Trinbago Pan

Anthony Williams:
Steelpan Innovator Extraordinaire

Anthony Williams received the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Anthony Williams received 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 11, 2008

When Anthony Williams entered the Steelband stage as a tuner in November 1945, the Steelband ensemble was an assortment of very crude percussion instruments brought together to fulfill the need for rhythm in the Canboulay masquerade, but with a capability of playing the most rudimentary melodies.

The ensemble at that time consisted of (i) the Tenor Kettle with four notes made from a "sweet oil" drum and strapped around the neck, (ii) the Ping Pong with five notes also made from the "sweet oil" drum, held in one hand and played with the other (iii) the Cuff Boom with one note, made from a biscuit drum (iv) the Dudup or Bass Kettle, also with one note (v) the Iron and (vi) the Bugle.

There was no set pattern for placing the notes on the Pans, neither were they tuned in the same key.

Mr. Williams' first attempt at tuning was made with a small Sunshine biscuit drum (about 8" in diameter and 10" long) on which he grooved four notes, using a hammer and a punch. These notes were doh, ray, me and sol. This instrument allowed him to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb". In order to play the popular Calypso "Zigely, Pops and Battersby", he realized he also needed the notes fah, lah and te, so he added them, using a Pan similar to the "sweet oil" drum.

Before he attempted to tune an instrument, Mr. Williams had become the leading Ping Pong player in Sun Valleyians, a band of teenagers in St. James, which developed later into the legendary steel orchestra, Sun Valley. This was after his initiation as a player in "Five Graves to Cairo" of Carlton Street, St. James.

When Mr. Williams discovered a used oil drum (among other discarded items in a dump which the Americans at the Naval Base at Chaguaramas had established) on the Mucurapo foreshore, he put notes on it and attempted to introduce it into the Sun Valley band. No one was interested in this. It was too heavy, he was told. Sometime after, when the "Islandwide Steel Band Competitions" began at the Mucurapo Stadium in 1947, the oil drum became the norm for the Ping Pong.

The Ping Pong at this time still had only twelve to fifteen notes, which could not include the chromatic scale. In the typical spontaneous style of this era, Mr. Williams was one of the first tuners to include a semi-tone on the instrument when he attempted to play "Stardust" and realized that in the very first bar of this piece, such a note was required.

Three important developments were to take place in the year 1950 that greatly influenced the role that Anthony Williams would eventually play in the Steelband movement.

On Carnival Sunday Night, at a show organized at the Queen's Park Savannah, Casablanca played "Nocturne in E-Flat". This was the first European classic to be performed by a steel orchestra and ushered in a revolution in Steelband performances.

Secondly, a renaissance in the Arts had begun, with the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Council playing a leading role. This was the historic moment of Edric Connor, Beryl Mc Burnie, Jack Kelshall, Charles Espinet, among others and in terms of the Steelband, Lennox Pierre and Carlyle Kerr.

Thirdly, the week after Carnival, Northern Stars (later to become North Stars) was born out of Sun Valley in St. James.

North Stars began fortnightly performances on the Voice of Youth radio programme, produced by the Youth Council. Anthony Williams was one of the star performers. At this time, he introduced the Caustic Soda Drum to make the Bass pans of the orchestra.

In 1951, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) was formed by Pierre and Kerr under the auspices of the newly formed Steelband Association, to perform at the Festival of Britain that year. Anthony Williams was one of the top ten Steelpan musicians that were chosen to be members of this first national steel orchestra. Lieutenant Griffith, the St. Lucian Police Bandmaster was the Musical Director/Conductor of this orchestra and under his and Pierre's guidance, the full orchestra was chromaticized with the introduction of Double Cellos and Triple Bass.

Mr. Williams flourished in this new musically advanced environment. He began to read music, using the novel method of the numbering of notes that Pierre and Griffith introduced in TASPO. He tuned for TASPO a Double Cellos, using for the first time, oil drums. This allowed the movement from five to ten notes on this instrument and a much improved tonal quality. The members of TASPO after three months in England and France, returned to their respective Steelbands, creating a musical leap forward for the Steelband movement.

