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Requiem for Jouvert Pan

by Dalton Narine

Spare, O God, in mercy
Spare the Jouvert steelbands
The city has no pity
Grant them thine eternal nest
And let the jackasses bray as they rest

So Jouvert dead, eh?

In the latter 1950s, Jouvert pan came into town like a lion and left like a lamb soon after the onset of the millennium.

Jouvert leaves a mother: the inventor of Pan. And father: an artificial noisemaker, raucous as ever.

Usually on Carnival’s opening day, Jouvert’s old man karays like a miserable sufferer from masturbatory egomania.

But it is always the mother who mourns a loss. The most of anybody at the gravesite, it seems, even long afterward.

Jouvert pan has been gone, what - how long?

The late steelpan innovator and pioneer Bertie Marshall
Bertie Marshall - Innovator, Band leader

Since 2003, when Starlift danced past a bonafide Bomb competition in tribute to Highlanders’ guru and acclaimed innovator Bertie Marshall - the contest held within stoning distance from Pan Trinbago, closer to Sacred Heart Girls' Roman Catholic School. So a sardine crowd-packed Park Street.

It may’ve been a sacrilegious move by Starlift. Still and all, no wonder the Woodbrook band bypassed a Bomb contest that required steel orchestras to reprise jazzy but colourful Highlanders arrangements.

It’s safe to say that Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II hadn’t dared to dream of an adaptation on pan featuring “It’s a Grand Night For Singing” (from the movie “State Fair”) and "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ " (from “Oklahoma!”). Granted, the few millennial revellers may have found the sound “foreign,” but, by and large, quite a few at least sang the first line, and everybody la-la’ed the melodies.

The ‘Lift had sought an opportunity to blow apart the audience with the Bomb, and bold-faced so, they backed it up with style, briskly tearing through Park Street. To hell with the competition. We’ll take the crowd. The bombs, packaged like a double at Globe, or Royal, Pyramid, for sure, you got both songs in a one-two combination, Starlift making a raid for truth, what with newcomers gallivanting to the high music and simple lyrics: “Oh what a beautiful mornin’, Oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a beautiful feelin’, Everything's going my way.”

Soon, the band reached the bridge.

The bridge served as the “hook,” dolled up as change key. So people get on, making a lot of antics and getting away with it.

I mean, the bridge hooked the crowd with a catchy combination of melody and rhythm. It would never leave the listener's head, because it took you straight to The Bomb, Part II: “It’s a grand night for singing, the moon is flying high, and somewhere a bird who is bound he'll be heard, is throwing his heart at the sky!”

Such lines may not have reached John Public that way, but fellas from the pit crew at the movies rolled the lyrics off their tongue like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Don’t doubt it. The pit crew would walk out of any fleabag theatre, and on the way to Belmont or Woodbrook, wherever, would stop at a corner and spit snappy dialogue at each other like John Garfield, John Wayne. Even Joan Crawford in “Johnny Guitar” would come to life under a lamp post.

Trinidad All Stars -- 1959
Trinidad All Stars performing Intermezzo on the road in 1959. The band won the Bomb competition.

And so it hung that 2003 Jouvert, when Trinidad All Stars followed Starlift with its slow jam version of “How Great Thou Art,” afterward the West saying this and the East countering with that. A dead heat it was, and the very last Bomb competition that I experienced - many years removed from my rookie year performing Intermezzo, Barcarolle and Liebestraum with the Stars.

I joined as a school boy in 1959, when we rehearsed the usual three Bombs in a cramped attic (the garret) atop the Maple Leaf Club on Charlotte Street. The previous year, All Stars originated classical music for Jouvert. Bully, a second pan player, perhaps still snarling, as was the rest of the band, over how Town had blessed Crossfire’s “Another Night Like This.” It was 1957. Strange that few pan aficionados from the West recalled El Merengue, All Stars’ song that year. Tribalism walked tall back then, you hear.

Leave it to Bully, then, to stoke the fire when he shouted at a rival band, “Wait till we drop the Bomb on all yuh Jouvert morning.”

