Vignettes of Pan History - The Montreal Story

by Bert Boldon

Republished with the expressed permission of the authors from -  PAN - Fall 1987 - Vol.2 No.1

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A great factor influencing the development of the art in Montreal has been the visits of some of the top bands from Trinidad.

Montreal was one of the first locations in North America to experience steel band music. From the mid-fifties until not too long ago there had been a conspicuous presence here of some of the most formidable pan players (panists), tuners and orchestras to leave the shores of the birthplace of pan— Trinidad. Yet today there is not a single steel band in the area.

I am using the term steel band in the classical sense here to include a group of harmonically congruous steel instruments covering the range of the tonal compass from soprano (lead or melody) to bass. Consequently this does not include the substitution of any part of this aggregation by a conventional instrument of similar tonal and harmonic function.

The Montreal Story
Pans and panists are the star attraction of this gathering of Trinidadians in  Montreal more than two decades ago. (1960's)

Perhaps the reasons for this dilemma— the absence of a steel band in spite of Montreal’s rich, early steel drum legacy—will emerge after a brief historical perspective.

My first encounter with dance music after my arrival at McGill University in September 1955 was at a student function at the university. After Sel Duncan, Invaders and Trinidad All Stars a few weeks earlier, I was hardly prepared for Lord Caressa, acoustic guitar and a grater. With all due respect to the great Caressa, whose contribution in pioneering calypso cannot be overstressed, he was hardly what hip, recently-arriving Trinidadians expected to dance to; and so the melodious strains of the above-mentioned bands left behind became even more pronounced.

Within the year I had met Louis Bleasdell, a Trinidadian who had settled here about five years earlier. He happened to leave a soprano pan in my possession for about a week. Within a month I was fooling around pretty well on the instrument; within six months we were “jamming.” We soon organized a small group consisting of Louis Bleasdell (leader), D. Franklyn, V. Millington, and myself and began playing around McGill. The McGill Red and White Revue, with GaIt McDermott as musical director, was the major highlight for this early group (McDermott later became famous as musical director of the rock opera “Hair”). Another was a fraternity party guest performance by the famous calypsonian Lord Melody accompanied by the band.

By 1957 we formed a new group—Tropitones—and had as our main goal a more vigorous campaign of breaking out of the McGill surroundings and into the wider Montreal community. We were fortunate in that we had the services of Conrad Franklyn, one-time Invaders player. He became the leader of this new band which began making some inroads into the community, but there were also other noises which were beginning to be heard.

Pan in Montreal Bert Boldon (r.), Conrad Franklyn (l.) and other early Montreal-based pan music makers get some distaff help in showing off a 1950’s state-of-the-art lead instrument.

A group of Trinidadians, West Indians of East Indian descent, had also organized a steel band and played around McGill by this time. Wahab Ishmael and his friends were doing fine. There were also The Steel Bandits, manned by Eddy Edgehill, formerly one of Trinidad’s most prominent and promising cyclists, but by 1959 converted to singer and pan player. Dave Di Castro was another member of this band. Unlike the two groups previously described which were comprised mainly of students, these men were full-time musicians and had invaded the local night club scene. Later on their act took them as far as the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Their group eventually contained the heart of what later became known as the Merrymen. I am referring to Emile Straker—lead singer.

During the period of 1958—1962 the Tropitones progressed tremendously. The most important contributing factor was the arrival of an early pan stylist, arranger and tuner from Cocoyea Village, south Trinidad. Murchison Callender, bass player extraordinaire, gave the band a “modern” touch. One must keep in mind at all times the importance of such a person on the Montreal scene. Steel drums have evolved over a period of about 45 years. During this critical, developmental period I am describing, rapid changes were taking place with evolving pan techniques etc. in Trinidad. There they had moved away from the crude soprano pan (then called first pan or “tenor” pan) to a much more sophisticated instrument—one possessing a chromatic scale. Since all we were doing in Montreal was trying to stay abreast of developments in the art at home, the importance of a person such as Callender cannot be overstated.

In 1962 I returned to Trinidad and struck up an association with Rupert Nathaniel, leader of Symphonettes Steel Orchestra. Within a year or so, and after many headaches and red tape, he arrived in Montreal and I formed The Trinidad Melotones Steel Orchestra. This band became one of the main attractions in the city over the years.

Nathaniel, uncle of the great contemporary panist, “The Man,” Len Boogsie Sharpe, was a uniquely talented individual. With perfect pitch and a complete mastery of all the instruments in the orchestra, he introduced a level of sophistication to his playing, especially as a soloist, that had never been experienced before. One must understand that at the time of his departure from Trinidad, this artist was probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, all-round panists in the country.

