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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Sonny Roach from St James

February 1, 1998
By Kim Johnson

Sonny Roach
Sonny Roach
For years I have circled the late Sonny Roach from St James, hearing that his greatness as a tuner was second only to Ellie Mannette's in the early days.

Tony Williams spoke of his inventiveness, Noel "Nooksin" Sampson recalled his hot-headedness, Cecil Ward related how they won the first Islandwide Steelband Competition.

Born August 6, 1924, Carlton "Sonny" Roach unfortunately died in 1986, thus putting him beyond reach of journalistic enquiry. Recently, however, Norman Darway, an historian of the St James steelband movement, lent me a taped interview between Sonny Roach and George Goddard, dated around 1980.

"What influenced you to become involved in steelband?" asked Goddard, who spoke in a surprisingly formal tone throughout the entire interview.

Roach replied that it was just mischief that had him beating old pans around 1933 when he was 11 years old. "There was this Shango tent in Guthrie Street, St James, and going to the Shango on afternoons it turned out that I cannot come inside," he said. "We decide if we can't go inside we going to get old pans and make noise so they can't hear the drums."

The reason they chose to make noise on old pans was because the Shango drums were loud and old pans were the loudest thing they could get their hands on.

From that perverse beginning, the youths around Roach began to knock on their tin pans on afternoons when they were idling. A few occasions they paraded with the tin pans up to Belle Vue, but soon the police stopped them and that was that.

That group in Guthrie Street became Harlem Nightingales, which brought out the mas St James Sufferers in 1946, the first Carnival after World War II. By then Roach was tuning the band's pans, but, finding he hadn't been paid what he felt he'd deserved, he left to open Nob Hill in Kandahar.

Again, however, he fell out with the captain after Carnival, so Roach went off to form Sun Valley, taking along the most talented players such as Roy Harper, Tony Williams and Addawell Sampson.

By then pans were playing simple tunes, and Roach, knowing no music, tuned his four notes from the sound of the bugle reveilles at the nearby St James barracks.

Despite his musical ignorance, Roach rose to prominence after he invented the alto pan - forerunner to the modern second pan - on instructions from "Bajan Cecil" Ward, Sun Valley's arranger.

"I spoil about six tin pans before I could get this alto," recalled Roach.

They wanted to enter their arrangement of "Home Sweet Home" in the first Islandwide Steelband Competition, but he single alto pan counter-melody was always drowned out by the rest of the band.

Roach reduced the band to about nine players, removing the loudest instruments - the iron and the bugle, which were standard in every steelband - and ran away with the first prize in the first islandwide competition.

The next competition was between the four top bands in the country: Casablanca, Trinidad All Stars, Invaders and Sun Valley. Each band was to play three tunes, but the organizer Norman Tang said, "Beat one tune - it getting late - and finish."

Sun Valley beat a calypso, as did All Stars and Casablanca. Invaders, however, played a rhumba - "It's Magic" - and were given first prize, much to the chagrin of the other bands.

"I get vex and I say from that I not going back to no competition," said Roach, and he never did compete again, contenting himself to have the band sing: "Sun Valley coming down / Invaders bound to run / And when they see the sun / It's the valley coming down / Invaders only farse / With they dutty sailor mas."

It was this impulsiveness which would exclude Roach from much of the glory that he deserved, and would make some of his most talented players leave him to form North Stars, reputed to be the greatest steelband. But first outrageous fortune had to deal him another blow.

Come 1950 the Steelband Association decided to send a band to the Festival of Britain, and began selecting members for the famous Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, Taspo.

Included were Ellie Mannette (Invaders), Andrew de la Bastide (Hill 60), Dudley Smith (Rising Sun), Orville "Patsy" Haynes (Casablanca), Philmore "Boots" Davidson (City Syncopaters), Theo Stephens (Southern All Stars), Belgrave Bonaparte (Southern Symphony), Winston "Spree" Simon (Fascinators), Sterling Betancourt (Crossfire) and Anthony Williams (North Stars).

Roach couldn't attend the meeting, which chose the team, however, because he was tuning pans in Siparia.

Normally that would have been the end of that, but according to Roach, the Steelband Association was finding difficulty in establishing their legitimacy for sponsorship of the Taspo band, when Sonny Roach wasn't on the team.

They approached him again, and he agreed to join the team, which sailed for England on July 6, 1951.

Things turned sour, however, and Roach fell ill. When the ship first docked in Martinique he left them and returned to Trinidad alone.

Sonny Roach began to fade out of the steelband movement after that, staying home to play tenor pan by himself, allowing one of the steelband movement's earliest and brightest stars to burn out in solitude and resentment.

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