My Pop Life #184 : Mystery Band – Lord Kitchener

Mystery Band   –   Lord Kitchener

    Pan beating all night in de dry river, We all hearing but can’t see this orchestra  

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  Another thing confusing the whole public : you can only hear the pan when rain fall

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We hearing pan – but can’t see the band 

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First things first.  Pan = Steel pan.  The national music of Trinidad.  Steel Band Music.   Various stick fighting and bamboo-based African customs were banned in Trinidad around 1880 because of the Camboulay riots, but the tradition went underground and re-emerged in the hillside region of Laventille above capital city Port Of Spain, being internationalized by the US forces after WW2.  From the late 40s (a time period referenced in this amazing song) to the present day, steel pan have been played all year round and particularly at Carnival, which usually falls in February.  They were historically made from discarded oil-drums with chromatic indentations beaten into the base, played with rubber-topped sticks.  Nowadays they are made to specification.  They are an astoundingly exciting instrument for many reasons.  First – steelpan is the most recent addition to the orchestra, and the only ‘new’ instrument added in the 20th century.  Second – anyone can learn to play it – and thus the huge steelpan orchestras of Trinidad who compete every year in Panorama for the crown.  These can contain up to two hundred people.   Third – any style of music can and is played – from jazz to filmscores to classical to latin.  Panorama is almost exclusively made up of calypso tunes, however, the steelpan is not confined to caribbean music.

I wrote a bit about Panorama and our visit to Trinidad in 1993 in My Pop Life #4, discussing Mighty Sparrow and the carnival.  We spent two weeks on Tobago having a holiday, then two weeks with Felix Cross’ parents Marie and Felix Sr.,  in the beautiful Santa Cruz valley just outside Port of Spain.  Went to Laventille one day to watch the steelpan rehearsals which take place every evening pre-carnival and which are open to spectators with beer, rum, roti and chicken being served to an enthusiastic crowd in the bleachers.   Felix we knew from theatre land in London – he was a composer and director and he had organised and rehearsed the choir for our wedding the year before, (composed of our friends and family) and then been forced to play the organ in the church because the organist didn’t turn up on the day!  Only about 150 yards away from the poor singers !  It all sounded beautiful of course…

Jouvert, the night before Mardi Gras in Port of Spain, is an all-night affair

Back in Trinidad, we went to the beach, we went on a boat trip near the Venezualan islands, did some natural history and hung around the capital.  Felix and I participated in Jouvert, described in My Pop Life #4.  Once carnival started we were joined by other London folk, namely Michael Buffong who was holidaying on his parent’s island of Grenada just up the road, and Rudolph Walker, one of Trinidad’s finest exports.   Michael was a member of The Possee, a sketch show gang of black actors who took London by storm in the late 1980s and included Gary MacDonald, Roger Griffith, Jenny’s cousin Victor Romero Evans, Robbie Gee, Eddie Nestor, Brian Bovell and Sylvester Williams.  We saw them regularly together at Stratford East, The Tricycle and then individually in other plays around town in the 1980s.

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Michael Buffong, Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre

Michael Buffong would later turn his energy to directing and Jenny has done two fantastic shows with him – A Raisin In The Sun (written by Lorraine Hansbury in 1959) at Manchester Royal Exchange (for which she won an award), and Moon On A Rainbow Shawl (written by Trinidadian actor and writer Errol John in 1957) at The National Theatre with friends Danny Sapani, Martina Laird, Jade Anouka and Bert Caesar.

Somebody cut something out from the newspaper that day

I first met Rudolph Walker in 1989 in Portsmouth.  We were both working on a four-part TV show called Rules Of Engagement, about a nuclear sub incident and Portsmouth being cut off from the mainland (it is actually an island).  Also present : Kenneth Cranham one of my main musical benefactors and inspirations whom I have written about before, and Karl Johnson, one of the funniest fuckers I have ever worked with, he was also in The Black & Blue Lamp with Ken and I (see My Pop Life #177).   Rudolph was playing a big noise accountant who could get things done.  I was a small-time spiv, and me & my mate Peter Attard represented the flotsam and jetsam of humanity caught up in the geo-political wargames.  The director was Rob Walker, (father of writer Che Walker – Ann Mitchell is Mum) and he is one of the few directors who cast black people without the script mentioning their skin colour.  Thus back in 1989 Cathy Tyson and Ken Cranham were the cops, Rudolph the crooked businessman.

