Meet Dave LaBarrie - Panist, Arranger, Educator and Administrator & Member of the famed 1967 T&T National Steelband - UpClose!

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

He is a scholar, an intellect, a musician and a coach - just to name a few. Indeed, depending on when you crossed his multifaceted life, met or engaged him - the name Dave LaBarrie will ring differently to you. He’s been an assistant high school principal,  basketball coach, T&T steelband association and band administrator and New York Panorama winner.

When Steel Talks Exclusive icon

Dave LaBarrie is etched in history as part of the famed twenty-two-member national steelband that was led by George Goddard, and represented Trinidad and Tobago magnanimously at the Expo ‘67. Many of these band members would go on to become legendary icons in the steelband music movement. And for a while, LaBarrie was also the vice president of the Trinidad and Tobago Steelband Association which facilitated much of the initial groundbreaking accomplishments for the steelband movement.

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Dave LaBarrie shares his significant and considerable history with Pan and more.

WST - “Who is Dave LaBarrie? Tell us about yourself.”

Dave LaBarrie
Dave LaBarrie

Dave L. - “I was born in Port of Spain [Trinidad]... Bottom of Laventille Road near Piccadilly Street, East Dry River. Sometimes referred to as ‘Behind the Bridge.’ I grew up there playing cricket in the “Dry River,” flying Kites on the “Planning and Housing” buildings, playing soccer in the Mervina League and “liming” on the bridge at the top of Prince Street or on Nelson street after dark.

“My mother was Catholic and was able to get me into then-Belmont Boys Intermediate and then on to Fatima College. My father was a reporter at the Trinidad Guardian.”

WST - “How and when did you first become involved with Pan? What were your earliest experiences with Pan? And which pan(s) do you play?”

Dave L. - “In my final year at Fatima, I was 15 going on 16, I became interested in “Pan.” One of my older brothers had been a member of Starland on St Vincent Street and a friend from Fatima was a member of a band from on Sackville Street. I think they were Meloharps or Melostars... too far back, I can’t remember. He started teaching me to beat a tenor pan.

“At that time (1963-64), Sputniks was on Charlotte Street and I used to go by to hear them practice. I am not sure how I ended up beating pan with Sputniks but before long I was learning their tunes on a tenor. The band was run by two brothers, Junior and Carl. The first tune I learned was their “bomb [tune]” Golden Earrings; and thus began a journey that would take me to various bands and eventually the National Steelband.

“That Carnival I became a true panman with my pan around my neck parading through the streets of Port of Spain. Briefly, after that Carnival, the two brothers fell out and there were two bands - Sputniks and Sputnik Stars during the year. I ended up with The Stars during the year and they were not participating on the road, so I played tenor that next Carnival with a band called Stereophonics from Pembroke Street. Sputnik Stars became Starlets and that is how I became a member of the National Steelband. I was initially the representative from Starlets.

“I played all pans and began arranging in 1966 after returning from the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival in London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Wales with the National Steelband.

“I developed my arranging skills listening to the work of Bertie Marshall, Junior Pouchet, Earl Rodney and then collaborating with one of the greats Lancelot Layne who became a close friend.

National Steelband of Trinidad and Tobago 1967 Trinidad and Tobago National Steelband which performed at Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Canada 

(“A troupe of dancers and the 22 members of the National Steelband left for Expo ‘67 on August 11; George Goddard was manager of the band.
The 22 panmen were: -
[pictured bottom row left to right]  David Edwards of Gale Stars, Emlyn Harewood of Starland, Steve Regis of West Stars, Glenford Sobers of Crosswinds, Roderick Toussaint of City Kids, Clunis Clarke of Casbah (Tobago); [pictured middle row left to right] Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed of Cavaliers, Michael Alleyne of Scarlet Symphony, Carlyle Jordan of Dixie Harps,  Elton John of City Symphony,  Gordon Barrow of Scherzando, Randolph St. Louis of Renegades, Bertram Kelman of Southern Marines; [pictured top row left to right]  Herman Collins of Sun Valley,  Sylvester Nicholas of Tropical Harmony,  David LaBarrie of Sputniks, Rafael Passey of Fonclaire,  Morris Romeo of Starlift (Tobago).
[Not pictured] Pedro Alexander Pereira of Blue Diamonds, Cabot Paul of Trinidad Symphony, Dean Kirton of Kintups, and Emmanuel Riley of Invaders” - George “Sonny” Goddard)

WST - “In 1967 you were a member of the historical Trinidad & Tobago National Steelband which performed at Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Canada. How were you chosen? Tell us about the overall event experience.”

