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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

Pioneer on the biscuit drum

August 13, 2000
By Kim Johnson

The last day I met Henry Pacho't, he was leaning on a cut-down broomstick, shuffling through a crowd along Independence Square south of the Cathedral.

The exact date and time was Saturday, March 18, at 10.30 in the morning. Archbishop Pantin's funeral was supposed to begin just then.

"Patcheye," I hailed as he approached George Street.

"Oy," he replied in his rapid stammer, "h-help me to g-get home on Nelson Street please."

The 71-year-old Pacho't, who followed Pantin three months later, was better known (in the steelband world) as Patcheye, owing to the coincidence between his French name and a permanently closed-down eye, which gave his face a sort of twisted grimace.

Andrew de la Bastide
PING PONG virtuoso
Andrew "Pan" de la Bastide.

One of the greatest biscuit drummers ever produced by the steelband movement, Patcheye founded Hill 60 steelband at a time when bands were all born out of gangs of youths who limed together, either as neighbours, through school or some club. "Y-you ever hear of a one- man steelband?" Patcheye asked me years ago. "Well, that was me and me alone."

Around 1938 he'd seen a well-known character named Cook beating a biscuit drum in Gonzales, and in 1940 when Patcheye was 18 and living on Clifton Hill, Laventille, he found a cement drum which he began to beat.

Even then Patcheye was no neophyte. As a child he used to take a knock in the yard of the Clifton Hill bamboo band. And although he was a Catholic, Patcheye graduated to drums.

"It had Shango tents all over. T-they had in Belair Road, they had in St John Street, they had in John John-a woman called Miss Thompson," he had recalled. "When they have feast I as a little boy would go because they sharing food. A-and I learn to beat the drum. So I become a very good drummer."

When he first began beating that cement drum on Clifton Hill, Patcheye was already an experienced percussionist, and like the pied piper he drew the youths from the district, starting with Errol "Mummy" Anderson, who was followed by other little boys, all coming for a knock in Patcheye's yard.

One youth who knew them but never touched a pan, George Blackman, lover of the famous jamette known as Bubulups, told them about a place bitterly contested in the First World War, now the Germans capturing it, now the British winning it back. The place was known as Hill 60, and the Clifton Hill youths took it for the name of their new band.

VE (Victory in Europe) came, and Patcheye decided to catch up with the times by replacing his old cement drum with a new-fangled biscuit drum. He stole one from Destination Tokyo in John John.

Unfortunately, he was spotted. Later Winston "Spree" Simon boarded Patcheye with some Tokyo badjohns. When Spree saw the youths in the band he calmed down.

"Keep that biscuit drum-I'll tell you where to get them and when you get one give me back mine," he told Patcheye. "Go Duncan Street in the Sunrise Biscuit factory and get one for $2.50."

It was a small fortune in those days, but Patcheye traversed the neighbourhood, cap in hand, begging for contributions until he had it.

The Lawrence brothers-Raymond, Kenneth and Gerald-joined. One talented Casablanca youth, Andrew "Pan" de la Bastide, joined. By VJ (Victory in Japan) Day the band was bigger. And like every other steelband they had to steal drums.

Once, they stole a man's water barrel and he investigated and found out it was the Hill 60 boys. He went to the Besson Street station and returned with a policeman for Patcheye. But they had three good tuners-de la Bastide and the two Lawrences. By the time the police arrived they had already cut, sunk, burned, tuned and painted the drum.

"If we thief the pan," Patcheye indignantly asked the officers, "Where it?"

Hill 60 was a small band of youths, well-loved by the community. Elders passed by the cocoyea tent in Patcheye's yard and requested favourite dance tunes. And to return the compliment, the band learned many foxtrots and waltzes. They began to play out with the Invaders when the latter had engagements in San Fernando.

Patcheye, the captain and elder of the band, was responsible for them all.

"Once I had to beg Gerald Lawrence mother from eight in the morning till she gone to work to let him come South with we," he told me. "When she come back home I gone back begging."

The train was leaving at 4 p.m. and at 3 p.m. the churchy Mrs Lawrence hadn't budged. "You take Ray, you take Kenneth," she complained. "Now you coming for Gerald?"

Then, at 3.30 she relented. "Just make sure you bring him back safe," she said in time for them to run all the way to the station.

In 1951 the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (Taspo) went to the Festival of Britain, and de la Bastide was on the team. Weeks later he returned, filled with the the musical knowledge he'd acquired from playing and liming with the best panmen in the world, under the direction of police bandsman Lt Joseph Nathaniel Griffiths.