Rudolph I knew of course from my youth, from the telly:  Love Thy Neighbour.  Yes, that Rudolph.  With his screen wife and fellow Trini Nina Baden-Semper they withstood the slings and arrows of white 1970s Britain over 7 series for ITV living next door to racist Eddie Booth (played by Jack Smethhurst) and his non-racist wife Joan (Kate Williams).   At the time I think it was a kind of ITV riposte to Til Death Us Do Part starring Warren Mitchell, the most famous racist character on British TV at that time.  But Love Thy Neighbour actually had black characters and represented their experience, so Rudolph became the first prime-time black actor on British TV and thus the most well-known black actor in Britain for years as a result of this show, which he is clearly very proud of.  Many people thought the series was offensive because the racist Eddie’s favourite phrase was ‘nig-nog’ and he would insist that white people were above black people.  It was totally on the nose and you know how the British like everything to be unspoken and under the carpet if possible.  So while Warren Mitchell and ‘Til Death got all the cultural credit, Love Thy Neighbour became an embarrassment and is no longer repeated in TV schedules.  I hope I’m not overstating things here.  Rudolph is extremely phlegmatic about all this and carries his fame, the controversy and his part in it lightly and with grace and charm.  If you push him though, he’ll defend it to the hilt.  It showed the English who they were, and it showed many of the Caribbean immigrants who they were.  Which was more radical?  Rudi and I used to breakfast together in our little seafront hotel, and one morning he met Jenny who’d only recently become (officially anyway) my main squeeze (see My Pop Life #114).

In fact it was while I was on this job in my old home town where both my parents were born and where I lived from the ages of 2 – 6,  that I proposed to Jenny.  It was a happy accident.   My first school was in Portsmouth and I can still recall the bomb debris site near our house where we played as kids – houses now piles of bricks and rubble and wood still broken down from the Second World War, when Portsmouth, home to the British Navy for centuries, was bombed to smithereens.  My brain thinks bomb-like.  Lord Nelson‘s flagship from The Battle of Trafalgar (1805), the galleon H.M.S. Victory is in dry dock there as a living museum of war and naval superiority.   Jenny and I had spent a fantastic weekend, taking the ferry to the Isle of Wight and walking along the beach, me heroically retrieving her scarf when we left it on a fence and walked on for a mile before realising it was gone, racing back to get it.  On the evening of her departure,  we both dragged our feet so reluctant were we to part.  When Jenny inevitably failed to board the train back to London, we had two hours to wait until the next one.  Portsmouth Station is very close to the naval yard so we walked over to H.M.S. Victory and sat on the giant anchor, chatting.   When I say giant anchor you have to imagine a piece of metal the size of a small bus.

After a while the dusk was falling and Jenny said “What shall we do now?”.    I looked over at the sea and back at her and felt so happy.  “Let’s get married”  I replied.   And so it was to be.  This moment was marked on my skin with a tattoo in 2016.  I always used to say “I’m never getting married” .  I was young, and wrong.  Scarred by the five divorces of my parents.  No respect for the institution of marriage.  But underneath, I just wanted to do it the one time, and this was going to be it.

Rudolph Walker

When I saw Rudi for breakfast the following morning, I told him that Jenny and I were engaged and he blessed us and was pleased.  Three years later he read  from the Song Of Solomon at our wedding in St Joseph’s Church in Highgate “the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God” said the priest Father Joseph, for it was he that was marrying us “but it mentions love many many times and God is love“.  Over the following weeks Rudi and I decided to work together and he told me his main film idea about an itinerant Trini preacher in London called D.K. and his mother.   I loved the idea and agreed to write it – by this point I’d written the Joint Stock play Sanctuary, won the Samuel Beckett Award for it and had all kinds of projects on the go.  This particular one I actually wrote as the first episode of a four-part special called Messiah, had DK and his ma taking over a disused church, performing miracles, providing sanctuary to Kurdish refugees (years ahead of my time, me ;-).. and filling the church with religious iconography from every single religion in the world.  DK’s sermons were very non-denominational.    And the miracles were fun.  Political magic realism. Took me the best part of a year I reckon, by which time Jenny had done Prime Suspect 2 with Helen Mirren and got to know the producer Paul Marcus really well, to the extent of singing at his birthday party.  I didn’t know that many TV producers so when Rudi and I were both happy with the script Paul was the first person I took Messiah to.  And then I waited.  At the meeting with Paul he said some weird stuff about the project having a lot of “ego”, and expressed dislike for the idea.  I was seriously disheartened and didn’t really take it to many other people, Malcolm Craddock for sure, maybe a couple of others but…suddenly, nothing happened.  It’s all about contacts this business-called-show and I had very few in those days.   About ten years later a show appeared on ITV called hmmm The 2nd Coming with miracles and all (just like Rudi and I’s film) with Chris Ecclestone as the preacher.   These are the kinds of things that discourage me from writing.

