Steelpan Arranger
Stephon Phillip

Stephon Phillip

Stephon Phillip - Phase One Steel Orchestra, Metronomes
Panorama Championships
United Kingdom -

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“Let me start by saying I am a band man. I am not interested in promoting myself above my band. I tried the ‘solo thing’ in my late teens and realised it was not for me. I didn’t have that kind of temperament; I much prefer to play in a band.

“I began to play pan as a 10-year-old in the summer of 1979. I had been around pan my whole life as my father, Victor Phillip, is a pan maker and was also a pan teacher.  I had not started playing previously as my dad mostly worked away, and the band he did run was in Coventry and we lived in Redditch, which was some 20 miles away. We eventually moved to Coventry and this is when I began to play. Initially I was taken to practice to keep my mom quiet, as Dad didn’t think I would take to the pan, but did want to take my sister Beverly. Mom insisted I must go too, so Dad had no choice!

“Anyway, I loved the pan and learned quickly. There were a lot of us young guys in the band and we used to spur each other on, trying to learn faster, it was always competitive. We had and still have a very good band, Phase One (obviously inspired by Phase II). In those days, the early eighties, we had a lot of success. We were on television shows and visited Germany and Hong Kong. We practiced 3 times a week with the band, then all of us young guys helped my dad run a Saturday group for kids he taught at school, then after that we would have our little group which was just us young guys, called Phase 2. Basically we were all mad about pan.

“In 1985, the family went to Trinidad without my dad, so I was with my mom and my sister………boring! I was happy to get rescued by my cousin Kirt, and taken to Phase 2 pan yard, they were running some arrangements and Boogsie was giving parts and just doing his thing.  The parts were quite fast and challenging, but I relished the chance to try. Kirt was surprised that I could learn so fast. I did not think I was learning particularly fast, as I was used to always learning fast. Anyway this was only for a few hours, but I was a changed boy/man. Later on in that trip, I met someone who would say something to me that would stay with me forever.

“It was at South Panorama at Skinners Park. I was with one my dad’s friends, Carl. He took me, and we were looking at all of the bands practicing. I was particularly excited to see Dunlop Tornadoes. My dad comes from Point Fortin and had made some tenor pans for them in ‘83 and ‘84 and I wanted to hear them, but apart from that, the band was leading the country with Jit Samaroo’s arrangement of ‘Pan In Danger’ and I wanted to hear it live. Walking through the band we bounced upon a player in the band, he may have been a section leader, but I can’t really remember. Carl worked at Dunlop and knew all of the players well. He introduced me to him as a pan man from England. This guy took one look at me and said “Yuh tink yuh can play here?” Quick as a flash I said yes and even quicker he said “Yuh TINK, yuh could play here!”  The emphasis he put on this stuck with me. He disrespected me and English pan men in one fell swoop. I wanted to jump on a pan and show him I could play. I had played a lot of different types of music from Classic to Calypso, but I still don’t know what kind of a joke pan man he thought I was. I guess he thought he could talk down to me, as Dunlop was on course to win Panorama and all of the glory that would bring. Well Dunlop did not win Panorama that year and came somewhere around 6th. Carib Tokyo ended up with the highest placed ‘Pan In Danger,’ which was arranged by Clive Bradley and I don’t think Dunlop finished as high again.

“In 1987 our band, Phase One, was going to take part in the UK Panorama for the first time (by the way we won, but that is a story in itself)! My dad felt it was important for some players in the band to go to Trinidad and see the real thing, so sent three of us. Me, who played tenor and double tenor, Kalli, who played quads and Richard who played bass. But what were we going to do? Go and lime in various panyards looking on longingly, or get stuck in and practice? NO BRAINER! We wanted to play. Next question, who with? My Uncle Alton was a long time pan man from Town and he had a few ideas on where we should go. He was a Tokyo man, but did not want us to go there. We visited a few bands including Despers, All Stars, Pandemonium and Casablanca. At this point I must mention where we were staying. It was my Grandfather Milkie’s one bedroom flat in Nelson Street. Yes, all three of us, plus Milkie too! If you know Port of Spain, you will know that Nelson Street was somewhere to avoid, unless you had business there. The nearest band to there, is All Stars on Duke Street, literally a stone’s throw away from the flat. We wanted to go there, for reasons of convenience and choice. I’d always loved their sound and style. The only thing is the pan yard was kind of intimidating and there was a sign that said “players only past this point” We never went past that point either. We eventually went to the then, Amoco Renegades, which is round the corner from All Stars on Charlotte Street.

“This is really where my story begins.”

The Renegade Years

“Renegades were playing ‘Pan In ‘A’ Minor’, by Kitch and were sounding awesome. My Uncle spoke to the captain of the band and he was happy to let us try and join in. He identified 3 players to help us on our different pans. The guy who was helping me was called “Chinee” (his real name is Rory Aleong and he would go on to arrange for and win multiple school Panoramas with St. Francois Girls’ College). He was a guy who had only been playing pan 3 years, but you’d never know, as he was so good. We all made arrangements to meet up with our teachers the next day at the pan yard. We were all getting well into it, but being Trinidad, you can’t always guarantee that the person showing you the tune will turn up on time or even, at all. All 3 of us had times waiting at the pan yard with no one to show us, though “Chinee” was almost always there. I managed to learn the song in 3 days. The guys in the band were kind of surprised as they have no end of stories of people who “Couldn’t make, here”! My friends were learning too but they had less reliable teachers and in the end they never completed the song.

“That year, I was happy to have the experience of playing in the pan yard and on the road. I never expected to get a chance to play for Panorama. I had achieved what I had set out to, which was to learn a panorama tune in Trinidad. I had made some friends and also established a relationship with the band that would last for many years. 

