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A brief history on Antigua’s Oldest Steelband

Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra

 

courtesy of Everybody's Magazine by Ivor B. Ford

While the Steel Pan may have its roots in Trinidad, it is Antigua and Barbuda that has produced the oldest continuously operating steelband in the world Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra. (Editors note: Trinidad's Invaders Steel Orchestras claims that it is oldest steel orchestras on their web site.)

Begun as Housecoat Band in 1945, the instruments then used were automotive clutch housings, hollowed piped, biscuit cans, pieces of solid iron and the like. They were obtained from Townsend's Blacksmith shop on Mariners Lane (now the only existing blacksmith's shop on the island). Materials of this nature were also acquired from the Main Solid Waste Dump which was called Dung Heap by the people of the Point Area.

Hell's Gate Steel OrchestraThe Steel Pan came to Antigua by Antiguans who traveled to and from Trinidad in the early years. In 1946, the transformation of the Oil Drum to the Steelpan was done locally. Experiments were carried out at Townsend's Blacksmith Shop and the burning of the pans was done at the Dung Heap, where fire was always available.

The name Hell's Gate was given to the band by the people of the Point Area, and chosen mainly because of the local noise and variety of rhythmic beats produced by the then instruments used. the official naming of the band was adopted in 1947.

The first captain of the band was Eugene Weston and the first manager was Ivan Edwards. Mr. Eustace (Manning) Henry, a pioneer member, former captain, builder and tuner, along with his son, Veron Henry, the vice-captain, are presently the builders and tuners of Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra.

During the late 1940s, the steelband movement was strongly opposed by most of the aristocrats on the island of Antigua; they even went as far as to send petitions to then Gov. Lord Baldwin to outlaw steelbands in the colony. Were it not for Gov. Baldwin, who himself was a steelband enthusiast and a friend of the Grass Root People, together with the Antigua Trades and Labour Union, then headed by the Hon. Vere Cornwall Bird Sr., the steelband may have long been extinct in Antigua.
 
 

Hell's Gate performing at 2007 Moods of Pan

The first steelband competition was held in 1949 at the St. John's Girls' School, which was then located on the side of the present Economic Development Building. The test piece was "Peanut Vendor." The competition was won by Hell's Gate. Red Army of Green Bay/Grace Farm was second and Brute Force of the Bridge Area was third.

Over the decades, Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra has presided over several important occasions and performed for dignitaries. In 1954, the band was part of an historic demonstration staged to welcome Sir Len Hutton, hailed at that time as the world's best batsman, and the rest of the English touring cricket team on their first visit to Antigua. A year later, Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra performed for Her Royal Highness, the late Princess Margaret at the Government House. Her visit coincided with the official opening of the Princess Margaret School. On March2, 1960, Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra rendered a number of tunes abroad the yacht Christina for Sir Winston Churchill. In 1977, the band participated in the opening ceremony of the newly-constructed Economic Development Building in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

There are presently two steelbands on the island. Harmonites International Steel Orchestra and Super Stars International Steel Orchestra, which are offspring of Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra. The world's oldest steelband, Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra continues to tour the world, bringing the sound of pan to all who will listen.

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-Reproduced with the permission of Everybody's Magazine -

Hell's Gate Steel Orchestra

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