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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

George 'Bigger' Braithwaite

Bassman of Broadway Hatters

By Kim Johnson

In the earlies, panmen were often good sportsmen. They played football and cricket, they wrestled and boxed. But few were as versatile as George 'Bigger' Braithwaite, who also played basketball and lawn tennis (Bigger umpired the US Open in 1981), taught ballroom dancing and had a music band.

Born to Charlie and Theresa Braithwaite in 1924, the first of three boys and one girl, Bigger grew up in the house where he still lives on Broadway, San Fernando. Next door was the community tamboo bamboo yard, where he'd take a knock on the cutter.

"They practised on evenings just for Carnival and you had to chant," he recalls. "Those days bamboo was for Indian and little stick bands. Historical mas had guitar and cuatro."

All that changed from about 1942, when the fishermen on the wharf formed a rudimentary steel-band called Royal Air Force. Their example was immediately followed by Pearl Harbour on Mucurapo Street, Cross of Lorraine on the track joining Prince and Cipero Streets, and Broadway Syncopators.

"I chose the name after Archie MacLean's music band Broadway Syncopators," Bigger explains. "We used to go down by the sea and practise to not disturb anybody. It didn't have no notes, only old paint pan, and you blowing them old car horn what bus up all your lip, but you still blowing."

They didn't only beat iron by the sea; for most of the Broadway youths were good swimmers. Indeed, their aquatic habits had already served Bigger in good stead when he was about 14 and decided to join some older youths planning to run away to Venezuela.

After some weeks of saving up whatever cents he could and learning a little Spanish, Bigger joined the older boys one afternoon to steal a boat and row to the Main. About a mile out, just approaching Farillon Rock, Bigger had a change of heart and decided he didn't want to go. "Swim back, nah," the others suggested. As darkness fell, he begged them, tears running down his cheeks, to turn around the boat, but the two rowers continued straight ahead. In desperation, Bigger jumped overboard to compel them to return to Trinidad. As he trod water, however, he realised to his dismay that the boat was steadily drawing away from him. So he began swimming.

He reached San Fernando about eight that night and ran all the way home, not looking back as he sprinted past the silk cotton tree by the cemetery. Bigger got licks when he got home, but nothing compared to what the others got when the Venezuelan police held them and deported them all back home weeks later in flour-bag clothes and alpagats.

The war ran its course and the Government gave the steelbands licence to celebrate on the streets on VE Day, 1945. Bigger and his friends began rehearsing on their old paint pans. The pans weren't any good, though, and the bottoms began bursting off. Pans weren't as easy to get as in Port of Spain, however, so the Broadway boys had to get the bases welded on.

"I used to cuff a drum from here to McEnearney and it used to burst," he recalls. "I don't know why I used to be hitting it so hard." Perhaps it was because of his enormous strength or maybe it was his penchant for boxing and wrestling. "A man from India teach me to wrestle - he showed me all the points on the human body - but when I started to weigh 200 pounds, then I began to box."

Whatever the reason why they mashed up the pans, once Broadway Syncopators began to weld their pans at the railroad garage (where one Randolph Burroughs was a mechanic), Bigger also began to tune them. And for the 1946 Carnival, they changed their name and brought out a band of 'reckless sailors'.

"Kenneth Vincent's grandmother had a room where we used to lime after she died. We called it Hatter's Castle, after a horror picture," says Bigger. "So we called the band Broadway Hatters."

Bigger was playing bass for Hatters on J'Ouvert, but once that was over he concentrated on making the band's mas, putting the decorations on hundreds of naval costumes.

All the while Bigger was also involved in dancing - he came third in an island-wide dancing competition in 1946 - and in a music band, drumming for the Melody Masters in 1942. After some years he moved over to Starlight.

He also played with great bandleaders like Edwin Payne and Al Timothy, until he formed his own band, George Braithwaite and the Tinpanny Five. "We used play in weddings, christenings. I used to take a marching for TT$20," he says, explaining: "A Friendly Society would have their annual march, when they'd go from the hall to a church service and back to the hall."

Bigger withdrew from Hatters in the early Sixties, after which it collapsed, so when the Broadway youths decided to revive the band around 1966, they called on him once again.

He raised over TT$1,000 to buy pans from Cavaliers and for a brief period started back playing bass. Since then, Bigger has remained a close supporter of the community band he formed a half-century ago, and a mentor to its younger members, who still visit the house on Broadway where a fence advertises the classes he still gives in ballroom dancing.

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