But Rudi and I stayed in touch and we would see each other from time to time, at theatrical first nights at the National Theatre, The Tricycle and other events, often he’d be with Dounne Alexander, now his wife.  He was granted an OBE in 2006 and we went to the reception at the Trinidadian Embassy in London where a group of youngsters enrolled in The Rudolph Walker Foundation marched in to show discipline and leadership potential and honour their founder.  It was pretty impressive.   By then he had joined the cast of Eastenders playing Patrick Trueman where he works to this day, a cornerstone in the cultural landscape, representing the Caribbean in Britain, both in his life and on screen.  It is an honour to consider him my friend.

Aldwyn Roberts – Lord Kitchener

As for Lord Kitchener, well.  Perhaps even Rudi would accept that Kitch was the greatest Trini export.   Too much to unravel here – but born Aldwyn Roberts in Arima, Trinidad in 1922, he became a full-time musician at the age of 14 after his father died.  Gifted both musically and lyrically he toured Jamaica in 1947/8 for 6 months with calypsonians Lord Beginner and Lord Woodbine before embarking on the Empire Windrush and sailing for Great Britain.  He sang ‘London Is De Place For Me‘ with its Big Ben chimes live on camera, as they docked, for Pathé News.  When the West Indies cricket team beat England in 1950, Kitch was on hand with ‘Cricket Lovely Cricket‘ a victory calypso which became the first well-known Caribbean song in the UK.  He ran a nightclub in Manchester and had a regular spot at the Sunset Club in London until 1962 whereupon he returned to Trinidad, which meant competing in the annual calypso competition, which he dominated alongside The Mighty Sparrow, for the next 20 years.

Lord Kitchener with steel pan orchestra

Lord Kitchener won the road march ten times between 1965 and 1976 at which point he retired from competition and started to develop a soca sound, recently popularised by younger calypsonians Lord Shorty and Robin Imamshah.  So-ca was defined as “the soul of calypso” and would redefine Caribbean music completely, although to my ears, Kitch’s records always have some old school flavour.  Perhaps it is the compositions – as mentioned earlier he is lyrically dextrous, reminiscent of the great Chuck Berry, and more often than not extremely funny while the music is always beautifully melodic and highly syncopated.   There is something in there which I cannot describe – is it the dotted notes ?  The off-beat is constant and pulling you onto your feet incessantly.  So infectious.

Still from the documentary Calypso Dreams (2004). 

As a form, calypso has always been very responsive to the news, often being a commentary on conditions and events, often dealing in double-entendres, often lewd and always entertaining.  It’s a poor man’s newspaper, telling him what’s going on behind his back.   My favourite Kitchener songs alongside this particular work of genius are all later songs :  Pan in A Minor which is stunning, The Bees Melody which is wickedly clever, Tribute To Spree Simon which won the Monarch title in 1975, and of course Sugar Bum Bum from 1977 which needs no commentary from me.  Calypso music had a moment of high fashion in the late 50s and reached a huge international audience when Harry Belafonte’s Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) was released on his LP Calypso in 1956 and suddenly the music of the caribbean was everywhere.  Even Robert Mitchum made a calypso album.  Although I note quickly that both Belafonte and the Banana Boat Song emanate from Jamaica (before I get biffed).

It’s a living vibration rooted deep within my Caribbean belly, lyrics to make a politician cringe or turn a woman’s body to jelly… it’s a sweet soca music, you could never refuse it, it make you shake like a shango and why the hell you shakin’ you don’t know : calypso music

This song – the mighty Mystery Band –  is from when we were there – 1993 – and we heard it everywhere we went along with road-march winner Bacchannal Time by Superblue which is a stonking, itching, devilish party tune.  We bought both records in Port of Spain and carried them home with us as souvenirs of an unforgettable trip.  Kitch was 71 when this record was released.

        

1993 Carnival in Trinidad

Mystery Band is a song about an invisible band which only plays when it is raining.

