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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Sufferers of St James

Sonny Roach and the Sampson brothers

Nooksin SampsonAddawell Sampson
Nooksin and Addawell Sampson

By Kim Johnson

"A Tune Boom once strike a pain in my heart," Tripoli panman Lloyd Butcher once reminisced. "It make me feel very shame in the road."

That happened one Carnival in the late 1940s when the great south St James steelband, Tripoli, was jamming in the road, things nice, two blocks of people moving to the music.

"You now feeling to beat pan," described Butcher.

Then along came the great north St James steelband Sun Valley, the band which won the first islandwide steelband competition in 1948.

"They pass us by Ethel Street bank," he recalled. "When they pass and you look back, you coulda take a glass of water and wet the whole band--they had two tune boom and take everybody. If you hear that thing, it was out of the world. Addawell and Nooksin, the Sampson brothers, played it for Sun Valley. The pans was made by Sonny Roach, one of the great pan tuners, a fella whose talent stop in cobweb."

Actually, only Addawell was beating a tune boom--a biscuit drum tuned to provide the band with a bass. His younger brother Noel "Nooksin" Sampson was beating a baylay--a four-note caustic soda drum with a slightly higher range than the tune boom.

Butcher's anecdote is true in its fundamentals, however, emphasizing the unsung greatness of Sonny Roach, and the importance of his two lieutenants Addawell and Nooksin Sampson.

"You beat that--don't lend nobody, it too difficult to tune!" Roach instructed Addawell, handing him the tune boom he'd invented. (Neville Jules in the east also claims to have invented the tune boom; Like many pan innovations, it probably occurred spontaneously in both east and west Port of Spain.)

"Sonny Roach put in five notes on a Sunrise biscuit pan and we called it tune boom--I is the only fella used to beat it. From St James to town and back, nobody beating my pan, I eh lending it out cause they go spoil it, hit it too hard," says Addawell.

"He is the first man to sink a pan four inches without bursting it. We used to tune by the East Dry River--it's the only place you coulda go and keep noise and they still used to send police."

"Sire, " they called Roach, because his mother, a religious woman, swore his talents were God-given.

Despite their genuflection, however, Addawell and Nooksin were, long before Roach, the pioneers of pan in north St James. Born in 1917 and 1925 respectively, the Sampson brothers spent their earliest years in Picton Street however.

Their parents moved to St James in 1935 but the boys spent much time by their godmother in Newtown, where they'd go peep at the seminal Alexander's Ragtime Band. And when in 1938 they met Frankie Soyer and other Newtown youths who'd also moved to St James, the gang decided to bring out a band in the west too. "We had the most appropriate yard and it's so the whole thing start with a tarpaulin what we get from a shop," recalls Nooksin. "That come like we tent--we had seats from bamboo, to continue what we know from Newtown."

Soyer had four sisters, so they were roped in to play Dame Lorraine and the whole gang moved out that Jouvert. "We had them little small pan with the bamboo," says Nooksin. "We hadn't no name, we just form weself together to bring out a band."

That was on Boundary Road by where the Catholic Church was being built, and though at first the big Irish priest Fr Currant used to enjoy them, he eventually got fed up with the noise and started complaining.

Mrs. Sampson didn't too like the idea either. She was a fervent Catholic and wanted her son to follow the straight and narrow path. Mr. Sampson, a man who played guitar and liked his waters, was different. "He was whehar (worthless)," Addawell recalls. "And he did let we play."

Both boys were acolytes. Nooksin got caught drinking the communion wine and was released from the Lord's service, but Fr Currant even carried Addawell, who rang the church bell morning, noon and night, to serve in high mass at St Teresa's. Once he skipped church to practice with the band and his mother blazed him with licks. "You go kill the little boy?" intervened his father. "Is only one day he eh go to church--you is Mary?"

The band moved to Guthrie Street in 1940, by the grandmother of one of the gang, Jonathan Mayers, where they lasted out the Second World War.

There was no Carnival from 1942 to 1945, but the band played at times like Easter and Christmas and took the occasional chance to parade up Fort George hill. It grew in size and volume and they changed their name to Harlem Nightingales, bringing out the famous scrunter's burlap mas in 1946: St James Sufferers.

Mayer's grandmother fell ill and asked them to leave because the noise was humbugging her. They shifted up Bournes Road, where they were joined by members of a little struggling Kandahar band named Nob Hill. One Nob Hill newcomer was the young Anthony Williams. The yard they shifted to was at the home of another talented youth who'd been hanging around Harlem Nightingales--Sonny Roach. And they changed name again, this time borrowing from the musical Sun Valley Serenade.

Like the other great pioneers Ellie Mannette, Tony Williams and Neville Jules, Roach quickly became a leading tuner, ping pong player, arranger and captain. The same year Sun Valley won the islandwide steelband competition, Roach came first in the ping pong solo. And he attracted talented youths such as Cecil "Bajan Cecil" Ward who knew music, Roy Harper, Tony Williams and Addawell Sampson. So too the band attracted the public, sometimes to their detriment.

Onr Carnival Tuesday Sun Valley was coasting a Shango rhythm "Ogun la la olaylay", when they bounced up Belle Vue's Five Graves to Cairo at the bottom of Long Circular Road. As with the Tripoli episode, Sun Valley passed by and all Cairo's revelers joined the Bournes Road band.

"By the time we reach Harvard's," says Addawell, "it was bottle and stone in we tail."

The same thing happened in a club along the Wrightson Road "Gaza Strip" and in a competition in Arima, when audiences, calling back Sun Valley refused to let the next bands come on stage. Again, war broke out.

"We had to run with we pans," Nooksin says. "We was staying in A'Abadie--we run from Arima to D'Abadie. Is ice they was pelting at we."

Roach was ignorant, though. His closest associates were badjohns such as Charles Samuel, who never beat a pan, and Winston "Badman" Jordon. When the younger players found that pair was taking the band fees to go drinking, they protested.

"If allyuh eh like it, leave!" Roach replied, so they moved a hundred yards down Bournes Road to the Shango yard of one "Giant" and formed a new under the leadership of Roy Harper, who'd learned to tune under Roach. The new band's name was taken from a Humphrey Bogart movie, North Star.

The proud Roach said not a word as his best players left, but, recalls Addawell, "You coulda see it in his face." So the Sampson brothers, whose hearts were with the youths, remained with Sun Valley.

But decline had set in. Roach began liming heavily with the Port of Spain jammettes and drinking hard--something not allowed in the glory days.

"Look how the band change," Roach's mother complained.

And eventually Roach just left them to stay at home and beat tenor pan by himself, slowly to succumb to solitude and resentment and obscurity.

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