In 1945, Antigua and Barbuda experienced a new cultural phenomenon, the steelpan, which later heralded the steelband movement, which was piloted by individuals who lived in some of the most depressed areas on the island.
In those days, the refineries in Curacao offered the best opportunities for people from Antigua and the other islands in terms of employment, so there was a steady movement to and from both islands by boat which was the main source of transportation at the time. However, on a return trip to Antigua on "Lady Boat," which was a passenger and cargo vessel, a stop in Trinidad to refuel was where a few Antiguans first heard the sweet sounds of the steelpan. They were fascinated by both the instrument and its sound and vowed to take this cultural innovation back to Antigua and Barbuda.
On returning home and reporting the good news of what was happening in Trinidad musically, a few men in the Point area who had earlier developed the "iron band" from old pieces of iron, scrap metals, hub caps, old tin pans and sticks which were discarded at the dump site, which is now home to the Port, decided to begin work on building a steelpan. Made from an empty steel oil drum, cut off in varying lengths to emit a range of tones, the pan is put through a process of hammering and heating, thus achieving a chromatic sound. Busta Carty from the Point area, who was very impressed with the steelpan and the sound it created was credited with bringing the first pan into Antigua from Trinidad. The pans built in Trinidad were more advanced than the ones built in Antigua, and as the new invention in music travelled across the island, the race was on to make something similar to the ones built in Trinidad. At that time, no rubber accompanied the sticks that the players used to beat the pans with in Antigua, even though later on, a ball of rubber bands at one end of the stick was introduced to beat the notes.
When the first steelband, Hell’s Gate, from the Point area made its way uptown one Saturday morning playing "My basket, my basket, my green and yellow basket," after weeks upon weeks of rehearsals under the tutelage of arranger, Alexander "Alec" Roberts, the response was so overwhelming, it brought people into St. John’s from all around the island to see and hear the new phenomenon in music. At the time, the instrument was hung with a strap around the neck of each bandsman thus creating a certain type of mobility. This allowed the steelband to travel around the town with ease. That was the official birth of pan and its music into the annals of the Antiguan/Barbudan cultural experience.
It was not too long that a second steelband, "Red Army" was formed by Charles McCarty in the Grays Farm area. The band was sensational, and to date, has produced one of the best pan players ever, a gentleman by the name of Walton Herbert. Later the same year, "Brute Force," hailing from the South Street (Pig Village) area, was formed by Earl Jones. The band received wide recognition at the time and over the years was able to boast of the skills and capabilities of Llewellyn Howell, known to many as "Welly" and the extraordinary pan enthusiast, Arthur "Bum" Jardine. These guys took Brute Force band to heights unimaginable in the steelband world.
All three bands, Hell’s Gate, Red Army and Brute Force, coming from some of the poorest communities on the island, fostered a sense of competitiveness and an aggressive rivalry that only a competition could quell. The rivalry among them was so pronounced that a steelband competition was planned to establish which was the best steelband in Antigua and Barbuda. Just before the contest, another steelband was formed on the sister isle, Barbuda, which carried the name of "Golden Gate."
At the first Steelband competition in 1949, which was held at the "Girls School," individuals placed bets on their favourite band, and the competition fever became very explosive. Every band played the song, "Peanut Vendor" which was the test piece selected for the competition. Hell’s Gate with more spirited and skilled players emerged the winner, with Red Army and Brute Force placing second and third respectively.
Right after the competition, the people in the Barnes Hill/New Winthropes community decided that they too should have a steelband and before year’s end, "North Star" steelband was formed. At the time, men like Edric Robinson and Samuel Simon (father of Dr. Lester Simon) were the movers and shakers in the community steelband movement. Soon after, the village of Pigotts boastfully followed when it introduced the "Rising Sun" steelband. Rising Sun became very popular and had a cast of young and talented men, and in 1952, with Joshau James as captain, they were adjudged Steelband Champions with their rendition of "C’est Si Bon."
Other steelbands formed during that period were Blue Skies, Manpower, Sun Valley, Golden West, Lone Eagle, Cardica, Duke of Iron, Wayward Force, Star Dust, Big Shell and Nightingale.
