Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

 

Tribute To Women In Pan

 

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“Women’s Contribution to the Steelband Movement”

by Merle Albino-de Coteau

Mrs. Merle Albino-de Coteau is a retired Director of Culture, in the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Women’s Affairs. She is a daughter of the soil having being born into a musical family in Success Village, Laventille (Republic of Trinidad and Tobago). Mrs. Albino-de Coteau, a graduate of Mc Gill University, Canada and of the University of the West Indies (UWI) is also the holder of several awards for contribution to music in Trinidad & Tobago. She was honoured on the twentieth (20th) anniversary of the National Woman’s Action Committee for her contribution to culture, in particular the Calypso Art form in February 2004. She is also one of the recipients of a Kwanza Award (2001), a national award - the Humming Bird Medal (1993), and a Sunshine Awards (1989) at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), for her contribution to culture, particularly for calypso and steelband activities.  Full Bio

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Introduction
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For anyone born into a musical family in the British Colony of Trinidad in the 1930s through 1950s, where the whole cultural concept was Euro-centric in perspective, it was taboo to become associated with our indigenous art form, the steelband.  Because the country was socially  stratified during this period, grassroots forms were either only grudgingly accepted or totally negated.

My brothers Aldwin and Martin, my sister Lucille and I grew up in a musical environment in Laventille. One Christmas, my parents bought a small xylophone as a gift for us which, Aldwin always reminisces, helped to change our lives forever.  “Under the tutelage of our mother, we learned to play our first tune on this musical toy” (Albino, Montreal Community Contact newspaper, 8 Dec. 2000).

In the 1940s, during our childhood we were fortunate to hear and appreciate in our neighbourhood, a beautiful musical sound produced by a small pan played by Carl Greenidge (uncle of the now-renowned panist/arranger Robert Greenidge).  Carl Greenidge can be referred to as the “Father” of pan players in Success Village, Laventille, having first started “Kentuckians Steel Orchestra.” “Torrid Zone” was an off-shoot of Kentuckians which was later renamed “Savoys” (later sponsored by Chase Manhattan therefore becoming “Chase Manhattan Savoys” of which Merle Albino-de Coteau became the musical director in 1970).

Since then there has been no turning back, as I became “hooked” on this phenomenal instrument “the Pan.” Hence whenever the opportunity presents itself, I try to preach the “Gospel of Pan.”

While several “histories” have been written about the role of the Pan man, very little, if any, is written about the contributions of women to the steelband movement.  It is hoped that this presentation will help clarify any misconceptions that might have accrued over the years.  I hope to help enlighten pan lovers such as yourselves as to what the facts really are.

Historical Facts
Merle Abino-de Coteau
Merle Albino-de Coteau

The steelpan, which was born in Trinidad and Tobago, is the only acoustical musical instrument invented in the twentieth century; it represents the people from which it came. The social structure of the society still presents many difficulties for people who play the instrument, in fact, for anyone associated with the instrument.

Panmen have been considered noise makers, violent men, rabble rousers, vagabonds, “badjohns” or any other epithet associated with being a social outcast.

Society is not however solely responsible for the degradation of panmen. They were in some way to be blamed for their roguery. For this reason it was “frowned on” for women to become involved in the steelband movement.

Nevertheless, there were women who fought against all odds and made a sizable contribution to all aspects of the steelband movement. Women from all around the island became involved in steelpan performances. In the early fifties there were only isolated cases of women’s involvement in the steelband culture. Here are a few examples:

1. Females like Daisy James-McLean, now the founder of Harlem Syncopators began to play with her brothers in Casablanca (from Belmont), when she was only six years old. She was the first woman to accompany a calypsonian, alias “Brother Mudada” at the popular Dimanche Gras Show (a show staged on Carnival Sunday Night at the Queen’s Park Savannah).

2. Norma Callender is another female who gave solo performances. She was a member of Hill 60 Steelband (Behind the Bridge).

3. Gemma Worrel-Sealey, a member of the Chase Manhattan Savoys was another Pioneer in solo performances (Laventille).

4. Rufina Thomas and Eva John were from a band called ‘Metronomes’ in Tunapuna.

5. Marjorie Headley-Mosely from ‘Nightingales’ (Tunapuna).

Woman Steelbands

This isolation began to thaw with the advent of “White Stars,” a group comprised of inmates of the Girls Industrial School, Belmont, a correctional institute supervised by the nuns of The Carmalite Sisters.

This group owed its existence to Casablanca Steel Orchestra, which was formerly led by Mr. Oscar Pile, nicknamed “Bogart,” a walking encyclopedia, who is still alive today. However, because the group “White Stars” was part of the penile system, it never got any degree of prominence in the history of the steelband movement at that time.

According to Sylvia Gonzales (“Steelband Saga: A Story of the Steelband, the first 25 years.” POS: Ministry of Education and Culture, 1978: p 27-29.), “Comparatively little is known of them, they were somewhat restricted, being inmates of the Correctional institution” (Gonzales, p. 27).

No one factor is responsible for the birth of the steelband in Trinidad and Tobago, neither can any one location in Trinidad and Tobago claim to be the birth place as there were simultaneous happenings.

Attention must now be turned to Hazel Henley, another woman who defied tradition and formed one of the most successful female groups, Girl Pat, in 1952.

Hazel Henley, Ellie Robertson, Sammy Espinet, Pat Maurice and Irma Waldron-Regis (played tenor), Sylvia Dedier-Gowin, Jean Ewing and Joyce Ford (seconds), Irma Cyrus-Nelson (tune boom), Grace Forde and Joan Rolston (bass).

The first tune they learned to play was “Tennessee Waltz.” Another favorite was “After Johnny Drunk Me Rum.” Older folks would remember these selections. This band was assisted by Ellie Mannette of Invaders (Naipaul, S. “Own Instruments And Plays Them.” Evening News 6 Feb. 1950: 5).

The magnificent album entitled Ivory and Steel features the Pan Am North Stars and our own renowned Winifred Atwell on piano. This is another striking example of the great leap forward made by the steelband over the years with the help of Winifred Atwell.

After the hiatus of twenty years, there was a rebirth of ensembles, “Neal and Massy Trendsetters” came on the scene...setting the trend to be the first Female Conventional Band.

It is one of the main goals of this paper to redress the imbalance and to give credit where credit is due, by paying tribute to the unsung heroes who have contributed to the advancement of this phenomenal creation.

Conclusion

It cannot be over stressed that the writer attempts to emphasize the involvement of women in the activities of the steelband movement and to bring to the fore the biases that existed toward them. This paper also attempts to trace chronologically the role that women played in the development of the steelband movement. It is hoped that this presentation will clarify any misrepresentations that might have occurred over the years, and will enlighten the reader as to what the facts really are.

Acknowledgments

This extract is taken from the thesis “Women’s Contribution to the Steelband Movement” by Merle Albino-de Coteau. Copyright 4 Feb. 2005.

merlead@tstt.net.tt

Their Story, Their Voice, Their Life, Their Dreams - click for more stories

© and courtesy Merle Albino-de Coteau
March 10, 2005

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