From Barbados to Blue Stocking Alley
February 8, 1998
By Kim Johnson
Today, at 69 years of age, Roy Harper can still be heard playing with Pan Vibes every Monday night at the Trinidad Hilton, and you'd hardly know this was one of the pioneers of the steelband movement in St James.
Born in Barbados, he was brought to Trinidad once his mother was able to travel, and eventually settled in Lucknow Street in St James - Blue Stocking Alley it was called in those days. "It had a big river running down almost in the centre of the road, like how Bournes Road used to be," he recalls.
Those days there was a tamboo bamboo yard with stickfighting close by in Ranjit Kumar Street, but Harper hardly got to see it, being at the time under his mother's jurisdiction.
"As a little fella," he explains, "you could open a little part between the coconut branch and peep but if they see you they give you one cut arse and send you home. Sometimes you sitting here - Wap! Across your back and you can't complain because you go get it when you reach home too."
And, as he emphasizes, his mother didn't eat sorf. Still, on VE (Victory in Europe) Day when the infant steelband movement legally took to the streets for the first time, Harper, sick with chickenpox, took a jump in the rain: "I get good tap for that."
He started hanging around Harlem Nightingales in Guthrie Street in 1946, secretly, and when Sonny Roach decided to branch off and form his own band, Sun Valley, Harper followed.
"To be in a steelband was the most degrading thing. Steelband didn't start to riot yet but when they come down the road to beat, especially at Christmas time, police used to run them," he says. "You have to have a good pair of foot because once you see police jump out the bush it's licks. They didn't carry you in courts, they just used to carry you in the station and lock you up, give you a cut tail and send you home. You might get a good piece of wood across your back, or a tamarind rod, or if them police bad they walk with they bull pistle and give you two if they catch you."
Harper played with them for Carnival but he wasn't too involved, until he dropped by the panyard one night when the band was rehearsing for the first Islandwide Steelband Competition, and sonny Roach was teaching some simple lines to one particularly unreceptive panman and making rough weather of it.
"Look Roy Harper here," said Roach in exasperation. "He does only play pan once a year and I sure he could beat that."
Roach turned to Harper. "Take that pan and beat it," he ordered, and that's how Harper got on the band's stage side. On the night of the competition Harper borrowed his older brother's trousers and played with Sun Valley, which came first. After that his mother relented and he was allowed to openly be a part of the band.
Sonny Roach was a gifted tuner and a hard worker, but he also had a streak of ignorance about him. Once the band was playing some African mas and Roach slit his own dog's throat so they could get the animal's bones. And when Harper saw Ellie Mannette playing a second pan and told Roach, the captain replied, "I eh have that to study. When you see we come down with we ping pong and we baylay we go run them off the road."
It didn't work out that way, though. Come Christmas, sun Valley was moving down Bournes Road just when Invaders passed along George Cabral Street, and all the St James people left Sun Valley to jump with the Woodbrook band, including Harper.
Roach flew into a rage and the following day he banned them from entering his yard where Sun Valley was based. Harper and some others played mas that Carnival. After that relations got worse and worse until Roach gave up the band and threw them out his yard.
Harper relocated down the road in the Polydor's Shango yard, taking with him the band's best players, one of whom was the young Anthony Williams. Eventually Roach decided to take back Sun Valley and informed them that Bournes Road was too small for two bands, so Harper moved to Kandahar where they renamed their band after a Farley Granger movie called The North Star.
Like many other panmen at the time Harper got involved in a fight or two, no big riot like what took place in Port of Spain but enough for him to be brought before the magistrate on a trumped-up charge.
"The police bring about four bags of bottle, conch shell, stone, all kinda thing, and they put it there for the magistrate. I could see the magistrate laughing," he recalls.
Lennox Pierre, who pleaded on his behalf, ridiculed the police. "Your Honour," said Pierre, "He would have to be an Indian god to pelt this amount of bottle and stone and conch shell here as evidence." Harper was reprimanded and discharged.
Shortly after the newly formed Steelband Association began picking a team to play with the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) at the Festival of Britain.
"I was the captain and it was the captains who picked who did the picking," says Harper, who was working at the time and was reluctant to give up his job. "The fellas who captain a band, as long as they could play they went. I must be was the only jackass captain - I could play and I send a man. I'm the person who picked Tony Williams to go TAPSO."
After Williams returned from Britain, a friction developed between him and Harper, until Harper, who'd learnt both to tune and to be ignorant from Roach, decided one Las' Lap to leave North Stars. "I take up the pan and throw them in the St James River and walk away," he says. "That's how I leave North Star."
He moved to Tripoli where he remained for a while tuning and sometimes arranging, until he fell out with captain "Big Boy" Inniss. "He couldn't even play a toc toc and he want to rule," says Harper, who left to form the short-lived Starniks, taking the young Othello Mollineux went along with him.
Starniks didn't last long, and Harper joined Curtis Pierre's Dixieland in the 1960s, and there he has remained, staying with them through all their metamorphoses from Dixieland to Texaco Dixieland, to Sky Chief and finally to Pan Vibes, where he still is today.
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