A band that could have been the greatest ever
The truth about Highlanders' demise
By Terry Joseph
February 25, 2001
In an article headlined Best of the Best, which appeared in the Sunday Express of February 18, writer Dalton Narine's choice of terms when describing the Highlanders Steel Orchestra runs the risk of trivialising the reason why the band folded.
On the supply side, Mr Narine trotted out the band's innovations, paid homage to founder Bertie Marshall and virtuoso Les Slater, remarked upon Highlanders' legendary versatility and generally heaped praises on the orchestra.
But Mr Narine also said a most curious thing: "Now, here's a band that could have been the greatest ever, had it not been blinded by its own brilliance (read tuner Bertie Marshall's brilliance). Marshall eventually joined that other Laventille band, Despers, thereby lending currency to its mystique and perceived perpetual greatness," he mused.
Exactly what Mr Narine meant by those two sentences may be an interesting challenge for language professors, but what he left out between them is crucial to students of pan history.
Certainly, for those who lived with Highlanders and since the 1960s saw in the band the very future of pan, he desperately needed to be more precise.
The uninitiated may even have been led to believe that the orchestra's demise resulted from an overdose of flash, or some such frivolous cause. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed, Highlanders was perhaps the only group fatality of steelband violence of the 1960s. What is worse is that the savages who routinely stoned us off the streets as part of their Carnival amusements were really pelting at progress and with an astonishing absence of remorse.
Don't take my word for it, Mr Narine. Ask Express Editor-at-Large Keith Smith (who nicknamed Highlanders "The Bobolee Band" after repeated brutal assaults on its musicians and patronage). Ask Guardian Editor-in-Chief Lennox Grant, or his Entertainment Editor Peter Ray Blood. We all lived in Success Village, the home of Highlanders and we all felt the pain.
The annual Philistine ritual of stoning and chasing the band's players and attempts to trash the cutting-edge research and development projects of the band's leader (and pan-pioneer) Bertie Marshall should not be taken lightly.
Every year there would be trouble.
In 1968, on Carnival Tuesday afternoon, the band was again set upon.
Marshall continued his experiments at home, producing the Bertphone in 1971. But the master tuner and inventor was daunted by the fighting and after the Carnival of 1972 disbanded Highlanders; the decision helped by a request from Rudolph Charles that he come to work with Desperadoes instead.
That, Mr Narine, coupled with migration of some of its key players, is why Highlanders is no more.