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UK steelband plays at Carnival in San Fernando

Published: 
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Reconnecting with Roots:

This past Carnival, history was made when 13 members of UK-based Nostalgia travelled to Trinidad in order to team up with 12 members of Southern All Stars to play on the road for Carnival in San Fernando.

The collaboration was a resounding success and both steelbands are still celebrating the cultural and musical exchange nearly one month afterward.

Every year individual pannists and university students from the United States, Canada, UK, or Japan travel to Trinidad to play steelpan in Panorama. But an entire community-based steelbands travelling to the birthplace of steelpan to perform in Carnival was an unprecedented feat. “I do believe that is a first!” remarked Pepe Francis, chairman of the British Association of Steelbands and director of Ebony Steel Band, who had several members in Renegades.

Nostalgia is a traditional ‘panround- neck’ side and the UK’soldest steel band. The band’s roots took shape under founding members Sterling Betancourt and Russell Henderson and named Nostalgia in 1964.

The band has since gone on to a long and storied history in the UK and is an integral member of London’s Notting Hill Carnival, winning several awards including Best Traditional Steelband on the Road.

The thread that connects Nostalgia and Southern All-Stars is legendary steelpan pioneer Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed, leader and arranger of the legendary Guinness Cavaliers, and his cousin, Dr Haroun Shah, noted scientist and director of Nostalgia, who has resided in the UK since 1967. The collaboration between Nostalgia and Southern All-Stars began in earnest in 2013 when Bobby Mohammed protégé Ishmael “Luxy” Zackerali, arranger for Southern All-Stars, began travelling to London and arranging for Nostalgia in 2014.

In 2017, Zackerali arranged the Kitchener classic Pan-in A Minor earning Nostalgia another top prize. Frustrated that Mohammed was not able to hear them, Zackerali said to Shah, “What can we do to let Bobby hear this?” A plan was hatched to make the dream a reality and bring the Nostalgia to San Fernando to play for Mohammed in person. 

While on the road in San Fernando this year the Nostalgia and Southern All Stars combination played arrangements of Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Waters in memory of the victims of London’s Grenfell Towers disaster which occurred very near Nostalgia’s panyard, and the calypso ‘67 in homage to Guinness Cavaliers’ Panorama victory in 1967.

The performance saw Nostalgia set down their neck straps and enjoy the luxury of using steelpan racks for the first time in an attempt to further blend with Southern All Stars. Mohammed was briefed on the project and their historic parade route was through Mon Repos, where Guinness Cavaliers started its J’Ouvert parade in the 1960s to Coffee Street.

A delighted Shah further noted, “When I left home in 1967, I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would ever have the honour to play pan again in Trinidad. To not only play there, but on the very street where I was born and grew up and, in front of my old home on m117 Coffee Street after 51 years, was the greatest privilege I have had in life.”

For Shah, the homecoming was a family affair as he was able to share the moment with his daughter Laila Shah, Nostalgia’s lead tenor pannist.

Nostalgia member Christine Davis thought experience was lifechanging.

“To go to the ‘Land of Steelband’ and play pan was sheer bliss. I was overwhelmed with the reception we received on Carnival Tuesday.”

Marvin Barbe, too, was overwhelmed by the experience. “I have toured widely with Nostalgia in Europe, Canada and China during the last 20 years but never foresaw I would be so lucky to play pan on the streets in Trinidad. I found it highly emotional and at times found it hard to hold back the tears.”

For the past several decades Nostalgia has worked hard to preserve its tradition as a ‘panround- neck’ band. They have often selected to play at exclusive events in the UK, such as the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. However, to a member, the Nostalgia considers playing pan on the streets of Trinidad this past Carnival as an even greater honour.

Hopefully, this collaboration will serve as a harbinger for many future partnerships between UK and Trinidadian steelbands.

• Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota. Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas.

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