“Despers achieved more in one night at Carnegie Hall than we have been able to accomplish in more than 20 years of diplomatic effort.”
Babooram Rambissoon -
Trinidad & Tobago’s Consul General in New York
The year is 1987 and pan is about to begin its meteoric rise. One of the (critical) events that catapulted this ascension is the now-historic Desperadoes Steel Orchestra tour of New York which included performance stints at Carnegie Hall, Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to name a few.
Desperadoes at the Apollo -
What is not known is the massive undertaking and delicate ‘background’ goings on/negotiations that would be required to successfully pull this off, or - to make it happen at all.
Fortunately we are still privy to these ‘historic footnotes’ through the journalistic undertakings of Leslie Slater and Dalton Narine - then in charge of the “Pan” publication where the story was originally published.
In this article on that Desperadoes tour, the readers are afforded front row seats to an understanding of the politics and shenanigans which threatened to derail this historic and pivotal music engagement of the famed steel orchestra. The Good, the Bad, the Ugly – including the heroes and the goats - are all exposed. Read on!
Trial and Error
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice, goes an old joke.
That WITCO Desperadoes almost didn’t make it to the august concert hall on West 57th Street wasn’t because of a sparse work ethic.
It was not, as some erroneously reported, that Desperadoes was the first steel orchestra to play Carnegie Hall. That had been done before on several occasions. No, what gave this event its landmark status was the kind of Carnegie Hall audience that “Despers” had enthralled. This was not the sort of crowd that convened at Carnegie, as they did in the 60’s, for a Sparrow–headlined calypso show, with a steel band thrown in. Or even the folks on hand for the Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra/(pianist) Winifred Atwell trail blazer almost twenty years ago. For Desperadoes in ‘87 it was an audience, predominantly, of New York chic.
Harry Belafonte, pan stick and all, celebrates with the Despers rank and file after their memorable Carnegie Hall Performance. New York Daily News VP John Camp is next to Belafonte. (Photo by M. Bambi)
They had come to Carnegie, lured by the likes of Liza Minnelli, Skitch Henderson’s New York Pops Orchestra, musical star Peter Allen and others. And it was the improbable WITCO Desperadoes of Trinidad who blew them away, delivering the kind of knockout punch that this gussied-up Gotham crowd would not soon forget. When they spontaneously broke out in rhythmic hand-clapping accompaniment to the familiar strains of the “Can Can” in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, it was all over but for the shouting. Now it could be certified: add to the list of captives of Despers’ magical execution the Carnegie Hall gathering of May 27, 1987.
Manager Robert Greenidge would say later that the significance of upstaging Liza Minnelli and company would probably be lost on most of his 45-member aggregation. “I’m sure many of them didn’t know how big a star someone like Liza Minnelli is,” he said. But certainly getting a couple of prolonged standing ovations at Carnegie had to have some impact, wouldn’t he think? And Greenidge concurred. “Of course. That was exciting for all of us.”
Successful appearances followed at the Apollo Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music. And Greenidge would look back on it all and declare that the week-long tour’s biggest payoff was its being “a tremendous showcase for the band. It showed that the Despers was back and peaking again.”
The peaking, if that is indeed what it was, couldn’t be more impeccably timed. A characteristically sober judgment offered by Trinidad & Tobago’s Consul General in New York, Babooram Rambissoon, perhaps best put things in context: “Despers achieved more in one night at Carnegie Hall than we have been able to accomplish in more than 20 years of diplomatic effort.”
Bureaucracy, the boon of civil authority, and its sidekick “per diem expenses” the bane of the touring steel hand, conspired to put the trip into jeopardy at the very beginning. Nice move, it turned out. Nice move?
Because pan lords have been suffering from a case of “ringing ears” since the TASPO tour of ’51, the resulting “moneyocracy” of the Despers experience could serve as education to steel bands aspiring to international stardom. Ask The Radoes about the first lesson in pan entrepreneurship and the counsel you get is that all deals must be packaged abroad.
It was inadvertent, but the Despers tour was a pilot project on how to vend the culture tastefully and successfully, albeit painfully. In truth, the band may have set new standards for the marketability of pan, thanks to the government at home and corporate sponsors in the Big Apple.
Hail the new era of corporate pan.
It all began in storybook ambience on a summer evening last year in a New York restaurant. None of the principals was Trinidadian. So far so good. Conductor Skitch Henderson of the New York Pops, John Campi, vice president and director of promotions and public relations of the New York Daily News and Karl Rodney, publisher of Carib News of New York, were chatting over dinner following a Pops performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre when the subject of pan was broached.
