When music ignites passion

By Raffique Shah
February 13, 2024

Raffique ShahI can see it clearly today as I did back then 70-odd years ago. My brain at eight years young focused on the sweet melody that came from the one steelband that passed through Freeport Junction. By 6 a.m. when the junction came alive with about 800 people of varying races, colours and cultures, swaying, jumping and shouting loudly to the sounds of Lord Blakie’s “Steelband Clash”, I stood there in awe of what I was witnessing.

I was shocked when I watched some of my neighbours, men, dressed in full women’s garb and drinking from posies fluids of questionable origin. This is Jouvert, I mused.

We were in the front gallery of a house my father had rented, giving us unobstructed views of the revelry. My child’s mind absorbed everything.

Most of all, though, I listened intently to Blakie’s melodic recollection of what was a brutal and bloody battle between panmen from two steelbands in Port of Spain: Tokyo and Invaders. I found myself humming the chorus which was laced with violence, but which to me was a melody so sweet that I wanted to hear it over and over again.

I should add at this stage that my powers of retention, insofar as calypsoes went, were exceptional. I earned the sobriquet Lord Carlti by the time I entered secondary school. I was delighted to entertain. I even got into a bit of composing lyrics.

People often wonder where and how I built this thirst for the local artforms, especially when I happen to be an Indo Trinidadian from a rural village. Such people do not normally have an appetite for anything Carnival, far less ­listening to music by locals.

They will never be caught dead playing on their sound systems calypsoes by anyone other than Sparrow, Melody and a handful of other calypsonians who are accepted performers, approved by European and American audiences.

They will not, too, buy and play steelband music in whatever format. I have heard people, Trini­dadians and Tobagonians, derisively refer to pan music as noise and that holds even today.

Two weekends ago when the semi-finals of Panorama were held at the Savannah, I was pleasantly surprised and felt totally entertained by the hundreds of children who exhibited skills that placed them among the best musicians with any instrument, dare I say, in the world.

Stars, those who make magic with a couple sticks in their hands, and finely tuned steelpans to caress, can place this country high on the honour roll. Yet, we take a delight in treating the national instrument as if it were last place to all other conventional instruments.

For most of my life—I’ll be turning 78 in less than a month—I’ve regretted not having learnt to play the pan when offers came, especially when such offers came from the maestros.

That day in 1954, what this eight-year-old feasted on was the masterful composition—”Steelband Clash” by Blakie—played by a small Freeport band; it must have been Sunny Side Kids. It was almost a family band comprising the Machan family, captained by big brother, Son, of course a nickname.

And, then there was the Graham family, three or four girls who would practise tirelessly, taking time off from their cycling schedule (they were avid cyclists) to perfect their playing.

Now, I should mention that the clash between Invaders and Tokyo had occurred in Carnival 1950. I was only four then, so I don’t remember being aware of it when it happened. But Blakie turned it into a Road March winner, an unforgettable piece of music four years later when many changes came to Trinidad and Tobago.

That year saw the PNM led by Dr Eric Williams displace Uriah Butler’s and Albert Gomes’ parties in the general election. Dr Williams would proceed to be prime minister for 25 years until his death in office in 1980.

The clash between Tokyo and Invaders would not be the last of its kind. Years later, as a young army officer escorting my fiancee, Rosina, through the heavy crowds gathered at Memorial Park, the sky above suddenly darkened.

Bottles by the thousands blocked out the sun like a spontaneous solar eclipse. Man, woman, children, dog, everybody scampered to safety, including Rosina and I. That was the last big clash in steelband history. Such clashes usually came from badjohn gangs within the steelbands, who fought their wars on whatever turf they chose.

Sometime when I was at college (1958-1962), I accompanied Sunny Side Kids to Carapichaima, where the band met with and clashed with another band from the area. About five bottles and ten stones were hurled, resulting in a buss-head or two.

I ventured closer to get a better view. From behind me I heard, “College-Boy!!! Move yuh Ash from there! Yuh want to get killed?” They were protecting their own.

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