Brooklyn, New York - The Big Apple again took the lead, by honoring its central steelpan music figures in the development of Pan in New York, as the Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute hosted a special awards ceremony simply called “A Gala Tribute To New York Steel Band Pioneers” on May 20th 2012 at the Tropical Paradise Ballroom.
In addition to paying public homage and drawing attention to these pioneers, the event also documented the sacrifices and accomplishments of these forerunners, on whose shoulders sit one of the greatest and most significant cultural movements and art forms in the history of the United States.
It is no secret that the largest and most vibrant steelpan music community outside of the homeland of the steelpan instrument, Trinidad and Tobago, calls New York home. Les Slater—chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute—in addressing the audience, said that “It was critical that this acknowledgement of these men be done now as many were getting up in age and some had already passed on.”
The great literary giant James Baldwin said “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” It is in this spirit that the Folk Arts Institute continues to organize successful and indispensable events such as these. The gala’s honorees were Michael Alexander, Caldera Caraballo, Milton Gabriel, Edward George, Lennox Leverock, Alphonso Marshall, Roy Sangster, Kim Loy Wong, Rudy King and Conrad Mauge. A slim, well-produced program book available to all who were in attendance, listed the honorees and their full bio data. Bios were in turn read aloud preceding each respective presentation for the evening.
Acknowledgement of these individuals and their legacy came from representatives of the New York State Senate and the US Congress. On hand was New York State Senator Kevin Parker who spoke about the power, and present and historical importance of, the New York steelpan music movement to his constituents.
The show opened with live performances from the Garvin Blake ensemble which included musical standout Frankie McIntosh on keyboards. From Lord Kitchener’s ‘Pan In Harmony’ to Shadow’s ‘I Come Out to Play,’ Garvin Blake and crew again demonstrated why he is one of the most compelling panists in North America with his thought-provoking, jazz-based arrangements and performance.
The event was a formal one – but in the tradition of the steelpan movement and history – it was a feast, like those that have taken place in pan yards throughout the world. The honorees and their families were genuinely pleased to have received acknowledgement of their contributions to the New York steelpan movement. The Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute is to be complimented for recognizing and highlighting the influence and deeds of these steelband pioneers on the North American landscape, and providing an evening of remembrance, awards, celebration, dance and culinary repast.
The tasty buffet was well-appreciated by event attendees who were invited to return for ‘seconds.’ Some took to the dance floor afterward, while others sat and chatted at their tables, catching up on old times, and on matters steelband, cultural and otherwise related.
It was a special moment, noted Les Slater, upon learning that two of the evening’s honorees, surviving members of the Steelpan trio—the first on Broadway—who performed in the 1950s production of the House of Flowers, were reuniting for the first time in more than fifty years! Michael Alexander and Austin Coker—the latter known back then as Alphonso Marshall, had not laid eyes on each other since around 1956. The two men could be seen sharing much camaraderie during the evening, as indeed did most who were there.
It was before a full house when the sister of the first recipient, the late Rudy King, stepped up to accept the award on his behalf. The other posthumous recognition at the gala was that of Conrad Mauge, whose daughter was happily present to accept his award. Kim Loy Wong who lives out on the West Coast was reportedly thrilled to be honored, but unable to attend - not being able to fly in due to health challenges. Harlem All Stars veteran Edward George was also unable to attend because of health. Recipients shared words of acknowledgement and many fond and in several cases, hilarious, memories - nuggets about those now-historical days when they each made their indelible mark on the North American continent with the steel pan culture and art form.
Michael Alexander had as full and varied a career as a steel pan trouper as one could hope to find. From his days in the late 1940s when he was involved with Belmont’s fabled Rising Sun band and through his exploits abroad in succeeding decades, Alexander’s career boasts highlights that would be the envy of many not only in the pan world but music, period. He first performed overseas in 1952 after he left Trinidad with Geoffrey Holder’s Holder Dance Company. The group performed in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico the following year, Alexander introducing the steel pan to the Caribbean Folk Festival. In 1954 came the opportunity to hit the big time when Alexander and two others became a three-piece steel band in the Broadway musical House of Flowers.
After House of Flowers closed in 1955, the trio accompanied cast member Enid Mosier on tour across the U.S. Later in the 1950s Alexander played at the World’s Fair in Brussels, at the Winter Olympics in Italy and toured several other European countries. Back in the U.S. he became a member of Harry Belafonte’s touring revue. He also appeared on such TV shows as Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar and the premiere of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Although residing in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the 1960s in a totally different field, Alexander continued to indulge his passion for the steel band, directing his attention in large part to young people. A group he trained was selected to perform at the Nixon Inaugural in 1973. After he retired in 1990 he took up residence in Houston, Texas, ultimately becoming an ordained pastor, but never losing the genuine affection he has for the steel pan.
