Merry Stars Metronome
By Dennis Thomas
So Yu Going To... CARNIVAL Magazine
"I'm from Tacarigua, I was born and bred in Tacarigua!' shouted teacher Baboolal after the Merry Stars Metronome pulled off a stunning performance to win a place in the finals of the 1960 Steelband Music Festival.
Indeed this was surely one of the many high moments during the reign of this innovative and pioneering steelband led by Mr. Kenrick P. Thomas in the little eastern village of Tacarigua.
In Mr. Thomas' new book "Panriga: Tacarigua's Contribution to the Evolution of the Steelband Phenomenon in Trinidad and Tobago", the author presents a firsthand account of the development of this unique instrument "The Pan", indigenous to the people of the twin-island republic.
Launched on Emancipation Day, August 1, 1999 in Trinidad as part of the emancipation festivities "Panriga" highlights the triumph of a people determined and driven by a spirit of freedom to create and propel to the fore the only musical invention in the 2Oth century.
Mr. Thomas strongly and emphatically associates thc emergence of the Pan with the Orisha tradition and culture firm1y cementing its connection with Africa.
This view, like others however, was maligned and ridiculed by some in the Steelband Association of which Mr. Thomas was an executive member. They would casually dismiss him saying "he from the country." Fueled by this utter disrespect and not total1y immersed into the steelband fraternity, Thomas was then compelled to document the steelband movement through the eyes of this 'country' band.
"There are forces at work trying to wrest ownership of the steelpan from Trinbagonian Africans" warned Howard University Professor Ian Smart "Panriga' is therefore an important line of defense against the assaults on
Trinidad and Tobago's cultural sovereignty."
"Tacarigua was indeed one of the districts in which Africans from the Yuroba tribe (called Yarouba in Trinidad and Tobago) were able to maintain and practice their traditional religion. Thomas states 'The Orisha drummers and other Orisha devotees viewed the pan as the nearest alternative to their original skin covered drums, an alternative that has been sought ever since the banning of the drums. In addition, the triad formation employed by the Orisha drummers was adopted in the formation of the Tamboo Bamboo bands. The Orisha drum ensembles consisted of three drums with colorful names. The Bembeh was the biggest or mother drum,
the mid-sized drum was call the Congo an the smallest of the three, the Umbillay. Similarly, the Tamboo Bamboo bands substituted the Bembeh with the boom, the Congo became the cutter and the Umbillay, the fuller of foulé.
It has been reported that the steel band emerged as a
result of the various accidents that occurred in certain Tamboo Bamboo bands in Port of Spain, when different bamboo joints were shattered while being played and had to be substituted by steel drums and other pieces of metal. "This is not altogether correct writes Thomas. 'The Tamboo Bamboo bands, the immediate forerunner to the steelband, were introduced as
a consequence of the banning of the Orisha drums in 1833 and were phased out after the 1939-40 period."
Thomas continues "Presently, when anyone dares to make the connection between the Orisha religion and the birth and development of the steelband movement, that person scoffed at and dubbed an 'Obeah Man'."
Mr. Thomas, 66, who hails from Cane Farm, Tacarigua, joined the village steelband "Boom Town" to play the kittle
drum. In 1962 he was elected to serve on the executive committee of the National Association of Trinidad & Tobago Steelbandsmen (NATTS) under the presidency of Mr. George Goddard.
One of the true real giants of the steelband movement, Thomas has been closely involved in its development at all levels - as a pan tuner, arranger, band leader and eventually becoming the Secretary / Treasurer of NATTS, the forerunner to Pan Trinbago. Mr. Thomas' band Merrystars Metronomes, participated in the very first panorama competition in 1963 and greeted the Tenth District Naval Steelband of the United States that same year.
This country band trailblazed its way into prominence recording several firsts. Mr. Thomas writes, "Mrs. Rufina Thomas-Thompson was arguably the first woman to play a tune on the pan when, in 1946, she played "Symphony of Love" on the ping pong at a concert held at the Rex Cinema in Arouca. One of the local sayings in Trinidad and Tobago "Goat doh make sheep" could be aptly applied to Ruffina. Her eldest son Leroy Thomas, is now regarded as one of the astute pan tuners and steel pan makers in Trinidad. In addition to being the leader of his own band 'Curepe Moods', Leroy's son Sean Thomas is now one of the youngest successful music arrangers in the region.
Thomas also recounts his band was the first to introduce pan stands to the stage in 1956. The strange contraption he credits to Mr. Lindsay Nurse, a bajan migrant from Couva.
One other such pioneer was Mr. Venice 'Sneggs' Villaruel. Sneggs was the maestro on
the tenor pan as well as many of the other instruments. One of the founding members
of the Merrystars Metronomes and at the
same time regarded as one of the best pan
players in Trinidad, Sneggs went abroad and performed his artistry on the pan all over
Europe, Africa, Asia, Israel, and Egypt between 1957 and 1991.
In attendance at the launch at the Emancipation Village was Professor Smart of Original World Press, publisher of the book, chairperson and poet Eintou Pearl Springer, and musicologist Merle Albino DeCoteau, who was the featured speaker. The most moving event however, was the main launch and celebration held at the Tacarigua EC school. There were many people in
attendance, several of whom figured prominently in the book.
As we enter the 21st Century, "Panriga", edited by Dr. Ian Smart, opens to all a marvelously woven account of this unique instrument and its development. With pan factories now in Sweden, Germany, Japan, United States, Trinidad and other parts of the world, pioneers as Mr. Thomas, Ellie Mannette, and others are challenged to maintain and orchestrate their efforts relative to pan with a determination and drive consistent with those men and women who were deprived of their beloved African drums.
The author states "I do acknowledge the fact that this gift to the world" the pan, originated in the backyards of Port of Spain, but he also stresses the importance of rural districts like Tacarigua which made significant contributions to this art form.
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