New York, USA - When Steel Talks continues its exclusive series of interviews with Martin Douglas, the leader of Brooklyn-based Crossfire Steel Orchestra who visited WST studios on a cool 2004 Autumn afternoon. This was a special year for the steel orchestra as they moved from the ranks of also-rans to contenders as they placed 5th in the hotly-contested annual New York Panorama competition.
Douglas was born at Upper Bournes Road in St. James, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad - a stone’s throw from Sun Valley Steelband. When there was a split in the band, the legendary Tony Williams left, and founded Pan Am North Stars. There was pan every night in Douglas’ midst. He ran around both pan yards as a small boy. He started to learn music and play pan with the fabled North Stars when he became a little older. Practice went late, especially in Festival times such as in 1962, up to 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. He remembers getting up early in the morning at 4:00 to the sounds of pan still coming through his window - obviously practice had gone through the night! North Stars was less than a half mile from his house, just across the river, and for Martin Douglas, that was where it all started.
In the beginning his parents did not know that he had actually started to learn to play the instrument, but when they did find out, they routinely “rang [twisted] his ears” and gave him “thumps in his back” in their attempts to discourage him. He was around thirteen or fourteen years old at the time. His mother told him that only that only henchmen, hooligans and vagabonds played pans. By age fifteen he was actually playing.
As Douglas said above, when he was a small boy his mother had no problem with him running around the pan yards. This indicates she did not fear for her son’s safety and was confident that he would be looked after by the panmen in the pan yard, these would have been people she knew. However, as he grew older, she was also aware of the stigmatization of being a “pan man” in society, and she and her husband attempted to “buffer” him from that by trying to dissuade him from playing.
Martin Douglas with his wife Jannette, and Dr. Keith Rowley, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago
Sometime later he moved to east Port-of-Spain, around the Observatory Street area, and began playing with City Syncopators and also spent a bit of time playing with Casablanca. His instrument of choice was the six bass, (he remembers fondly when he was in North Stars that he was a bit adventurous and played one of Tony Williams’ cellos). “Everything was fine during practice,” Douglas said, but he “was lost” once the band played at full pace! He stayed with Syncopators for about four to five years until one of his friends reminded him it was time to come back home [to St. James]. He returned to play with Starlift Steel Orchestra.
In 1972 a dissention arose partially because then-arranger for the band, Ray Holman took the band to Panorama with his own composition. Subsequently, Starlift split into four bands: Phase II Pan Groove, Pandemonium, Third World and of course Starlift. In the following year, 1973 the other bands came out for the first time. Phase 2 was the smallest band of the foursome, and Douglas affectionately remembers that they used to joke that “Phase II was so small that you could wet the whole band with a ‘teacup of water,’” and that “the band used to go to competition in the Savannah pulled by a tractor.”
Today, Phase II Pan Groove is a powerhouse on the Trinidad Pan scene. They have placed in the top three, thirteen out of the last eighteen years of the annual National Panorama competition. The band is also a two-time winner of Panorama, they were Champions in 1987 and 1988. Every year more than one hundred and seventy-five players “take the tune” (learn the panorama competition selection) in as effort to “make the cut” to perform at the national finals. Essentially, this means that Phase 2 is now large enough to field two full steel orchestra - a far cry from their ‘teacup of water’ days...
Of the foursome, Pandemonium was the largest with Ray Holman at its helm; they were based at the corner of Jerningham Avenue. Third World was building their ranks, and had as their nucleus some original Starlift members or “old stagers” including Darryl King, Trevor Harewood, Curtis De Freitas, Ben Sobrano and Douglas himself. Pelham Goddard, Exodus Steel Orchestra’s current arranger, was Third World’s arranger at that time. Douglas remembers the band’s classic performances such as ‘Gold’ and ‘American Patrol.’ He stayed with the band until 1979 then went back to Starlift. Having won the Panorama competition in 1978, the band were defending champions in 1979, and were actually out front in the preliminaries with ‘Rum Is Macho.’ However Starlift’s chance of retaining their championship was scuttled as Panorama eventually did not take place that year because of a boycott.
From 1981 - 1982 Martin Douglas went back to complete his education at the John Donaldson Technical Institute in Trinidad. 1983 saw him back in the Starlift fold; in 1985 he played with three bands including Phase II. This was displeasing to Starlift who made it clear that his allegiance was to be to that band only. Ironically in 1986 he had no such problem since arranger Len “Boogsie” Sharpe arranged for both Starlift and Phase II!
Douglas says there was an economic downturn in Trinidad and Tobago in 1986 and because of that he came to the United States, where his parents had already migrated to years before. Asked if before their migration his parents had eventually “mellowed with age” in respect to his involvement with pan Douglas vehemently responded “Oh yes!!” He went on to explain that his mother had become an avid supporter who then always wanted to know “how the band did in Panorama,” and that if the band did not seem to be performing up to par she commented that “the band falling back, if they were not practicing hard enough!” etc.
The turning point came, as Douglas explained, when the Roman Catholic church in Trinidad and Tobago deemed pan acceptable. His mother was always a “churchy lady” and then-Archbishop Finbar Ryan allowed this to occur. Pan was being played in the churches and the cathedral. Douglas said that even though the country had achieved independence from England, the colonial stamp was still on the country and that Pan was still stigmatized - until the church acceptance. An additional impetus was that the renowned Marionettes Chorale sang with North Stars and that Juliet Littlepage, who was part of Trinidad’s “white elite” also sang with the band. The Marionettes went on to record the hymn ‘Hear O Lord’ with the Dixieland Steel Orchestra. People began to explain “Oh, what a beautiful song.” In this way, Douglas said, pan began to be somewhat accepted and was winning “Hearts and minds” of the Trinidad society, who previously had it pegged as “evil.”
Douglas also talked about the country’s first Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams who was responsible for the evolution of the pan movement. The Prime Minister would visit the pan yards and chat with the musicians. He arranged strategic alliances between major international corporations based in the country, and the steelbands. This was called “sponsorship.”
The corporations became involved at the time because of the social climate of the country and the need to align themselves with the masses of the country. In those days, a steel orchestra was the community. If the steel orchestra was alienated, the entire community was as well. This is no longer the corporation’s fear or concern today. Steelbands and communities do not necessarily benefit to the extent they did in those initial years. The Prime Minister also arranged for judges from England to come to Trinidad for festivals. One, Douglas remembers, was Professor John Russell. Steelpan gained even more ground when it was realized that the musicians were executing intricate classical music on pan, but could not read music at all. As Douglas put it, the first-hand involvement of Prime Minister Eric Williams with the pan movement “took pan to higher heights.”
Martin Douglas at When Steel Talks/Basement Recordings Studio.
The rest of Martin Douglas’ story is available in the interview accompanying this article.
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