Henderson had lucked into the art form some 15 years ago in Halifax, Canada, and had written a concerto for pan and symphony.
“It wasn’t practical then to bring a big band from Trinidad,” he recalled in a recent interview.
But Henderson’s ship was about to come in.
“I told Skitch that I’d just returned from Trinidad,” said Rodney, “and Catelli All Stars was playing excellent music. Then I invited both men to Trinidad for the steel band championships last October.”
Henderson was unable to attend but Campi, a former drummer, and the Jamaican-born Rodney took in the world’s most prestigious percussion festival with the excitement of young boys on Christmas morning.
The magic of Desperadoes—after all, they’d beaten the champion All Stars, coming off 19 years of self-imposed exile—begged to be showcased, and messrs Campi, Rodney and Henderson found good reason to oblige. (Trinidadian Carlisle Hall, a New York travel agency operator, was “very helpful” in establishing contacts, Rodney said.)
Notwithstanding London’s Royal Albert Hall, in terms of eminence Carnegie Hall is Mecca, and Despers figured on earning kudos and standing ovations from an eclectic audience accustomed to virtuoso performances. One small step for Pan, one giant step for Trinidad and Tobago. Well... maybe.
Eight months lay between the contest and the ultimate prize. Plenty of time to deliver, right? But we’re talking Trinidad time, of course. To compound events, there was this little matter of the government changing hands in December. In addition, the legacy of a Mother Hubbard treasury that was left to the new administration certainly couldn’t help the cause. Moreover, negotiations among the Ministry of Culture, the Tourist Board and the New York impresarios had bogged down on a bureaucratic treadmill. You got the feeling things were moving but that wasn’t the case at all, is how some parties close to the action saw it.
Meanwhile, Pat Bishop, Despers’ conductor, was taking the band on long musical trips well into the night. So you want to get to Carnegie Hall?
How was she able to whip the players into shape without a baton?
“The way I conduct,” she would say, “is to, for instance, give a fella a bad eye. Facial expressions are what do it for me. I could never conduct with a naked face.”
For their part, Campi and company didn’t get the big stare from the powers- that-be, but obviously they felt a big chill when promises went awry. At one point word was given (and taken) for the band’s expenses in New York: ground transportation, etc., to be paid by the Tourist Board. Later, there would be no money in the till. Now you see it, now you don’t, for there was “nothing in writing.”
Big Apple Serenade: A Despers salute to New York City rings out from the City Hall City Hall
The tour was unraveling even before it got underway. Enter the Ministry’s Joan Massiah.
“She acted as liaison at a crucial time, and we appreciated her efforts,” Campi said.
Still, the band wasn’t sure about the trip as late as three weeks before actual departure. Finally, courtesy the affable BWIA, Desperadoes arrived in this city of eight million big dreams on a literal wing and a prayer.
“If we had the time we could have booked the band on the popular Today show, as well as a host of other TV shows,” Campi said. “Great talent was held back. Why must this music be kept a secret?”
Then there was the unresolved question of hotel expenses, etc. Coca-Cola and AT&T provided answers not at all too soon. As major sponsor, the Daily News contributed massively, including the running of 10 full-page ads over a span of two weeks. The paper also printed a special front page feature highlighting the band’s New York achievements. Each concert goer at the four sold-out shows received an issue as a memento.
The accolades poured in like humanity would at a Prince/Michael Jackson one–nighter. Harry Belafonte told the band after it received two standing O’s at the Carnegie benefit: “It took me 40 years to play Carnegie. You guys made it and were super.”
New York Pops music director Skitch Henderson (centre) joins Desperadoes manager Robert Greenidge and conductor Pat Bishop
“I have a tough orchestra,” Henderson said, “but my guys dropped their jaws and never closed them until Despers finished playing. I used to think the instrument was limited, but not anymore.
“Despers is the Rolls Royce of this representation of classical music. I love Pat Bishop.” “This trip,” Bishop said, “has confirmed to me that the instrument is quite remarkable and utterly legitimate and I don’t think we deserve it, because we have no use for it. We don’t know what to do with it.” That’s the way she speaks. Outrageously sincere.
Bishop was waiting for a bus outside her Manhattan hotel when a black woman approached her. “Sister,” the stranger said, “you don’t know what you’ve done for black people.”
Said David Rudder, who performed with opening act Pelham Goddard and Charlie’s Roots at the Brooklyn Academy of Music three days after the Carnegie concert: “The performance of Desperadoes brings more and more people into our world, because we’ve been living in their world for so long.”
