The Genius of Woman On The Bass

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Three stars align to bring new definition to longevity

By Dalton Narine

When Steel Talks


Global - Very Trinidadian! This cross-cultural love affair that hasn’t lost its passion in 33 years. Maybe it has exceeded the threshold of the romantic ideal. Though, like any relationship worth its libido, every once in a while it arouses complications that chafe the heart. In life and in death. In a way.

Woman on the Bass
Annie Lopez - the Woman on the Bass

The principal protagonist in this bluesy soap opera, The Woman on the Bass, Town say, lives incognito, but many regard her as a dream vision.

Ha, 1979. Symphony in G arranged by Clive Bradley. The year you waltzed into the lyrics. Into the Despers pan yard - cold, with a John Wayne swag, complete anonymity disguising true grit. You remember! ‘Twas that infamous season of the Pan boycott at Panorama and on Fat Tuesday, too.

Who’d believe that a few years earlier, a few of your colleagues in Sforzata would treat you like a dree-vay? Shucks, when you turned up for practice, they’d mumble, “Look trouble come.” You, a bass player? Not if we can help it. Tough to make the Panorama side if the bass lines are dribbled out to you as though from the nipple of a baby bottle.

Desperadoes Steel Orchestra Panyard
Desperadoes Panyard

How’d you channel such embarrassment? It drove you up the steep incline to the Desperadoes pan yard. Smack into manager Rudolph Charles’ den of master panists. Kim Johnson, author of The Illustrated Story of Pan, noted that a stranger back then “could just go up Laventille and hang out.” And now you’re Despers’ Woman on the Bass. The only one. The only player for whom Charles fashioned a Soca Six bass because he found you uncomfortable behind the flat six. So, matter fix, now look at you, girl, booming out Bradley’s lines in a three drums up and three down set-up. Charlo had leavened the instrument with its own distinctive range, too. Between cello and tenor bass, is how you recall its specialty. Not so? And though a fella named Roach stood beside you through thick and thin, teaching you the pan, remember how bass men gave you cut-eye, though none of them had an inkling of how your broughtupsy had endowed you the guts of a bull and the charm of innocence.

That you been dancing since you were nine. That you mash up 1969 Better Village by snaking under a bar balanced on a pair of Coke bottles, then coming up for air - and the trophy for Best Female Limbo Dancer.  At 18 years old.

Still, a brittle butterfly like you couldn’t have imagined how Penthouse tourists were freaked out by your nightly dance on broken bottles. Then your dream about performing with Trinidad Dance Theatre and Hummingbird Dance Theatre came true and gigs began to multiply. Notwithstanding signs of division at home. Mom Babsie Clement giving her assent but dad Jerome Rodriguez, a big-band trumpet player, swelling up his face, particularly over your playing bass in Radoes.

Might have been hard for any cynic to fathom your scale down résumé, and, accordingly, them fellas on the bass didn’t have a clue about you. Christine Lincoln, manager of Sharose Ltd., a computer business in Coalmine , Sangre Grande, put it this way: “If you’ve never met her, you wouldn’t be able to guess what she’s done in her life.” In a deeper sense, not even your Despers husband of nine years, jealous and overbearing, would know. He wasn’t cool about your stint at Sforzata in the first place. Why then would players have expected you to stand his behavior in Despers? He telling you what to do, how to perform. And though the community played up your charisma, Charlo had to stanch what you call the pettiness, the sniping of a few bandmates - like how you ain’t from Laventille. Prompting him to bull-horn his voice across the pan yard: “Why all yuh don’t bring your own woman to play pan?”

That’s how you caught a break.

In a jump cut to the 1983 Carnival, who’d have guessed that a Renegades supporter would suffer the wrath of The Great One’s hammer for dragging your bass away on Charlotte Street? See how everything rotates on the axis of ’79?

