Bobby Mohammed, Trini, par excellence

An opinion

by Professor Theodore Lewis

Provided by and published with the expressed permission of: the Author

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - Bobby Mohammed is no longer with us. He made an extraordinary contribution here, that was distinct, and transcending. It was in the realm of the qualitative. The soul. This man moved you. You did not have to be a musician. He could twist and turn you emotionally. Even competitors loved and revered him. Town bowed to him, a South man. Renegades opened their yard to the band when they needed a place to store their pans, having played mas in town in the 60s. This is Renegades when they acted the part, the home of Dr. Rat, Papito, and other Lawbreakers. Protecting Bobby and his band.

Guinness Cavaliers
Guinness Cavaliers - Southern Steelband Winners 1964 - picture and handwritten caption provided by Bobby Mohammed

Listen to the very first bars of strumming in Guinness Cavaliers’ piece “Kiss of Fire” and you are transfixed. Cavaliers (or simply “Guinness”) was a splinter band, an off shoot from Gondoliers, which was a rather belligerent band, prone towards Steelband clashes. I know because Southern Marines, our Marabella band, would have been their nemesis. But Bobby was not interested in steelband fight culture. He heard something else. So, he and a group of his followers moved away to form their own band.

Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed of Cavaliers Steel Orchestra
Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed of Cavaliers Steel Orchestra

In 1965, with the band no more than two years old, and he only 22, this precocious youth dropped a ʽbomb′ in the Panorama prelims in the Queen′s Park Savannah, that remains a marker in pan annals.

How do you know that something extra-ordinary happened in the savannah that day? Well, people who were not there talk about it as if they were. And a standard way in which they do so, is to say that they were on their way home from the savannah as Guinness started beating, and they had to run back when they heard the bass (base). It is true, that they beat at number 42 that year, the very last band in the prelims. They were a southern band, it would not have seemed to be worth the while to hang around. But sweet pan is sweet pan. The legend of Guinness Cavaliers and Bobby Mohammed was born in the savannah that prelim day. They came back in town a few days later to win the finals.

It is a sin that a full recording of that final night performance has not surfaced for decades, and someone could do us all a favour, maybe those who hold the archives of the radio stations, because the version that Glenroy Joseph has posted is shorter, and has a flaw at the end.

Lennox Bobby Mohammed
Guinness Cavaliers  (image source: Lennox Bobby Mohammed - Facebook)

The next year they came back again with Kitchener’s “My Brother”, and the main competition that year was Desperadoes, playing “Melda”. If you hear Melda even today, you will see that a judge would have had a real dilemma voting against it as the winning tune. Those tenors. And the playing. But this is about Bobby, and I have to say that the only reason that Guinness did not win again in 1966 was that Melda, indeed, was better than My Brother. But, what a defense of a title!

He was back again in 1967, winning.

On Panorama night keep an eye on Bobby when Guinness is on stage. He is in the middle of the band holding a Baptist bell. He strikes the bell at particular times, such as change of key. He remains impassive. He does not jump up. He does not dance. He listens and he hears. He is in another world. A place only people like DaVinci, Bertie Marshall, Bertram Kelman, Clive Bradley have been. It is where genius resides.

A few years ago, I was chatting on the phone with my long-standing friend Seeteram Ramnarine, who has lived in Canada since the 1960s—a San Fernando boy, and he asked me about Bobby. The families knew each other. He told me I should go see him. I did not know him or the family sufficiently to feel I could do that. Bobby had done some stints teaching steelband music in Canadian schools. Seeteram indicated that there was music tradition in the family.

The pan establishment has modeled racial inclusiveness. Pan is from behind the bridge. It is an African invention. But Bobby, Steve Achaiba, and Jit Samaroo, among others have held their own, adding substantial value.

This country must act in acknowledgment of this passing. We must say thanks to this wonderful, unassumingly quite man, this brilliant soul, and to his family, for a contribution to our ethos—our striving for equanimity, for the claim of being “developed”.

I was at Library Corner one J’Ouvert morning, in San Fernando, and Guinness was coming—that was the buzz in the crowd. They were still out of my sight. But I could hear them turning from Lord Street onto Mucurapo, playing the theme from the movie “Is Paris Burning”.

Good god. The bass sound in that thing. Bass talking.

Professor Theodore Lewis
Professor Theodore Lewis

Some years ago, Dr. Lennox Archibald, Epidemiologist at University of Florida, and at one point the State epidemiologist in Florida, sent me two recordings of Guinness. He is a Marabella boy and told me that as an Indian boy, the exploits of Bobby Mohammed gave him special joy. He explained how transformative it was for him as a child to know that this band had an Indian leader, and he remembered that the first time he was able to get near to the band on carnival day, he made his way to touch the pans.  

I am going to give him the last word here by including a bit of the note he sent me in 2009:

“Theodore: I have attached two You-Tube recordings by Guinness Cavaliers: “67” won Panorama in 1967 and Tzina Tzina won the bomb competition the same year. These are not studio recordings-I believe this is the closest you can get to what they sounded like in their heyday. Modern pan sides have lost that essence of sweetness captured by these pieces. The importance of the engine room is underscored in these recordings---something Bobby never forgot. Enjoy.”

Theodore Lewis

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