Tony Deyal | The beat goes on
I grew up with engines – not just the massive and noisy Mack trucks owned by our neighbour, Mr Esack, but the green, steam-belching ones owned by the sugar estate that were up and down the narrow gauge railway line just about a hundred yards or so from our house in the little village of Carapichaima in Central Trinidad.
Further west, intersecting the main road as it meandered towards the Gulf of Paria, was the east-west running train line of the Trinidad Government Railways (TGR), which linked the main cities of Port-of-Spain, San Fernando, Arima in the west and Siparia in the deep south, an artery through which goods, steam and people moved ceaselessly.
It was then, too, when my cousin Harry was heading off to England to study and the entire family went to see him off at the Port-of-Spain docks on the ship, the SS Ribiero, that I took off on my own and ended up in a huge, noisy room filled with machines pumping, and I was grabbed by one of the sailors there and taken back to the top to rejoin my father and uncle who were so busy consuming the cheap whisky that they did not know that I had gone AWOL.
These were the early days and, in addition to the calypsoes and Indian songs on the radio and from the raucous drinkers in the three rum shops within a few yards of my grandmother’s house, there was also what we called ‘Pan’. Our little village steelband was across the road in a little shack behind Miss Robinson’s huge clay oven.
This was 1955, I was 10 years old, and the song was ‘The Happy Wanderer’, an original, lilting German composition that won the Road March. I still know the opening lines, “I love to go a-wandering…” and the chorus, “Valderi, Valdera…with a knapsack on my back”.
In 1956, our village headmaster was transferred to Port-of-Spain and our parents felt we should follow him. I ended up in an area that was among the most violent but also the most musical in Trinidad.
As Carnival approached, I heard and learnt to differentiate among the sounds from the Laventille Hills (Desperadoes), Duke Street (All Stars), Observatory Street (Casablanca) and others all around, like Silver Stars and Dixieland, Invaders, Renegades, Hi-landers, Sunlanders, Boys Town and Katzenjammers.
There were two things I learnt in that period.
The first was the importance of the rhythm. The humble iron-man who was not in the front line ‘beating’ the pan was the one who set and maintained the timing for the tune. I can still see some of them, sweating profusely but not distracted from the task of hitting the brake-hub without stopping until the tune ended.
The second was the leadership. While in today’s pan world, the ‘engine room’ is where the iron-men are housed, in the early days and still to a major extent today, it is the leader of the band who is the real engine room. In this sense, the men with the iron and the man with the iron will are the hub, wheel and dynamos of the band.
This became even clearer to me when we moved to the town of Siparia and became part of a community known as ‘Peyton Place’. The ‘panyard’ in those days was right across the narrow, downhill street from me and was a real yard, unpaved and for a while without electricity. The dynamo who ran the show was a pan-fanatic named Ellis Knights and he called the band the ‘Siparia Deltones’, a big name for a little band of mainly unemployed youths. While our leader for the entire community – cricket and football captain, as well as organiser of everything legal and illegal – was a tough, uncompromising, no-holds-barred and no-quarter-given individual we called ‘Rabby’, who boasted openly that all his convictions were for wounding, Ellis remained on the periphery, focused on his steel band and dreams of pan glory.
I remember one Carnival when Rabby decided we should have a Carnival Band of ‘Dutty Sailors’ – essentially, men in sailor outfits notorious for sprinkling powder on anyone they encountered in the street, rolling around on the ground in alcoholic splendour or stupor, and chanting, “What the sailor like?” to the chorus of “Big, fat women”.
The band was supposed to move out at 10 a.m. and we were in the rum shop, costumed and waiting. Rabby was fuming. Nolan, a gambler and petty thief normally specialising in cattle, was on one of the two sets of bass drums mounted on a manually drawn, low wooden cart. He was keeping us back because he had no wheels on his cart.
Rabby, angry and cursing loudly, threatened Nolan with grievous bodily harm if he was not ready. Nolan smiled and headed across the empty playground that separated us from civilisation and said, when he was out of Rabby’s reach, “Don’t worry. Ah coming back jes’ now.”
About 40 minutes later, with Rabby fuming and even more impatient, almost murderously angry in fact, we saw Nolan heading down the hill on a bicycle. He rode past us down to the bottom of the street to an area we called the ‘Cave’, took the wheels off the bike, threw the rest into the cave, walked back up the hill, attached the wheels to the cart and off we went. Sailors ashore were in complete assurance we would win the local band of the year competition because we were the only band in town.
I thought of this last week when I went back to Siparia to an event that the Deltones steel band, now the Deltones Institute of Steel and Music, held, featuring not only its superb music but also art produced by the young people from the community.
The band’s executive director, Akinola Sennon, reiterated the band’s determination, based on a Sudanese proverb, to bequest two things to the children – the first one is roots; the other is wings.
In the ensuing years, Deltones moved into the town’s abandoned train station, the last stop on the line, and used it as a springboard to excellence. Now the engine room is in a real engine room and the human engine room, Akinola, with his vision and energy, provides the tempo and rhythm for a sustainable and successful future.
It has taken 62 years and will need more, but the train that Ellis Knights built and drove is on track and in good hands.
Tony Deyal was last seen reciting the Dutty Sailor’s chant but not loud enough for his wife Indranie to hear. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org