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New Book Illustrates Image of Pan with Telling Stories of The Steel Band

by Dalton Narine

Cover of the publication 'The Illustrated Story of Pan'

Global - The first few images in “The Illustrated Story of Pan” (288 pages) that jumped up and grabbed my eyeballs seemed eerily familiar. It wasn’t the six or seven young men scratching out the early rhythm of the steel band on paint pans, biscuit drums and iron (brake drums). It was the setting. Leotaud Lane in Gonzales, East Dry River, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. The road, now noisy with percussion, is flanked by orderly rows of government houses in apple-pie order. The dwellings stand like sentinels commanding a view of history on the make.

Aha, I thought, this must be the hook of Kim Johnson’s new book about the divine revelation of the nativity of pan. As when creativity, who steered the merrymakers toward bamboo music only to see that contrivance, too, banned after they’d already snatched a chunk of our ancestry from the pulse of the drum, suddenly reveals he is a streetwise cat and doesn’t suffer colonial fools gladly. So now, a secret love affair with dustbins, sweet oil pans and biscuit drums has gone public - Edric Connor reviving the 1940 ensemble in 1943 with talk about the African influence on local culture.

O-ho, so that’s how come, about five years after Connor, the late calypso singer and stage and film actor, had pushed this new head, I’d heard the commotion swinging around the corner from Gloster Lodge Road into Hubert Lane where I lived, a stone’s throw from Leotaud Lane, me, a toddler then, growing up as a descendant of the Venezuelan man whose hilly offshoot of Belmont carried his name.


Gonzales Rhythm Makers in Leotaud Lane, 1943.

The rhythmic chantwell, rooted in the African chant tradition, still rings in the ear, because it was in rotation every day after that street jam carried it down Hermitage Road by schoolboys who took to mouth-panning it loud and proud:

Oh, Thelma poom poom
All dem saga boys dey jumpin on she poom poom
On she poom poom
On she poom poom
All dem saga boys dey jumpin on she poom poom

To this day, after extensive writing, sometimes I’d stretch out, arms pushed toward the ceiling, and bellow that loopy refrain. Refreshing indeed. Because, since that baptism, Pan still coursing through the blood.

Johnson’s bewitching work doesn’t just address aficionados like myself, or the xenophobic crowd that stupidly believes Pan is we ting. “The Illustrated Story of Pan” acts as the portal vein to convey the blood, guts and ingenuity of the steel band to the wider world, which has long adopted the movement not only for its glory but also the romance of its pained, yet rich history.

Johnson tells it in spades. In stories, organic and unfiltered, related by pioneers -men and women - and badjohns (defenders of the steel band). And through images that bring a palpable feeling in an air of unease - deep in the belly of an undersociety that birthed both ribaldry and rivalry, a tribal spillover from the African primitive. Good for Johnson because Hollywood can’t seem to crank out a screenplay about our inventiveness. Yet, it was in the movies (and newsreels) that steel bands found their names. Destination Tokyo, Casablanca, Starlift, Rising Sun, Sun Valley, Desperadoes, Renegades, Invaders, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Crossfire, Tripoli, North Stars, Five Graves to Cairo, and so on - many of those films I’d seen since I locked into Turner Classic Movies on cable a few years ago.

Five Graves to Cairo? Johnson’s art, though suffused in realism, revels in the abstract, and that’s how we found six boys, the stage side from this mixed-race St. James band, chaptered under “Real Native Music.” Their 1946 instruments included a three-note kittle drum, one-hand ping pong and three-note box bass, influenced by the African mbira or Thumb piano.

“A Indian fella from Tabaquite make the box base for me,” Simeon “Nappy” Grannum, the last captain of Cairo, recalls in the book. “It had a time they used to bring down onion in a wood barrel. You bus a hole for air to come out. It was board on top. Gramophone, is the chain you cut and fix it and get note; you tighten the screws to get different note. You cut a semicircle hole.”

That’s how Johnson juxtaposes image and prose. Surreal, for sure. Reminds me of the two best melodies in the 1999 Panorama finals: “In my House,” arranged by Clive Bradley for Desperadoes, and Skiffle Bunch’s “Coffee Street,” arranged by Andy Narell, the first foreigner to compose Panorama music. Bradley won and Narell placed eighth. It wasn’t a juxtaposition of say, the sun and the moon, or light and dark. The drama of the juxtaposition was lost in the translation of marks. In context, the juxtaposed images, narrative and analytical passages in “The Illustrated Story of Pan” stand well above the mark.

Examples abound throughout the work:

You’re in the sweat of the moment in a 1940 photograph of USS Bad Behavior, from Hell Yard (later renamed Trinidad All Stars), and side by side with a woman leaning over the balustrade of a second-story gallery and trying not to lose the antics of a single sailor or fireman - young boys, really, playing their mas on a rain-slicked street, an American flag waving above the fray and a man in suit, tie and hat walking the pavement alongside the crew.