During the period 1948 to 1959, Brute Force as an established steelband, played at the Anchorage Hotel and the Antigua Pelican Club. They made trips to Dominica, Puerto Rico, Barbuda, Jamaica and Barbados, and it was touted about that Antigua steelbands had surpassed those in Trinidad and Tobago. Panmen who were masters of the art at the time were continually experimenting with the pan, and names like Eustace "Manning" Henry, Arthur "Bum" Jardine, Llewellyn "Welly" Howell, Dennis "Nunny" Byam, Dennis Lashley, Cowboy, Bruce "Fundo" Bloodman, Chisland, Seldon Edwards and others were hailed as masters of the art. They could play any pan from treble, double tenor, double second, bass, etc. Bruce "Fundo" Bloodman, who has since passed on, made such an impact in St. Thomas on Hell’s Gate first trip there, that many people who heard him play, decided to rename the double tenor pan – the "Fundo pan".
In 1952, the first ever all-girls steelband, "The Pastel Intruders" was formed. The group of young, exciting and energetic ladies, exhibiting skills on pan on par with their male counterparts, won the hearts of Antiguans/Barbudans and others when they played at their first official function in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The names of the band members were Carmen Jardine, the Carmichael girls, the Heath girls, Mrs. Murray, the Pigotts girls, Dulcie, Jean and Audrey. They were tutored by Arthur "Bum" Jardine and the late Vere Griffith. However, the band did not have a long history.
Hell’s Gate, the leading steelband at the time, would be invited to play at social functions held at the Government House, Clarence House, and other places on the island. They were assisted by one of Antigua’s qualified musicians, the late Bertha Higgins, who arranged many of the carols and classical tunes that they played. It was a pleasure to witness a group of young men, well attired in their frilled steel band shirt and a platted straw hat, with their instruments hanging from their necks, engaging those who loved and appreciated the art form to dance. It’s reported that many individuals in the privileged class at the time stayed away from those functions as pan and its players did not enjoy the level of acceptance that they now enjoy today.
to dance. It’s reported that many individuals in the privileged class at the time stayed away from those functions as pan and its players did not enjoy the level of acceptance that they now enjoy today. In 1948 Hell’s Gate was invited to play at the opening of the Mill Reef Club, and when the palm-fringed Antigua Beach Hotel opened its entertainment package one night with the Hell’s Gate steel band, natives and tourists alike were flabbergasted to see and hear a steelband playing in a hotel. In 1950, Hell’s Gate performed at the St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Parham, making it the first steelband to play in a church in Antigua and Barbuda. In 1963, another steelband, South Side Symphony, captained by Denley Samuel, had the honor of playing in the St. John’s Cathedral for a Christmas program. This was very controversial. The Choir master and organist at the time was Mr. Jarvis, who was adamant that the Cathedral was not the place for a steelband. It was Dean Baker who intervened and asked Mr. Jarvis to go and listen to the steel band. After listening to a few of their renditions during a practice session, which were mainly Christmas carols, Mr. Jarvis was so impressed, the way was cleared for South Side Symphony to play in the St. John’s Cathedral.
As pan progressed, it was a moment in history for all Antiguans and Barbudans in 1955, when Antigua was hailed as the first place in the Caribbean where a steelband r e c o r d i n g was done. The band was "Brute Force" and the name of the album was " B e a u t y and the Beast." Soon after, another recording was done. It was entitled, "Steelband Clash" featuring Hell’s Gate, Brute Force and North Stars steelbands.
Men like Leroy Silston, who was the Chairman of the Antigua Carnival Steelband Programme for many years, and who assisted a number of persons in the steelband movement, has been credited with "This Land" by Intrade Harmonites and "Disco Steel" by Halcyon, which are two of the more popular recordings done by Antigua steelbands.
In 1958, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago invited Hell’s Gate to perform in Trinidad. The steelband’s performance on tour was rated as superb, making the Trinidad panmen a little jealous. Even though the bands in Trinidad were much bigger, the rhythm section of Hell’s Gate was much sweeter and the players were more exciting to watch on stage. The next year, 1959, Brute Force was invited to Trinidad and they too enjoyed wide exposure when their music was played on radio stations across Trinidad. Radio Guardian used Brute Force’s recording "Under the double Eagle" as a ‘sign on’ and ‘sign off’ song.
In 1960, the first steelband from Trinidad, "Pan Am North Stars" performed in Antigua at the Antigua Recreation Ground. The event was not properly advertised and a disappointing small crowd showed up. The band played a variety of songs and it was quite evident that the crowd did not appreciate their version of calypso music. The rhythm was not what was expected.
Also in 1960, when the late Sir Winston Churchill visited Antigua aboard the Yacht "Christina" owned by the Greek tycoon Ari Onassis, Hell’s Gate steelband provided the entertainment on board the yacht that was docked at Nelson’s Dockyard.
