Trinbago Pan

Bertie Marshall - Pan Scientist

RIGHT: Bertram 'Bertie' Lloyd Marshall receives the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
RIGHT: Bertram 'Bertie' Lloyd Marshall receives the Order of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago
in 2008 from His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richards,
President of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago

By Ian 'Teddy' Belgrave
Posted: September 10, 2008

Bertie Marshall is the doyen of Pan makers worldwide. He is the most sought after expert in his field by Steelband academics and scientists. He was honored with the Chaconia Gold in 1992 and has received numerous awards and honours, locally and internationally. There is a book written on one of his inventions, the Double-Tenor Pan, and he is widely regarded as the person responsible for changing the art/craft of tuning into a science.

Marshall, now 71, as a boy became concerned with the "overtones" coming from what was then a crude musical instrument.

He first attempted to tune a Ping-Pong on his own at the age of fourteen and later was to cause controversy among his peers by his obsession with "harmonics." He could not accept the inferior tone of the ping-pong and "spoilt" (according to his peers) many "good" instruments in pursuit of his goal of "harmonic tuning" of the Steelpan.

In 1956, Marshall established "harmonic tuning" as the new order of tuning the instrument and in quick succession invented and introduced to the Steelband world "Double Tenor" as well the "High Tenor" or "Soprano Pan" Ping-Pong, with a new range of notes, starting at low F instead of low B and ending at a new note - the high F.

This was made possible by his stretching the "belly" of the instrument from a depth of four inches to six and one half inches, creating space for three new octaves, and by cutting the width of the skirt of the instrument.

This "splitting" of the melody line created the possibility for the use of harmony and counter-melody.

Marshall was not just an inventor. The first band which he lead was the Metronomes Steel Orchestra, coming from Success Village, Laventille, where he lived at the time. Then he led the Armed Forces Steel Orchestra, which had an ongoing contract for performances at the U.S. Naval Base at Chaguaramas. But it was his leadership of the legendary Laventille Highlanders from 1961, for which he became best known.

When the 1960's began, the Steelband had just begun to emerge from the crude "pan-round-neck" stage of its development. The full range of the orchestra and the tone of the instrument still needed refinement. The problem still existed of finding ways and means of bringing the full concert-stage orchestra in motion on the streets for Carnival.

Although the orchestra had already begun to play the classics, this development was still in the realm of novelty. There was a need then to legitimize the musical capability of the instrument and in the process, master more modern musical idioms.

In 1962, Bertie Marshall and the Highlanders entered the Steelband stage to satisfy all those needs and many more. When they were finished, the acceptance of the steel orchestra as a legitimate development in the modern world of music had taken a giant leap forward.

The contributions of Bertie Marshall's Highlanders include the following:
  • Popularized the use of harmonic tuning, the Soprano Pan and the Double Tenor.
  • Included the Six-Bass in the road orchestra, thus revolutionizing the range of possibilities for musical arrangements on the road.
  • Invented canopies for the road orchestra thus protecting the fragile instruments and giving greater control of the sound of the orchestra.
  • Seriously attempted modern popular music, incorporating widespread use of harmony and counter-melody and the distinctive jazz motifs in musical arrangements, in particular, phrasing.
  • Introduced Steelband to the Church in 1965: an overflowing Trinity Cathedral with full choir and organ, an historic event that played no small part in the eventual general acceptance by the society of the art form.
  • Made Classical music by the steel orchestra popular by their domination of the "Bomb" competitions of that era. "Every Valley Shall Be Exhalted" from Handel's "Messiah" by the Highlanders, remains up to today, the Steelband piece that has remained longest on the local radio's popular hits programme.
Even more remarkable and ahead of its time was Marshall's experimental work with electronic amplification.

That work reached its height when he introduced electronic amplification of the Highlanders Steel Orchestra in 1965. This work, it is said, was 25 years ahead of its time and although scorned by conservatives of that day, Steelbands are now literally paying the price (no fete dates) of being left behind by the rapid development in amplification technology as applied to popular orchestras.

Using his own financial resources and the experience of years of very sophisticated pioneering research, he adapted special, imported "contact" microphones and an understanding of the concept of the "acoustical chamber" of the instruments to design a system for the electronic amplification of the instrument.

