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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Kenrick Thomas

Thomas, Survivor Of The '50s Movement

February 22, 1998
By Kim Johnson

It's well known that the steelband grew in and out of adversity. What's less obvious is that sometimes the opposition came from within the movement, as in the case of the discrimination suffered by bands from outside Port of Spain.

For instance: Midland Syncopators from the village of Tacarigua, led by Kenrick Thomas, applied early in 1952 to join the recently-formed Steelbands Association of Trinidad and Tobago (Statt), and was accepted for membership in March of the same year. And yet the band was not invited to attend a single Statt meeting until 1955 - three years later.

The Statt president, Nathaniel Crichlow from Casablanca, was living in the village and invited Thomas to attend a meeting at the Good Samaritan Hall, Duke Street, at 9 a.m. on a Sunday.

Dutifully, Thomas and another band member, Vincent "Sneggs" Villaruel, hustled through drenching rain to arrive on time, only to find the only other person there was a short, formally dressed man whom Thomas had never seen before. The three stared at one another.

"What struck me was his dress, which I didn't expect to see in a steelband meeting. He was wearing a crash suit," recalls Thomas. "He was sitting there smoking profusely. He had dark glasses and this hearing aid - first time I see a man with a hearing aid. I didn't say anything to him, he didn't say anything to me or my friend, but I kept looking at him."

Eventually George Goddard and a handful of panmen arrived late, followed by a bustling Crichlow. Thomas asked Crichlow who the man in the suit was.

"You don't know that man?" snapped Crichlow without even breaking stride. "You should know that man!"

Crichlow started the meeting immediately, introduced Dr Eric Williams, emphasizing his academic qualifications and his status, explaining that Dr Williams had been invited to assist the Association in revising its rules and drafting a constitution.

Introducing Williams, Crichlow mentioned that he himself wouldn't like the Association to get involved in politics. Although Williams was already gathering strength to storm the political stage, it wasn't public yet and the steelbandsmen were still more dazzled by his education than yoked to this political charisma.

"At that time I was so fascinated with looking at Williams I didn't associate him with politics," recalls Thomas. "I was just thinking about him academically."

Then Williams spoke. First, he lambasted the 15 or so panmen there for their lateness. His time was very important to him, he buffed the stunned gathering. Then he corrected Crichlow: politics is in everything, you breathe politics, you eat politics, and everybody should be involved in politics. And he ended the session with an invitation to meet as a subcommittee at his home in Cornelio Street, Woodbrook.

Thomas, the only person from the East, was on that sub-committee, but after two abortive meetings the sub-committee fizzled out, and Thomas's next encounter with the steelband executive came during the 1960 Steelband Festival. His band, by now calling itself Merrystars Metronomes, had won the East Prelims and was successful in the semis, thus qualifying for the finals in Queen's Hall. This was not surprising, for the band, despite its parochialism, had the benefit of the musically trained boys in the Tacarigua Orphanage, much as Casablanca did in Port of Spain.

Two days after the semis, however, two Statt executive members visited Merrystars' panyard. "Our euphoria came to an abrupt endů(They) came to our panyard at Tacarigua and without any remorse just simply threw us out of the final with the flimsy excuse that an error on the part of the computation of the judges' scores was uncovered," writes Thomas of the casual prejudice he suffered.

For all his rustic decency, however, Thomas possessed as much fighting spirit as any other panman, an he continued the struggle. In 1962, which was the next time the Steelbands Association was invited to a meeting, Thomas attended, and discovered it in turmoil, with the previous executive under attack. A vote of no confidence was passed and a new executive elected, which included George Goddard, George Yeates and, as Education Secretary, Kenrick Thomas.

Thomas soon became one of the pillars of the Steelband Association, which was renamed the National Association of Trinidad and Tobago Steelbandsmen (Natts), the adviser to George Goddard. In 1967, when the Association ran the panorama, Thomas was treasurer, and managed the competition along with north Calypso King competition, King and Queen of the Steelbands contest, the bomb and the Paramount pictures (Is Paris Burning?) Competition, and was able to realize their biggest profit ever: $8,234.13.

And yet, his rural roots were always disparaged.

"What used to humiliate me," he recalls, "is that whenever they introduced me to someone they'd always add: 'He from the country'."

It was in response to this that Thomas decided as early as 1963 to write abut the contribution of the country steelbands to the overall movement, and he jotted a few pages down.

Three decades later, in 1992, he decided to take back up the project and the result is the unpublished 235-page manuscript entitled Tacarigua's Contributions to the Evolution of the Steelband Phenomenon, starting the story with a description of his hometown, its rich cultural and racial variety, and moving on to the district's first steelband: the Dead End Kids, which was formed in 1945 under leadership of his uncle Mack "Zorro" Thomas.

Thomas's book comes from those early beginnings right down to the Seventies, when the Steelband Association was subverted by the government-sponsored Pan Trinbago, and Thomas withdrew from the fray.

It is a colourful story based on not only astonishingly detailed memory, but many interviews with pioneers in the district and the documentation Thomas preserved. What's more, it is written with a sensitivity and analytic ability rare even among professional writers, and thus is both a tribute to the vitality of the early steelband movement in the country areas, and an embodiment of its brilliance. Hopefully, a sponsor will son offer to make this marvelous testament available to the wider public by contributing to its publication costs.

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