Being even slightly informed on steel band happenings around New York for the past few decades and not having heard Caldera’s name mentioned is not possible. He has been a dominant presence on the New York scene literally from the time he arrived here from Trinidad in 1956, fresh from his association with the popular City Syncopators and Casablanca bands. Caldera Caraballo hooked up first with Rudy King’s band, but by the late 1950s he had begun leaving his own footprints. He became a member of Harry Belafonte’s troupe and played with the mega-star entertainer all over the country. His fond memories of his Belafonte stint includes his soloing behind Miriam Makeba after Belafonte had brought her to the U.S. from South Africa. Leading his own band, he landed many choice gigs around New York, including a running engagement at the Waldorf Astoria, and in locations both nearby and distant from the city. Caldera’s band emerged winners of one of the first steel band competitions held in the city, at Town Hall in the early 60s.
Even after he gave up running a band of his own, he has remained connected to the pan scene in a number of ways. He brought top bands from Trinidad on tour here, including Casablanca, Invaders and Exodus. One of those concerts saw the historic pairing of Casablanca with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He was also for several years the organizer of the Panorama contest at the Labor Day Carnival. And addicted to the art form as he is, he has gone to Trinidad’s Carnival, even in recent years, to perform with one of the bands in the Panorama contest there.
Milton Gabriel came to New York in 1957 after playing with first Ebonites and later Fascinators in Trinidad. He joined Caldera’s band soon after arriving here and was able to enjoy the benefits of the solid contacts Caldera had made, leading to good paying gigs on the social circuit. By 1960 Gabriel looked to strike out on his own and started a band that would itself become one of the better known units in the city. He fondly recalls, among the engagements he played, several appearances at the United Nations.
In the early 70s Gabriel was pretty much compelled to re-think his preference for maintaining a large band, such as the 10-piece group he had assembled. In 1973, his band having been dissolved and with his passion for steel band still very much intact, he headed to Los Angeles. There he became a member of a group led by Robert Greenidge. This group made a name for itself on the West Coast, one of their cushy engagements being a continuing gig at Universal Studios. Gabriel retired from active steel band involvement in 1996.
Edward George is representative of the New York community in which the steel pan sound first manifested itself. It was in Harlem that Rudy King’s first pan-tuning exercises began and where the pan sound first began filtering through to unsuspecting New Yorkers. George came into the Harlem scene when he relocated from Trinidad in 1957, having played with Port of Spain’s Fascinators band before he left Trinidad. In Harlem George joined the Tropitones band that was led by Alvin “Yankee Boy” George. The nucleus of this group would transition to Harlem All-Stars, under the leadership of Lawrence “Pops” McCarthy. Harlem All-Stars, like other groups at the time, played in the Labor Day carnival when it was held in Harlem.
In the early 1960s George resided for some time in New Jersey and, inveterate lover of pan music that he was, he organized a band there. Upon returning to uptown New York, he got right back into the Harlem All-Stars fold and remained a band stalwart over the years. When he no longer thought himself equal to the demands of pan playing, he switched to the congas and became one of the anchors of the band’s rhythm section. Now no longer actively involved with the band, George is nonetheless as devoted to the Harlem All-Stars family as he ever was.
Rightly so, Rudy King’s name has for years been the one that most readily comes to mind when the matter of steel band in New York is discussed. King relocated to New York in 1949 and always insisted that when he formed his first band sometime in the early 1950s, there had been no other band previously in existence. As the trail blazer, Rudy was the first to step into some impressive new territory. He played at Carnegie Hall, saw his group make the debut appearance of steel band at the Apollo and landed a long-running gig at the Blue Angel club in Chicago. On that gig he shared billing with calypso singer Mighty Charmer, whom the world subsequently came to know as Louis Farrakhan.
In that spearheading role, Rudy also came to experience unpleasant surprises that were perhaps not unexpected from folks unfamiliar with a new form of cultural expression. The process of constructing and tuning a steel pan was one such source of contention and attempting to convince musicians’ union officials that he was a legitimate musician was another. With Rudy’s perseverance, however, he would eventually get the alluring steel band sound to speak more convincingly than he or anyone else could, as he piled up countless appearances at colleges, private clubs and all manner of social gatherings. In 2002 Rudy was named to the Hall of Fame of the New York arts organization, City Lore. Rudy King died in 2004.
Lennox Leverock arrived in New York in 1953 from Trinidad where he was a member of the legendary Invaders band. Coming to the city with such experience in pan playing, it didn’t take him long to get into the pan groove here, such as it was. He hooked up with Rudy King and was in the band when King made ground- breaking appearances at the Apollo, Carnegie Hall and other top-drawer spaces. By 1959, Leverock, no longer playing with King, was leading the Mellotones band. Mellotones did its fair share of gigs in and outside of the West Indian community.