His method was very different to the subsequent attempts at "mikeing" the orchestra and provided immense possibilities for a new "timbre" and control of sound.

Lack of financial support brought this work to an end. Today it still remains the most critical area for research and development of the Steelband instrument.

At the end of the sixties, Marshall turned his attention to the "problem" of sustaining the sound of the notes of the Steelband instrument. Utilizing his recent discoveries of electronic amplification and the effects of the vibrations of the metallic material of the instrument, he developed an elaborate system which successfully enabled the controlled sustaining of notes on the Double Tenor. This was his famous "Bertfone."

In 1973, the Trinidad and Tobago Government employed Bertie Marshall and Anthony Williams as Steelband Development Officers and then seconded them to the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI) at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.

At CARIRI, Bertie Marshall was the key mover in a major experimental project to develop a process of mechanically sinking and grooving the instrument. This work has produced the successful application of the spin-form method.

Marshall also travelled to Sweden in 1982 with a representative of the Steelband Movement and a CARIRI technocrat, where they successfully located the required machine for adaptation to the process of sinking the Pan (which the project had developed). Lack of Government's financial backing put an end to that research.

At CARIRI, Marshall was also involved in a feasibility study of the creation of a Pan factory for the mass production of the finished instrument. In the production process of this factory, metal sheets made to precise specifications replaced the discarded oil-drum as the raw material input.

Marshall has been out front among all tuners in his study of the metallic composition of the material of the steel drum used to create the instrument. The study for the Pan factory, therefore, addressed the issue of the alloy specifications of the metal to be used in the production process. This is also awaiting financial backing for its completion.

In 1970, Bertie Marshall became resident tuner for the Desperadoes, one of the world's leading steel orchestras. In collaboration with Rudolph Charles, the latest additions to the range of the steel orchestra were created: the "Quadrophonic," the "Six-Pan" (a versatile mid-ranged instrument) and the "Twelve-Bass" among others.

The use of the strobe in the tuning of the instrument also began with Marshall and Charles, as was the introduction of the "chrome finish" to the instruments. That acclaimed "perfect" tone of the Desperadoes has been primarily the work of Bertie Marshall.

Marshall is also an acclaimed virtuoso player of the Steelpan instrument, specializing on the Double Tenor. He has perfected the art of three-stick playing, which he popularized with the Highlanders Steel Orchestra. He has also excelled as an arranger for the Highlanders and his unique phrasing made it one of the top steel orchestras of that era.

Bertie Marshall has been the premier Steelband consultant over the years. His vast knowledge and experience are sought after by researchers and developers of the art form, locally and internationally.

He has produced in collaboration with his protégé, Tony Slater, the first comprehensive "Pan Manual," compiled at the International Steel Drum (Pan) Workshop at North Texas State University (May 31- June 5, 1987).

He has been tutor and mentor to many emerging Steelband tuners locally and regionally and has been commissioned by the Government in the past to train Pan tuners in the region.

Bertie was appointed an Honorary Distinguished Fellow at U.T.T. since 2005 and has been the major instructor in the Advanced Steelpan Tuning Programme, Integrating the Science and Technology of the Steelpan for young tuners, hosted by the U.T.T. in 2006-2007. This programme is due to be repeated in the next three (3) semesters.

Bertie Marshall's life-work is a classic demonstration of the creative genius of our Caribbean people.

In the field of Steelpan scientific research he has been outstanding, both in his innovativeness and his boldness to straddle the modern world stage. The impact of his work on the steel orchestra is all-encompassing; no tuner, no arranger, no innovator, no Pan musician nor researcher has escaped the influence of "The Madman" as he is fondly referred to in the Steelband world.

It must be more than coincidence that this Pan genius who was born during the period of the fire of the social/political movement of the Caribbean people in the mid-1930's, first began to produce his pioneering work at the time of the nationalist movement of the mid-1950's and reached the high point of his contribution during the period of the birth of political independence.

We all must claim him, this national treasure.

Bertie Marshall Speaks on the Steelpan

Independence National Awards 2008

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