Pan Explosion – The Making of The Jit Samaroo Sound

by Garvin Blake

Provided with the expressed permission of: the Author

Global - “I was scared like hell!” Jit confessed. But who wouldn’t be terrified writing music for a band named Renegades, with a leader called “Boldface”? And to make matters worse, Renegades was from LaCou Harpe, an urban area once known for badjohns, jammettes and stick fighters. Jit would require some coaxing before he would commit to the job.

Fortunately, the pan tuner Bertram “Birch” Kelman, who had recommended Jit to Renegades, convinced the young Samaroo to accept the challenge. Despite his initial fear, the soft-spoken 21-year old told Renegades that he was not coming to Port of Spain to imitate the big-name arrangers in the city. Jit was going to sound like Jit.

Jit Samaroo
 Jit Samaroo

Skill, luck and courage are hallmarks of artistic excellence. Each ingredient is indispensable, yet inadequate minus each other. Novel ideas without a forum die. Competence absent adventure is dull. Bravery unbound is reckless.

How, why and where new innovations occur is mysterious. Who will be the architects? Some trailblazers seemingly spring up out of nowhere, others seem preordained. Some come from the heart of the action, others emerge from off the beaten path.

Always hungry for pan, I took the treacherous drive with some friends to Surrey Village, Lopinot in 2019 to listen to Supernovas rehearse and to see where Jit Samaroo was born.

Map of Trinidad highlighting the location of Supernovas Steel Orchestra's panyard
Surrey Village, Lopinot

Located in the foothills of Trinidad’s Northern Range, with one way in via a narrow, winding road that elevates with every turn, Lopinot has a quaint, remoteness about it. It seemed like an unlikely place to produce a towering panman. Finding Jericho, the militant fugitive Kitchener sang about in 1974, or a soucouyant hiding in the forest that surrounds the village felt more likely, if I were daring enough to venture out there in the dark.

Lopinot Village
Site in Lopinot Village - image: G. Blake

I went to Lopinot again in 2020. This time, driving about two miles past Supernovas’ panyard to meet Pablo, a long-time resident and a long-time friend of my friend Bunny. There was an added serenity about the village on the second trip. Maybe because it was daytime and the lush mountains were in full view. I also found out how deep music ran through the veins of the people.

After offering us some fruits he had just picked from the trees in his yard, Pablo said, “Boy, allyuh must come up here for de Christmas. Is parang music like rain. We does start in September. Ah have mih cuatro inside, in de back. Everybody up here does play something.” That’s when Jit’s story started taking shape. 

Jit’s mother, who died before he was a teenager, played the Dholak, a South Asian two-headed drum. Jit played guitar in the local parang bands, and was a member of Village Boys, a pan-around-the-neck steel band. This early exposure to complex Indian rhythms, Spanish-tinged harmonies and African-derived percussions gave Jit a deep musical and cultural arsenal that he would utilize on his creative journey.

Parang in Lopinot, Trinidad

In 1965 Jit was taken by a neighbor to play pan with the Canboulay Steelband in Tunapuna, a town five miles from Lopinot. Jit’s talent was instantly recognized, and he was given an opportunity to arrange a few songs for the group. Jit also began taking music lessons, where he showed an uncanny ability to write four-part counterpoint, the art of creating independent melodies in conjunction with one another. Soon, this harmonic device would become one of his trademarks.

Jit’s mother’s untimely death required him to become the caretaker for his younger siblings. Needing a way to keep the family together, Jit brought home some discarded pans from Canboulay, and taught his brothers and sisters how to play. The family group became The Samaroo Kids, and later renamed The Samaroo Jets. They made several recordings, toured the world and competed in Trinidad Steelband Music Festivals. In 1972, Jit represented the band in the festival, where he won the Ping Pong soloist category.

