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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Pan debate must be opened up

November 13, 2000
By Bukka Rennie

RECENTLY, Elliot "Ellie" Mannette came home, all dressed up to receive awards, including an honorary degree, for his contribution to the pan instrument. And just as in the case of Sparrow and Kitchener with regard to calypso, we repeated the same diabolical nonsense of ignoring one person of equal stature and contribution and, like Kitch, Neville Jules remains the disregarded and forgotten one.

And if you believe Kitch felt hurt, you could only just imagine what Neville Jules feels at the moment.

One year ago, November 1, 1999, to be exact, we warned in this column about persisting with the "lies and distortions" concerning the creation and development of pan. That was in response to an article titled "Persistence of Trinidad native pans out", which appeared on the Internet and in which Ellie Mannette laid claim to having created "seven of the voices or instruments in the 10-piece steel-drum band".

We said, then, that nothing could be further from the truth save and except that Spree Simon invented the pan, and that "the only bit of truth on pan history in the article on Ellie Mannette came when the author stated other island youths had discovered years before (our emphasis) that indentations on convex metal surfaces produced different sounds, and that thereafter, fierce rivalries ensued."

That remains the most significant and salient fact, and Ellie himself further endorsed this view on his recent visit home when he suddenly seemed to have embraced for once, a most encouraging and gracious disposition as he underlined the view that no one person invented pan, that the instrument "evolved" and that competition was key to that evolution from the mere percussive striking of "pots and pans". Being in that mood, Ellie was quick to concede on Morning Edition that Neville Jules created the first set of "basses".

It was the hope that that previous column in November 1999, would have "motivated us and the State authorities to commit ourselves to a definitive documentation of the history of pan development", since we have "before us, an indigenous body of instruments that have broadened the musical family of the world and is in fact, a billion-dollar industry begging to be embraced and realised."

It was felt a definitive documentation would first of all, remove that "picaroon" approach to the important affairs of pan development; that it would defy the Port-of-Spain or town-centric outlook, the "everything-happened-in-town" myopia, and, in this context, the even narrower view that seeks to remove altogether "the birth and struggle for pan" away from Hell Yard and Laventille, and centre it only in Woodbrook and its immediate environs.

That is tantamount to attempting to "bourgeoisify" or middle-classify steelband development now that the instrument has attained international recognition. No, a thousand times, no! Steelband development took place over the length and breadth of the entire country. Proper documentation would have to examine the contributions that came from all the major community areas and establish the essential linkages before the total picture can be revealed to us.

We need to hear from Hell Yard, John-John, Gonzales, Belmont, Woodbrook, St James, Carenage, Tunapuna, Tacarigua, Arima, San Fernando, Point Fortin, La Brea, Couva, etc. There are people still alive in these communities who actually lived the experience. They must be made to engage in the dialogue of pan development.

One would have expected Ellie Mannette, on receiving his university award, to have called for the broadening of the dialogue and a scientific approach to documentation, but once again, he failed to rise to the occasion. It took Neville Jules' rebuttal to Ellie's claim that he was the person who first sank a 55-gallon drum, to throw the discussion wide open. Jules said he and Ellie first saw the 55-gallon pan at a pan competition in a cinema in Tunapuna, and the person who played it was jeered throughout his performance.

Immediately Ellie went on the defensive wondering why all this is being brought to the fore at this moment, and of course, he claims not to remember the big pan though he remembers the said competition. Fortunately, that incident has, for many years, been part of the folklore in the Tunapuna/Tacarigua area. So it is nothing new or personally vindictive to Ellie in this, his time of glory, back home after 33 years.

We disagree with all those who have expressed the view this controversy is not useful. The point is that Ellie is making the claim in order to justify the title "Father of the Modern Pan", but in so doing, he distorts the reality and robs others of their rightful recognition, in fact he robs the entire community of Tacarigua.

Kenrick Thomas, who wrote the book Panriga, did so he says, for two basic reasons: to establish the fact that the Orisha yard was the natural milieu out of which almost all the pan pioneers and particularly, the early virtuouso players came, and to highlight Tacarigua's contribution since everyone in Port-of-Spain, even in the Steelband Association, of which he was a long-standing member, all seemed to readily dismiss claims from anywhere else but Port-of-Spain.

Neville Jules, in his rebuttal of Ellie's claim, could neither name the player nor the band in which he participated. Kenrick Thomas provides all that. The player's name was Cyril "Snatcher" Guy, and the band was "BoomTown" from Tacarigua.

Thomas indicates that Randolph Phill "Ladd" Wiltshire, Snatcher Guy and Andrew Beddoe, the noted Orisha drummer who virtually lived, at the time, in the Orisha yard next to BoomTown's then location, were the ones responsible for making that convex pan. Beddoe, with a cold-chisel, made clear indentations to demarcate each note which was revolutionary at the time and provided clearer sound. Is Andrew "Run-In" Beddoe, world-famous Orisha drummer, to be considered then, the Father of the Modern Pan? Is this what Tacarigua's history tells us? What a bombshell!

Randolph "Ladd" Wiltshire indicated that himself and Snatcher were employed at the construction site of the Caura Sanitarium and got the drum there at the cost of $3. There are enough people around who can verify all this and so establish these three as forerunners in the tuning of the modern pan. No one disputes then, that Ellie Mannette may have sunken and tuned the first concave 55-gallon drum. Jules and others, as indicated in the November 1999 column, have long ago conceded that to Ellie, but that and only that.

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