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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Hamilton "Hamil" Thomas

Hell Yard - A Place of Rhythm and Riot

January 11, 1998
By Kim Johnson

The research process can be agonizingly slow, and it was years ago I first read of Hamilton Thomas, also known as "Hamil" or "Big Head", the man to whom Neville Jules, the great captain, tuner and arranger of Trinidad All Stars, paid homage as his captain.

"Prince Batson states that the first person he saw obtaining notes on a pan was Hamilton "Big Head " Thomas of the Hell Yard," wrote Stephen Stuempfle in his 1990 Ph.D. thesis, which eventually became the book The Steelband Movement: Formation of a National Art.

Batson himself years later did tell me of Hamil - not as an inventor but as a leader of the Hell Yard fighting side.

Then Jerry Serrant, the historian of Trinidad All Stars, and Sonny Jones, a pioneer from the band, both told me early last year about Hamil's combativity and innovativeness. Neither knew his present address, however, and only when Jules himself returned to Trinidad to celebrate his 70th birthday last year did I meet the man known as Hamil and arrange to interview him when the Pan Pioneers series began once again.

Born in 1920, he was the son of Eva Thomas, an African woman, and Maximin Thomas, a Chinaman who worked in Pantin's Bakery on Prince Street. Accordingly, Hamil, who now lives in Diego Martin, grew up where most Port of Spain Chinese lived - on Charlotte Street: specifically, 90 Charlotte Street, next to one of the passages to the open lot known as Hell Yard where there congregated the inheritors of the old jamette culture.

"Sagiator and his brothers - the Draytons - was there, and it had 'Demsee', 'Tall Black' and 'Short Black', 'Lulie' and Bruce - 'Dr. Rat's father, he used to push a cart and he was a fighter: long-time fight, wrestling and boxing and stick," says Hamil in a rush. "The George Street fellas used to come there too - Tom Keane, Nigger, Brown Boy, Fitzgerald, Matura, Hamil - not me, another one - and they used to have the prostitutes with them."

Words tumble out of Hamil as if they'd been pent up for years, jumbling any sense of narrative as he describes places and people and events, starting with the bacchanal between the George Street men and the Charlotte Street posse. "Look, my pores raise," he says as he bursts into song, evoking the riot which broke out in a rumshop and gambling club called the 'Wang' at the bottom of Charlotte Street:

"Riot in the Wang with Hell Yard and George Street,
Once again they meet.
I say riot in the Wang with Hell Yard and George Street,
Once again they meet.
The only thing that made me feel bad
Knowing that they fought for a pack of card.
But the pelting of the bottle and the throwing of the stone
They made George Street a battle zone."

As a result of this riot, the George Street men ended up forming their own band. Those were the tamboo bamboo days of the 1930s when the Hell Yard men produced a famous sailor band every Carnival, SS Bad Behaviour. Hamil was one of its younger members and a leader amongst the youth whom he trained in boxing and wrestling.

Now bent and slow-moving, Hamil still possesses a full head of grey hair. He raises his T-shirt and turns to show a scar on his back. "Wrestling, showing a man a fall, the sand bus my back - it had a piece of steel in it what cut me," he says. "I eh go to no doctor, I take cobweb and cocoa - young cocoa what I scrape - and put it in. Old-time medicine, nah, bush medicine."

In later years, after the steelband movement was formed, Hamil would take over the self-defence of the band, training the men in the martial arts and instilling in them self-discipline.

"They had one misunderstanding with Casablanca and they make Casablanca men go to the police station. They had to go by force. Casablanca men couldn't come down Charlotte Street. They had to pass the other way around to go to the market, they couldn't pass there. Hamil marshal the forces. He say, "Everybody have to pass, they must come down Charlotte Street to go to the market for food and we will deal with them." He line up bottles both side of Charlotte Street," recalled Batson in 1995.

Back in the 1930s, however, the older generation still held sway, men such as the Stowe brothers and Edmund "Waj" Raymond.

At that time, Hamil tried to mobilize the Hell Yard men to bring out an all-metal band in keeping with a vision he had, but the youth had no standing in the eyes of the older men, even though Andre "Lulie" Abbott had for years been knocking a piece of iron in the bamboo rhythms of Hell Yard.

"Like God inspire it in me," he says. "I take a yeast pan and I dent it and it going: ping-a-ling, ting; ping-a-ling, ting. That's all - only two notes I did have. It was sounding very nice but they didn't want to hear: when you is a floor member no character doesn't want to hear you."

For Jouvert that year - it was 1939 - the Woodford Street band Alexander's Ragtime Band hit the streets with all metal percussion, led by Carlton Forde, known as "Lord Humbugger." "He had a scissors-tail coat as the bandmaster coming down Charlotte Street. If you see the man - with he top hat he looking like Death. The man thin, he like galvanize, and they coming down: tong tong ting, tong tong ting ting," recalls Hamil.

"O Gawd, listen," wailed Hamil.
"They cut we before we raise we hand,"
"What you mean?" asked his bemused friends.
"Listen to that!" said Hamil.
"What I was telling all you? Listen!"

After that everything changed. The Hell Yard youths began collecting dustbins, paint tins, anything out of metal, as did all the other traditional tamboo bamboo bands - John John, Laventille, Basilon Street. The steelband movement was born.

And if Alexander's Ragtime band got the jump on all the others, the Hell Yard boys caught up when they formed Cross of Lorraine, which after the war became Trinidad All Stars, one of the greatest steelbands ever.

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