The very first night of Nathaniel’s arrival in Montreal, we played at the McGill Winter Carnival dance. The great Earl Grant (now deceased), an international star at the time, was the main attraction of the evening, but by the end of his act he was caught up in the Nathaniel spell.

Melotones stressed instrument sophistication, arranging, discipline; they were soon commanding impressive fees for almost any social event in Montreal—TV appearances, radio, hotels, night clubs, bar mitzvahs, etc. The Melotones disbanded in 1982 after having been a major musical force in the Montreal community for a period of roughly twenty years.

Other prominent pan players arriving here in the early 60’s included Philo James, leader/arranger of the famous Trinidad Orchestra—Starlift; and Martin Albino, leader/arranger of Savoys. Ironically, neither of them ever formed a steel band in Montreal but both have continued in music on formal instruments to the present. However, their arranging and other technical pan skills were always available to bands in need; thus their contributions were behind-the-scenes and not really appreciated by the general public.

Attempts to work within organized institutions in the society proved fruitless

A great factor influencing the development of the art in Montreal has been the visits of some of the top bands from Trinidad. Most memorable were two visits each by Rudolph Charles’ Desperadoes (Despers) and Tripoli, led by Hugh Borde. Despers was the first group to arrive, in February 1964; around 1970 they returned as a much more sophisticated and traveled orchestra. Esso Tripoli played in Montreal during Expo 1967 and again around 1968.

These visits were extremely important for panists in Montreal because they represented in-depth experiences of the state of the art “at that moment.” The Despers’ performance at Moose Hall in February 1964 featured the calypsonian Mighty Robin, and the subtle cello stylings of their leader and charismatic folk hero—“The Dragon,” “Trail”—Rudolph Valentino Charles (now deceased). It also featured their remarkable bass player “Gunga Din,” and the highly regarded Robert Greenidge.

On my gig a few nights later at the Cross Roads, a local night spot, Rudolph turned loose his soprano player Robert Greenidge. This young man walked on the stage as I handed him my soprano pan sticks and moved over to electric piano. Within two minutes the entire audience had surrounded “his instrument,” for it was mine no longer. What issued was the most awesome display of improvisation. This man, this consummate artist, has the most impeccable touch in the business and the most educated hands—up to the present day.

The visits of Hugh Borde’s Tripoli were extremely significant from two main standpoints. First it unleashed a “front line” (soprano section) of unusual sophistication featuring the Headley brothers. Secondly it exposed Montreal to the genius of one of Trinidad’s best pan tuners—the late Allan Gervais, whose influence has been tremendous in the development of local tuners (i.e., Montreal based).

Another band formed by Ed Peters, a student who earlier played bass for the Melotones, emerged briefly in the mid-sixties. This group did not last very long, however, and it is evident from later developments that this man was destined for the heights in tuning. He became a keen student of the art of tuning, working first with Louis Bleasdell and then with Allan Gervais. Today he has emerged as a moving force in this sophisticated area of creative pan technique. Working out of the Toronto area, he is introducing concepts, methods and techniques which are revolutionary in nature.

Roderick Smith, another Montreal based tuner-innovator also profited from the Gervais contact. Smith, a talented musician and a former panist with the Trinidad National Band, has introduced and developed the concept of “Small Pans," a project in which the late Louis Bleasdell was also intimately involved.

Expo 67 brought Montreal audiences a band especially put together as the “Trinidad Contingent for Expo,” with Anthony Prospect as music director. This band was an instant hit at the sophisticated daily shows put on by the Trinidad pavilion. Most of the members of this group later settled in Montreal and became the “Trinidad and Tobago Exponians.” Today the remnants of this once large orchestra function as the Playboys, a steel combo serving the Montreal community.

“Exponians” was the first band in Canada to amalgamate the use of steel, brass and voice. Among its other important contributions were the emergence of Luther Cuffy as a prolific panist and arranger, and the presence since then in Montreal of yet another competent tuner—James Andrews. Cuffy’s playing was significant in that his harmonic concept was “progressive”; consequently he was one of the earliest panists in the area to begin operating within a jazz context or perspective.

The final steel band to operate in the Montreal area was the Cote-Des-Neiges Black Community Project Band. This was the brainchild of Leroy Butcher. It did not last very long. Soon there was a split and a new band was on the scene—Canadian Despers Steel Orchestra led by Edmund Charles. This band also soon disappeared.