Bomb? What Bomb? Nobody had heard the word bomb since the Korean War had ended.

Dalton Narine
Panist Dalton Narine

In context, what a classic line! Minuet in G may’ve been playing in Bully’s head as he spat it out. Bully didn’t break band founder and leader/arranger Neville Jules’ rule of silence, though. We rehearsed with our finger tips and had to pass a nightly test, some players barred from leaving the garret till two, three fo’day morning. Bully eventually later claimed rightful status with a singular description for classics played in calypso tempo.

Today, the thrill is gone. Jouvert come like a five cents shave ice - worth nothing at all. To paraphrase a South African miners protest song, the wind is blowing and once again, pan is left out in the cold.

Today’s Jouvert believes that the celebration is new only by artifice of the producers - the DJs, Jouvert’s outside children.

But that’s not the reality. The millennials know otherwise.

Keenly aware of sight and sound of virtual reality, they can tell when an artificial environment is created and presented to the public in such a way that Jouvert dancers and artificial noisemakers suspend belief and take it as a real environment.

Sight: nothing to see.

Sound: plenty ka-ka-phony (yes, we own cacophony.)

Forsyth Highlanders
Forsyth Highlanders

Hear prize-winning author Earl Lovelace: “Jouvert and Emancipation are closely connected. Once pan was taken over by the government or whoever in relation to the Savannah, in a sense Jouvert and the almost loss of pan became a complex problem.”

Earl Lovelace
Earl Lovelace, is a Trinidadian novelist, playwright, and short story writer

In commercializing Panorama, Lovelace says, the whole spirit of what the broader sense of it meant was that we were showing people what we could do. We weren’t showing ourselves. We have not thought of what we have done. What have we done with what we’ve done?

“How to turn the society around? What are we about? People who are not resources of intelligence of feeling and research. Our native intelligence relates to composers, arrangers, pan makers, pan pushers. Pan cannot be reduced to Panorama. It’s much bigger. Art has a deeper concern than making money. it will make money if you produce quality and give incentive to the bands.

“The music of the masters, European in invention, street-borne in style and manner, lavish in praise by ordinary folk. We music is not classics anymore, but Bombs.

“The Bomb is a unique label that in the dead of night Soca maggots have peeled off from the drums of dawn.”

Les Slater at Labor Day Parade 2008
Les Slater

Les Slater, a former Highlanders arranger who founded Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute in New York, doesn’t see a rejuvenation of the art at all.

“It’s not doable,” Slater says. “How could you make Jouvert pan as lucrative as Panorama? You don’t get a million-dollar prize. In the early days, the Panorama beast had not yet arrived. The steelband determined who won the road march. You can’t change it now.

“It’s offensive. You have this beautiful music forum that we’ve come up with. Its dominance in the Carnival. And you devolve to where pan is not the main ingredient.”

Arranger Ray Holman has a suggestion.

“If they move Panorama to Sunday night - less bands, of course - it’ll be more exciting as part of Dimanche Gras. Pan and Kaiso. Decades ago, young people followed pan from the fetes to the streets.

“But the pan fraternity don’t like to look objectively at ideas, so they can’t progress. Part of the problem is Panorama.”

Holman arranged for Invaders and Starlift during Pan’s glory years. His stock rose when he authored Bombs such as I Feel Pretty; his landmark composition, Pan on the Move; Beethoven’s Sonata in C and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman.

"I Feel pretty" arranged by Ray Holman

“When you reach Green Corner, the music becomes serious business,” Holman recalls. “We dropped the Bomb there and take it through Port of Spain. Today, nobody wants to hear your music. In 2004, I asked a man what band had just gone down the road. He said, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’

Ray Holman - Steelpan Arranger
Champion Arranger Ray Holman

“The music you performed and the appreciation and acclamation we used to receive from the crowds was so euphoric, it made the rivalry among bands keener. Arrangers like Silver StarsJunior Pouchet did so much to make steel band enjoyable and popular. And Trinidad All Stars’ Neville Jules (father of the Bomb) was a master who had a kinda feel for Jouvert. He chose good tunes, nice music, did it well (well into in his 80s.).

