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Renegades Steel Orchestra is one of the oldest surviving steel bands in the world today. Its history date back to 1948, and is as filled with the agonies of setbacks as it is with the glory and ecstasy of accomplishments. Victories achieved because of the tenacity and perseverance of men and women who were as passionate about their art as they were of their organization.
Fortunately, much of this history is captured in a book by Kim Johnson entitled, ‘Renegades—The History of the Renegades Steel Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago.’ I sincerely hope that this book, a first by any steel band, will one day become required reading in our nation’s schools.
Renegades is perhaps best known in this country for its domination of the National Panorama Competition in the eighties and nineties with nine victories between 1982 and 1997, including a hat-trick between 1995 and 1997. That, my friends, is only the icing…there is a whole lot of cake beneath that; it is as astonishing as it is fascinating.
When Ethelbert Serrette destroyed the instruments of the Ohio Cassanovas on Carnival Tuesday 1947, he had no idea that his act of wanton violence and destruction would give birth to an organization that would receive in 1992, the nation’s second highest award, The Chaconia Gold Medal, for its outstanding contribution to the culture of the country.
The players, most of whom were around fourteen to fifteen years of age at the time, would not have had gracing the concert stages the world over on their minds when they decided on Ash Wednesday 1947, to regroup and form a band of their own. There was no panorama competition or steel band music festival to consider when Kelvin “Pelican” Brown’s father, who was the foreman at a quarry in Basilon Street, gave them permission to store the pans in an unused kiln. The only thing that was on their minds was having a band with which to parade the streets on public holidays and on carnival days.
The band did not even have a name when it hit the road for the first time on Empire Day (May 24) 1948, tramping around a few blocks before dashing back into the quarry to escape the police. The name ‘Renegades,’ was adopted in 1949, from a western movie by that name. Before that, they had tried ‘Bad Men of Missouri’ and ‘Dodge City’ but quickly discarded them.
The name Renegades, had a certain ring to it. Perhaps it reflected a kind of image—physical strength and courage, aggressiveness, and lack of emotion—that was in keeping with the period—the 50s being the era of steelband warfare. It made them the equal of their counterparts such as Desperadoes, Destination Tokyo, Rising Sun, Casablanca, and Invaders, all of whom had taken their names from war moves to reflect their combative nature as was the order of the day.
It was during this period that Stephen “Goldteeth” Nicholson, a former Casablanca member, was invited to take over the reins as captain of Renegades. “Goldteeth” was a violent, autocratic man, a street fighter. He imprinted his forceful personality on the band that gave it the toughness to endure but also got them into fights with a dozen other steel bands, sometimes several at the same time.
The band’s notoriety kept away masqueraders, pan players, and even supporters. Fathers would beat a daughter caught speaking to a Renegades pan man; mothers forbade their sons to join the band. Some of the players kept away from the band until it was far from home before ‘taking a knock’—afraid of being spotted by their parents.
When Renegades went on the warpath, no holds were barred. Because of this, they were denied a permit to play on the street for carnival in 1960 and 1961. Several of its players migrated to other bands during this period so that come carnival 1962, when the ban was lifted, Renegades was unable to muster a strong enough force to come on the road in spite of the efforts of “Brokofoot” Raymond, to whom “Goldteeth” had passed the captaincy.
In 1963, Renegades moved camp from Basilon Street to La Cour Harpe at the behest of the youngsters in the band, most of whom were also associated with a gang called The Lawbreakers. The Lawbreakers included men with sobriquets such as Dr. Rat, Bambi, Little Axe, Papito, and Boldface—youngsters with a penchant for committing petty crimes and for indiscriminate hooliganism. They assumed leadership positions in the band so that the name ‘Lawbreakers’ soon became synonymous with that of Renegades.
“Goldteeth” took the captaincy away from “Brokofoot” Raymond and gave it to Oswald McSween – one of the Lawbreakers. McSween’s reign however, was short-lived as not long after his appointment, police arrested and charged him along with two other men, for the possession of firearms. He won his case but by then Julian “Jubal” Alexander had already replaced him as captain.
In those days, Renegades had no resident arranger. Different people were brought from time to time to arrange music for them. Belgrave and Carlton “Block” Bonaparte, two top pan men from Southern Symphony in Point Fortin; Junior Pouchet, of Silver Stars also did a few tunes in the sixties, as well as Trevor “Brutus” Charles, of Invaders. Selwyn Mohammed, brother of the famous Bobby Mohammed of Guinness Cavaliers, took over the reins in 1967 and earned the distinction of being the person responsible for the transformation of the band into a more musically competitive, less destructive group.
