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Antigua's Hells Gate Steel Orchestra Celebrates 70 years in Existence

Antigua & Barbuda Steelband News

Antigua and Barbuda, W.I.

Under the theme "Pan - Then - Now - Forever", Antigua's oldest steel orchestra, Hell's Gate, will continue the celebration of their 70th year in existence with a Launch this Saturday 21st February 2015. The launch will take place in the panyard of the famed orchestra. The orchestra's celebratory activities commenced in January 2015, and will be followed with monthly happenings that will culminate with an awards banquet and concert in October 2015.

Hell's Gate History
The group began as a Housecoat Band in 1945. The instruments then used were automotive clutch housings, hollowed pipes, biscuit cans, pieces of iron, etc. They were obtained from Townsend’s Blacksmith shop on Mariner’s Lane (now the only existing Blacksmiths shop on the island), and also from the then-main solid waste dump, which was called “Dung Heap” by the people of the Point Area.

In 1946, the transformation of the Oil Drum to the Steel Pan was done locally, having begun in Trinidad. Experiments were carried out at Townsend’s Blacksmith Shop and the burning of the pans was done at the “Dung Heap”, where fire was always available. The people of the Point Area gave the name “Hells Gate” to the Band. The name was chosen mainly because of the loud noise and variety of rhythmic beats produced from the instruments used. The official naming of the Band was done in 1947. Hells Gate’s first captain was Eugene Weston and the first manager was Ivan Edwards.

Eustace ‘Manning’ Henry a pioneer member, former captain, builder and tuner, along with his son, Veron Henry, the band’s vice-captain, are presently the builders and tuners of the Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra.

Hells Gate Launch 2015

The first Steel band competition was held in 1949. The venue was the St. John’s Girl’s School, then located on the site of the present Economic Development Building, at the corner of Independence Avenue and Queen Elizabeth Highway. Governor Earl Baldwin of Bewdley sponsored this inaugural competition. The test tune was ‘Peanut Vendor,’ and Hells Gate emerged winner. Red Army of Green Bay/Gray’s Farm was second, and Brute Force of the “Bridge” area was third.

Steel band music was used as accompaniment for calypsonians in the early days. In 1957, Hells Gate steel Orchestra provided accompaniment for eight (8) of the nine calypsonians while Brute Force accompanied by Hells Gate steel Orchestra.

During the late 40’s the steel band movement was strong opposed by most of the aristocrats on the island of Antigua. They even went as far as to send petitions to the then-governor, Governor Baldwin, to outlaw the bands. Were it not for Governor Baldwin, who himself was a steel band enthusiast and a friend of the “grassroots people, along with the Antigua Trades and Labor Union, headed by the Rt. Hon. Dr Vere Cornwall Bird, Sr., who at the time was the Union’s President, and also The Worker’s Voice newspaper which was the mouth piece for the “Grass Root People”, the steel band may have long been extinct.

Between 1949-1960 the band made annual tours to St. Thomas and St. Croix U.S.V.I., St. Kitts and Nevis. At the end of one of its tours to St. Thomas, two band members decided to remain there. They were . Bruce “Fundoo” Blood man and Alexander Roberts. While in St. Thomas they built a band which was named The Charlotte Amalie High Shooting Stars steel band.

In 1959 the band visited Trinidad, 1964 - U.S.A.: New York- World’s Fair, 1966 - U.S.A.: St. Louis, Missouri and Tampa, Florida; 1968 - Canada: Toronto- Caribana, Montreal; 1971 - U.S.A.: Minneapolis, Minnesota; 1976 - Montserrat; 1991 - Mexico: Mexico City, Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres; August 1992 - U.S.A.: Rochester and Manhattan. During this trip the band performed in a parade on main street Rochester, Factory outlet Mali, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Redwing Baseball stadium, the United Nations Library Auditorium and at the Church of the Crucifixions N.Y.

Also in 1992 - September: West Germany, Interboot Friedrichshafen; performances at the boat fair, Lindau Inseihalle, Mainau Island, Ball at Grafzeppelin Haus and the Hohentwiel-Ship on The Lake Constance. In February of 1997, the band members were invited to Aruba N.A., to assist in the revival of steel band music on the island. The instruments were built on Aruba by Eustace “Manning” Henry and his son Verona Henry; they had to demonstrate to the Arubans by performing on the instruments. As a result of the members’ performance and follow-up workshops, the Arubans started a Steel Band Academy.

Bertha Higgins, a qualified musician who resided at St Mary’s House on St. Mary’s was the first person to teach the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra from music, This was during the late forties.

In 1949, the Hon Edmond Hawkins Lake volunteered to be the president of the first Steel Band association.. Hells Gate Steel Orchestra and Brute Force Steel Orchestra were the two most popular Steel Bands then.

Hells Gate Steel Orchestra 1950
Hells Gate Steel Orchestra in 1950

In 1954, the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra was part of historic demonstration. This was the first time an English Cricket Team visited Antigua and Len Hutton, hailed at that time as the world’s best batsman, was part of the English Team. Antigua’s Hurbert Anthonyson, hailed as the best fast bowler in the Leeward Islands was not selected to be part of a team which was selected from amongst the Leeward Islands.

The excuse for Anthonyson’s non-selection was not accepted by the grassroots people on the island thus a massive demonstration resulted. The Trade Union, The Worker’s Voice Newspaper and other local groups took part in the demonstration,

Hells Gates Steel Orchestra was asked to support the demonstration, and they did so. Hells Gate’s involvement was reported to Governor Blackburn and as a result of this he never again invited the band to perform at Government House during the rest of his tenure of governor. Governor Blackburn was very much unlike Governor Baldwin his predecessor...

..In 1978 the band performed at the opening of the Economic Development Building. Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh were present.

The first steel band competition was in 1949 which was won by Cable and Wireless Hells Gate Steel Orchestra. The band went on to win every other competition which was held. 1958, was when carnival officially began and the years that the band won are as follows: 1958, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1967, 1976, 1990, 1991, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013...

Hell's Gate history continued - read more

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Source:  In Tune With Pan magazine, publication of the Cultural Development Division - Ministry of Education, Human Development & Culture, Antigua & Barbuda, W.I.  2008

Hells Gate Steel Orchestra 1952
Hells Gate Steel Orchestra in 1952


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