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Flamingoes Steel Orchestra

A look at the once-renowned orchestra - yesterday, today and tomorrow

by Salah Wilson

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Flamingoes Steel Orchestra

Trinidad and Tobago, W.I. - Flamingoes is a process in motion. It will take some time for the band to get back anywhere near to its former status in the ‘70s. First of all it is not just ‘Bringing back the Band’; in reality, it is a community development project. The saying that it takes a village to raise a child holds true to the fact that it will take the input of the village to assist in this community development project. The very positive thing about this venture is the fact that there is indeed a village. St. John Village has seen and contributed its share towards the Trinidad culture and the Pan movement. At one point there were three very active steel bands in the village.

Salah Wilson
Salah Wilson

My mother told me that my grandfather was a musician, that he played a fiddle and that my grandparents’ home was a centre of activities, especially during the carnival time. In the early 1900s the village produced a ‘Mas band’ and the celebrations would begin at my grandparents’ home, with my grandmother Ma Mena being the queen of the band, and the band was called ‘Morning Bell’. I was also told that in the late 40s that my father and other villagers would be beating tin pans etc., near the ravine, and when the police would chase them, that my grandmother would allow them to come on to her property.

In the mid to late fifties my uncle (mother’s brother) Bob Theroulde was responsible for forming the very first Flamingoes Steel band right in the back yard of my grandmother. I recall the activities as a little kid with the band practicing in the backyard and preparation for the Carnival. The band would be playing ‘Mas’ in Tunapuna and that was a big do. I recall people like the legendary Carl Greenidge (Robert’s uncle) coming in the pan yard; you could not miss looking at him due to his particular birthmark covering his entire face.

I remember that fateful year that would mark the end of the first Flamingoes. The band, I believe, was hired to play for a Mas band that was run by the well known “Bad John” who was called ‘Foots’. This same ‘Foots’ grew up in the village as a young boy and would often be found playing in my grandmother’s yard, so everybody knew everybody. Whatever went wrong with Flamingoes during the Carnival Tuesday in Tunapuna caused Bad John Foots to “mash-up” all the Pans and throw some of them over the bridge in the Dry River (now the home of Exodus). That was not the end, because to satisfy his rage Foots went back up in the Pan Yard in my grandmother’s home and continued with the destruction of the rest of the Pans. I recall my uncle Bob pleading with him to leave those Pans alone since they were not in the Carnival but this was to no avail.

Current - Flamingoes Steel Orchestra

Who could come to the rescue of the Pans in the Pan Tent - none other than my grandmother Ma Mena. You have to imagine the scene.  This was Carnival Tuesday -  This was Bad John ‘Foots’.  He had already ‘mashed-up’ the Pans in Tunapuna and came to finish the job. He was unstoppable. But this possible first female steelpan activist - my grandmother - stepped out alone to challenge him. Well she was not short for words with her vocabulary (I will not repeat here) calling him by the name (Kendrick) she knew him as a little boy playing in her yard. Even in his rage he recognized that all too familiar voice and expressed that he had nothing to do with her it was the band - but she grabbed onto him and reminded him that it was her property including what was on the property. Foots stopped his destruction of the Pans saying “sorry, Miss Mena” and left, but the damage was already done. That was the end of the first Flamingoes.

A little higher up in the village is my mom’s home, this was a property given to my mom from my grandmother. Sometime in the mid 60s my uncle Bob again decided to restart the village band. My Mom’s backyard was the chosen spot this time. However he refused to call the band Flamingoes and the band was called Harmonettes (not Harmonites). So here I am growing up with a steel band in my own backyard. It was in this period of time that St. John village blossomed with Steel bands housing Harmonettes, Volewykers, and Hot Spots.

A lot of great prominent steelpan musicians passed through these bands including Carl and Robert Greenidge, Kenrick Headley, Cassavo, to name a few. The band Harmonettes was short-lived because of the rise of the famous Harmonites (Solo Harmonites). In order to avoid confusion it was decided to revert to the name Flamingoes, however with the prefix ‘Gay’, which was used by many bands (this was before the word Gay was hijacked to refer to the activities of a group of people). There was Gay Desperadoes, Gay Crescendoes and Gay Flamingoes.

