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"Let Every Valley Be Exalted"
Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan

Playing one for Bertie

By Terry Joseph
January 18, 2003

If you never heard the name Bertie Marshall, there is a good chance your extra-terrestrial relatives failed to take a proper head-count at departure time.

After all, as any pannist will happily relate, Bertie Marshall is singularly responsible for the sound of today's frontline steelband instruments, having discovered and implemented the use of harmonics in tuning technique and brightening overall sound in the process.

Rendered even more fragile under the heat of Carnival day sun, the notes were cooled by pouring water on them, before a tablecloth (the property of the Ollivieri family) was pressed into service as the first ever canopy.

My story is, however, much closer to home. Born in Success Village, Laventille, a mere three blocks from the Marshalls' residence, it was Bertie my mother gave the responsibility (for Geraldine was quite capable of such things) of walking me to Port of Spain on my first day at Eastern Boys' Government School.

As I grew, Bertie was highly ranked among the village's revered saga-boys, a grouping that included "Spots" Fitzgerald, "Teddy" Belgrave, "Pops" Harper, Franklyn Ollivieri and (hold on to your chair) Keith Smith, men replete in tailored shirts; haute couture I would never enjoy until well after my first paycheque.

Bertie meanwhile founded a commercially successful steelband called Armed Forces, a name easily deduced from the frequency with which his group was contracted by American military stationed at the Chaguaramas naval base.

From our upstairs back-bedroom window, the band could be clearly heard during rehearsals.

At age 15 (and still at the window), I discerned a major change in the music. For openers, it was audibly sweeter even from so far west of its source. More importantly, the band had obviously assumed a new style.

I didn't know details then but Hilanders stalwart Leslie Slater would later explain that Kim Loy Wong had returned to Trinidad in 1962 and convinced Bertie to revive a band he once led. "There was a policy conflict," Slater explained, "so in that year, the band joined titles to become Armed Forces Hilanders."

That was 1962. By the following year, "Armed Forces" was dropped from the banner. And with inputs from Slater and others, Hilanders developed trademark musical arrangements that included Latin percussion against a staccato melodic line that largely replaced rolling and refashioned the "walking-bassline" common to bands of the day.

Slater also explained Bertie's concept of "satellite bands", groups founded in other communities or conscripted therefrom, who would test new arrangements even before they were heard in Success Village.

Current Permanent Secretary in the Culture Ministry, Lester Efebo Wilkinson, remembers Slater's band, Tunapuna-based Wolverines, as one such group. Bertie had others, at least one in the unlikely Couva community.

The new music was an instant hit among villagers and the more musical, but followers of bands yet to achieve this plateau became jealous and literally stoned Hilanders out of existence.

In the intervening years, Hilanders grew into a formidable musical force, indeed a foe, presenting strong challenges to the likes of Invaders and Trinidad All Stars, at the annual Jouvert Bomb competition.

But chased by the pan philistines, Hilanders was forced to accept defeat, although Bertie continued his experiments with pan tone and amplification, developing The Bertphone.

To date, it is the only publicly performed steelband instrument that could produce dampened or sustained notes by use of foot pedals. The amplifier allowed Hilanders to compete at Panorama with just one tenor pan.

By the turn of the 1970s, Bertie (and Anthony Williams) were deeply involved in experiments conducted at university level in the quest to mass-produce steelpan instruments. That project came to grief, a casualty of politics of the period.

Greater tragedy was to hit Bertie when warring brothers in the house next door climaxed their fight by setting the premises ablaze, the flames quickly spreading to Marshall's residence, turning years of research into ash and smoke.

On the advice of pan legend Rudolph Charles, Bertie had already become in-house tuner to Witco Desperadoes, a position he still holds.

His parallel abilities in pan tuning, arranging and performance and the musical legacy of Highlanders had all but slipped from our consciousness, rekindled only by infrequent airplay of the band's signature, Handel's "Let Every Valley Be Exalted".

But as has recently come to light (and largely from local-music collectors in North America), Hilanders recorded more than 20 songs, including an album with the Trinity Cathedral Choir.

In case you wondered, it is against this backdrop that I proposed to the National Carnival Commission (NCC) a Jouvert tribute to Bertie Marshall and Highlanders. It is to their joint credit that the project has been warmly embraced by the custodians of Carnival, endorsed by Pan Trinbago and relentlessly acted upon by diehard fans both at home and in North America.

Earlier this week, the Angostura Group of Companies agreed to support a Hilanders Reunion, which will be held on Carnival Sunday. The following morning, bands participating in a special contest will play Hilanders' music exclusively.

Details of both events will be the subject of relevant publicity material but suffice it to say: It is the least I could do for the man who introduced me to school, generated village pride, laboured at pan research and development and gave us sweet music in the bargain.

Although still necessary and socially proper, just saying "thank you" would have been severely inadequate.