1972 was also Jit’s first Panorama with Renegades and the band made it to the semifinals playing Sparrow’s “Rope.” Boldface and the players were filled with optimism. But three carnivals would come and go before the group advanced past the preliminary round of the competition. Still, Jit remained undaunted. There was a breakthrough in 1976 when the band qualified for the semifinals performing Sparrow’s “The Statue,” a crowd favorite. Two years later, Jit made it to the finals with his gorgeous handling of “Social Dora” written by Kitchener, his future soulmate. The pan pundits were put on notice. There was a new voice in town.

The 1980’s began with a lot of promise for Jit and Renegades. The band placed 3rd in 1980 with their rendition of Kitchener’s “Jean Pierre the Netball Queen.” They moved up a notch in 1981 playing “Mo Pan,” another Kitchener selection. But Jit would have to wait another year before claiming the most coveted prize in the pan world. The crown, however, would not come easily. Renegades would have to withstand one of the fiercest showdowns in Panorama history.

Jit Samaroo
Jit Samaroo

Port of Spain was abuzz for Panorama 1982.

Coming off back-to-back wins with the immortal “Woman on the Bass” and Super Blue’s “Unknown Band,” Leon “Smooth” Edwards and Trinidad All Stars were poised to three-peat with their blistering version of Kitchener’s “Heat.” Just up de hill from Trinidad All Stars, Clive Bradley had returned to Desperadoes, after a one-year hiatus, to compose and arrange the classic “Party Tonight.” A short distance east of Desperadoes, in de Morvant Junction, Harmonites were trying to get back in winners’ row with Earl Rodney’s often forgotten gem “Pan Running Wild” sung by Squibby.

In Belmont, Casablanca were on the rise with a group of young, talented players and the unheralded arranger Henry “Bendix” Cumberbatch. Their brilliant rendition of Scrunter’s “The Will” was a warning shot, as Casablanca would go on to win the Music Festival later that year, featuring a monumental performance of Tchaikovsky’s “The 1812 Overture” under the direction of Anthony Prospect. On Jerningham Avenue, across from the Savannah, the maestro Ray Holman was continuing to stretch the limits of the artform with his lyrical and elegant composition “Musical Showdown” performed by Pandemonium.

Down in de Village in Woodbrook, the gifted musical rebel Len “Boogsie” Sharpe wrote the forward-looking “Pan Take Over” for Phase II Pan Groove. Further west, Power Stars were mounting a threat in St. James playing the veteran musician Edouard Wade’s up-tempo version of Scorcher’s “Party Fever.” At the other end of the east-west corridor, the accomplished Headley brothers did an inspiring interpretation of “The Will” for the Tunapuna band Exodus. The pioneering steelband Invaders, Deltones out of South Trinidad (Boogsie’s second band in the finals) and Sun Valley were also in the fight for pan supremacy.

Meanwhile, back in de Harpe, Renegades were arming themselves with Jit’s seminal masterpiece, “Pan Explosion,” Kitchener’s battle hymn.

Renegades Steel Orchestra
Renegades Steel Orchestra - 1982 Panorama Final

This was a golden era for Panorama. Some may scoff at that comment, and say all the eras are golden, or comparing them is impossible, even pointless. Nevertheless, the exercise of evaluating time periods can be instructive, providing a method for understanding how art evolves.

Most fans have a period they cherish, largely informed by age and the success of their favorite band in those years. However, the arrangements between 1976 and 1986 — my cherry-picked golden era — can rival any other ten-year span in the history of Panorama. (note: there were only 10 Panoramas from 1976 to 1986 because of the 1979 Panorama boycott).

Renegades Steel Orchestra
Renegades Steel Orchestra

Great songs were played before and after this period, but this era continues to be a yardstick for past and future Panoramas. Crème de la crème pan pieces like Desperadoes’ “Pan in Harmony” and “Rebecca,” Pandemonium’s “Panyard Vibrations,” Starlift’sDu Du Yemi,” Trinidad All Stars’ “Woman on de Bass,” Harmonites’ “Distant Drums,” Renegades’ “Sweet Pan,” Tokyo’s “Pan in Danger” and Phase II Pan Groove’s “Pan Rising” were conceived during this era. Not all were winners, but all are jewels. The boycott prevented Bradley’s “Symphony in G” and Boogsie’s “79 is Mine” from getting a final verdict from the judges, but anyone who has heard them know they’re superior works.