I was standing by the grandstand up in de Savannah
Diggin dis indian gyul beatin bass pan comin up in Desper

Now, with all such interior monologue in context, imagine, dry so, a simple piece of music can light up the world of Annie Lopez. The Woman on the Bass self. Oh, how the arrangement of her hectic, yet composed, life would be altered in a single day. In a moment, really, adapting a page in her diary into a calypsonian’s dream: The Big Score.

Woman On The Bass Scrunter Music Arr. by Art DeCoteau Woman On The Bass Keynote T&T 1980

How could Irwin Reyes Johnson, popularly known as Scrunter, have had the focus of the bigger picture? Even if he were a see-er man, it couldn’t have been in the cards - The Hammer in his infinite ingenuity creating the space for this accidental happening.

Not to forget the happenstance of birth, too. For it was Lopez who reinvented the term dougla, her own callaloo of Carib and black, and, yes, her old man from Portugal in the mix - prevailing upon Scrunter to take note of this Desper in play. Brown-skinned and long-haired, how she look Indian so!

Dis Indian gyul tie she shut on she belly
Beating a sweet, sweet melody
On de stage
The crowd went rampage
We want the woman on the bass

Lopez didn’t wear a shirt that Carnival Tuesday much less tie it round her waist. Just a nifty creole line in the lyric. Lopez says Rudolph Charles’ wife decked her out in a red short pants jumpsuit with white piping under the arms. They always wanted her to be different, like Despers defying the boycott. Thus, the scenario unfolding at the Grand Stand in the russo matched her outfit perfectly.

What a jolt! Lopez’s operatic life evolving in quick time! Dus’ raisin in the air, women prancin’ like dey ent care, crowd start to roar Despers gie we more.

Woman On De Bass
 -- lyrics
[Verse 1]
I was standing by the grandstand up in de savannah
Diggin dis indian gyul beatin bass pan comin up in Despers
With Symphony in G,
arranged by Clive Bradley
Make de spectators leave de stand
And just run out to de band
While she play,
de crowd shout and say

We want de woman on de bass
We want de woman on de bass
We want de woman on de bass
She beatin'
Ah ya yaeee

[Verse 2]
Yuh could imagine,
first pan fuh de day,
how people break away
Cause all de while ah tell yuh,
 what they were hearing
Is only brass and DJ
Thus written in de air,
woman prancing like deh eh care
Dis indian gyal tie she shirt round she belly
Beatin ah sweet sweet melody on the stage
The crowd went rampage


[Verse 3]
My friends dis is one ting I have to mention
How disappointed were the foreigners,
after comin down here to hear pan
But dem Desperadoes had dem on deh toes
Took away all dey frustration,
 keep dem jumpin in de sun
The crowd start to roar,
Despers give we more


How to crest that? With Bradley teasing her by singing a piece of the song, the 1980 single having already gone beyond borders? No. Only when Scrunter walked up to her in the pan yard and said, “The song I wrote is for you,” did she take Bradley seriously.

And now she’s amped up in a gold short pants ensemble with sleeves three-quartered and flared, the top tied at her belly. Working the Soca Six while accompanying Scrunter at the Calypso King competition. Good thing Bradley remembered to change the key in time to accommodate Scrunter, for, though Despers carried Woman on the Bass in its repertoire, Kitchener’s No Pan remained the Panorama song. Leaving Trinidad All Stars to elope with Annie Lopez, the caricature.

One night, Lopez, the Despers bassist, riding with friends who happened by the Duke Street pan yard, was transfixed by the beauty of Leon “Smooth” Edwards’ rendition.

“This [treatment of the] song is a bomb,” Lopez warned friends in the car. “It’s going to be a hit.”

Likewise, Les Slater, a Highlanders arranger, found a new dimension to the music being played on a speaker in a nearby Nelson Street snackette.

“It bowled me over. The structure of the tune and it’s nice Carnival feel. You juxtapose that kind of experience with what your realism is today - and you steups. Certain pieces just fit seamlessly into the Carnival pastiche. Art De Couteau’s accompaniment was also stunning on the record. And some of those lines worked themselves through Trinidad All Stars’ arrangement.”