Throughout 1968, Mohammed maintained a permanent stage side, travelling from San Fernando on a daily basis to hold practice sessions. It was also during his tour that the band placed third in the J'Ouvert Morning Bomb Competition of 1968 playing, ‘My Heart and I.’ The band made it into the Panorama finals for the first time in 1969, and won the J'Ouvert Morning Bomb competition playing, ‘In A Monastery Garden.’
In June 1970, Renegades received sponsorship from AMOCO Trinidad Oil Company (now BP TT). This contributed in no small way to the band’s change of image as well as its fortunes. Sponsorship provided the wherewithal to purchase top quality instruments made by one of the leading tuners in the country, Bertram “Birch” Kelman. It was Kelman, too, who in 1971, recommended the hiring of Jit Samaroo to arrange music for the band.
The first night Jit arranged, ‘One Bad Apple’ by The Osmonds and within days, the players were agitating for him to arrange for Panorama as well. Jit then became the band’s fulltime musical director and from then up until his retirement in 2007, determined the musical direction of the Renegades, developing for it a wide-ranging repertoire that includes selections from almost every genre of music under the sun. Following his retirement, the band’s classical adaptations became the responsibility of Desmond Waithe while Amrit Samaroo, Duvone Stewart, and Kenneth Guppy have all added their works to the band’s extensive playlist.
When Renegades celebrated its first National Panorama victory in 1982, it looked back on almost two decades of being considered an, ‘also ran’. The climb had been slow and agonizing but it had also been systematic. Between 1970 and 1972, the band managed to get as far as the semifinals, then for the next three years, failed to go beyond the preliminaries. In 1976 and 1977, it again got to the semi-finals, then to the finals of 1978. In 1979, steel bands boycotted the competition in a demand for higher prize money. In 1980, when competition resumed, Renegades placed third, which it improved to second place in 1981. Then in 1982, ten years after Jit arranged his first Panorama tune, the band finally won the National Panorama Competition.
STEELBAND MUSIC FESTIVAL
Having won the Panorama, the taste of victory awakened an appetite for new challenges for which the band turned in 1982 to the Biannual Steel band Music Festival. They were eliminated in the preliminary round but at the next festival in 1984, placed second overall and won the Test Piece Category. In the festival of 1986, the band again failed to make it to the finals and in 1988, was still en route to Trinidad from an overseas engagement when the preliminary round was held at the Jean Pierre Complex in Port of Spain.
Thereafter Renegades bowed out of the Festival circuit, mainly due to tour commitments. They returned 20 years later in 2008, swept the field in the minor categories, (which they had never entered before) winning champion soloist, champion duet, and champion quartet. The full Orchestra again placed second with Richard Wagner’s ‘Rienzi Overture’ and Sparrow’s ‘Document Pan,’ thereby achieving three 2nd places in five appearances at the festival, making idle the claim by its detractors that Renegades is not a festival band.
The band has also done well in the ‘Pan in the 21st Century’ competition. They won the competition in 2003 with Joe Lewis’ ‘Pint of Wine,’ placed second in 2006 with Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’ and second again in 2010 with Celine Dion’s ‘I Surrender’.
Renegades is undoubtedly the most acclaimed and perhaps highest profiled cultural ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago and of steel band music. That this is not common knowledge here in Trinidad may have to do with Renegades’ lacklustre approach to beating its own proverbial drum—the best kept secret someone recently dubbed it - a shortcoming they however corrected with the 2010 launch of the band’s website.
Renegades has played to audiences in festivals and concert halls all over Europe—visiting countries such as Germany, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France, sometimes on the road for as long as three months at a time.
In 1990, the band was hired to accompany French pop composer and multi-media performer, Jean-Michel Jarre at Paris Bastille Day Celebrations. When Jean-Michel heard the band in rehearsals however, he made them the featured performer for the entire second half of the concert that was attended by an estimated world record audience of over two million people. A huge section of Paris, stretching from the prime, high-rise business district of La Defense to the Arc de Triomphe, was closed down for the occasion with sweet pan music being played against a backdrop of tall buildings onto which laser patterns were also projected. That same year the band opened the Nelson Mandela Welcome Rally at the Yankee Stadium, in New York City.
In 2006, Renegades performed at the 18th Commonwealth Games in Sydney and at the WOMAD Festival in Adelaide. In 2008, they received an invitation to perform an exclusive repertoire of Schubert’s music at the Folle Journee Festival in France. Home-based fans severely criticized them for undertaking such a project in the midst of a panorama season but the band’s management held the view that a band the size and with the experience of Renegades, ought to be able to take on more than one engagement at a time. They were invited back to the Folle Journee Festival in 2009, this time with a repertoire by Sebastian Bach, and in 2010, to perform pieces by Chopin and Liszt.