Jit could not have hoped for a better period to express his music. He had Kitchener’s well-crafted songs and Kelman’s well-tuned instruments. He had crackshot players and an area hungry for a win. A great environment to experiment and grow. This was the spirit of the era.

This was a time when all the bands had a wide variety of good calypsos to choose from. Bertie Marshall, Wallace Austin, Leo Coker, Lincoln Noel, Jim St. Rose, Herman Guppy “Brown” and others were producing finely-tuned pans. All the top groups had skilled performers. Community support was the norm. And above all, a group of groundbreaking musicians were inventing the language that still serves as today’s blueprint for Panorama.

On Saturday, February 20th 1982 the titans of the pan world clashed in the Queen’s Park Savannah in front of a packed North and Grand Stands.

The music connoisseurs headed for their seats in the Grand Stands. The vibes-seekers gathered in the North Stands. Throngs of pan jumbies stayed outside, preferring to experience the raw energy of the bands up-close as they rehearse on de Drag. The rest of the country sat and watched the drama unfold on TV or huddled next to a radio in a neighborhood bar or a favorite liming spot.

The nervous, anxious Panorama energy was in the air. Big money bets were placed. Bragging rights and eternal glory at stake. Fans flocked Renegades as the band took the journey up Charlotte Street to the Savannah. Are we going to return to LaCou Harpe elated or deflated? After two years of knocking on the door, there was no place to go but up many supporters felt.

They also knew anything could happen finals night, especially with former champions Trinidad All Stars, Desperadoes and Harmonites coming for the kill. Plus, people in town were saying Pandemonium, Casablanca, Power Stars and Phase II were sounding dangerous.

Playing in position number 2, Renegades would have to pull out all the stops if they were going to get the title.

Renegades “Pan Explosion” (Panorama Semifinals 1982)

Dressed in white polo jerseys and light blue caps, Renegades took the stage. Three marksmen fronted the band, with ninety-seven more gunners behind, raring to go. The lights come on. Perched on top the engine room, Jit marshaled the band from de Harpe into action with four brisk blows on a cowbell.

The introduction began with a 6-note motif based on the open line of Kitchener’s calypso. This idea was repeated starting on a different pitch, which created a sense of stability. However, the calm didn’t last long..

Jit Samaroo
Jit Samaroo

Immediately after the band played the theme, Jit’s masterful orchestration was on display. The midrange pans took the lead, while the frontline fired stinging jabs at the chords. The quadrophonics and four-pans were thrown into the spotlight. A spectacle to be seen and heard. There was constant dialog among all the instruments. Beautifully contoured lines flowed from every section of the orchestra. Melodic fragments, executed with rapid-fire speed, filled the Savannah.

Around the five-and-a-half-minute mark, there’s a key change using the phrase “is pan explosion,” leading to a variation of the verse, highlighted by five off-the-beat bass drops early in the passage. As the chorus begins, the tenors and double tenors unleash a steady barrage of zigzagging notes that outline Kitchener’s seductive harmony as the middle pans state the melody in a deep, dark register. The long, mesmerizing run is replayed for those who didn’t believe what they had just heard...

The piece was now at a fever pitch. To ease the tension, Jit suddenly broke into a jam, with the frontline riffing over a simple bass figure. It was time to leggo and play yuhself. The band now cleverly exploited the motivic device used to open the piece to modulate to the original key. The orchestra settled back in and the theme is restated. You could have sensed the end was near.

But before Renegades finished, Jit launched another attack.

As the chorus ended, there was an abrupt stop followed by an ageless syncopated phrase. The frontline then started shouting “is pan explosion” and the middle pans answered with some classic kaiso lines. A few bars later, the basses started urgently playing “is pan explosion” as the tenors retreated and let loose a breakaway rhythm. This was de bacchanal side of Jit.