Had it not been for the youth movement in the band, there’d hardly be an ongoing history of Woman on the Bass, according to Edwards. With All Stars’ elders fighting to maintain the Kitch/Sparrow lock-neck on Panorama music versus young panists discovering their own groove, Edwards called for a vote six days ahead of the preliminaries.

“I questioned myself: ‘Why did I do this?’ But it was the politically correct thing.”

Edwards would distribute melody, idiom, thematic variations and harmonization to the players, but hung back on the basses out of respect for history. The song had to feel at home for the “Chaguaramas” band, renowned for its fave bass lines on the road.

Woman On The Bass - Trinidad All Stars - Panorama Finals - 1980 Champions

Edwards at last decided on assigning guitar pans, double seconds (at lower octave) and cellos to help thicken, but not clog, the lines. “To get that depth with clarity, you need to be creative with your instrumentation,” he says. “Of course, I knew we had [the Panorama title] by then.”

Like Edwards’ self-assurance among his competitors, Simeon Sandiford, managing director of Sanch Electronix, sticks out for his recording agility. In 1996, at an All Stars concert rehearsal, the engineer employed four microphones and a HDCD processor to capture the pan yard vibes.

“I had to beg them to do a slow version of Woman on the Bass,” Sandiford recalls, “but some members of the band’s administration said the playback wasn’t sounding good, or were scared for it. They didn’t feel it would take off. But per our agreement, they got 500 CDs and now Woman on the Bass, ranks highly among the Samaroo Jets which is in wide circulation.”

Sandiford, like Edwards and Lopez, who remain offended by the way the copyright system is set up in favour of the artiste, had heard about the CD’s royal reception at parties and fetes, but he wasn’t ready for the shock he encountered at a UWI-based all-inclusive in 2003.

Woman On The Bass - Trinidad All Stars - Slow Version

“The reaction was, partygoers didn’t want to go home, but they had to go home,” he said. “That chip-chip coasting speed has been drilled into people’s head. Good stuff is perennial, and that piece will be around for a long time.”

Gerry Carter concurs. A global traveller and member of the Trinidad All Stars Association, Carter maintains that the music is played around the world. An extreme example takes you to London in May 2002. He and his wife, Marceline, flew there for her father’s funeral. Vernon “Fellows” Williams had left a will to mourners: By all means, party heartily to Woman on the Bass. According to BBC News, Fellows was a founding member of the Notting Hill Carnival in 1964.

Carter estimated the West London crowd at more than a thousand. “The police had to block off the streets,” he said. “But the real story was the DJ. He began to play Woman on the Bass before the service was supposed to end, which set off a grand party in the church.

“Later, at the Repast, the crowd kept calling for the tune, but nobody had it. Good thing I always travel with my All Stars CD. Every party we go to - New York, Miami, Toronto, wherever - winds up with Woman on the Bass the national anthem of fete. To this day, All Stars obliges supporters and masqueraders on the road.”

Just as weird as that ghostly happening in London, what began as hallucination in broad daylight on a Rio Claro street last December turned out to be the most recent page in the diary of Annie Lopez. A passenger in a taxi, she picks up the faint melody of her love song as the sweetness of a Blue Jean songbird in a bamboo cage.

When the thunderous bass line arrives within earshot. Lopez, 60, a mother of four who runs a dance and music academy; who teaches and arranges steel band music at Mafeking Government Primary School in Mayaro, jumps out of the car and throws a public performance to Scrunter’s aria. A crowd in holiday mood is taken aback. Who’s this dancing queen? The DJ responds. “The Woman on the Bass is in the house, y’all.” And good times flash across her face, lubricate the hips and rewind Lopez back to the Soca Six.

The calypso’s dominant character could care less about anything but the strong emotion welling up - and her family, including Kenny Moses, her second husband.

We want the woman on the bass

Woman on the Bass will always be in the house, y’all.

Dalton Narine:

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