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The spilling of blood

Phase II vs Trinidad All Stars - A Saga for The Ages
Published: 
Monday, February 23, 2015
Members of Massy Trinidad All Stars perform on their way to winning the National Panorama title at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain last Saturday. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

Well, what d'you know. Right there, in book, chapter and verse, it was Abel's blood that sprinkled on Cain's conscience and made his brother vagrant and vagabondish.

True, there is a bitter irony of circumstance that the arrangers of the two best steelbands in Panorama have been longtime friends. Yet it is the blood of Phase II Pan Groove that made Trinidad All Stars blood boil, erupting an out-of-character behavior In the large band finals at the Queen's Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain. Shucks, the Stars' old Hell Yard instincts kicked in with vengeance the way the tussle came off back in 1986 when the Phase all but had their first victory locked in with Pan Rising as the drama in the Rama pushed to a head. It started off crazy as hell. 

"Blade, blade, I warning everybody, and both sides sharp," the late Elibank Crichlow, renowned Phase II lead player, shouted above the midnight din to a coterie of pan music buffs near the insane asylum in St Ann's.

If, as warned, Pan Rising would be the blade, double-edged for richer (or bloodier) spoils as it were, then amid the mystery of Panorama Phase II Pan Groove's leader Len "Boogsie" Sharpe would metaphorically sweat blood - from a self-inflicted wound. 

Fast-forward to the 2015 Panorama and all you see or hear on the Drag and in the stands, on Facebook, in nooks and crannies everywhere, is the notion that Trinidad All Stars are in the business of chromaticisms. Their music is encumbered by too many, more runs than an ol' whore's stockings (Let's clear the air here; those fancy lines by the tenor panists are controlled extemporisations). 

All such talk, though, is no botheration for Cool Hand Smooth, aka Leon Edwards, the band's arranger with a new role as ambush strategist. Smooth would choose senior band member and composer Clive Telemaque's composition, Unquestionable, and manager Beresford Hunte would see it like a layman—a song with such a high degree of difficulty as to scare even hardcore supporters, though nary a player. Indeed, Telemaque's first offering was rejected out of hand, and he must have recalled 1986 when pan talk focused on the Phase's rising pan, as well as All Stars, who Town had long dubbed "the final night band." 

Now, here's Telemaque in the panyard delivering Unquestionable to the maestro. The song reaching the arranger as motifs, idioms and counterpoint language. 

Smooth right away plays it on the pans and exults over its possibilities. "This is it," he tells Telemaque. 

Fine, but will he dust off the template? Supposedly serious steelband people may want to know. About those chromaticisms they run their mouth about, do the critics have a point, you ask him. 

"This year's song was easier to arrange," Smooth said on the eve of the finals. "It would've been more difficult if the idioms were scarce. Carnival is participation and our music is very syncopated. Makes you want to dance. Look at it this way, Trinidad is syncopated. It's why the foreigners have a hard time chipping. Follow the middle pans, is your answer. And the basses. Hear the conversations." 

For a deeper understanding of the genesis of the pan wars between the Woodbrook band and its Duke Street counterpart, it is necessary to rewind to the '86 Panorama. Bowled over by Phase II and its passionate rendition of Pan Rising, you could tell that the audience had no doubt experienced the magnificence of connubial bliss. So much so that at a pivotal moment, in mid-stream of All Stars' performance of The Hammer, you got the sense that Smooth was under pure pressure. So profound as to inspire Catelli, the band's erstwhile sponsor and nickname, to pull out all the stops. 

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. 

Smooth translated American author Amelia Earhart's maxim as an array of dissonant chords that sang about Rudolph Charles' pain, The Hammer, wracked by diabetes and a bad leg, having passed away the previous year in the aftermath of the Carnival. 

A tribute to the band's championship skills, those chords mattered, for the arranger had climaxed the rendition with a nifty embellishment of the chorus line. The intention to mimic the destruction of mariners beguiled by the song of the Sirens in Greek mythology was a seductive vision, and benefited plenty. De crowd start to roar, channelling in Scrunter's Woman on the Bass. 