Leverock and others in his pan circle had ambitions of a bigger side than the six or seven piece unit he led, and this ambition first came to fruition in the formation of a larger band called West Indian American, for which Horace Morancie assumed the role of manager. The band became even larger when BWIA committed to sponsorship, with the name now changed to BWIA Sunjets, an aggregation of more than 20 players. BWIA Sunjets, besides being the first group of such size in New York, also made some high-profile appearances such as Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the New York World’s Fair and Tuskegee Institute. In later years Leverock was instrumental in the formation of an Invaders unit in Brooklyn. Now retired from active playing, Leverock has remained a core member of the Invaders family back in Trinidad and could be seen every Carnival season on the hallowed Invaders compound.
Although it’s been quite a while since he was called upon to dispense with his birth name, once he took up an acting career, Marshall’s years in the steel band world were much too special for him to shed those memories. Becoming involved with the Holder Dance Company led by Geoffrey Holder as a young man in Trinidad, Marshall soon found himself headed to New York after Holder was contracted for the 1954 Broadway musical, House of Flowers. Marshall was a member of a three-piece steel band booked for the show.
After House of Flowers ended its run, the unique steel band innovation having earned its share of raves, Marshall was for two years part of a revue headed by fellow cast member Enid Mosier. Marshall’s touring with Mosier was interrupted by a stint in the military. Upon his discharge, he linked up with Mosier again. By this time, though, he was becoming more focused on acting. He would sharpen his dramatic skills, studying with the likes of Lee Grant and Uta Hagen. Firmly committed to the acting profession and moving to Hollywood, Marshall’s name was changed to Austin Stoker. Over the years his credits include the movies “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” “Airport 1975” and others and on TV the animated “Return to the Planet of the Apes” and “Six Million Dollar Man” among numerous others.
Conrad Mauge’s love for calypso and steel band developed early. As a youngster born from solid Trinidadian stock, Mauge remained connected to those Trinidadian roots all his life. While still in his teens he was a member of Rudy King’s band and on many an engagement he would throw a few calypso vocals into the mix. He played with King at the weekly Carnegie Hall concerts organized by Art D’Lugoff, owner of the Village Gate, during the calypso craze of the 1950s. He also played with King during the Labor Day Carnival in Harlem. In 1958 he left the King band to open his own, the Trinidad Serenaders, a group that endured for decades.
Trained in chemistry, Mauge never figured his professional career to require him to relinquish his steel band activity, and he proceeded to be actively engaged with the band for many years, before new professional responsibilities ultimately forced him to cede the running of the band to others. Mauge’s manner and presentation worked to the group’s benefit, as far as his ability to forge relationships which produced many premium gigs. Significant among those ties he cultivated was his familiarity with officers of the musicians’ union. Mauge was without a doubt one of the names with which the early growth of New York’s steel band culture was strongly associated.
Roy Sangster’s limited participation in fledgling steel band activity in Trinidad before he became a New York resident in the late 1940s was sufficient to keep his curiosity going once he realized that there were other émigrés who likewise found the lure of steel band activity irresistible. Roy, like many others, first settled in Harlem. He checked out the early steel band stirrings Uptown but then became convinced, after he had moved to Brooklyn, that Brooklyn should work on cultivating a pan culture of its own. Rudy King took Roy up on the offer to organize a band which could use the basement at Roy’s residence as its base. King took to the idea and the band, including Roy, did operate from his Brooklyn address.
Called up for military service in 1956, Roy found things radically changed in the King band upon his discharge two years later. The band had split up, with former mainstays like Mauge and Caldera having started bands of their own. In succeeding years, Roy was involved with a few bands but found his allegiance was more to the movement than any particular group. Pan veterans around New York have for years been familiar with Roy’s readiness to pitch in to help take care of business in whatever form such need arises.
A chance meeting with folk music icon Pete Seeger, who was on a visit to Trinidad in the mid-1950s is what led to Kim Wong’s eventually taking up residence in New York. Seeger had gotten to know of the new musical innovation and traveled to Trinidad in search of someone who could provide him with some of the instruments. When he met Wong and made arrangements for him to build the instruments and ship them to the U.S. so Seeger could put them to use, both musically and as a recreational tool for youngsters, Wong had earned himself a ticket out of Port of Spain. There, he had been leader of the Highlanders band. Earlier, he and Rudy King were colleagues in a teenage band, before King migrated.
When Seeger arranged for Kim Loy Wong to travel to the States, it initially called for him to come to a facility for youngsters in Kingston, New York, where the learning of the steel pan instruments became part of the school’s routine. One of the highlights of that stint in Kingston was the band being taken to entertain Eleanor Roosevelt at the Roosevelt estate. Later, Wong would be engaged by University Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, again directing his efforts in the art of pan playing to neighborhood youngsters. The ties with Seeger having remained strong, he played an influential role when the NYC Board of Education was convinced to bring the new art form to kids in the school system as after-school activity. Seeger also collaborated with Wong on a number of projects, including a documentary film and recording which introduced the steel pan to the uninitiated. Wong relocated to San Antonio, Texas in the early 1980s to again pass on his knowledge of the steel pan culture in a youth program there. He also put together a band which became quite popular in the region. Wong’s services as a tuner continue to be requested in New York, Boston and elsewhere.
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