Curepe and the First Steel Pan
There’s a strong claim being made by one Lloyd Valentine Williams that the globally adored but once abhorred steel pan was actually conceived in Curepe and not Port-of -Spain,7mgg the capital of Trinidad. Williams also claims that he, during his childhood was the one who invented the famed instrument as a toy for him and his impoverished siblings to play with.
People from Trinidad and Tobago as well as across the planet have long heard and become accustomed to the pan being a Port-of-Spain invention which arrived via garbage can ‘music’ or ‘music’ played on paint, milk and putty tins. This line of history claims that a raucous during the ‘Carnival’ of 1935 forced string band leader Alexander Forde of Alexander’s Ragtime Band to summon his band members by striking a garbage can several times. His actions, according to the tale, not only had the desired effect of regrouping the band members and leading them home but inadvertently gave birth to the ‘garbage can music craze’ which ‘swamped’ the streets the following year. Lloyd Valentine Williams, who was born on Woodford Street, Curepe in 1934 refutes this notion as utter and sheer nonsense. ‘Why would’, Williams said, ‘a string band equipped with established instruments use garbage cans for music?’ But there’s also more to this tale concerning the famed string band of yesteryear. It’s known that Alexander Ragtime Band took its name from an American movie of the same name but that film wasn’t released until 1938, three years after the band leader’s legendary actions on the streets of Port-of-Spain.
Another claim to the steel pan’s invention was that of George Goddard who stated in his book that a Laventille man by the name of Fred Corbin was, manguerose in 1937, the first to play tin pans in the hills overlooking downtown Port-of-Spain. These of course were pans used for paint, milk, putty or other commodities and not real musical instruments with notes tuned using heat from fire. These could not have been anywhere close to what is now known as the steel pan because the city’s longstanding ordinance against fires being lit was still intact. ‘Any hint of smoke’ according to Williams, ‘would’ve warranted a visit by the fire brigade and police force.’ This therefore eliminated any type of genuine tuning in Port of Spain. He claims that both units were one and the same when he was a boy.
I’ll not entertain the Winston ‘Spree’ Simon story which is as bogus as they come but during my own research concerning the instrument’s origin all I kept encountering were brief fragmented tales here or myth-like vignettes relayed 10 different ways over there; nothing concrete, substantial or consistently coherent was or is available. Over time many of these stories grew to the status of facts and have been the basis for books, roomidea documentaries, speeches and anecdotes. It was only when I came into contact with the experiences of Lloyd Valentine Williams did I inhale the scent of truth concerning invention of the 20th century’s only musical instrument. After all something must come from somewhere; there must be a beginning and it surely wasn’t with garbage cans and paint tins which are both ludicrous.
According to Mr Williams the ping-pong as it was then called started with his desire for a squirrel. Told by his sister that one would easily fall unconscious from the guava tree where they regularly cavorted if a can was repeatedly struck with a piece of wood, spaice the young Williams took up the challenge. Unable to find a can Williams found a galvanize basin and furiously struck it with a piece of guava branch which yielded nothing; no squirrels fell. The only things he accomplished were dents on the basin and a lenient scolding from his mother who was told by his mischievous sister that his required chores were neglected.
But it was when Williams’ stepfather, a cruel man who laboured at the workshop in the Public Works department in Laventille, started bringing home cut 25 gallon steel drums for him to use as troughs to feed the family’s avaricious hogs that the early steel pan or what was then known as the ping-pong began taking shape. Williams relayed to me that he’d always had a fascination with sound of all types and claimed that the sound which emanated from his mother’s sewing machine was the first one that ever enchanted him. This later led to him always playing with or beating old pieces of iron from the train track, the metal wheel barrow wheel and the old sunrise biscuit drum among other things. Williams also made it clear that though he was never a musician he was always somehow attracted to sound.
He claims that after his ‘squirrel basin’ had been dented he took a piece of charcoal and marked four spots on the
sorry piece of galvanize and began playing with it as a toy. The 25 gallon pig trough, according to Williams was even more inviting as a play thing; ‘after all’, he said, ‘we, as poor children, didn’t have the porcelain doll or toy soldier to play with, we had to make our toys from the dung heap in our back yards.’ As with the dented basin, he marked four spots based on the segments of the wheel barrow wheel with a piece of charcoal and grooved them using piece of an old hammer and the edge of a worn out bicycle pedal. This crude ‘instrument’ he claims was actually the first ping-pong/pan. The first time it was ‘played’, Williams said, was on Christmas morning in 1940. He claims that the towns existing iron bands would gather around Christmas and play music at peoples’ homes and became intrigued when they saw his little steel toy. An iron band leader and bicycle repairman by the name of Clebert but better known as ‘Shanghai’ was the first one to adopt his little ping-pong for use by the iron bands. Williams claims that Clebert later modified his ping-pong by heating (or tuning) it and thus transformed it into an instrument worthy of being played along with pieces of iron at Christmas time. He also claims that around this time it was never used during masquerade or carnival time; that festivity had long had its own musical instruments. The fire ordinance that affected Port-of-Spain had little effect in Curepe, Williams said, since almost every area outside the city was unofficially deemed ‘country.’ This is very believable because even today many Port-of-Spain residents refer to most places, even built up urbanized areas outside the city as ‘country.’ It may sound a bit queer but this is something that I’ve personally experienced.
Williams said that it was travelers on the train that passed through Curepe who started spreading knowledge of the instrument after hearing the beautiful music it made. The first place outside Curepe, he claims, to use the steel pan was the southern town of Siparia which utilized it during their La Divina Pastora festival. From there it was taken on excursions to beaches and played every Christmas but never for the masquerade or carnival which had been dominated by Roman Catholic white people.
Williams claims that while Port-of-Spain had rhythm sections, tamboo bamboo, brass and string bands they knew nothing about the ping-pong or pan. He said the first man to introduce the city to the new instrument was Mango Rose, Laventille club (gambling house) owner Teddy Kingsale who frequented Curepe and immediately took a liking to the ping-pong. Williams said that Kingsale took a Curepe youth called ‘Mice’ to his club to play the instrument to the delight of the onlookers, some who probably never saw or heard the instrument played before. It was after the Second World War, Williams said, that the steel pan began making waves and was included in both the VE (Victory in Europe) and VJ (Victory over Japan) day street parades of 1945. Williams said that its popularity in Port-of-Spain was ignited when a Calypsonian whose name he cannot remember sang a song that went “Port-of-Spain nearly caught ah fire when steel band cross the dry river, Ziglee, Pops and Batasby playing ah semi-tone melody, jung-bang-ka-jung-bank-ka-jung-bank-ka.” This song, according to Williams clearly states that the steel band came from outside the city and caused a major stir upon entering. The existing city bands were also unable to play a full melody because of the instruments they had at the time.
Port-of-Spain would later dominate and claim the steel pan as their own and little by little a movement developed in the city. But while Williams was part and parcel of the unfolding steel band scene he never became a pan player or musician. His vocation was in mechanics and personal hardship along with private ambition compelled him to seek his daily bread. At the same time innovators and players like Ellie Mannette, Neville Jules and Winston ‘Spree’ Simon began emerging while the 55 gallon oil drum was introduced and tuned in Port-of-Spain which was then freed of the ordinance against fires being lit. And as Williams’ trials and tribulations increased, his pig trough experience and ‘Shanghai’s’ genius got lost in the mists of fantastic new tales which began cropping up in the city concerning birth of the pan. Williams said that he clearly remembers Neville Jules coming to Curepe to learn how to tune the pan.