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All Stars leave you with tabanca

Published: 
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Helen Drayton

They leave you with real tabanca because you don’t want them to stop playing. Massy Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra stole the first International Panorama competition last Sunday. 

The giant of a band with its smooth, scintillating sounds hails back to 1935 as “Hell Yard Boys.” Its progress and development over the years intersects with colourful patterns of life in this country’s history. 

All Stars music would have echoed throughout the harsh days of the late 1930s—a time of political awakening of the working class many of whom had little formal education and had rallied to the call of the legendary orator, Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler. 

It was the period of the Great Depression and there was widespread unemployment, poverty and squalor, and the Second World War loomed. 

Locally as well, labour unrest and a wave of anti-colonial sentiment, not to cease until Independence, rocked the colonial establishment that had introduced sedition laws to censor and ban calypsoes considered immoral or seditious. 

Roaring Lion’s “Netty Netty gimme the thing that you have in your belly” passed in the rush. That did not stop him, Attila the Hun, Growling Tiger and other kaiso titans from performing their art although the police had often harassed them. 

The ’30s to the ’60s were turbulent times, a period that shaped the culture of the All Stars with its flare for impassioned playing that you feel in your belly. 

You get lost in the engulfing rhythm of its pans. You fly like a kite to its melodic tunes. When it plays de Bassman so, yuh could hear de man in yuh head and see de Shadow looming larger than life on the stage in the Big Yard. 

And when it plays Kitchener’s Bees Melody, you hear bees humming and feel the sweetness of honey deep down somewhere, soothing your soul. 

All Stars rapturously bounces off music that could turn a casual music lover into a whore for steel music that sweetens the air right up to Laventille Hill where de Hammer once pong a pan.

It has been a long journey since 1935—80 years of steelpan heroism. All Stars is the champion and sine qua non of the indigenous artform. 

As the reigning national Panorama monarch, it certainly wasn’t a level playing field for the foreign bands in the international competition, but they had an opportunity to test their skills against the authentic thing and now know what they’ll be up against next time. 

According to its website, the band has a vision to be the world’s premier steel orchestra and universally acclaimed for musical superiority in pan music—already mostly achieved. 

They have spun their objectives to not only pursue excellence but also to create an economically viable organisation, develop members’ skills, and perpetuate social and community improvement as a means of uplifting society. 

These are laudable aspirations, and having survived the past 80 years with brilliance, considering it turned Hell Yard into heaven, there is no reason this wonderful band should not achieve its mission. 

As the years go by, and the younger generation takes up pan sticks, the mission will evolve, and its culture may also change, but it is imaginable that its creativity will continue to explode and enchant. 

Yes, the Hell Yard Boys from the banks of the East Dry River has re-engineered itself many times since tamboo-bamboo days to the inspiring movement it is today.

It received a national award, the Humming Bird Medal (Gold). It pioneered the “quatro pans” known later as the Grundig and the guitar pans. Through mastery of the pan instrument, it arrayed classical music with the tempo of calypso on some of the most memorable J’Ouvert morns, rivalled in supremacy in the Bomb competitions by Highlanders lead by the aficionado Bertie Marshall. Gawd! 

To not mention Bertie and Highlanders’ magical rendition of Every Valley Shall Be Exalted would be a crime against the steelpan. 

Massy All Stars Steel Orchestra flies the national flag with flair. Its accomplishments are many having dominated the biennial Musical Festival, National Panorama, and electrifying Carnival Bomb Competitions, not forgetting its wonderful “Classical Jewels” concerts. 

Crowning it all, in 2014 and 2015 they won the Carnival Big Band of the year. The sea of 3,000 All Star revellers in white sailor suits chipping, swaying synchronously in a haze of white powder is unforgettable. 

Their melodious sounds shut out the jarring cacophony that came from big trucks all playing different soca tunes simultaneously. 

To see the sailor band crossing the big stage is not just a remarkable sight, but also respite from the banal images of somebody else’s carnival without the samba music. 

Its fame is due in no small measure to the discipline and commitment of its players and its pedigree tuners, arrangers, directors, and conductors—Prince Batson its first captain, Neville Jules, Allan Jervais, Leo Coker, Rudolph Wells, Leon (Smooth) Edwards, Eddie Quarles, Jerry Jemmot, Gillian Nathaniel Balinthulo, Nelson Villafana, and bless anyone not mentioned. 

They left us with tabanca.

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