Flamingoes Steel Orchestra

Gay Flamingoes became a recording and sweet sounding band playing in many fetes and was then sponsored by first Amral’s Travel services and then Lever Brothers. Gay Flamingoes had a colourful history with some of the best steel band recordings ever and was well known for their sweet sound attributed to pan tuner Wallace Austin. Arrangers included  Tyrone Noreiga, Kenrick Headley and a gentleman named Maloney (I met him for the 2012 season). Problems arose from a family member who was also a “Bad John” in the village (I will not call his name) but in order to get him out of the band, the band itself had to relocate from higher up in the village where I lived, back to you know where - my grandmother’s home again...  Of course, she had passed on a few years before.

The band took a very powerful turn in the 1969-1970 seasons with the coming of William “Bendix” Cumberbatch from Chaguanas. Bendix brought up an entire crew of players including Jimi Phillip and pan tuner Leo Coker. Jimi, though a prolific pan player, back then was the drummer. This addition of Bendix’s group energized the band and propelled the band to finally participate in the National Panorama competition. The first entrance in the Panorama was in 1971 with the song PP99, arranged by Tyrone Noreiga. The band was running in the top three in the preliminaries but eventually placed 5th on the final night. Still it was a great achievement for the first run. The following year Gay Flamingoes was the first band to play a ‘Mighty Shadow’ song in the Panorama, “Country Girl”, but the band did not make it to the Finals.

Gay Flamingoes’ internal problems started growing and manifested itself in 1972 especially after my Uncle Bob left and migrated to Canada. The younger and intellectual guys in the band started pushing for changes. In 1973 the band again got to the Finals, but the internal strains were felt and a struggle within management between leader Carlos Rose and manager Amin Mohammed became evident. Bendix had left to go with Desperadoes, where he of course made a name for himself. He would later move on to arranging for a few other bands, Antillean All Stars and Casablanca. It was in this year, 1973, that I migrated to Canada and subsequently a few of the other players moved on to playing with other bands. Gay Flamingoes still kept on but started its downward slope. Prolific players in the band included Tony Rose and [Terrance] B.J. Marcelle.

Flamingoes - Poet and Peasant Overture

Around 1980 the band was no longer able to continue with the same status quo. I was not involved in the eventual split-up of the band to form Exodus. But again my uncle Bob and Amin Mohammed (elder brother of Ainsworth Mohammed), were responsible for making the ‘Exodus’ from Flamingoes. The amazing thing is that the band was across the street from my late Grandmother’s (Ma Mena) property and with the exodus, they  moved  back onto my grandmother’s property. So the now famous Exodus actually started right on my Grandmother’s (Ma Mena)  property. How ironic could that be. Well, everyone knows about the continuing success of Exodus. However Flamingoes (the Gay being dropped for obvious reasons) remained in existence but a shell of its former self.

Every time I would visit Trinidad and return home to my village, the sight of Flamingoes would bother me. I always enquired about how the band was doing. In 2009 I could no longer resist and decided to get involved.  B.J. Marcelle was arranging the song, the band got into the semi-finals but B.J. did not show up to complete the ending of the song. The management asked me to assist and I offered my services. Well, I guess this was the catalyst that pushed me to get back involved.

In 2010 I arranged the song for the Panorama and brought down my family (wife, six children, two grand kids and a couple of my students from Montreal). This boosted the band; we got into the semi finals and missed the finals by one - placing 11th in the semifinals. The band took part in the Tunapuna Monday night mas and won both the Panorama and Tune of Choice competition. The band also placed second in the Arouca Monday night mas.

But the band had its internal problems. Some of the players in the village had a rotten attitude, uncompromising in its negativity and very difficult to work with. This was indeed problematic for me especially since I have been only working with schools and my private Steelpan academy for more than two decades. I advised the management that it would be best to make re-adjustments and if the older players could not change their attitude for the better of the band, then they should move on and it would be best in the band’s long-term interest to start working with the youths.

In 2011 the so called trouble makers decided to leave on their own. There was a management shake-up and for the first time, elections. A new concept, and new management was in place but only young and mostly first time players were the core of the band. I tried to get ex members from my time to come back and play with the band and got only a handful. The result was that the band took part in the National Panorama but did not go further than the first round.