Dave L. - “In 1967 most of the 1965 National Steelband members who had continued to perform locally were invited to participate in Expo ‘67 in Montreal. I was among those chosen by the then-Steelband Association.

“My experience performing overseas, representing Trinidad and Tobago was an amazing one. To represent one’s country in sports, culture or in fact anything is an honor and an unforgettable experience. The appreciation of the audiences and their responses to our music can never be forgotten.”

Trinidad and Tobago National Steelband performs at Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Canada
The Trinidad and Tobago National Steelband performs at Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Canada
- Trinidad Pavilion

WST - “What are the most significant changes you’ve witnessed in Pan since your early years in the art form?”

Dave L. - “On my return to Trinidad after Expo one could see changes starting around Steelbands and Carnival. Many bands stopped coming on the road for Carnival beginning in 1968. The cost factor was the main reason but the reluctance of Masquerade band leaders to hire steelbands for playing music for their bands on the road, and instead opting to hire traditional music bands on trucks also contributed to this, together with the inability of most steelbands to compete for masqueraders with the established masquerade bandleaders. Those who acquired sponsors were the ones that continued for the next few years.

“Starlets became Nutrine Playboys and were based on Duke Street. As an admirer of Bertie Marshall I adopted the amplified Tenor as part of the identity of The Playboys and with the help of a good friend Lancelot Layne (deceased), rocked Port of Spain with our rendition of “A Few Dollars More” with amplified tenors in 1969. That was the last time that the Playboys were on the road for Carnival. The next year, 1970, I arranged for Solo Harmonites and in 1971 I moved to New York. After graduating in New York I pursued my education In Los Angeles where I promoted our culture by bringing performers like The Mighty Sparrow and Nap Hepburn to perform in Los Angeles.”

WST - “You are a noted administrator, media consultant, activist, arranger, and of course performing panist. Which role do you cherish the most?”

Dave L. - “In the different roles over the years, I got the most satisfaction being an arranger. I enjoyed every role and still enjoy many. I still coach High School basketball, but retired as a High School Assistant Principal some years ago. I had much success as a Basketball Coach winning many championships including a State of Georgia Championship, going undefeated an entire season and [was] named High School Coach of the Year in Georgia. And - eventually coaching in the Junior Olympics.”

Dave A Labarrie Dave LaBarrie

WST - “You are a former North VP (1970-1971) of the Trinidad and Tobago Steelband Association, the precursor to the present-day Pan Trinbago. Tell us about that experience? What were your expectations and what did the association hope to achieve at that point?”

Dave L. - “During the period that I was a VP of the Steelband Association there was a lot going on. George [Goddard] took a leave of absence for a short period of time and I had to serve as Acting President. During this time George had thrown his support with NJAC (National Joint Action Committee) and this had caused some division among the steelbands. The goal at this time was employment for steelband musicians and more sponsorship for steelbands. Most of all stopping the exploitation of steelbands.

“As George put it at that time “The days of playing for Rum and Roti are over.””

WST - “Tell us about your New York Pan experience?”

Dave L. - “A year after moving to New York, I formed the Panmasters. In 1973 Panmasters won the New York Panorama with its version of Sparrow’s “Sell the Pussy.” It was the largest steelband to ever appear for Labor Day in New York, and for the first time a band appeared on Eastern Parkway on wheels and covers like steelbands on the road in Trinidad. The major issue for bands at that time was finding a place to practice since the “noise” was unacceptable to local residents. Then there was the controversy between two groups vying for control of the Labor Day celebrations. In 1974 Panmasters did not participate in Labor Day on the Parkway. I recall the Panorama being rained out. I left New York early in 1975 to pursue my education at a University in Los Angeles.”

WST - “How has Pan changed over the years, in terms of your expectations for the culture and the instrument?”

Dave L. - “Pan has not suffered culturally in my opinion. I think that there is some confusion in distinguishing between cultural and commercial. Pan is culturally alive and well but continues to struggle commercially and will continue to do so until it is fully integrated into and with other musical instruments. Robert Greenidge is probably the best example of having the instrument being integrated with other so-called conventional instruments successfully although there are others. Full steelbands performing are more seen as amazing and more fascinating; [audiences] are intrigued by the instrument and performers. Commercialization, though, tends to be more based on uniqueness and is therefore limited, thus the dilemma of confusing commercialization with culture.”

Part Two

WST - “George Goddard, Sr. once said that “The Steelband Association is not a Panorama Association, it is rather a Panorama, Festival, and Jamboree Association.” Has Panorama sucked out all the oxygen in the room, and now nothing else can thrive?”

Dave L. - “I think that other steelband events can thrive. The production and promotion of these events will determine the success and/or lack of success of the events. Are they commercial or are they cultural? Panorama seems to be leaning more commercial.