“Bertie Marshall uplifted Highlanders. He was ahead of his time amplifying some of his instruments. How did we lose all that? Jouvert’s spirituality, religious feel, early morning before the sun came up - a feeling of purity. The pans sounded so much better. The mind accepted them. Today? Nothing. No vibe. How to deal with pan on trucks pulled by tractors? Used to be young revellers took pride in pushing the pans, following the bands home.”

Beverly Griffith, Desperadoes triple crown arranger in 1966, having won Panorama, Bomb competition and Best Road Band, questions today’s arrangers, offers solutions.

“The don’t want to play classics? Gershwin? US composers? So where are you going if there’s nothing to play. The musical compositions are not keeping up with the times.

Beverly Griffith - Steelpan Arranger
Champion Arranger Beverly Griffith

“Give me something that the arranger can sink his teeth into. I have to take my paint brush and redo the work. I can’t play two chords for eight minutes.

“For example, most of Tchaikovsky’s Ballad and Theme from Slave Varie, a Bomb with which we had much success (including airplay on a Chicago Classical radio station in 1988), most of the arrangement revolved around the bass, melody, harmony, countermelody and jazz chords (soul).

“But if you want to shun the classics, there’s a wealth of music that doesn’t have anything to do with them. What are you left with? Justin Bieber? Pharrell?

“By the way, all the talk about the vaunted Despers sound coming from the instruments, I don’t buy that. It comes from me. It’s the arranger who puts it together. He’s doing it. I was hearing it as a young man putting it together in Starland. Same thing.”

Perhaps the most acclaimed arranger of Jouvert pan, Highlanders’ Johnny Phillip, who, under Bertie Marshall’s command, took Town by storm when he orchestrated victories with Handel’s “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” (1965) and Rossini’s “Italian Girl in Algiers” (1967), acknowledges that the defunct Laventille band’s inspiration emanated from Trinidad All Stars’ success on the road.

Johnny Phillip
Johnny Phillip

“We were an unrecognized band until we got respect after we dropped the Bomb, ‘Waltz from the Opera Faust,’ in front of Trinidad All Stars’ panyard. “In succeeding years, Bertie and I would spend time in Mayaro planning for a better showing on the road.

“When he decided on ‘Every Valley’ from The Messiah, I went to work. I had to find the book, and the Police Band referred me to a woman who played the piano. We worked hard on that piece and it was no accident that we won.”

Simeon Sandiford, managing director of Sanch Electronix, remembers the large crowds following the band, not wanting to miss a beat.

“Some were so moved by the amplification and especially the music, that the experience drew tears. Very emotional. I’ll never forget that morning.”

“We had a formula,” Phillip recalls. “Introduction, exciting parts, jazz it up a bit. We carried two six bases and six five bass, and I arranged the sound to feature the bass. it was Les Slater who introduced the jazz aspect before he went to the States to study.

“Italian Girl was my idea. I played with the song in my head for two to three years. Got the music from the Police Band. Took an amplified high tenor to town along with an amplified six bass and 36 double tenors. The rest is history. So many people still remember it as the best Bomb they’ve ever heard.

“Why don’t we have that kind of feeling anymore? Playing good music. They don’t know what they’re missing today. I guess this is their version, their time. I had mine. But if I had power, I’d gladly bring back pan on Jouvert. Pan on a truck is like a stage side. The power of Jouvert pan is about size.”


Dalton Narine
Dalton Narine
Dalton Narine joined Trinidad All Stars when the band played in the Garret, the attic of the building housing Maple Leaf Club on Charlotte Street. While serving as a Carnival and Panorama commentator and interviewer on Trinidad & Tobago Television for more than 20 years, he continued to play the Bomb every J’Ouvert until he switched to filmmaking.
contact Dalton Narine at:

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