As pan music gained prominence in Antigua and Barbuda, and throughout the Caribbean with the development of Carnival, the 1960’s saw the beginning of a number of steelbands, most being off-springs of existing, established bands. Among the new bands were Red Streak, West Side Harmonites, South Side Symphony, Buccaneer Cove Pirates, Jr. Hell’s Gate, Texaco Astronauts, St. Joseph’s Academy Steel Band, and two all-girls steelbands, the Cosmonauts (an off-spring of Texaco Astronauts), and the Melonites (an off-spring of Harmonites). The 1960’s also saw the emergence of many great pan players, some who have migrated, while others are still among us today. Some of the names that come to mind are Roy Gomes, Rawdon Edwards, Franklyn "Cockwheel" Byers, Willy Jeffrey, Stacey Edwards, Victor Michael, Phillip George-John and Trevor Mathurin. Roland Prince, a world class musician, arranged for Brute Force at the tender age of sixteen (16). Quite an accomplishment.
In 1964, Hell’s Gate won the Steelband Championship title. Dr. Foster Hill, one of Antigua and Barbuda’s best musicians, arranged the title piece and worked tirelessly with the band night after night for many weeks seeking perfection of the masterpiece. On competition night, many people wept openly when the band performed Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus". It was a come celebrate our golden jubilee moment of glory for not only Dr. Hill, but also for Eustace "Manning" Henry who had assumed the captaincy of Hell’s Gate from George "Nugget" Joseph, who had captained the band to the Championship titles in 1953, 58 and 59 with arranger and musician Sydney Prince, another musical master.
The same year, Hell’s Gate won a prize trip to New York’s World’s Fair, donated by British West Indian Airways (BWIA). In New York, they held large crowds spellbound, who could not believe the sounds that emanated from a set of oil steel drums, particularly at the Caribbean pavilion, as they masterfully executed their renditions which ranged from calypso and ska to classical music.
Between 1965 and 1967, two Trinidadian steelbands were invited to Antigua. "Shell Invaders" was the first in 1965, and has been credited as the band that introduced the cello pan to Antiguan and Barbudan panmen.
In 1967 "Esso Tripoli" steelband visited Antigua on two occasions. It was a period when the Antiguan panmen began to fully appreciate the sounds of the used oil drums and Brute Force was the first steelband to engage the services of a pan tuner from Trinidad. The band dissolved sometime in 1968-69.
The decade of the 1970’s opened with "Rising Sun" captained by Vincent Freeland, and with Dr. Charlie Roberts as arranger, the steelband walked away with the Steelband Championship title that year. The only other bands in the 70’s who were first time championship winners were Supa Stars (1973), Halcyon (1975), and Ebonites (1977). This period has been touted as the best era that pan has enjoyed thus far in Antigua and Barbuda.
Other bands formed during the 1970’s and 80’s were Supa Fly, South Stars, Cedar Sonics, Barclay’s All Stars, Angas Tri Stars and the all girls Symphonettes, Petro Steel and Metrophonics. Many individual pannists also came to the fore like Aubrey "Lacu" Samuel, Fitzroy "Champ" Martin, Victor "Babu" Samuel, Patrick "Stone" Johnson, Veron Henry, Simon Tulon, Curtis "CC" Cochrane (the four stick master), Kemoye "Congo" Thomas, (the three stick master), Charmaine DeSouza, Vincent Michael, Robin A. L. Margetson, Stephen Mason, Fitzroy "Blakie" Phillip, Stafford Joseph, Marlon Charles, Patrick Watkins, Daulton "Dally" Francis, Lingfield "Cujo" Martin, Professor, Kamoy, Gary, Kodjo, Woto, Geran, Wadada, Zulu, Shwarp, Stove and Snagga.
In 1981, a group of young, talented players known as the "Gemonites," formerly PM Serenaders, captained by Vere Henry, walked away with the Steelband Championship title that year. 1981, 1985, 1986 and 1987 were the only four years of the 1980’s that Steelband Competitions were held in Antigua. In 1985, Harmonites were the champions, in 1986 and 1987, Halcyon won both championships.
To date, steelbands have sprung up in quite a number of countries outside the Caribbean like China, Japan and Sweden, and the significance of the steelpan in the emergence of world music is testament to the fact that steelband music is now accepted universally.
Lately, the steelpan in Antigua and Barbuda with its original and unique sound is almost lost to the loud hi fi’s and jamb bands which dominate the music scene during the Carnival celebrations.