Patcheye handed over the leadership of Hill 60 to the better musician, although they worked closely together.

"Patcheye was a genius with the Shango drum, the bélé drum, the bongo drum, and he was the top man when it come to the biscuit drum," de la Bastide once told me. "Patcheye was the only man I knew-and you would find a lot of people that would tell you the same thing-that would take his right hand and play a drum and it seems to me the fingers would work and it sounds like it playing a whole drum set.

"He had that kind of a beat that was so beautiful. And the funny thing about it, it might seem to be some kind of a joke but when Patcheye tune his drum-he used to also tune it, maybe he was making a joke out of it but it was a very very good joke because you would hear. When he stop you know he wasn't playing."

Around the early 1950s he changed instruments, moving from the biscuit drum to a three-note bass. For the stage side, however, he played percussion-timbales. With de la Bastide and another friend, John "Kittler" Austin, they drummed for the Les Enfants dance troupe that practised in a Piccadilly Street school.

Thus, when a Brazilian impresario came to Trinidad in the '50s to hire an act to carry to Brazil, the band and the troupe combined for the audition. The competition was stiff. Julia Edwards's group was there, and drumming for them was Andrew Beddoe-Patcheye's erstwhile schoolmate, the best in the island.

"Don't worry," Patcheye reassured de la Bastide. "I go mash him up."

On the night Patcheye had the band play "Brazil". When the impresario heard it, he jumped off his seat and began to dance. He'd planned to hire a dance troupe and a band separately but here was a talented all-in-one outfit!

They left Trinidad for Brazil in 1958, about ten dancers and eight panmen, and spent the next two years playing their way through Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico. They crossed the Rio Grande into California and headed for Hollywood.

"For months we try to join the musicians union but they wouldn't accept we," Patcheye told me. "They say it's only garbage can we beating."

Once the band began to get gigs, however, the union changed its mind and ordered them to pay $3,000 and join.

Things went well for a while but after some time the jobs dried up. Once you had no job you had to leave. An immigration officer, who had taken a liking to these easy-going Trinis, told them, "I'll give you three months' grace-you can get married or you'll have to leave."

Immediately all man Jack married American women. "Some of them still married," said Patcheye. "I married a young girl. The woman who fix that up used to do it for money."

He returned to Trinidad to apply for a new residency permit. "It had a fella there, you give him $100 and you get the visa," he said. "But I didn't know that." Instead, he tried to go through the proper channels, and there his past caught up with him. Years before he'd got in a fight over some gambling winnings and was convicted of wounding. I think he threw acid on the other man. When the police report went to the Consulate they turned down Patcheye's visa application.

He let his bucket down here, the only one from the band to do so, never to play in a steelband again.

When I interviewed Patcheye three years ago I was struck by the squalour of the Nelson Street planning where he lived. In a sort of matter-of-fact way he complained about the pipers, their 24-hour cursing and stealing. From the third floor you could see them lurking in the shadows below, and I thought that life had brought low this warm, unassuming man.

Fate had more knocks for Patcheye, though, and when I spotted him fumbling by the Cathedral in March, my heart went out. With one eye shut from birth, a cataract had now darkened the other eye. He was blind.

Desperation had compelled him to feel his way to central market, and returning home he had missed his turn off. I took his bag and we backtracked to Nelson Street and headed north.

"You could make it from here?" I asked hopefully. I had to report on the Archbishop's grand funeral, not traipse around with an old ragged panman.

"I woulda appreciate the help on account of the weight," Patcheye replied. I knew his market bag must have indeed been heavy for this small, frail man. So we continued our agonisingly slow way across Independence Square, up to Queen Street, on to Prince Street.

"Y-you see the Seamoss place?" said Patcheye as we approached a bright yellow wall advertising curry and seamoss. "From that I know we near home."

That's why New York taxis are painted yellow: it is the brightest colour. Even people very close to being completely blind can see yellow objects.

About three buildings up the street Patcheye and I swung into the planning. Young men were openly selling and buying tiny rocks like bits of gravel in a crown cork. Crack cocaine. I felt edgy but Patcheye knew his way. We slid past a knot of pipers gathered to smoke in the dark stairwell, and climbed two flights.

Nothing of the funeral pomp and ceremony just two blocks away penetrated into these parts. Yet here is where I felt His Grace would have wanted to be.

Henry "Patcheye" Pacho't, born November 7, 1921, died June 3, 2000.

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