Current - Flamingoes Steel Orchestra

This year 2012, I had to find a plan to get further in the Panorama. I realized that with  the youths alone it would be almost impossible -  so I suggested to management that this year we will have to get some of the ‘Hired Guns’ aka ‘The Pan Hustlers’. They agreed that we had no choice because of the inexperience of the youths in the band. It seemed a good idea to have good players in the band playing alongside the inexperienced youths. Having completed the music, I sent down the score to a friend, so that he could get started early in December [2011]. But things are easier said than done.

I arrived just about two weeks before panorama preliminaries and had to start from scratch.  Not much was done. I guess going up and seeing just about seven youths might have been a turn off. But I worked desperately hard with the youths knowing that I needed to get ‘professional players’ whom we would pay to play.  A lot of my friends and people I contacted promised to come through, but as the time drew closer it looked dim. I got three of my friends to help out. They learned the song in the last week before the prelims. ‘The hired guns’ started showing up.

I guess some people believe that, well, it is a small band so it will be ‘small time’ arrangements, or as they say in Trinidad ‘small ting’. It turned out that they could not learn the song. Many came one time and never returned. We hired 20 players. I promised them that they would be paid. They agreed to come and learn the song. I personally worked with different groups of them. The bottom line was that out of the 20 players only 4 of them actually learned the complete song. I was totally disappointed. This is Trinidad home of the Pan and pan players, and these people could not complete learning my song. A lot of old talk but it could not be backed up with action.

Panorama day came and it was a nightmare, but the show had to go on. I went to the Panorama knowing that the result would be poor. But I always believe that it is better to try and fail rather than failing to try. Anyways, I saw it as an opportunity to give my 7 youths a necessary experience. The ‘Hired Guns’ still showed up and I allowed them to play because of the numbers game. They all apologized after the performance promising to learn the whole song if the band got to the next round. That was an illusion after that performance.

Current - Flamingoes Steel Orchestra

One day after the Panorama results, I started working with the youths in the village. If you know Trinidad at this time, all the bands which did not qualify for the other rounds, their ‘Pan Tent’  becomes silent and the Pan Yard is like a ghost town. However Flamingoes continued practicing - getting ready to participate in Tunapuna Monday night Mas. While learning  a Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror” a brilliant idea came to me. Since it was not necessary to learn a current new song for Panorama 2013, I suggested to them that we ought to start learning an old song for the 2013 Panorama song now. So we started doing just that. We ended up doing about half of the 2013 Panorama song and decided to go with this song in the Tunapuna ‘mas’ on Carnival Monday.

I added an ending. And the result was that with the 7 youths and two adults myself included, we put together a balanced musical group comprising of 2 basses, 2 guitar pans, 2 second pans and 2 lead pans. I also played lead on the alto pan. This was enough to place 2nd both in the Panorama song and Tune of Choice in Tunapuna on Carnival Monday, a fitting end to a trying experience. The good thing is that we are already ahead for the National Panorama of 2013 by knowing half of the Panorama song. It is my intention (God willing) to return to Trinidad in August for the independence and complete the Panorama song for 2013.

Steelpan Playing with Theory
Steelpan music textbook by Salah Wilson

I gave the seven youths in the band each a copy of my steelpan text book “Steelpan Playing With Theory” and started teaching them music theory to improve their music literacy. This is even more important than the Panorama song, because this will enable them to become musically competent and independent. It will also make my job easier in the future when they can easily identify the notes and rhythms of a music score. In addition, I have also spoken with the principal of the ‘next door’ elementary school St. Benedict R.C., which is literally on the same property, about combining the programs of having Pan in the School.

It was pointed out to the principal that the school is entitled to have a steelpan program and due to lack of space they can use the Flamingoes Pan Yard. This was taken as a good idea and will be pursued. I also have encouraged the management to register the band as a non-profit organization and to establish proper accountancy. This in itself will be a step toward acquiring sponsorship for the band. So like I mentioned earlier it will take some time for the band to rebuild itself, but the renaissance has begun. It is all about not giving up and trying to find a way to move forward. Flamingoes will rise again - or rather will fly again.


Salah Wilson
(Author - Steelpan Activist)

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