“Are the Internet groups and TV groups paying to cover the show locally and internationally? Are they selling advertising on their channels or websites? If they are, are the bands receiving any of these funds? If there is a festival, jamboree or any event involving steelbands, many people locally or internationally will have an interest in seeing the event - thus commercialization, funding, exposure, etc.

“I do not have a position on whether these events should be strictly cultural or commercial, maybe some of each. As I said previously I think culturally we are in decent shape; however Commercially I think steelbands are exploited both locally and Internationally.

“Panorama is a local experience. A Pan Festival is and can be a worldwide experience. By this I mean a West Indian can truly enjoy, relate to, the Panorama arrangements and competitive aspect of the Panorama event. To someone on the outside of this community though, it is not the same. A “Pan Festival” can be enjoyed and appreciated locally and internationally; and amazingly it has not very much to do with pan unless there is a visual. It has to do with the music played and the arrangements. It does not have to be classical music but it could be Popular music or even local compositions. Yes I said that. Rum and Coca-Cola, (Belasco and Lord Invader), Sweet Music, (Shorty), Hot Hot, Hot (Arrow), Jump in the Line (Kitchener, Belafonte).

“These are some songs known internationally and in their simplicity are very commercial when played by Panists. I say this to make the point that we are losing Calypso culturally more than the Steelband... but that’s another topic and that is why George Goddard, Sr. wanted the Calypsonians organized. He saw the connection between the Calypsonian (the Composer) and the Musician (the Panist) for the cultural progress of both.”

WST - “Tell us about George Goddard, Sr.?”

Dave L. - “George Goddard, Sr. understood the need for organizing and he understood the politics of the 60s and 70s. We had achieved Independence as a nation and an organization that was widespread throughout T&T could wield a lot of clout politically. George saw this as an opportunity that could benefit the Panist and Calypsonian in terms of elevating their social status and improving their financial well-being and I was there to assist in that vision. At that time I was a civil servant working in the Ministry of Finance and had connections in business and Government where many of my previous colleagues from Fatima College were employed. I also had many friends who had moved on to UWI (University of the West Indies) and who were also working towards benefiting the unemployed, and our organization had many of those.”

WST - “What are your expectations and vision for the future of Pan?”

Dave L. - “The E-Pan (Salmon Cupid) is a step in the right direction in terms of commercialization. The Tenor then would take the lead to gain international acceptance as an instrument. Chances of most other steel pan instruments gaining that type of acceptance are almost nil. Maybe double or triple tenors and seconds may gain some acceptance with this format. Many panists have adopted conventional electronics for background music and play their instrument as lead in most commercial ventures. Cabot Paul, a former member of the National Steelband and Don Clarke come to mind.

“Pan in T&T has progressed culturally with the advent of instant communication worldwide (world community) and the spread of pan music everywhere. I would like to see proper recognition be given to the pioneers including those who have been passed over. Many panists today do not know the names Kelvin Pierrepoint, Otto Faustin, Bob, Scorpion, Herman Collins, Emmanuel “Jack” Riley etc., etc. There are many more (these were just some of the tuners and panist that I had the honor of knowing and playing with), but they all made major contributions at a crucial time for the steelbands.”

WST - “What are your expectations and vision for the future of Pan?”

Dave L. - “Trinidad and Tobago is not afraid of the success of the steelband. I think The society is proud of the success. I think there is confusion as to ‘what’s next?’ “HueLoy” (Vincent Lila Yip Young) of Solo Harmonites and PanMasters New York fame has some good ideas in terms of direction and is probably the biggest proponent of the steelband. Many call him the Steelband Ambassador.”

WST - “The introduction of “sponsorship” into the Trinidad and Tobago steelband arena: - a positive or negative from your perspective?”

Dave L. - “Sponsorship of Steelbands was both a curse and a blessing to the bands. If a band was unable to get a sponsor they were doomed to go out of existence. If a band got a sponsor that was willing to open the checkbook, those bands were able to become very successful. They could hire the best tuners and arrangers. The best panplayers were recruited by the then-top bands. This in a way meant the makeup of a band was no longer based on the community as they were before. So you may be travelling to play in a band rather than walking to the next block. So came the advent of the dominant steelbands.

“Today there are bands far and wide (progress). Bands in schools, bands based on gender, bands in communities, etc.

“So culturally we are okay.”

WST - “Based on your experience, can one singular entity champion the needs of the panist, steel orchestras, and the steelband art form industry locally, nationally and globally?”

Dave L. - “One entity - if it’s the Government of Trinidad & Tobago - can champion the needs of the Panist and the art form. I don’t think that any organization other than the Government can, unless it is Government-sponsored.”

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