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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

'Bajan Cecil' made the judges sit up

June 01, 1997
Posted: March 02, 2005
By Kim Johnson

In The Last Pan Pioneers article there was a small error in dating Ulric "Chick MacGrew" Springer's solo victory to the 1946 Islandwide Steelband Competition. Springer's victory actually came about a year later, and the first islandwide ping pong solo winner was Sonny Roach.

Roach's band Sun Valley from St James, also came first in the ensemble category, but that victory was a more collective one due to the genius and the talent of Sonny Roach and also to a little-known man called "Bajan Cecil".

To tell that story, however, one has to go back to Barbados, where one Cecil Ward was born in 1923 and grew up his father and grandparents, his mother having early on migrated to greener pastures in Trinidad.

It's well known that all Bajans at the time knew music, for singing was on every primary school curriculum. Perhaps that disciplined nation was especially amenable to musical training unlike the anarchic Trinidadians, but Ward's background was even more musical .His father and grandparents sang in a church choir, and there was a piano at home. And when he was in Ebenezer School's sixth standard, Teacher Sergeant offered to teach music.

"Next door to the school was the church and there was an organ" recalls Ward. "I joined the music class to be in the church choir."

As for Teacher Sergeant he had a particular interest in instructing the boy in music: Ward's half brother's older sister taught in the school, and Teacher Sergeant had taken a fancy to her. So he made sure the boy learnt well.

"Home Sweet Home" had an F-sharp in the passage that I will always remember." he says "Teacher Sergeant hit me as lash with a tamarind rod on my hand because I couldn't expand enough to reach the F-sharp."

Be that as it may, in 1939 he came to Isaac Terrace, St James, to live with his mother."I didn't know her and I wanted to meet her." he says. " My stepfather was a joiner and he worked in Macqueripe where I first heard Tamboo bamboo."

In St James, however, Ward heard the real thing Harlem Nightingales, a band which many people refer to by the mas they played once the war was over –St James Sufferers.

"We had a contrary beat and at a certain time they had a little pan beating and I realized they had three notes on the pan what gave me "Rum and Coca Cola," he recalls "Sonny Roach and I were making pans so I said "Let's get a few more notes and he got some sweet oil drums and got eight notes in 1945 plus F-sharp."

With those nine notes Ward played, "Home Sweet Home." And thought Ward was a law- abiding young man and Roach was more wayward, the musical partnership between them gelled.

Once Ward heard a band playing in the Bombay Club in Kandahan with a "box bass" - the creole variation of the African thumb piano in which you plucked bent pieces of mental attached to a resonating box - and he made a small one with bits of clock spring. Sonny Roach took the idea and transferred it to a biscuit drum to get a bass pan.

Before they'd made the nine-note "Home Sweet Home" pan Roach used to play "Mary Had a little Lamb", and Ward would play a sort of counter point to it on his pan. So when the Islandwide Competition approached, the Barbadian had Roach make a pan with higher notes to his nine and he taught Roach "Home Sweet Home".

"Sonny Roach had the gift for playing, "he was faster than me," recalls Ward. "I'd only play the basic thing but he'd play in a stylish rhythm. He was faster but I was the basic fella, "I'd correct his bad notes."

Accordingly, Roach played the basic melody while Ward accompanied him three tones lower. "When he played 'Home Sweet Home' I followed on the second pan," explains Ward.

On the night of the competition the Sun Valley players wore ordinary clothes, unlike the other panmen, who had uniforms of some kind. But Sun Valley had the talent, with members like young Tony Williams and Nooksin and Addawell Sampson.

Nooksin Sampson says Ward's mother didn't want him to go out with his stepfather's white shirt. "He went inside and pass the shirt through the window. "We take the shirt and gone and later when he come we give him the shirt," says Sampson, whose own mother was similarly disapproving.

That night Red Army, who placed second, would be chosen as the Best Dressed Band and would be taken on tour to British Guiana in 1947 - the first steel band to go aboard. Sun Valley would only be invited to play in Royal Theatre. Still, the band which dazzled them all with music at that first Islandwide Steelband competition was Sun Valley, with an arrangement never heard before in steelband: Sonny Roach on lead pan and Cecil Ward on second.

It was when the band hit them with "Home Sweet Home" that the judges - Major Dennison from the police band and either Auntie Kay Warner or one of the Padmore sisters - took notice.

"When I play the alto pan and hit them the F-sharp," recalls Ward, "Dennison- he had he foot cock up- he sit upright."

Thereafter Ward withdrew from steeband. He was always a discipline kind of fella and he was getting ahead in the construction business, whereas Sonny Roach was drawing closer to the more rango types in the band. And by the time the talented Sun Valley youths such as Tony Williams and Roy Harper broke away to form North Stars in 1950, Ward was out of it.

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