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Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan

Pan legends mobbed at New York gala

By Terry Joseph
April 25, 2001

Autograph seekers and other persons offering congratulations kept nine Pan Legends crowded and busy at a gala mounted in their honour by the Brooklyn-based TT Folk Art Institute on April 22. The function climaxed a weekend-long salute to 12 men, whose contributions to the development of pan earned them awards from the Institute, commendations from the City of New York and certificates of Special Congressional Recognition.

Of the 12 legends selected, three (Curtis Pierre, Bertie Marshall and Herman "Rock" Johnson) could not make it to the celebrations. Johnson died on Tuesday.

Those who attended: Emmanuel "Cobo Jack" Riley, Earl Rodney, Ray Holman, Clive Bradley, Wallace Austin, Jit Samaroo, Cliff Alexis, Neville Jules and Junior Pouchet; were treated royally.

On April 20, TT Consul-General to New York, Terrence Walker and Permanent Representative to the UN, George Mc Kenzie, threw an extended cocktail party at the TT Consulate in Manhattan. For most of the next afternoon, the legends sat at the head table of a public symposium at the Medgar Evers College. Later that night, they were guests of honour at a party at Gerard Carter's residence in Queens.

On Sunday evening, some 500 guests each paid US$50 to cram the ballroom of New York's Crystal Manor for the gala, forcing organisers to hurriedly provide additional places and forego a planned dancing component, after even that space had been utilised by extra dinner tables.

Chairman of the Institute's Board of Governors, Les Slater said demand for tickets rose sharply as the date of the awards approached and it was difficult to turn down known pan fans, some of whom were among the last to make requests for inclusion.

In addition, more pan enthusiasts suddenly became available, after the New York chapter of Starlift Steel Orchestra cancelled a competing function in deference to the gala.

Established in 1991, the Institute is widely recognised as a guardian of indigenous arts and a research-oriented think tank. Slater who, before migrating to the US, was known here as a virtuoso with the legendary Forsyth Hylanders of Laventille, went on to establish himself in the US through his touring pan ensemble. He has presided over the Institute from inception.

Each year since, cultural icons from Trinidad and Tobago are accorded citations of merit and on occasion, special performance tributes have been mounted to salute outstanding artistes or art forms. In 1992, there was A Pan Salute to Kitchener and in the year following, a tribute to the pioneering Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (Taspo).

The Institute has also produced talk shows and joint projects with the Brooklyn College, World Music Institute, Ethnic Folk Arts Center and Medgar Evers College; to highlight Trinidad and Tobago's musical traditions. The list of tributes over the past decade includes: recording pioneer Emory Cook, broadcaster Bob Gittens, Daphne Weekes, Beryl Mc Burnie, Dr JD Elder, Joey Lewis, Julia Edwards, Stephen Lee Heung, Winsford "Joker" Devine and reigning national road march monarch, Shadow.

But on the Sunday night, the rush for tickets was to celebrate Pan Legends exclusively. Those who did get in were treated to exemplary hospitality. They also heard Vincent "Tabu" Taylor, a former player with Forsyth Hilanders, perform three pieces, including "Sir Marshall", a tribute to his ex-bandleader Bertie Marshall.

Slater then received awards on behalf of the Institute from Congressman Ed Towns and Allan Hevesy, Comptroller of the City of New York. A special award from the Institute was given to former police officer Ranny Babb (in recognition of a seminar he mounted last November, with the theme: "Badjohnism, Steelband and the Law").

Other special awards went to Offsetters Cultural Club for community work, New York radio personality Trevor Wilkins for his support of Trini culture and a posthumous award to long-serving Institute Board Member Mervyn Marcano. The gathering then heard from Sunsteel, led by Trinidadian Ron Reid and which that night included Errol Wise and Frankie Mc Intosh.

The Legends received tremendous ovations from the crowd as each received his bundle of awards. Groups of pan enthusiasts descended upon the chief celebrants seeking autographs on relevant pages of their programmes. At one time, Bradley stood, pen in hand, at the head of a line that stretched halfway across the ballroom, before some decided that order would take too long.

Like Bradley, other honourees were approached wherever they anchored, whether in their seats, at the bar or standing in the queue for dinner.

Autograph seekers coursed the room, proffering programmes for signatures, at times hiding the principals by sheer numbers. By the evening's end, which came shortly before midnight, all concerns about seating accommodation and other such issues had dissipated, with the more vocal patrons heaping unbridled praises on the Institute for having organised the tribute to our Pan Legends.