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For Bertie, with thanks

by Sunity Maharaj

Re-published with the expressed permission of the author

“... amid the national wailing of grief and regret, and as we mourn our inability to rise to the best of ourselves—as Bertie Marshall did—let us pause to thank him for the art and science of his music”

—Sunity Maharaj, Director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies

Bertie Marshall and Franklyn Ollivierre
Bertie Marshall (left) and Franklyn Ollivierre (right)

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - There are some things for which one must pause. Pause—even from such enticing distractions as men without briefs, legal ones that is; pause—even from plumbing such mysteries as the right time to walk—as the United Labour Front (ULF) understood in 1988 in rescuing itself early from the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) implosion to come; pause—even from the beckoning implications of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election morphing into a national referendum on the Government's performance.

Yes, temptation be stilled. For today, we pause to bow before the force that was Bertie Marshall.

For the story of Bertie Marshall as steelpan scientist, pan pioneer and tuner extraordinaire, I recommend to you Dalton Narine's documentary and the ongoing discussion on the excellent internet discussion forum "When Steel Talks". There you'll find steelband legends comfortably mingling with aficionados in what is possibly the most informed and engaged site on all matters Pan.

This column will limit itself to the wonder of Bertie Marshall as another casual genius of Trinidad and Tobago, whose impact on music history and technology will only be burnished by time and endure well beyond the memory of many who pound the public stage.

In tribute, I give way to the other casual genius, Keith Smith, Bertie's good friend and one-time neighbour, now in the advance party waiting to greet Bertie Marshall in the Great Beyond.

In a memorable series published in Tapia under the title "Pan Is Mih Gyul", Bertie Marshall's story flowed like music through Keith Smith's pen. The combination was pure harmony; Bertie as straight and clear as the notes he pounded out of hard steel, and Keith, attuned as ever to the extraordinariness of the ordinary and, like Bertie, with an ear sharply tuned to the rhythm of the street. Listen now to a few words from Bertie on himself as told by Keith Smith:

"...the move to Laventille didn't change my lifestyle much. To get to school I still went in Plaisance Street, went through the track, past the bay leaf and samaan tree that led to the school building. It was along that track that I first heard a pan being tuned. I don't know whether it was when I was going or coming from school, or when during recess I sneaked out with fellers like Hugh Mulzac, who later was to become a big-time footballer for Colts. But, I do know, that the scene along the track was one that I knew well.

Of course the teachers used to warn us about hanging around "Spree" Simon and "Patcheye" and them, but these fellers used to be in the track for the whole day. Big bonfire, and whole day is pounding and a pounding. We could hear the sounds from the classes in which we sat.

So in spite of everything, we hung around. And I came to know "Spree" himself, a feller they used to call Dog, Big Drum and Lil Drum, Andrew Beddoe, the same Andrew Beddoe, Dudley Rugg and others. Plenty butchers too. For across from the John-John hill was the Slaughtery—exactly where it is today - and at lunch time the butchers would come across and while the fellers were beating and looking for notes on their pans, the butchers used to keep time with their knives.

"Spree" was undoubtedly the boss. He used to hammer the pan outwards and not inwards as is done today. The pans were first punched outwards and then punched inwards to get a surface to accommodate the note.

That was during the day. In the night, the steelband—Spree, Patcheye and the boys—used to come out on the roads.

I never, because of my mother, took part in any of this. We used to hear the sounds - all the pans playing only three notes—B, D, E, but plenty rhythm and people jumping up and waving coconut branches. All this we saw while peeping through the jalousie, and all the time my mother yelling:

"Move from the jalousie before they chook out all yuh eye. Before all yuh say yuh prayers and go to bed all yuh looking at stupidness!"

And she would then turn down the lamp low to make sure that the neighbours understood on which side of the steelband-line we stood.

It was during these night sessions that the police made their raids. They would swoop down into John-John and men would run through the night, all of them dropping their pans. When daylight came they would be back at it again pounding and pounding, and plenty gamble.

I don't want you to feel that all this time the call of pan was running through my blood. I was about eight years old and while the tuning of the pan and the sessions and the police raids were exciting, I don't think my interest was any greater than that of the average child at that time.

Surrounded by the excitement and the daily activity under the bay leaf and samaan trees, I was unmoved. I understood that "Spree" and the rest of the boys were trying to make music from pans, but it wasn't until much later that I saw I had a role to play in the music-making."

Another excerpt from "Pan Is Mih Gyul" will be published in next month's finale edition of the Trinidad and Tobago Review as it takes a break to shift gear into the more flexible and dynamic world of online publishing.

For now, amid the national wailing of grief and regret, and as we mourn our inability to rise to the best of ourselves—as Bertie Marshall did—let us pause to thank him for the art and science of his music; to thank his family and friends for the succour they provided him into a life beyond three score and ten; and to say a special word of gratitude to his dear friend, Courtney Greenidge, who was there for our genius son.

Dear Bertie, rest in peace.

click to view to film Bertie Marshall - The Steel Pan Visionary by Dalton Narine


Sunity Maharaj is the editor of the T&T Review and Director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies


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