Fancy sailor from an unknown band, downtown POS (1950)
Fancy sailor from an unknown band, downtown POS (1950)

In the sidebar, here’s an account by Prince Batson, a Jack of all trades since the 1940s with Trinidad All Stars: “Between World War I and World War II there were a lot of visiting man-o-war (battleship) - German, French, English, but the Americans had a way, their behaviour was worse than all the others and they had a peculiarity in display which the people took pattern from and create a dance. The same uniform, the same bell bottom, and the cap and the jumpers, they utilized that and they create a dance. They used to get the bladders from the abattoir and dry it and inflate so it would come as a balloon and when the women overlooking to see the mas they would strike them on the bottom. And they would sing, ‘Hey Joe have you seen that big bumbum, Ha ha ha.’ And smoking their pipes. So we took a lot of things from the Americans.

“They used a chamber pot, what we would call a utensil, that was what mostly they had, pounding it, a posie. [And] two small tins. They put [the posie] on their head and beat the tins together, they dancing and jigging. They had no accompaniment. You call it a mouth band, they would sing: ‘Down town we go make bassa bassa! Down town we go make bassa bassa!’ They always looking for mischievous thing to do, like the American sailors. To make bassa bassa is to make trouble.”

And this from another member of Bad Behaviour: “You have to go to the mas camp and learn to sing, like:

Mama lend me your daughter
To Play Bad Behaviour
We eh goin far
We only goin Sanga-banga (sex)
Just as the chicken follow the hen
Just so the women follow the men

In truth, bad behaviour was the steel band man’s theme - literally. Bands fought with straight razor, cutlass, bull pistle and broken bottles. In many cases, steel band clash was over a woman. The trigger also was about who sounding better than who, or, as with Red Army and Casablanca, who wore the better threads. Red Army, of course, because their fashion plate came straight from Cab Calloway and other dancers in the film, “Stormy Weather.”

Johnson brings up a story in the book by former Pan Trinbago president and Our Boys leader, Patrick Arnold, who tells of two brothers from Symphony Stars that never spoke to each other since a tiff over the retuning of a tenor pan many years ago. It developed into a full-blown contretemps when one of the men bludgeoned every note on the retuned pan with a hammer. Turning it into a strainer on steroids. His brother was the captain of the band.

However, the family affair paled by comparison to one of the most violent battles in steel band lore. It involved Desperadoes and Marabuntas (Destination Tokyo). According to Sylvester “Dana” Frank of Tokyo, the 1957 war (and I’m not using the term loosely because I lived in the area and knew people who were either chopped or partially dismembered), started with a fight in Port Services Club.

“An Indian fella, Kid Coolie, there was something with he and some girl in the dance, and he come and he get cut by Lloyd from Desperadoes. The girl come in there with Lightning from up in John John. [Some pushing and shoving was going on,] and Kid Coolie stand up for Lightning. Well, since a man get injured there, is war now. If anybody from John John see a Desperadoes he have to run.

Another sample image from the publication: 'TASPO on the cover of one of their records'
 Another sample image from the publication:  ‘TASPO on the cover of one of their records’

“They did bring a picture in ’57 with Charlton Heston named ‘Naked Jungle.’ Marabuntas was a bunch of ants in the picture that was eating people, crossing river. So my posse say they was Marabunta. In that ’57 riot, they give me five years in prison. Well, I really chop a man with a cutlass from up there, and they come and they give me five years. He name was Danny Boy. He was a main man because in a fight before, he did chop up one by we named Inskip.”

[A 1957 photograph of the Marabunta gang from Tokyo shows the effect the war had on the band - Spectators outnumber a paltry 13 pan players leading about a dozen masqueraders on Carnival Tuesday.]

Dr. Hollis “Mighty Chalkdust” Liverpool, teacher/calypsonian: “When they made the call for peace between Marabuntas and Desperadoes by George Yeates [of Desperadoes], he say, ‘College boy, I want you to represent we.’ I cyar tell him no, he’s a badjohn, he might hit me two clout. I was about 15 years. Yeates tell me, ‘This nonsense about Marabuntas and Desperadoes must stop, we are all one people [both bands were situated less than a mile from each other].’ He was one of the few men who could come to John John anytime, nobody eh do him nothing. When he came he’d call all the fellas together.”

George Yeates (a Coca-Cola tale): “I had a truck and was working on the wharf. The bossman from Cannings gave me a contract to carry Coca-Cola to Tobago.” [Following a mishap in transportation that was costly to the firm, Yeates is chastised by “the big man.”]

‘How you happen to get this work? You eh have better sense to know that you supposed to...’ And he went off.

“I say, ‘Right, right, right.’
“He say, ‘What’s your name?’
“George Yeates.”
‘From where?’
“Laventille.”
‘I think I hear that name already. You have thing to do with steel band?’
“Yes, Desperadoes.”
‘And you so quiet? You is the leader of Desperadoes?’
“Yes.”
‘Alright, sit down there and I’ll talk to you in a while.’
“By the time we finish talk it was because he was sponsoring Desperadoes, when I finish with him.”

Upon reading Johnson’s tome, one might conclude that the author left nothing in the fridge. But you can always find more history in the freezer. Johnson gave up 10 years of painstaking research, and for that, the history he explores extends far beyond the borders of conventional excavation of the culture of pan.

What with edgy stories and momentous images, “Illustrated” comes off as the epitome of classic. A Pan classic at that.