“Again in 1988 I went to Renegades and some more of our band members came. This time I took a pan with me as I felt that if I got a chance to play, at least I would have my own pan rather than someone watching me “bad eye” for taking their pan! The band was playing Kitch’s ‘Pan In Me’ and this time I learned the song in less than 3 days. It helped having my own pan as I could practice when I got back to Nelson Street too (apparently there were guys in the street joking that I shouldn’t be playing that song here, as in, in All Stars territory…well I think they were joking)! I was sure I would get to play this year, but the band again did not let me play.  I felt a little sore this time, as I knew the song well, had a pan and they all knew I could play it. I boycotted the pan yard for the rest of my time and didn’t play on the road. Looking back, I guess I was serving an initiation period.

“Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I was back the next year, 1989. This time the band was not playing a Kitch song, they were playing Baron’s ‘Somebody’. I was beginning to make a lot of friends in the band, but I was lucky with “Chinee” as he was always the one to teach me the songs. Sometimes however, I would have other teachers and I realised something about teaching people myself from this. Some guys can play, but when they show you a phrase you cannot feel the beat, so you learn notes and not until you play later with the band do you realise how it fits. Also, one of the most difficult things about learning a Panorama tune fresh off the plane is that you have never heard the actual calypso, so every part of the process is made harder. Anyway, this was to be the year that I finally played, through zonals, semis and final.

“The experience of being on stage at the Savannah is amazing, but my favourite moments were always on the drag, when the band isn’t set up too good and people are all through the band listening, pushing pan and judging. That year Renegades pulled off a surprise victory as Fonclaire was the band to beat. When we listened to the results in the pan yard, everyone went wild. It was a great moment for the band and personally for me as it was the first time I had been given the chance to play. I went on to play with Renegades for 7 Panoramas in total and the band won 5 of those. I haven’t played with them since 1997, but I still go and look for them when I’m in Trinidad and there are still a lot of the players who remember me. “Chinee” became a lifelong friend to me (I am godfather to his son Rene), and all of the people from our band that met him. He has even visited us here in England too. “Chinee” would never tire of telling us that when in Trinidad, we were in the “Mecca” of pan and for me this has always been true.

“One of many memories I have from my Renegades days was from 1992; the band was playing Kitch’s ‘Bees Melody.’ We were robbed that year by the way! There was a tenor solo that was 400-odd notes long and they wanted to hear every tenor player play it. As I said before, I was usually learning the songs in 2 to 3 days. Well this was around my 3rd day, so though I knew the notes for the song, I still needed a lot of time practicing the trickier bits. I know that the section leaders in the band also knew this too, but guess who was the first player they asked to play it? That’s right, yours truly! I started off at a good speed and played almost to the end, before making a mistake. I finished it though, but felt that they wanted me to make a mistake. I knew I would have it much better in a few more days. I then watched as ‘crackshots’ in the band, who had been playing the song for a month preceded to play it at about half the speed I did, so they didn’t mess up. I thought the section leaders would have told them to play at a quicker speed, but they didn’t. I must admit, I was pretty disappointed by that episode.

“Another memory is playing ‘Iron Man’ in 1990; I had to play on a stand and I was playing next to one of the legendary figures of the band….. “Smiling”. Apparently he used to be a leading member of the band, he was playing seconds and it was the only time I ever saw him play a Panorama tune. In all of my years I have never played with someone who played every note so fully and so loud. It was like playing next to ten men. Even now it is a vivid memory.”

New York Panorama

“In 1993 and 1997 I played in New York Panorama. I always had a great time there. My Auntie Glenda (Glenda Gamory) had a big involvement with the band Metro, so that is where I played. They had won the last few panoramas and were the band to beat. They were trying a new arranger, Eddie Quarless, and his music was so different to any I had played before. He was not a pan player, but demonstrated his parts on a keyboard. The band already had half of the song, ‘Mystery Band,’ when I got there and my cousin Gwynn showed me that, before I went to the pan yard. I was shocked when I got there to see that so many tenor players were playing wrong notes, or phrasing or both. I was teaching pan at this stage and couldn’t sit back and do nothing, so I got properly stuck in and helped to bring the players up to scratch. Quarless’s music was smooth and jazzy and really sweet. I loved playing it. Panorama came a little too quick though, and the tune had to be rush-finished. I can’t remember the placings, but the process of working with an innovative guy like Quarless and teaching the band’s section leaders was very different from my Renegades experiences, yet it all felt so natural at the time. In 1997 the band had dual arrangers, but in my opinion it was much too smooth for Panorama and was more ‘chilling out’ music. Again I can’t remember the finishing position, but it wasn’t first! Pantonic grew out of Metro and was named by my Auntie Glenda, after seeing the London band Pantonic when she visited in 2000.”

Metronomes 1997

“In 1997, I arranged ‘One For De Savannah’ for Metronomes. It was a great experience for me and also for our young band members in Phase One, who all played with Metro too. It was the next best thing to taking them to Trinidad. We would often arrive for practice before the Metro players, even though they lived around the corner and we were 100 miles away! Despite this I enjoyed it a lot, as did the players and I felt that, though the song was good, Panorama was probably a week too soon for us and I feel we weren’t tight enough. Another strange thing was the fact that percussion players would turn up on Panorama night expecting to play. Being used to the regime at Renegades, and also being a bit of a control freak I wanted them practicing with the band and not on the night of Panorama!

“All in all, these experiences and especially those in Trinidad have helped shape my whole approach to teaching, playing, running a band and trying to motivate others to keep on developing as panists and even, just keep on playing pan.”

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