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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Man from the Hill

By Kim Johnson

Wilbert Forde
Wilbert Forde
From dead end kid to Desperado:

"When I die, your birth paper burn" Venezuela-born Francis Pacheco once told his son, Wilbert. And it turned out to be true. When Wilbert asked his father's family if he could build a house on a little end of the many acres of Pacheco land, they refused and the young Pacheco renounced his father's name and adopted his mother's: Forde.

Ah, but on that side of his family too, blood ran thinner than water, and when his mother died during one of Wilbert's terms in jail, her land in Laventille was hastily divided amongst her children so that none remained for him on his release.

Still hard as it all must have felt, there was almost appropriateness to it, because Pacheco/Forde was one of the main men who shared that Family as the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, which in turn eventually made of the hill known as Laventille one big family.

If every one is familiar with the Desperadoes, few know about Wilbert, either Pachenco or Forde. And, perhaps significantly, to evoke that flicker of recognition you'd have to call him by yet another name, the patois "Be-eh", which is the French "bain"- bath.

"Ne pas vrai bain!" he once as a youth retorted when a woman, demanded he bathe, threw some water on him. Translated, it meant, "That eh a real bath!" And since then he has been known to all who about steelband as Be-eh.

Born in 1921, Be-eh grew up in Cumaca, Laventille, where as a teenager he'd hung around the older men, who allowed him to go cut bamboo for the side which tumbled down from the hill every Jourvert morning, drawing with its rhythm a river of Laventillians (some of whom never otherwise entered the town) waving branches in the air and singing their lavways.

His prominence began with the decline of the bamboo bands, however, when the new fashion of drumming on paint pans and dustbins took over and Be-eh called his young friends together. "I called Fred and Brooks Banfield, Tooksie, Bamboo, Vance and them and we opened a little side called Dead End Kids," he recalls. The name was from a movie about a gang of orphans.

"We had no pans but I knew a fella from Toco and I heard his name ringing, so I went to ask him to help."

The fella from Toco (actually it was San Souci) was none other than the great Elliot Mannette of the Woodbrook Invaders. So from the start the greatest community-based steelband discovered the humility and wisdom of recruiting help from the best available in or out of Laventille, a policy that over the years would take Desperadoes to the top and keep them there with the assistance of people such as Carl Greenidge (Robbie's Uncle); -Arti' Shaw; Rudolph Charles; and Pat Bishop.

Be-eh had to ask a fella where to find the Oval," Eventually he found the place and the man and asked him to come and Teach the Dead End Kids how to make pans. Mannette showed them how to sink, groove and burn pans, but to tune them he'd brought his younger brother Vernon "Birdie" Mannette. And so the two Mannettes forged a friendship between the Woodbrook and Laventille bands- two of the most fearsome fighting machines- which endured through even those years when steel-bands fought one another tooth and nail and Desperadoes rioted with Casablanca, Tokyo, Red Army, Rising Sun, San Juan All Stars and even with gangs such as the Marabuntas that wasn't a satisfactory name, so they changed to SS Morocco until Be-eh saw a cowboy movie that left a great impression on him: Desperado Rides Again. Back on the hill he called "Four Roads" or Rudolph "Crabby" Edwards and said "Get your needle and tattoo that on my hand." Edwards tattooed Be-eh and most the others too, making the newly christened Desperadoes a family to which they would be forever bound with ties thicker than blood.

There were men such as Ivan "Brains" Bourne, George Yeates, Donald "Jit" Steadman, Winston "Talkative" Harrison and if they weren't too hot on the pans, they concentrated on mas anyway, Talkative organisation the masquerades and Be-eh doing the designs for the band's head mas. Then he moved from sailors to design war mas: Sands of Iwo Jima, Operation Korea, to Hell and Back. Then he turned to Glorious Spain, Stedman brought Crawl of the Crocodile, then Prisoner of Zenda, The Frozen North and the famous Noah's Ark.

Like many of the more violent Desperadoes, Be-eh was in and out of Jail for steelband fighting. Once, when he went armed to the teeth looking for two men in Belmont's Rising Sun, the police held him and carried him back up on the hill. When he arrived back home with the police his distraught mother wailed, "O Gawd, I make a beast!"

"No," he replied, "You make a man."

Then during a big dock strike in the late Forties, the police came for him at home, asking him as he sat on the stoop, "Who is Be-eh?" There was an English officer with them who told Be-eh to come. He got a shirt and went along, scared even though they told him they were putting him in a job. And so he began work on the docks, where he remained until he retired.

He continued as ever, getting into fights and steelband riots, even on occasion acting as a stong-arm man for the Chief Minister, Dr Eric Williams, but by the late fifties he began to look for promotion on the job.

"To build up myself I decide to resign as captain of the band" he explains.

And so, he says, he pushed for the band to accept as leader a prominent young man who was captain of a small talented side that paraded at Christmas time and was followed by many young people on the hill. The small band was called Spike Jones, and its young leader, who became leader of the Desperadoes, was Rudolph Charles.

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