Pan Times


From the Mind of a Pan Man - Dalton Narine Speaks

When Steel Talks Exclusive with Journalist, Panist, Steelpan Historian and Film Director - Dalton Narine

  An Interview with Dalton Narine

Brooklyn, New York, USA - Dalton Narine is one of the best and most trusted cultural journalists in the world today.  He hails from an era when you were the best at what you do and excellence was the norm, not the exception.

Journalist Walter Cronkite was called the ‘most trusted man in America.’  He was the consummate professional. Cronkite’s insatiable  appetite for presenting the facts and truth made him a household name and an integral part of the psyche of a generation of Americans.

Similarly, for years - panist, editor, journalist and director Dalton Narine has been the ‘Walter Cronkite’ of cultural affairs - particularly in Trinidad & Tobago’s mas and pan worlds - and more.  Impactful, memorable, professional and truthful are words that accurately describe his body of work that covers Ebony Magazine, The Miami Herald, The Trinidad and Tobago media and his host of other projects - just to name a few.  Some of the most memorable and thought-provoking pieces ever written for the world-renowned and iconic “Ebony” magazine publication were penned by Dalton Narine, who covered everything from ‘Blue-eyed soul’ to Black inventors.

Dalton Narine Catelli trinidad all stars carnival tuesday on the way to the Savannah
Dalton Narine with Catelli Trinidad All Stars on Carnival Tuesday on the way to the Savannah

In this exclusive interview with When Steel Talks when he was in New York recently for the screening of his latest film, Mas Man - a documentary on Carnival Designer and Artist Peter Minshall - Dalton shares some of his deep and vast memorable experiences, in a manner that allows a glimpse into this immensely talented and intense individual. 

His commitment to excellence and high standards immediately commanded the respect of not only his colleagues but also his competitors.  Moreover, Dalton’s large and impressive body of work speaks for itself.  From Miles Davis to Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, from Ebony Magazine to the Miami Herald, from Trinidad All Stars to Viet Nam - Dalton Narine has a wealth of unique and special experiences that make him a treasure trove of facts, knowledge and wisdom.  Dalton endeared himself to ‘everyday people’ by encouraging them to express themselves, and then by providing the necessary spotlight and platform for them to be heard.  Additionally, he also made it possible for these ‘everyday people’ to connect with sometimes prominent interviewees, by asking the latter the very questions that everyday/average people wanted answers to.

One of the most compelling stories in this WST interview is of Dalton’s conversion of his own father into a steelpan music ‘enthusiast.’

A stickler for the core principles of honesty and accuracy, Dalton bemoans the decline in journalistic standards, even as his own “no-compromise in journalistic integrity” kicks in.

While Dalton is an exceptional, acclaimed writer and award-winning film producer, he has however remained a panist.  Highlanders and Trinidad All Stars are legendary steel orchestras that he calls ‘home.’  As one listens to Narine it is abundantly clear that the passion and love for the steelpan instrument and culture still burn intensely within this complex individual.  Couple this with his abundance of intense real-life experiences and high intellect - and one can understand that Dalton Narine has a perspective on life that makes him uniquely qualified to speak on these matters.  Yet, unlike many who have not come close to his accomplishments, this distinguished journalist remains quiet, humble, but irreplaceable on a global stage.

Dalton Narine

  Interview Highlights

Part One

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  Part One - An Interview with Dalton Narine

Dalton Narine (DN) met Minshall in 1976 when the latter was designing the band ‘Paradise Lost’ for carnival bandleader Stephen Leung.  John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ was the text Narine was studying for Literature exams, and he thought you could not “make a Mas out of that” (Paradise Lost).  He changed his mind when he saw Minshall’s creativity on display and on the road for Carnival.

Mas Man the movie, won the “Best Documentary” in the Trinidad and Tobago International Film festival, and was a stepping stone to other festivals in London and the Bahamas.  Now, future screenings of Mas Man will take Narine to Wales; Ireland; Holland; Thailand; South Africa; Australia; and back to the USA.  DN describes Minshall as a man of ‘firsts,’ essentially a renegade; Minshall was the first ever to present the Olympic opening ceremonies (1992 & 1996) - at night.

Part Two

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   Part Two - An Interview with Dalton Narine

Alvin Corneal - one of Trinidad & Tobago’s best cricketers in the 50s and 60s - caught Dalton’s story on the Steelband Panorama North-zone final in the Trinidad Guardian  newspaper.  The next day Corneal saw DN and said to him “That should be on TV!” and eventually urged DN to “jump in the car” and took him across to TTT (now-defunct Trinidad & Tobago Television), to the station head, the late John Barsotti.  Barsotti said “Start tomorrow!”  Public response to Dalton was very positive, who went on to spend the next twenty-five years at TTT.

