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"Let Every Valley Be Exalted"
Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan

Pan pioneer Betancourt honoured by Queen

By Terry Joseph
December 31, 2001

Sterling Betancourt
Sterling Betancourt
One of Trinidad's most successful pan pioneers, Sterling Betancourt, has been made a Member of the British Empire (MBE).

Announcement of the award is included in Queen Elizabeth's New Year's honours list.

Pan Trinbago president Patrick Arnold yesterday described Betancourt's honour as significant for both the man and the instrument. "There is no getting away from the contribution Sterling has made," Arnold said.

"Perhaps because his ambitions were exercised in a more fertile artistic environment, what he has been able to achieve in a number of foreign countries we still find difficult to accomplish with local authorities. But as a direct result of his input, the spread of pan in schools across England, Scotland and Europe particularly, made exponential leaps.

"Last year's inaugural World Steelband Music Festival recognised Sterling's efforts as one of the components that laid the groundwork for a meeting of bands of quality from the European region. We at Pan Trinbago are proud of the recognition of the instrument and one of its most treasured practitioners by the British Monarchy. We offer Sterling our heartiest congratulations," Arnold said.

Fellow veteran pannist Curtis Pierre said: "This is wonderful. There are a whole lot of pannists who probably deserve such honours, but Her Majesty couldn't have selected a nicer representative for the instrument.

"Last year when he was here he visited my pan school, I introduced him as the legend that he is and he spoke to the young children learning to play about the instrument and his travels. He posed for pictures with them and gave autographs. He remained a humble, warm and wonderful human being. I wish to extend my most sincere congratulations to Sterling," Pierre said.

Betancourt, 77, who grew up in Laventille, is widely agreed as a prime mover in the spread of pan culture throughout the UK and Europe. He helped pioneer pan projects in English schools.

He began his career in Port of Spain in the 1930s as a tamboo-bamboo player and subsequently moved up to the rudimentary three-note tenor, forerunner of the more melodious instruments developed at the turn of the forties. During that decade he played with Hell's Kitchen, Hugh Borde's, Tripoli and became leader and tuner of Crossfire, another steelband from the St James area.

In 1951, he was selected as a member of the Trinidad All Stars Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) for a tour to England as part of this country's contingent at the Festival of Britain. The band also included Ellie Mannette, Tony Williams and Winston "Spree" Simon among other famous names.

At the end of the TASPO tour, Betancourt stayed on in England and together with pianist Russell Henderson and doo-doop player Ralph Cherrie (later replaced by Mervyn Constantine) formed a trio that featured the tenor pan, the first of its kind in Europe. Betancourt meanwhile toiled at getting the British school system to recognise the value of pan, an effort that yielded fruit when the Elmwood Junior band made it to the finals of the National Music Festival at Royal Albert Hall.

He has been a professional pannist and arranger all his life, touring, teaching and playing music and manufacturing instruments.