In 1952, the year that Steelbands were included for the first time in the annual Music Festival, Anthony Williams became the leader of North Stars.

The immediate improvements which he introduced in North Stars were the following:
  • The Double Strumming Pan replaced the Single Strumming Pan or Alto Pong.
  • Stands for the Double Pans were created using wood as the material.
  • Metal stands replaced the neck strap for the Ping Pong.
  • The Double Cellos were placed on legs.
It is also at this time that he made his most famous contribution to the Steelpan - the pattern of the placement of notes on the instrument.

He had become convinced that the major reason why some notes on the instrument were of inferior tone compared to others had to do with the placement of some notes next to others which were in disharmony. He set about an extended study of the problem, making sketches and calculations.

Out of this research, he created the "fourths and fifths" Tenor Pan, which is now the international standard for the tenor and most of the other instruments.

This "spider-web" pattern of placement of notes has not only served to improve the tonal quality of the instrument, but has been the main reason for the Tenor Pan becoming the major teaching tool for music theory in a number of education systems worldwide.

It was Anthony Williams who first added wheels to the Bass drums. This was for the 1956 Carnival. The impact of this development on the "Road Orchestra" was very dramatic. It transformed the music played by the orchestra for Carnival by making it possible to include instruments of three and four drums, which became the norm by 1960.

Apart from his work as an innovator, Anthony Williams received national acclaim for his work as Musical Director of North Stars.

His victories at the Music Festival in 1962 (Voices of Spring) and 1966 (Poet and Peasant) and at the first two editions of the Steelband Panorama, in 1963 (Dan is the Man) and 1964 (Mama Dis is Mas) became legendary. He was the first Steelband arranger to introduce modulation into his arrangements and set the standard for Steelband arrangements in the Festival and Panorama competitions for many years later.

In 1968, North Stars joined with Trinidad and Tobago's internationally celebrated pianist, Winnifred Atwell, in performances locally, in the Bahamas and in New York. This association also produced the widely acclaimed recording "Ivory and Steel", the first of its kind. The experience further enhanced the reputation of the genius of Anthony Williams and his path-breaking achievements. As important is the impact this development would have had on the long denied social acceptance of the steel orchestra in the country of its birth.

A well-kept secret of this historic production is the fact that Williams had utilized in the orchestra larger Tenor Pans of a twenty-six and twenty-nine inch diameter. This allowed for additional notes (thirty-six in all) and clearer tones.

This breakthrough in the use of larger Pans was made possible by his invention of a mould, the use of metal sheets and the attachment of the skirt by welding; a technique that is now being utilized in Pan factories internationally some thirty-five years later. Williams introduced this procedure of building instruments in order to solve the problem of the use of discarded drum containers of an inferior quality not suited to a musical instrument. It also created the opportunity not only to increase the number of notes on the instrument but to increase the spaces between the notes thus ensuring greater clarity.

Mr. Williams has always lamented the absence of a scientific input in Steelpan production. He has raised numerous issues of a scientific nature including the carbon content of the steel used to make the instrument, the controlled tempering of the steel by burning and the impact of the absorption of oxygen during this burning process. He has also insisted on the need to introduce additional instruments into the steel orchestra. His attempt in 1956 at building the "Key Board Pan" with a range from Bass to Ping Pong is a case in point.

He was an important member of the famous Steelpan Research Project at CARIRI, at UWI St. Augustine, during 1973 to 1974, together with Bertie Marshall. Just when it appeared that his dream of introducing the scientific input into the Pan tuning process would become a reality, the project was aborted.

The impact of Anthony Williams on the development of the Steelpan and its orchestra, both as artist and inventor cannot be surpassed. It spans a period of some sixty years. He remains one of the finest examples of the creative genius of our people.

Independence National Awards 2008

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