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The History of Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago

The man who sourced the steel

September 06, 1997
Posted: March 02, 2005
By Kim Johnson

To Connoisseurs Leo Warner is one of the foremost intuitive artists in the country, a Baptist leader whose artistic inspiration is profoundly spiritual. But to me his name was first associated with the steelband Commandoes which he captained in the 1940's.

The pleasant surprise was to discover that before Commandoes was formed Warner had been in the great pioneering band from Newtown, Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Born in 1922 he grew up with his grandmother on Frederick Street and was schooled in Richmond Street RC Boys School. In 1935 he apprenticed at Craig-well's Joiners Shop on the corner of French Street and Robert Street, Woodbrook. There he met Roy "Buddy" Colston who limed in the Big Yard at the bottom of Woodford Street, where Alexander's Ragtime Band was formed.

That is the band which many claim to have launched the steelband movement in 1939 when Carlton Forde, also known as Lord Humbugger, led them through Port of Spain that Carnival drumming only on metal percussion: biscuit drums, car brake hubs, a gramophone horn, paint pans.

Warner beat the large biscuit drum, which gave the band its bass. "Peche, Police, myself," were the bassmen, he recalls, in addition to two others.

"When the three of us came together we had a special skill so that everybody sounded like one," he says.

But the main men were Victor "Tutie" Wilson and Frederick "Mando" Wilson whose virtuoso instruments were the two-note paint pans. And here was Warner's real contribution to the band, for he was the one who'd got the paint pans for them from a dump.

How did that come about? It all began when he was offered a dollar a week by architect James Howard, and thus left Craigwell's Joiner Shop. With Howard he worked first at the Jews prison on Serpentine Road, and then at the American camp on Wrightson Road where the deep water harbour was being dredged.

"Those, two tone we used to call them, those pans came from the base. It had the Harbour Scheme when the Americans came and occupied the area," he explains.

"We had a hell of a dump on Sea Lots but they used to dump certain things like clothing. But paint pans and things like that they used to dump down there by Mucurapo. So since I had access to the whole place I saw the pans were a special steel, hard, and they were five gallons.

"I used to take the paint pans from there and I walk over because Woodbrook at that time had some long alleys, some of them are still there, and I used to walk through the alley and come right up."

After three years Carnival was banned in Trinidad because of wartime austerities and Alexander's Ragtime Band swiftly declined. As the war progressed some members drifted westwards to the young Oval Boys band, which later became Invaders. Some drifted east to Green Corner where they eventually formed Red Army. And some gravitated to the Edward Street home of the Alphonso brothers, Reginald Alphonso, also known as Popo, having been Alexander's Ragtime Band's main iron man.

There in Edward Street was formed Commandoes under Warner's leadership.

In 1946 Carnival was resumed and Commandoes were hired by sailor band-leader "Diamond" Jim Harding. "Nobody ever know about that, the first ever beat for a sailor band. And those boys what beat with me at the time, they saw the sailor's nose was made out of cardboard.

"Cap'n," they said to Warner. "You could do better than that." Two of them took a piece of wire and bent it in the shape of a cobra and showed him. He knew he could improve on it and the following year according to Warner the first bent-wire cobra-nose appeared in the Commandoes sailor band.

By the year 1969, Warner had begun to shift out of steelband and into mas. Now living in Belmont he began bending wire for fancy sailor bands one year producing the costumes to Desperadoes and thereafter judging mas for the CDC, until he withdrew from even that in favour of full-time art.

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