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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Sonny Jones

So Long, Sonny

May 2, 1999
By Kim Johnson

Last Sunday a flame that had burnt so brightly for so long in the steelband movement, Sonny Jones, was finally extinguished and that under circumstances symptomatic of society's crass indifference towards those men who pioneered the steelband.

It was only about a month ago that Sonny discovered he was diabetic, although he must have suspected it for a long time. About six months earlier he'd stepped on the cat's tail and the creature had scratched him. Stubborn, Sonny refused to go to the hospital although the cut showed no signs of healing over the months and eventually turned septic.

Eventually his family got him to go and Sonny's diabetes was diagnosed and his foot treated. Alas, if the foot appeared to heal, the man sickened.

"He just sat there worried," says his companion Sandra Singh. "When you give him food he didn't want nothing, not even water - he'd just sip it."

Although Jones didn't complain, the family noticed he didn't want anyone touching his left side, and they carried him back to hospital Sunday before last. "When we pick him up to go to hospital the Sunday, his whole left side gone through," says Singh. "A sore on his hip eat away the whole side down to the ankle, and he sitting on that, making it worse, not letting us know and worrying."

Sonny was already withdrawing from the cares of this world, speaking to no one. On the Wednesday the hospital phoned his wife to collect him, she replied she had to work and couldn't take care of him. Thursday they called again; again she begged an extension. Then on Friday before last the hospital threatened to put him out.

"They say they need the bed and if I don't come they'll put him out on a bench," says Singh. "So I fly down there to take him home. When we put him in the wheelchair if you see how his body slack, he couldn't sit up, but they still discharge him. They just say, 'Pray a lot'."

It was like Nipdec evicting Pandemonium from their Jerningham Avenue panyard, throwing the pans on to the pavement, only worse.

By then Sonny wasn't speaking to anyone, wasn't responding when his wife spoke to him. His breath grew fainter and fainter, and on Sunday April 25th, around 5 p.m., he quietly passed away at the age of 78 years, six months.

Sonny Jones was born on October 16, 1920. His father was Reynold Jones, who every Carnival in the 1930s, along with Sonny's Uncle Felix, brought out the Mavis Bat and Clown Band from George Street.

"Right down George Street, after you pass Queen Street - next door was the bus stand, Ramdeen buses," Sonny once told me. "He was the sextant of the Immaculate Conception, the Cathedral, in the days of Archbishop Dowling and Father Patrick. Father Macdonald was the Vicar-General. Mother Eulalie was the mother superior."

That conversation took place in his small shack in Belmont in 1995 and it was difficult at first to understand him. Tall, frail Sonny had a way of speaking as if he was simultaneously sucking a mango seed. That I got accustomed to; what exasperated me to the end was Sonny's inability to speak about himself.

"Who were your parents," I asked.

"Reynold John, but let us get back to: Long ago they had no bands with names, they had district bands…"

"Did you have brothers and sisters?"

"Three brothers all by the father, two sisters, one by the father, one by the mother, but the point is just this: I was talking about the district bands…"

He was one of the original Hell Yard youths when the first experiments were being made with metal percussion in the 1930s, and Sonny told the story of that band and its members in the greatest of detail, dating minor events in Hell Yard in relation to larger ones abroad.

For instance, he related 1933 incidents to the centennial of the Emancipation Act when a Baptist woman criticized the holiday's Carnival-like atmosphere after which rain flooded the city.

"Thirty-seven was the coronation of King George VI. Thirty-Five George V died and Edward VIII decide to take the American woman as his wife. He had to abdicate to marry Miss Simpson, so when he brother died January 1936, thirty-five was his silver Jubilee. We get chocolates and buns in school and we went by Victoria Institute and sing about the British Empire."

Fascinating, true; important, yes; but exasperating nonetheless because Sonny's personal story would have shed light on a great many things, including the histories of the many bands he was a member of. The list included Hell Yard, Bar 20, Waterloo, Sputnik, Dodge City, Dem Boys, Hilanders, Dem Fortunates, Dem Stars, Cross of Lorraine, Bad Men of Missouri, City Syncopaters, Second Fiddle, Casablanca, Samba Boys, Sun Valley and Dead End Kids.

Decades before it became an acceptable practise, Sonny was like today's crackshots, playing for many bands, just walking from one to the other with his ping-pong. It was a measure of his stature that he was allowed to do so in the era of steelband warfare.

The one personal anecdote Sonny allowed himself was when I asked him if he ever made a jail.

"I was living La Cour Harpe and they walk in there, meet me below a tamarind tree tuning a pan - a note run out and I trying to put it back in," he recalled bitterly. "I only see four policemen coming in and pick me up - a big one they call Bogo (he used to walk like a ape) and Greenheart - just like I t'ief something or break something, and they throw me in a jeep. Just like that," he replied bitterly.

"Next day (I didn't have no lawyer or anything) I get six months for disturbing the peace, six months for playing a noisy instrument and six months for throwing missile. I eh pelt nobody."

It was a deep wound but even so Sonny quickly turned away from his personal grievances and spoke about the humiliation of the steelband movement at large, perpetrated in his view by white expatriate policemen.

Time and again over the years Sonny returned to that theme: the oppression panmen suffered at the hands of those Englishmen, Germans and Irishmen. "What the panmen did them?" he'd ask, still bemused at the unfairness of the policemen's behaviour.

The official attitude was unjust but Sonny's outrage was more because, like many other pioneers such as George Yeates from Desperadoes, he saw pan quite literally as a divine gift to be cherished by Trinidad and Tobago.

"It's a funny thing to say but these fellas…so many men could not be inspired, lean and learn so fast: it's just a gift was handed down to them and we self didn't know that," he'd say.

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