by Dr Felix Blake
The acronym TASPO stands for the Trinidad All Steel(1) Percussion Orchestra - a band which was formed in 1951 as a direct result of the violence that was rampant among the steelbands in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Opportunity knocked in the guise of the 1951 summer Festival of Britain, an exposition of arts, crafts, exhibitions and cultural events from all over the United Kingdom, including its colonial possessions. It brought forth the suggestion from Sir Hubert Rance, Trinidads English governor at the time, that a steelband represent the island colony. This suggestion was enthusiastically supported by influential organisations and individuals who had been campaigning in favour of the bands. It was felt that an appearance at the Festival of Britain would help in the steelbands struggle for respectability.
TASPO was the first major undertaking of a steelband association which was formed in 1950 on the recommendation of the 1949 government-appointed Steel Band Committee. The associations president was Sydney Gollop. Other members included Port-of-Spain solicitor Lennox Pierre, Carlyle Kerr, union leader Nathaniel Crichlow and Oscar Pile - all outstanding activists of the steelband movement.
Lieutenant Nathaniel Joseph Griffith - born in Barbados - who had been playing with the Trinidad Police Band and was a qualified musician, was co-opted and consented to teach music, a move that certainly contributed to the high number of bands that joined the association.
The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band Association (TTSBA) as it was called, was the first officially recognised governing body for steel bands, but was not the first attempt to bring warring steelbands together in an association of some kind. TTSBA was, in fact, the direct follow-on from an initiative begun by Harold Blake in 1948. Then, in the face of dire assurances that nothing would bring members of rival pan-sides together, he personally sought out 21 bandleaders, who duly registered their bands in the first steelband association and actually met as a group - 300 boys, Blake proudly remembers, at the Teachers Training College in Port-of-Spain.
One notes a similar rationale behind TASPOs membership: that having as band members one representative each from ten steelbands, the experience of playing together would encourage and promote some measure of friendship among these individuals and so diffuse the potential for explosive violence ever-present among steelbands of the day.
Eventually eleven members were selected:
- Theo Stephens from Free French, San Fernando [Theo Black James]
- Belgrave Bonaparte from Southern Symphony
- Andrew de la Bastide from Hill 60 [Andrew Pan]
- Philmore Boots Davidson from Syncopators of Quarry Street
- Orman Patsy Haynes from Casablanca
- Winston Spree Simon from Tokyo
- Dudley Smith from Rising Sun, Belmont
- Ellie Mannette from Invaders in Woodbrook [Elliott Ellie]
- Sterling Betancourt from Crossfire, St James
- Granville Sealey from Tripoli, St James
- Anthony Williams from North Stars, St James [Anthony Tony]
[Names supplemented by e-Ed]
All were ping pong players. When Lieutenant Nathaniel Joseph Griffith, joined the group, with the help of his tuners, he imposed - for the first time - a chromatic or melodic progression on the instruments in the band. Four official tuners were appointed - Ellie Mannette, Sterling Betancourt, Andrew de la Bastide and Philmore Boots Davidson.
The ping pong players were Ellie Mannette, Theo Stephens, Patsy Haynes, Andrew de la Bastide, Spree Simon and Granville Sealey. On the alto pans were Sterling Betancourt and Belgrave Bonaparte. Dudley Smith and Tony Williams were assigned to tenor bass. On bass was Philmore Boots Davidson. The music was arranged by Griffith.
The method used was simple: all the notes were numbered, middle C on the piano being 0. Above middle C, notes followed a numerical order: C-sharp was 1, D was 2. D-sharp was 3 and so on. The notes below middle C followed the same strict numerical order, but with a minus sign before each number. Thus, B was -1, B-flat was -2, and so on. The same marks made on the pans were made on the music sheets to facilitate reading of the music by the players. These ideas for tuning were introduced by Lennox Pierre.
Some of the tunes in TASPOs repertoire were Tossellis Serenade, After Johnny Drink Mih Rum, Jamaican Rhumba, Golden Earrings, Mambo Jambo and God Save The
QueenKing. Before the tour began, Granville was dropped and replaced by Sonny Roach of Sun Valley. The band sailed on the French liner, San Mateo, which left Port-of-Spain on 6th July for Bordeaux via Martinique. The band remained for five days in Martinique where Sonny Roach fell ill and had to be left behind for treatment. He was supposed to rejoin the band later, along with Beryl McBurnie, but these plans never materialised.
After Martinique, the second stop was Guadeloupe where the band spent just a few hours. The long sea journey ended when the San Mateo arrived in Bordeaux on 24th July, 1951. From Bordeaux, the group travelled by train to Paris, and then by ferry to London. In London they played on the BBC and were given a warm welcome and invaluable assistance by Edric Conner who placed his London apartment at the disposal of the TASPO members.
TASPOs first Festival performance on July 26th, 1951 on Londons South Bank exhibition grounds got off to an unprepossessing start. At the first sight of the rusty pans - and rusty they must have been after the long sea voyage - the reaction of the curious crowd was polite but doubtful that such instruments could produce music of high quality. But their doubts were not for long. ...jaws dropped and eyes widened as the first sweet notes were struck and the band swung into Mambo Jambo . By the time the story of TASPOs performance reached the newspapers, the writer was enthusing over the performance in an article liberally sprinkled with such phrases as first class, wonderfully skilled playing and virtuoso jazz. The ice had been broken.
TASPO went on to engagements at St Pancras Town Hall and Londons prestigious Savoy Hotel. While in the United Kingdom, the band also performed in aid of the Jamaica Hurricane Relief Fund and their fame having spread to the continent, they did a brief tour of Paris before returning home.
With the success of TASPO in Great Britain, the middle and upper clauses in Trinidad (who had thought steelbands should be suppressed) finally began to see the great artistic potential the steelband represented; as well as the legitimacy of its claim to a place in Trinidadian society as a meaningful, indigenous art form. TASPOs going abroad changed the status of steelbands at home and became a landmark event, preceding the wildfire spread of the steelband movement all over Trinidad and Tobago, and across all levels of society. After TASPO there was an increase in the College Boy bands comprising racially mixed, middle and upper class educated youths which first appeared in the early 1950s. The famous Girl Pat steel Orchestra was formed in the years following TASPO. Led by a school teacher and consisting of school teachers, civil servants and store clerks, the acceptance and considerable success of this all-woman band was another indicator of how the TASPO experience became a force to legitimise the steelbands image at home.
© 1995 Dr Felix Blake: Pg 159 - 162; THE TRINIDAD & TOBAGO STEEL PAN: History and Evolution
[Blake: Presented without permission; permission being sought.]
[ (1) Blake uses Stars here in error; this has been replaced by Steel ] BACK to [ Steel ]
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