Meanwhile, Neville Jules, a steelband pioneer and former captain of Trinidad All Stars, who had flown in from his digs in Brooklyn, New York, dropped this bomb: "I don't know why all these people seem to forget that we are Catelli Trinidad All Stars. They don't know about this man, Smooth, who relishes giving rival bands a heart attack at this time of the year. What we have is not a hammer, but a sledge hammer. Ah, they don't know." 

Said Edwards, uncharacteristically, after the predawn workout, a TV camera in his face: "It was sick, those semitone and whole tone trills. You can't just trust us." 

Trust the judges to award them victory over the Phase by a single point. 

"Where did we lose the point? How could we fail by a single point?" Boogsie squawked. His eye looked like bird eggs floating on the asphalt lake in La Brea. Heartbroken by the decision, Boogsie appears to distance himself from the dissonance. 

Leave it to Clyde Lambert, the late TV analyst and former Panorama judge, to weigh in. "You can make a case for either band, but the bottom line was the virtuoso performance of All Stars." 

Thirty years later, Lambert's spirit hauntingly returns, and "virtuoso" is emblazoned in lights across the Savannah stage that could blind even the sun. 

A sense of déjà vu floats like the scent of abattoir blood. And Phase II's coda from 2014 brings back the memory of him alluding to the classical flourish that captured the heart of the judges. Smooth has come prepared, unleashing not one, not two, but three mini codas that crescendo like encores. It was a dirty little device from a nice fella like Smooth. To do that to a brother? Raising cain like that? 

This time, the separation balloons to a hefty six points. While Panorama Dragsters always want to call the shots, they don't rate. It remains to the judges to call the tune. 

Yet, in the back and forth of the hat-trick wars, there really are no winners or losers. Just fierce competitors who always make for a great Panorama. 

Meanwhile, Renegades, Exodus and Silver Stars never saw the bolo to the midsection as they fell over each other in a heap, tying for third in the Saturday Night Massacre. While both Renegades, it's surgeon's precision on Jam Dem Hard by rising star Duvonne Stewart evoking mentor Jit Samaroo's take-no-prisoners objective, and Exodus assiduously seeking to jinx the Phase II-All Stars monopoly, leave it to Silver Stars' arranger Liam Teague, head of Steelpan Studies and Associate Professor of Music at Northern Illinois University, to author the freshest music of the evening. 

Edwin's Legacy, a paean to the late Edwin Pouchet, breathed of modern classics by Aaron Copland and David del Tredeci, though Teague's post-modern spin may have escaped notice by the casual listener. Watch out for this Wynton Marsalis of Pan, as adept as he is on the concert stage as well as at home with his own kind. For this three-peat enigma in the idiom of Panorama can be worrisome to the truth about why the festival is stuck in beast mode. And it could take a musician of especial relevance, like Teague, to shift Panorama's course the way Clive Bradley did. 

As for the Phase, if anything, they got lucky. They could have been consigned to a deeper depression, what with a bloodbath that rocked the Savannah after Trinidad All Stars lit up the mood with an operatic firecracker that gave the Grand Standers a run for their money—many a patron of the arts streaming out into a city bedazzled by the uproar. In a way that, if you took a selfie as you strode away from the noise, you'd have been surprised how the Savannah, Napa, Memorial Park, all such, blurred as you beat it home. The night pestering you and you want to be alone. 

Some things you can't shake. And losing has forever been a universal disease of the ego. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the critical hosannas for Pan Rising, it wasn't until 1987 that Phase II began a string of seven victories that rocketed them to fourth place on the list of Panorama champions. 

Desperadoes sits atop the chart with ten wins, followed by Renegades and Trinidad All Stars tied with nine. Smooth Edwards orchestrated eight for the Stars, but Jit Samaroo remains the top arranger of all time.

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