Some say the music sound the the late 40s, some say it sound like a band from space

What is the Mystery Band ?  I won’t spoil it by telling you – enjoy the song, one of my all-time favourite pieces of music.   Wonderful lyrics by calypsonian David Rudder, music by Aldwyn Roberts.   It has two distinct parts, in the key of F and the key of E, one semitone below, accentuated each time in a magnificent musical gear shift down half a pitch which makes me swoon with joy.   What a hook.

Lord Kitchener died in 2000 and is buried in Santa Rosa cemetery in Arima.

The Amoco Renegades steelband made this superb rendition of Mystery Band in 1993 and won Panorama. Arrangement by the genius Dr Jit Samaroo.

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My Pop Life #56 : Morning Has Broken – Cat Stevens

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Morning Has Broken   –   Cat Stevens

Sweet the rains new fall, sunlit from Heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass…

Hands up who knew about that line “where His feet pass” ?   Wedding choir members and choir master not you !   Blimey…

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1971.  Six long years since my mum’s first epochal stay in Hellingly.  So much turmoil in those late 1960s, with more to come.  A divorce, more hospital admissions, another marriage, a separation, a nine-month period of homelessness when we were all separated, me in Lewes with Pete Smurthwaite & his mum, Paul in the village with Gilda and Jack, Andrew back in Portsmouth with Aunty Val and Uncle Keith, Mum in a caravan in Pevensey with John Daignault, whom she married in 1969.   We hardly saw each other.  Some bad stories.

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That hole in the family was refilled when we were offered a council house on a brand new estate in Hailsham, right on the edge of town.   When we moved in the grass area was still clods of mud and earth with diggers parked on it.  It was called Town Farm Estate, but locals dubbed it Sin City.  All the single-parent families, dysfunction, prison, drugs and drink lumped together out of town.  It was rough, probably.  It was home.  We were together.

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Paul and I shared a big bedroom which overlooked the fields at the back.  Just grass.  We could see Herstmonceux Observatory a few miles away, and we were horribly close to Hellingly Hospital too, a shadow on our lives.  But I was a bus ride from Polegate where I could catch a train to Lewes, a journey of 25 miles which took an hour.  I was 15 and established at school (Lewes Priory, now a comprehensive),  so the authorities gave me leave to be a “far-away pupil”.   Paul started at Hailsham school having been at Ringmer for two years.  He had a more difficult adjustment than me.   And Andrew went to the local primary school, now aged eight and perfect for playing in goal in the back field while Paul and I fired shots at him.  He had his own, smaller bedroom overlooking the “grass” outside the front door – I think it was grass after about 6 months – and the houses opposite.   John Daignault didn’t move in with us and we were glad.  Mum had met him at a dance in Eastbourne and after maybe six weeks of courting they’d got marrried.  He was ten years younger than her and a chef.  We went to their wedding but I can’t really remember it.  But they’d fought quite regularly in Selmeston, and even more so in Pevensey apparently, so we moved in as Mum plus three boys.  It wouldn’t last long – but that first six months in the brand new house was like clear blue sky after a long night of exile.  Mum was still wobbly and unpredictable and on tablets of one sort or another, and there were Social Workers involved too and a new GP to argue with.   Next door was Monique whose husband was ‘inside’ and her kids Tim and Joanna.  Tim was Paul’s age and they became friends.  I never made friends in Hailsham.   With anyone.   All my friends were in Lewes or Seaford or Kingston.

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This song was a favourite in our house.  Paul and I in particular liked the phrase “on the wet garden” it seemed to us absurd and hilarious.  Possibly why I never heard the following line  about His feet.   The piano introduction is a delight, played by Rick Wakeman, the melody is strong and uplifting and beautiful.

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Cat Stevens was born Steven Georgiou, son of Greek Cypriot father and Swedish Baptist mother.  He changed his name to make pop music, then changed his music after a near-death experience from TB in 1969.   His writing became more spiritual upon his recovery,  and he moved from Deram to Island Records with a decent run of classic albums in the 1970s.  He would have another near-death experience and another name change – to Yusuf Islam – before the 70s were over, converting to Islam.   Morning Has Broken is from his 1971 LP Teaser And The Firecat (occasional sightings in the school corridors, tucked under an arm, usually a girl’s), and is taken from a hymn written in 1931 by Eleanor Farjeon to a Scottish gaelic tune called Bunessan.    Remarkably Ms Farjeon lived in Alfriston, not five miles down the River Cuckmere from where we now lived in a fold of the South Downs.  Morning Has Broken reached number 9 in the national charts.

