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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

The great Bonaparte

October 22, 2000
By Kim Johnson

Belgrave Bonaparte on the double second.
Nowadays everybody is being honoured for their contribution to pan. Even Tony Williams, the greatest panman ever ignored by this country, got a passing mention by Pan Trinbago. Sterling Betancourt received an honorary degree in London, Sydney Gollop get a plaque and plenty pictures in the papers.

Of course Ellie Mannette, now recognised in the US, is flavour of the month here. Down South they form a whole organisation to honour pan pioneers.

And the wake of the Pan Festival week is a good time to recognise the man and the band who together introduced real music to the steelband movement. Because Belgrave Bonaparte and Southern Symphony, his band from La Brea, introduced properly-arranged music to steelbands.

"Southern Symphony-a very very musical band-they were actually reading from musical arrangements at that time when nobody else was," Junior Pouchet once recalled. "A very, very musically talented band and I was particularly, particularly impressed with them. Although I belong to the West and I love Invaders...I think they were particularly impressive in those early '50s, going on to the '60s."

To that Ray Holman adds: "They were more advanced musically than most involved in pan. They could have read music. Also, they were advanced harmonically, their sense of harmony.

They could improvise. they weren't the only ones, but they harmonised better." It was Bonaparte who demonstrated how steelbands should play chords, how they must harmonise their sections. Southern Symphony-whose members included talented panmen and tuners such as Earl Rodney, Alan Gervais and Lincoln Noel-introduced the practice of playing with three sticks.

Living today in the "over the hill" slums where Bahamian black people have been coralled, Bonaparte leans back in a rickety porch chair and explains with an immodest laugh: "My uncle on my mother's side, Uncle Oscar, was a bad saxophonist. And then his brother, Uncle Victor, he used to play guitar or bass. And my grandfather used to play either saxophone or clarinet and violin. That's how my fatherreally did get in with my ma, by joining that band, so I born in the music. I born with the music, because while in the early pan days I used to sit down and think about scales."

Bonaparte sits, shirt undone, smoking. People coming in and going out of the yard greet him. Some beg a cigarette. He continues telling his story in his slow drawl, blending graphic detail with a peculiar amused detachment.

Born in 1932 in La Brea into a musical family, both grandfathers were musicians, as were his maternal grandmother, his mother, his father and most his uncles. Their house rocked.

"When you pass by our house you will think they have a dead now, and the next time you pass you will think it's a big dance inside of there, because all they used to do is drink that white puncheon rum and they switch from, they will...start singing different hymn, and they used to have a man with a big baritone named Mr Cudjoe. They used to go for him because he was blind, and he used to do the bass."

When he was six and his brother Clifford (better known as "Block") four, they went to live with their paternal grandmother in Carapachaima, to attend St Mary's primary school. The old half-blind lady was Catholic, so Bonaparte sang in the church choir. He became popular and was asked to sing at weddings. But the matriarch was also an Orisha, so he also drummed at Shango's feasts.

Around 1944 when he was 12, Bonaparte returned to La Brea with Block. Together with Julian Collymore and a cousin, they formed a small steelband to tramp around at Christmas and serenade for handouts from the houses of the oilfield managers.

In the late-1940s panmen visited La Brea regularly. There were jobs for unskilled labourers, and it was a good place to hide from the law. And in 1949 Invaders, one of the country's leading bands, was invited.

"We start to play ‘So Deep Is the Night'. First time when Ellie Mannette hear pan playing chord," recalled Bonaparte. "Ellie Mannette fly upstairs. He say he have to meet me, he have to meet me. And then he ask: ‘How you do that? How you do that?' I tell him.

"I say, ‘Well, I always had my musical knowledge so I used the scale from C from this pan, and I gone with C from this one, going down in the other pan.' That is how second pan and guitar pan and all them thing come out. Is the first time they ever hear that. That time I experiment and bring out all that already in La Brea."

So when the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (Taspo) was chosen, Bonaparte was there among the other greats, such as Ellie Mannette (Invaders), Tony Williams (North Stars), Sonny Roach (Sun Valley), Andrew de la Bastide (Hill 60), Philmore "Boots" Davidson (City Syncopaters), Ormand "Patsy" Haynes (Casablanca), Winston "Spree" Simon (Tokyo), Theo Stephens (Southern All Stars), and Sterling Betancourt (Crossfire).

Ranking with the best and better than most, Southern Symphony remained small. From its humble beginnings when the four boys serenaded white folks' homes for apples and drinks, it became great without ever ceasing to be a stage side (akin perhaps to the Samaroo Jets, another country band).

They played at fetes, they played for mas bands. Bonaparte still plays pan for a living, in the Nassau Breezes hotel to American tourists ignorant of the stature of the man on the double second. His unrepentant commercialism, the awareness that his music should be paid for, led Bonaparte to offer to advertise for Esso one day in the mid-1950s.

A US crew had landed that same day to film a steelband, and Esso was somehow involved. Southern Symphony got the job, making it the first sponsored steelband. The oil company took them up to the Normandie, and the hotel manager was so impressed he made Southern Symphony the house band.

In '58 they went represented at a tourism conference in Cuba, arriving just in time for the Bay of Pigs Invasion: "It had a big set of shooting and thing, people get shot all in the road, and we call Donald Bain the Tourist Bureau man and tell him we want to get out from here, because we was all under the bed hiding."

Returning home through the French islands, they were stuck for months in Guadeloupe. A first invitation to Paris was scotched by the Algerian war, but they went later that same year, knocking around Europe for years, playing in the poshest nightspots frequented by movie stars, enjoying the wine, the music and the women.

"They used to line up in the night, yes boy, plenty, plenty woman. We used to have to duck from them. And we meet some rich one. I shouldn't be working today. I meet the woman, you know them car what mark Peugeot? That woman husband died and the woman come and I and the woman going sweet sweet. My girlfriend come and nearly break up the people house."

One Swiss well-wisher bought them conventional instruments and they formed a band, with Belgrave on tenor sax, Block on alto, both on clarinet, Earl Trim on trumpet, Oliver Nelson on guitar and Lincoln Noel on bass. In 1961 the Bonaparte Brothers dance band returned to Trinidad, some of the few panmen to make the transition to conventional music. (Another was Casablanca panman Art de Couteau.)

The Bonaparte Brothers became one of Sparrow's bands, but Belgrave and Block continued their link with the pan world, arranging for bands such as Renegades, Dixieland and San Juan All Stars.

In 1971 Sparrow had a disagreement with one of Bonaparte's sons who played in the band, so Bonaparte left Birdie. That same day an old friend who needed someone to play on a cruise ship immediately called Bonaparte.

Next day he was winging his way for The Bahamas, where he remains to this day, grumbling, diabetic, laughing at the roller coaster ride that's been the career of one of Trinidad's greatest panmen.

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