When Narine felt the need to go deeper into the psyche of the steelpan culture, he went to Barsotti, saying he wanted to go on stage and “talk to these guys, and pull out what they got - out of their gut, and let the public know what they’re thinking!” Barsotti said go ahead, giving Narine much latitude. Having studied scriptwriting for film and television at NYU (New York University), Narine went on to produce many documentaries, including “Festivals of the Pan.”

Narine’s portfolio of personalities interviewed is not limited to the steelband art form, but also includes notables such as Edmundo Ros, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wynton Marsalis and more.  But more importantly - Narine always kept in touch with “the people” - such as those earning a living around the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain, a steelpan bassist ‘coasting’ on the Drag before competition - interviewing them and enthusiastically bringing countless such interactions with the ‘common man’ to the screen and into households across the country.

DN is of the opinion that in Trinidad & Tobago, there are currently too many people on the airwaves, and several who are commentators for pan but don’t know the history of the steelpan instrument and art form, and/or have never been behind a pan; but this is their modus operandi.

Part Three

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Pan Historian, Journalist, Producer, Writer, Director
  Part Three - An Interview with Dalton Narine

DN wears many hats:  historian, musician, producer, writer, film director, and more. But that of ‘writer’ - is what best describes and fulfills Dalton Narine. As young as eight years old, he would be viewed as a budding writer.

Most dynamic personality ever interviewed: musician Edmundo Ros, well-known international Latin American recording artist - in his eighties at the time of the interview, born in Trinidad.  Ros thought that despite his own music mastery, he would leave it to the experts - the “steelband arrangers” who arranged music for steel orchestras, giving them ‘their props.’

Most important personalities ever interviewed:  Peter Minshall  and Lewis Kamenitza from Uruguay.  DN interviewed the latter about Minshall’s art.  Steelband’s interesting personalities:  Earl Rodney and Ken “Professor” Philmore.  Most knowledgeable personality:  Neville Jules.  Most ‘shy’ at the time was Len “Boogsie” Sharpe; you would have to ‘coax him’ to speak back in those days.  Things have changed, according to DN, who also adds that Boogsie can go down in history as the genre’s “Best panist.”

Part Four

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   Part Four - An Interview with Dalton Narine

Recounts his memories of growing up with Bertie Marshall in close proximity, and also Desperadoes.  DN talks about his father going up the hill to take a ‘last jump’ with Desperadoes, and his mother saying “be careful, Tokyo [steel orchestra] might be coming up the streets, and you [DN’s father] in the middle!” 

Which was why, growing up, Dad did not want him to play pan.  It was not from a social stigma point of view, but rather out of concern for DN getting caught up in steelband rivalries and potential clashes.  So DN’s father allowed him and his brother to play mas, to maintain some connection with their culture, though not through pan.

DN’s mother passed away when he was very young, and he grew up ‘behind the bridge’ with his father and brother.  Coming home from school, DN would hear Bertie Marshall “pounding” the pans, as he experimented with, made and tuned instruments.

Bertie Marshall called DN down in 1971, to listen to the ‘Bertphone.’ Marshall’s invention was a double tenor that had attachments to each note.  This genius inventive derivative resulted in the amplification and sustaining of notes.

DN interviewed Len “Boogsie” Sharpe about the Bertphone for DN’s film “The Bertie Marshall story.”  Boogsie said “you know, I love that pan!” Boogsie went further, sharing how Bertie would call him and say, “come and play the pan, come and play the pan!” Dalton says Boogsie describes the Bertphone pan instrument as ‘a cross between a violin and an alto sax.’

Part Five

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  Part Five - An Interview with Dalton Narine

DN believes that had Bertie’s house - which also doubled as his ‘laboratory’ - not fallen victim to a destructive fire, where he lost all his work, the innovative developments Bertie Marshall was working on would have changed the face of pan.  Bertie envisioned a smaller band, but with a larger sound, a radical idea at the time.  His Bertphone was in fact to be the prototype for different instruments in the steelpan family, not just the double-tenor. 

Part Six

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Pan Magazine and converting Dad to Pan fan

  Part Six - An Interview with Dalton Narine

DN returned to Trinidad - and Trinidad All Stars - after coming back from Viet Nam and out of the US army.  While there, he heard this ‘amplified’ band coming down the street, and immediately knew it was Bertie Marshall’s Highlanders.  He had heard about them, with their amplification, and a recording while he was still away in the army. 