The crowd was riveted. For reinforcement, Jit called up the full band to blast “is pan explosion.” You could feel the power. An upward harmonic progression intensified the passage. Both North and Grand stands were euphoric. And with 10 devastating strikes on a major chord the assault ended.

Finally, the war was over. Jit and Renegades were victorious.

Trinidad All Stars was the first runner-up, Desperadoes the second runner-up. Harmonites, Casablanca and Pandemonium came 4th, 5th and 6th, respectively. Power Stars, Exodus and Phase 2 filled the next three spots. Invaders, Deltones and Sun Valley pulled up the rear, nothing to be ashamed of considering the stacked field.

After cricket and football, arguing Panorama results is the most popular sport in Trinidad. The placings are fiercely debated, sometimes for years. 1982 was no exception.

Many pan aficionados, for good reasons, still claim that “Party Tonight” is the best song that didn’t win Panorama. Folks from ‘round de Bridge and beyond proudly state “Heat” was a winner. It definitely had all the qualities to win. Phase II diehards will insist the judges didn’t understand Boogsie’s music, a valid point. But, like it or not, a new champion was crowned, ushering in a remarkable decade-and-a-half run for Jit and Renegades.

A lot of Jit’s signature ideas were present the year before in “Mo Pan,” but they were crystalized and breathtakingly executed in “Pan Explosion.”

Renegades Steel Orchestra
Renegades Steel Orchestra

The music’s most vital elements blossomed in the charged inner voices or flew by at lightning speed in the outer voices. All the lines were meticulously constructed and intricately stitched together — a result of Jit’s early counterpoint training. And despite the complexity and density of the arrangement, you still felt the Trinidadian lavway, particularly in the jam sections. The Lopinot folk roots never far away.

This would become the prototype for the “Jit Samaroo Sound.”

Unlike Clive Bradley who continuously reinvented himself, once Jit found his voice, his musical approach became measured, preferring incremental change over radical transformation. He refined his exacting arranging technique — most notably by adding Latin grooves, rich modulations and polyrhythms — to win eight more Panoramas with Renegades as well as the first hat trick (1995, 1996 & 1997).

Michael Marcano, former Renegades President, player - with  co-writing partner and arranger Jit Samaroo
Michael Marcano (left), former Renegades President, player - with  co-writing partner and arranger Jit Samaroo (right)

Surprisingly, after the historic three-peat, Jit would not come higher than 4th in Panorama, which occurred in 1998. Renegades would not win another Panorama until 2018, two years after Jit passed away.

Renegades Steel Orchestra - 2006 - Judgement Day
Renegades Steel Orchestra performing “Judgement Day” - Panorama 2006

The winning formula that served Jit so well fell out of favor with the judges. He nevertheless continued producing beautiful music. His 2006 arrangement of DeFosto’s “Judgement Day” - a polished piece, completed a year before he retired as the musical director for Renegades, is a good example of his later work. The arrangement didn’t have the same arc as “Pan Explosion,” yet it’s unmistakably Jit. A gentle soul from Surrey Village speaking boldly, in his own words, in his own style.

Renegades - Judgement Day (2006)

Renegades finished 6th in Panorama that year. But by then, Jit didn’t need to prove anything. He had already received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies and was awarded two national medals of merit. His non-Panorama compositions, the patriotic “La Trinity” and “Song of Lopinot,” an ode to his village, were used as compulsory pieces at Steelband Music Festivals. And he had also written the sound track for Kamalo Deen’s aptly titled motion picture “The Panman.”

But long before those accolades and accomplishments, Jit’s legacy was secure. His name was etched in time that night Renegades left LaCou Harpe, marched up Charlotte Street, invaded de Savannah, fired a few rounds on de Drag, stormed de Big Stage and captured their first victory.

Garvin Blake is a New York-based pan player and recording artist. His latest CD is Parallel Overtones.

Look out for Garvin’s upcoming book -  “Portraits in Pan”  to be release early next year 

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