Goddard himself allowed as how the culture was exposed to a “different type of audience this time.” Pan has been to New York before, of course, but not the way Despers has brought it here.”
The Flip Side...
It is perhaps inevitable, given the oftentimes rocky and unrewarded course Trinidad & Tobago’s steel band music has run, that an event like the Desperadoes visit to New York would take form in a manner that has a bristling effect in some quarters. During and immediately following the week of performances, there was no shortage of detractive comment. Probably so on account the band’s enjoying unprecedented publicity—thanks, primarily—to the involvement of the mass-circulation New York Daily News—and therefore being much more of a conversation piece than would normally have been the case.
Carlisle Hall—whose past is not without substantive acknowledgement of pan’s compelling presence—considers himself no mere bystander in the Despers-in-New-York scenario. A central player when the undertaking was little more than a drawing board item, Hall wound up (of his own volition, he insists) on the periphery as the exercise snaked and bumped its way toward fulfillment. His main contention has been (i) that the Trinidad & Tobago government chose not to make capital of the exceptional promotional opportunity the Despers tour afforded, and (ii) that some folk seemed more intent on personal high-profiling than in seeing the band through a flawless schedule of commitments.
“By declining to pick up the band’s per diem and other incidental expenses,” Hall said, “the Trinidad government in effect rejected the idea that we should be in solid control of the promotional flow deriving from this event. It was a signal that we were willing to go along with whatever others contrived. Here we had a rare opportunity to come up with a really first-rate effort to enhance the Trinidad & Tobago image and it was not seized. As a Trinidad & Tobago national, I was embarrassed by such a stance.”
“As far as the several instances of bandwagon-hopping, that’s to be expected I guess. I just didn’t think that some people would be so gross about it-that they would display such a lack of integrity and ethics.”
Desperadoes manager and professional solo artist Robert Greenidge, who had given Brooklyn patrons a heavenly helping of ”Stardust” as a bonus, recounted the experience: “We hope these engagements would break the ice on the world who still think of the steel drum in terms of ‘Yellow Bird.’ We’re in the league of big-time music. Those responsible for the Carnegie event are the kind of people who will continue breaking the ice. Already, we’re receiving overtures from corporations about future trips.”
But it was Tourist Board Director Winston Borrell who had the last important word.
“In the present environment,” Borrell explained, “financial resources are limited. And as they become scarce we expect promoters from the private sector at home and abroad to help out.” “Other entities enjoy the financial benefits of the band’s performances,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong with that. But if revenue is generated why can’t sponsors abroad provide per diem expenses?”
“As for the negotiations, decisions were made late in the game because of financial considerations. In the future, the requesting agents should define how they can meet all costs of the touring group before seeking our help. We feel such sponsors should be prepared to stand more and more of the expenditure.”
According to Rodney, the Despers concerts benefited New York’s Associated Black Charities and the Caribbean Education and Cultural Institute.
There may be reason to brush aside the issue under the circumstances but has anybody ever thought of Laventille as a charity case? Why, Pat Bishop never earned a penny for her stint on the podium. Never.
Sure, the tour put Desperadoes and Trinidad and Tobago in the international spotlight, but consider all those nights on the hill those 47 panists shared with the dew.
Classic story of pan music gone, panman stay. Maybe, just maybe, corporate sponsorship is the window of opportunity for the steel band movement.
Republished from - PAN -
Summer 1987 - Vol.2 No.1
Naysayers notwithstanding, the visit of WITCO Desperadoes to New York cannot, in the final analysis, be viewed negatively. Even if there were those whose motives were not as wholesome as they postured publicly, even if Trinidad & Tobago’s interests were not astutely served, even if the conductor of this champion orchestra was moved to wonder whether the said Trinidad & Tobago “deserves” custodial rights to so marvelous an art form, the Despers tour should be seen as nothing but one giant plus.
The observation that the Carnegie stint far outstripped Trinidad
& Tobago’s cumulative diplomatic outreach since statehood in 1962, is dead-on. Despers at Carnegie Hall, the highlight of the week, was major–league stuff. More of the same is obviously needed. There is no reason to believe more of the same can’t be accomplished. There are lessons to be learnt, of course, and some odd-ball precepts that ought summarily be dumped. But “accentuate the positive” should be the biggest lesson of all. There was enough about Despers in New York in
‘87 from which solid building blocks could be fashioned. And, for an event that almost never was, that’s a respectable enough helping of “positive” to accentuate.
Republished from - PAN - Summer 1987 - Vol.2 No.1
Editor-in-Chief: Leslie Slater
Executive Editor: Dalton Narine
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