and tuner)
    Kendrick Wharf - cowbell & timbales

  • 1969 - North Stars and Winifred Atwell perform at Madison Square Garden

  • Weekly steelband performances (Friday & Saturday) at Carnegie Hall.  Arthur Joshua Dlugoff better known as Art D’Lugoff - of the Village Gate was responsible for these performances

Contact the Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute:  1 (718) 252-6161

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