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"Let Every Valley Be Exalted"
Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan

Bye Bye, Blackbird

By Kim Johnson
November 21, 1999

"He was the only complete steelband man - the Garfield Sobers of the steelband world," said Rudy Piggott about his close friend Vernon Juanarius Mannette, better known as "Birdie", who died aged 70 on Saturday before last and was cremated on Wednesday.

The band to which Birdie Mannette dedicated his life, Invaders, performed "Amazing Grace" in the chapel that was crowded with black-jacketed, grey-haired pan pioneers who came from far and wide to pay their last respects.

After the service at St Mary's church, Birdie's mourners chipped along Ranjit Kumar Street behind Starlift and a small pan round the neck side, all the way to the crematorium.

Born September 19, 1929, Birdie was the youngest of the three Mannette brothers. In 1940, along with his older brother Ossie, Francis "Peacock" Wickham, Kelvin Dove and a few other teenagers in Woodbrook, Birdie founded the Oval Boys steelband.

By the end of the Second World War, when the band became known as the Invaders, Birdie had already been eclipsed as a tuner by his eldest brother Ellie, who joined after Birdie but went on from fame to fame, first locally and eventually in the US where he had received the prestigious 1999 Endowment for the Arts award.

Birdie's different career was not due to any lack of talent on his part. Rather, the breadth of his achievement combined with an extreme reticence to make of Birdie a background figure even when everyone else relied on him.

"Birdie was the only panman who did everything concerning steelband," argued Piggott, listing Birdie's physical combativity, his tuning, playing and composing for pan, and even Birdie's mas-making as one of his steelband-related achievements, for it was Birdie who designed and - for he was a good wirebender too - made the costume for the main character, Lenny "Bad Good" Russell.

"Ellie was a better tuner, and Neville Jules a better leader, but neither of them made mas. When George Bailey brought out a section of the Invaders mas band, it was Birdie's section that gave him competition. Invaders had the best Aztecs and it was Bailey and Birdie, until Bailey left in 1955."

The first year that George Bailey brought out his own mas band, 1956, he beat Invaders Downtown and in Belmont, but Birdie's mas won in the more important Savannah competition.

"Next - composition," continued Piggott. "Invaders started writing our own compositions in the early 50s. Kelvin Dove - they used to call him "Panamericano", fus he coulda beat pan - write a tune, "Syncopation'. Birdie made "Birdie Mambo" that was a hit even abroad."

It was the time when steelbands played a lot of Latin American music, Perez Prado and Edmundo Ross were big here, but perhaps Birdie was also drawing on his mother's Venezuelan roots. The Mannettes were originally from San Souci where Ellie and Ossie were born, and their father often returned there at Christmas to play parang.

Initially Birdie played bass - the large biscuit drum which was practically bigger than he was. That caused him once to be the only one to be held when the band was caught illegally parading the streets outside of Carnival. Later he moved on to become one of Invaders many talented tenor players. Again, just as his tuning greatest tenor players of the era, Emmanuel "Cobo Jack" Riley and Kelvin Dove.

But in both tuning and playing Birdie was top class, and indeed he went on to tune for dozens of steelbands through out the country, including two bands with which Invaders had fought long bitter wars: Casablanca and Renegades. The band that profited most from Birdie's help, however, was Desperadoes, which Birdie, Ellie and Cobo Jack lifted from obscurity to greatness through the pans they tuned.

"Me and George Yeates from Desperadoes was friendly so he ask me to assist the band little bit. I used to pick up some of Ellie pans and give them," Birdie once told me.

"You used to thief your brother's pans and give them?" I asked. He replied, "Yes."

Yet his generosity was an aspect of an honest straightforward character. "At the end of March, 1954, after receiving my first pay packet I went by Birdie and forgot it there. He immediately ran home by my grandmother with it,' recalled Piggott. "Birdie couldn't do nothing that involved trickery, he wasn't even good at cards."

When Invaders first came in town in 1946, Tokyo beat them up, but within a few years they toughened up to become one of the most violent bands in the country.

During the 1950 Carnival Invaders had 17 members with cases for fighting. They had a bitter five-year feud with Casablanca, which overlapped with their fights with Tokyo and Renegades, but Invaders tackled all simultaneously.

In those years of warfare, Invaders stood up for the west Port of Spain, leading the St James bands into enemy territory downtown, men such as Francis "Peacock" Wickham, Stanley "Ponehead" Hunte, Cecil "Coy" Forde, Leonard "Lenny Bad Good" Russell, the Blackhead brothers and the Mannette brothers.

"Having the name Mannette and two older, bigger brothers, Birdie had to be able to protect himself," explained Piggott. So although Birdie was the smallest of them, he made himself one of the most feared, putting to other uses the bone-handled razor with which he trimmed the Invaders. "He never had to move in any gang."

Straightforward and willing to tackle anyone, in the 1960s Birdie was the doorman at Lenny Bad Good's St James club, The Oxford.

"However, like Sobers he had his weak point too," said Piggott, explaining that when Ellie left Trinidad in 1967 and captaincy of the band fell to Birdie, the fighting years were past, and Birdie's tough style of leadership became increasingly outmoded. In 1989 he was awarded a Hummingbird Silver medal for his contribution to culture, and four years later the band had its first elections and he was voted out of captaincy.