From his father’s letters received by DN while he was in Viet Nam, he learned his father was fed up with the steel band clashes, and thought all steelband men would be behind bars, if he (Dad) had his way.  DN wrote back that he would be one of those ‘behind bars’ - as unbeknownst to his father, he was a steelband man, playing with Trinidad All Stars before he went to the US, and had performed at the Hilton Hotel in Trinidad, Woodford Square in Port-of-Spain, and more. 

DN wrote to his Dad that if he made it back alive, he would take his father around to show him another side of pan.  He did, and took Dad to Queen’s Hall where Trinidad All Stars was performing.  Their classical repertoire included ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and more.  Dad was enamored, saying “you have to forgive me, I never knew it was like this!!”  He began going to the national panorama competitions, with DN taking him home after the events.  Dad became a staunch pan lover; “if there was one convert that I know in Trinidad, it was my Father!” says DN.

Re: Pan Magazine
Not easy getting funding for this premiere, short-lived publication produced years ago.  It was the result of the passion for Pan, alive in DN and Leslie Slater, both panists.  They made sure all was correct, and ensured that their steelpan publication PAN - aka Musical Steel - was a quality product.  The duo has appreciated the revisiting and re-publication of articles by When Steel Talks, as new generations come to know the history and detailed insight into persons and chapters in the culture of the steel pan art form, through these re-publications.
DN is of the opinion that people would today probably not want to put in the kind of time and energy that Les Slater and he did, in order to put out a publication of as high a caliber as PAN.

Part Seven

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DN remembers when there was no such thing as ‘music bands’ or DJs on J’Ouvert morning - “that was Pan’s morning!”

  Part Seven - An Interview with Dalton Narine

Pan is all over the world, and while it came from Trinidad and Tobago, the feeling of some nationals that ‘Pan is we ting,’ almost as if no one else in the world should play or make pans, is not a practical hankering, according to DN. With other instruments such as the saxophone, though the inventor is from Belgium, Belgians don’t have issues with the instrument being a staple around the world.

Pan Trinbago’s Music festivals used to have very large crowds years ago, but nowadays they are not as well attended.  People are ‘panorama geared.’  DN thinks panorama [in its present format] should be done away with, that it is ‘the blocking agent in the development of pan as an instrument and an art form in this world.’ He says the formulization, rigidity of the competitions are not mobilizing the art form.  DN has an alternate suggestion, and is of the opinion:  that a competition where you can “play anything you want, and however you want - oh man, now that will be a competition!” exclaims Dalton.

Part Eight

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  Part Eight - An Interview with Dalton Narine

Dalton remembers Desperadoes bringing out great mas bands on the road for Carnival, including ‘Primitive Man and Extracts from the Animal Kingdom.’  Wilfred Harrison was responsible for their Mas creations.  The late Rudolph Charles, band manager, was then a young voice who sought the best resources for Pan in players, pan manufacturers and tuners; he looked at the art form as a business.  With his forward vision, Charles said that “we (Desperadoes) were a ‘badjohn’ band before, but are now elevated to be the best band in the world.”  After nineteen years out of the music festivals, Desperadoes - under Rudolph Charles’ leadership - returned and won three straight biennial championships, and then stopped.  The ‘businessman’ in Charles said the band was not ‘getting any money out of this.’

Rudolph Charles was close to the then-Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago, Dr. Eric Williams.  As per the development of pan, DN believes too, that had he [Eric Williams], lived, he would have also had a profound effect on the further development of the art form.

Part Nine

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  Part Nine - An Interview with Dalton Narine

Last time DN played pan was circa 1990.  When he was with TTT, due to work commitments, he would pick up the Bomb tune only on Carnival Sunday.  One time, he learnt the tune ‘on the fly’ early J’Ouvert [Monday] morning as the band was leaving the yard.  That tune, the last Bomb tune that he played, was “Two Little Finches.”
DN reminisces fondly about the time he was unwell, but just listening to Trinidad All Stars’ bomb tune, was enough to get him through - then it was all haste back home because the reason he was ill was that he had not taken his medication.

The celebrated subject of ‘Mas Man,’ Peter Minshall, says he [Minshall] was also inspired by the “Fancy Sailor” - which is the Mas characterization most associated with the steelpan art form.  Therefore, DN says, he simply had to find the ‘right piece’ of pan to put to that segment in Mas Man; he went with Katzenjammers.  

  Sample of past Dalton Narine interviews with: Wynton Marsalis, Rudolph Charles, Pat Bishop...
Dalton Narine
About 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.

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