It is a simple song about the most profound experience – rebirth, renewal, awakening.  Each day of our lives this happens, and it is a miracle every morning.  I think I prefer the piano to the lyrics, but the feel of the song is what counts, the brightness, the delicacy of the singing, the strength and poise of the piano.

The song reappeared in my life in a beautiful way.  On July 25th 1992 I married my love Jenny Jules in St Joseph’s Church, Highgate Hill to general approval.   We had the wedding we wanted, eventually, after two years of planning and changing our minds, and reaffirming, and planning again.  We asked the nearest and dearest who wanted to (and were able to!) to form a wedding choir.  Dear Felix Cross was our musical director and we held rehearsals in our Archway Road flat on the old honky-tonk stand-up piano.   Jenny and I didn’t join in, and neither did my Dad and his wife Beryl because they lived in West Yorkshire,  but they were kept in the loop by Felix, and rehearsed on the morning of the wedding, although my recall of this detail is hazy, largely because I wasn’t there.  I was putting on cuff-links with my brother and best man Paul.  Miles away, Jenny was being princessed, queened primped and sculpted in Wembley.

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Holy Joe’s – St Joseph’s Church, Highgate Hill

Morning Has Broken was one of the songs we chose for the service, and our brave and wonderful choir had to sing it in church in front of both of our families and all of our friends.  So they all get a proud namecheck here : love and thanks to Felix Cross, John & Beryl Brown, Paulette Randall, Beverley Randall, Sharon Henry, Millie Kerr, Maureen Hibbert, Antonia Couling, Ragnhild & Jens Thordal, and dear Cora Tucker, who sadly died of stomach cancer aged 46 in 2005.

As Jenny and I sat in our finery, shy and happy, glowing within and without, these dear friends sang for us and are forever blessed.  Very special.

My Pop Life #4 : Music & Rhythm – The Mighty Sparrow

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Music & Rhythm   –   The Mighty Sparrow

…music in me ankle, music in me tonsil, music in me shinbone – to produce a quaver and semitone…

From the very first WOMAD LP in 1982, compiled by Peter Gabriel, this extraordinary piece of music from Trinidad sat alongside Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Beat, Peter Hammill, Prince Nico M’Barga and others in a wonderful skewed collection of music from anywhere and everywhere.

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The double LP was called Music & Rhythm and the title track stood out for it’s punchy staccato brass lines, it’s fantastic guitar, and intentionally hilarious lyrics, all relating to the power of music: a lullabye, a symphony, an old-time gramaphone, a rhapsody, Bach & Tchaikovsky all get name-checked.   This was my first serious exposure to calypso and the music of Trinidad & Tobago and I was hooked.  Some ten years later in 1993 we visited the islands for carnival.  Wonderful memories.  Different artists, like Sparrow, Superblue, Machel Montano or Lord Kitchener, compete musically for the road-march tune which will then get adopted by a crew.   Then on the night before Mardi Gras – J’Ouvert Night – this chosen tune is played from giant speakers over & over again from the back of a caravan of trucks slowly making their winding way towards the heart of Port Of Spain, (followed by the crew and any followers they can seduce into joining them) until dawn.   The mayhem in the centre of town as each crew arrives is spectacular.  Felix Cross and I had been shuffling along merrily drinking punch behind one such truck for about 4 hours but when we hit the main square at dawn we joined the mud mas – a group wheeling a giant tub of wet mud through the streets. They approached me with open arms and a slimy muddy embrace followed, perhaps a mud sandwich until I was covered from head to foot dear reader with dark delicious Trini mud. It was around 4.30am and we were drunk as skunks on rum by then.  Thereafter two muddy fellas danced behind the mud-mas truck and tempted total strangers into our muddy embrace as various other mud-covered women and men wined and danced alongside and within and around.

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It was rather tremendous.   Jenny and Felix’s parents saw us on TV in the town square at 7am.  You can’t compete with that, but I have to say that believe it or not, the pan competition is the true highlight.  You can go to the panyards and watch the rehearsals, sit in the bleacher seats with chicken roti and carrot juice while a giant sound unfolds before you.  Rehearsals are a formidable procedure involving hundreds of steel-pan players thundering out an impossible arrangement with impeccable precision – the very definition of joy. Somewhere there will be a steel-band version of this Sparrow tune.  But so far I have found that steel-pan music doesn’t translate hugely well to CD or vinyl – much of the power is lost in transference, although I would love to be proved wrong, if anyone has evidence to the contrary…