On 29 August 2009, Renegades performed at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, to commemorate the 47th anniversary of the Independence of Trinidad and Tobago. They first accompanied dramatic soprano Anne Fridal, soprano Renee Solomon and lyric baritone Marvin Smith before filling their own time slot with a variety of musical pieces.
The band was also invited to perform at the gala opening of the 29th Biennial Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival at Queen’s Hall in 2010. Dr. Jan Harrington and Dr. Carmen Helena Pellez, of Indiana University, together with Dr. John Paul Johnson, of Wichita State University who were in Trinidad to preside over the festival later hailed the musicianship of Renegades Steel Orchestra as magnificent. A local newspaper quoted Dr. Johnson as saying that he had heard live steel pan music before, but never in the fine way that Renegades offered it. Subsequently, the band again brought the house down on the second night of the ‘Pop meets Steel’ segment of NAPA (National Academy for the Performing Arts) Fest, produced by the Ministry of Arts & Multiculturalism at the National Academy for the Performing Arts.
Whatever success Renegades has achieved at home and abroad, it has never lost sight of its roots and has remained loyal to its community and in particular to the development of its youth. In 1999, the band launched, The Renegades Youth Steel Orchestra with two objectives in mind. (1) To keep the youngsters off the streets away from bad influences, providing them instead with the worthwhile alternatives of training in playing skills and techniques and in the rudiments and theory of music; and (2) to be a source of proficient musicians from which the Senior Renegades Steel Orchestra can draw.
The Youth Orchestra has had a tremendous run of success, winning the National Junior Panorama on six occasion (including two hat-tricks between 2002 and 2004 and again between 2008 and 2010). Amrit Samaroo arranged the band’s first six panorama selections that saw them win the first hat-trick and place second in 2005, 2006, and 2007. In 2008, he succeeded his retiring father, Dr. Jit Samaroo as the panorama arranger for the senior Renegades. His replacement, Shelton C. Besson then took the Youth Orchestra to the second hat-trick of Junior Panorama wins in his first three years as its arranger.
The Renegades Youth Steel Orchestra is therefore the only band in the history of the Junior National Panorama competition to have accomplished a double hat-trick—winning 6 times and placing second on the three other occasions it has been in the competition. The band has also gone on tours to France, Italy, Germany, Norway, and Venezuela, and in 2003, formed part of Trinidad and Tobago’s contingent to the Caribbean Festival of Arts (Carifesta) held in Suriname.
For the past nine years, Renegades has also organized a J'Ouvert morning Bomb competition in front of its pan yard on Charlotte Street to encourage other steelbands to come to the area. A similar competition for costumed mas bands is also held on Carnival Tuesday, the purpose being to bring the carnival back to its community following moves by the authorities to shift the parade further to the west of Port of Spain.
In 2002, the band adopted a new constitution with a view to incorporating it as a Non-Profit Company. The vision of the ‘Renegades Steel Orchestra Cultural Arts & Entertainment Organization’ as the Company is titled, is:
- To achieve universal acclaim as the premier Steel Orchestra in the world.
- To become a self-sufficient organization that is capable of providing sustainable employment for its members.
by Michael Marcano, President
Renegades Steel Orchestra web site
Click for more on Renegades Steel Orchestra
Address: Renegades Steel Orchestra Cultural Arts and Entertainment
138 Charlotte Street
Trinidad and Tobago, W.I.
Champion Years - 1982, 1984, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2018, 2019, 2023
- Duvone Stewart - 2024, 2023, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012
- Kenneth Guppy - 2010, 2011
- Amrit Samaroo - 2009, 2008
- Jit Samaroo - 2007 - 1971
|Formed after the breakup of the Ohio Cassanovas, Renegades began functioning as Dodge City in downtown Port-of-Spain in 1945. The band later changed its name to Renegades in 1948, after the 1945 American movie "Renegades of the Rio Grande," starring Rod Cameron. The band originated on Basilon Street and later moved to La Coux Harpe. By the 1990s, its home was located on the upper part of Charlotte Street. In the 1980s, musical arranger Jit Samaroo joined the band and he went on lead it to nine Panorama titles in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. In 1992, Renegades received the Trinidad & Tobago Chaconia Medal Gold for its cultural contributions. Renegades finished among the top three steelbands in the following significant competition:
|Compiled by Ronald C. Emrit