Bert Boldon
Associate editor Bert Boldon combines his high school teacher’s professional occupation in Quebec, Canada, with rather active professional involvement. A panist since prior to leaving Trinidad in the mid-1950’s, he has been at the core of steel band activity in Montreal since the art form was first introduced there.  Having also become a competent keyboard artist and arranger-composer, his efforts have lately been largely directed toward having the pans add tonal diversity to other contemporary sounds.

The strong discipline and methodical striving for excellence, a common characteristic of earlier groups, seemed lacking in these later bands. Times had changed, personnel had changed. The colorful legacy of the past was history. Montreal has been without a steel band for at least three years.

Editorial confines here do not allow for any in-depth sociological analyses, but a few points emerge which explain the present crisis in the development of this art form:

  1. It is difficult to make a living playing pans in Montreal. The marketplace does not allow it.

  2. The conservative nature of most panists did not allow for any experimentation in an area which was basic to their economic survival.

  3. The basic attitude of many pan players towards the art was frivolous—a plaything, lip-service, but there was no true thrust and involvement to pursue any great goals with their instrument. There was no true conviction or dedication.

  4. Attempts to work within organized institutions in the society proved fruitless. For example, I have worked as a high school teacher in the Montreal Catholic School Commission for the past twenty two years. All attempts on my part to introduce some system of steel band music into the schools have met with absolutely zero success bureaucratically. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in Toronto, New York, and London (England) where it was absorbed in school systems.

  5. In Montreal there exists a sad state of apathy and lack of involvement of the black community in certain aspects of their culture that deserve more attention.

  6. Unfortunately, only lip-service is paid to steel band music and pan players in Montreal. The music is not taken seriously and neither are the players. Consequently both are treated accordingly—light and entertaining. A dance or party? Yes! A recording contract or television series? No way! Perhaps this is one of the prices we have to pay for the Yellow Birds, Jamaica Farewells, and that entire tourist syndrome and mentality that helped expose the pan in the early days.

  7. Over the past fifteen years, and especially during the era of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian government strongly emphasized its policy of multiculturalism. Briefly stated, it was a government policy that worked toward a Canadian ethos by recognizing and developing the distinct ethnic and cultural elements comprising Canada.

  8. This policy, which seemed sound theoretically, proved quite sterile when put to the test in a pragmatic context, as applications by this writer for assistance to conduct studies in this area (steel drum development and education) met with no response.

  9. Finally, perhaps the most fundamental reason for the present demise of the art has to do with the microcosmic nature of the dominant culture in Quebec.

    In their heyday steel bands were well received in the English community in Montreal, especially on the West Island where people had travelled to Trinidad and other areas of the Caribbean and so had prior contact. No such situation existed in the French community. The latter, already viewing English art in the province from a somewhat suspicious stance, was hardly about to embrace this weird art form with open arms. In spite of this, however, - their feet still shuffled to the rhythm wherever and whenever they heard it.

Republished from - PAN -
Summer 1987 - Vol.2 No.1

The point being emphasized here is not that the French did not enjoy steel band music. No, they shuffled and danced to the beat as well as anyone else. It was rather the failure of the relevant institutions (e.g. TV, radio, schools, etc.) in the society at large to embrace, encourage or support this art form.

In places where this institutional support has operated—New York, Toronto, London (England)—steel band music is progressing. In Montreal, unfortunately it has met with apathy. However, Montreal is a very vibrant and dynamic city. The present demise may be no more than a temporary lull in the evolutionary process.

WST Notes & Extras:
Since the original publishing of this article in the Fall of 1987 in Pan Magazine, Montreal now has a major steel orchestra - Salah Steelpan Academy. In addition, the steelpan instrument can be found in the school system. Montreal also now has its own major annual steelpan music festival - The Montreal International Steelpan Festival. Much of this has been accomplished through the efforts of panist and educator Salah Wilson.


The first steelband from Trinidad to reach Montreal was Dixie Stars in 1955 as the Esso Steel band, sponsored by Imperial Oil. From there they made a tour across Canada, ending up in Vancouver. They(not all) returned by boat. On reaching Aruba, some took a plane back to Trinidad. Others , including my brother, stayed on board the ship until it reached England. Except for a small side from the band that Rudy Commissiong had taken to Bermuda the year before, that was the end of the band.  See more


Republished from -  PAN -  Fall 1987 - Vol.2 No.1  

contact author Dalton Narine at:

PAN Magazine
Editor-in-Chief: Leslie Slater
Executive Editor:
Dalton Narine

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