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Profiles of Caribbean Artistry
A Find: 1947 Casablanca Steelband Recordings

Many of us are always looking for early recordings of pan music. Once in a while we find something that is particularly noteworthy.

I recently acquired an album of two 78 RPM recordings of the Casablanca Steel Band recorded in 1947 in Trinidad. The album is copyright 1948, but as the jacket notes make clear, it was recorded some time in 1947.

While the recordings are interesting, the jacket notes are even more so.


DISC album 719
2-10" records
A New Trinidadian Music
Notes by Charles Edward Smith

For a distinctive group of creators of Trinidad's latest type of music to call themselves the Casablanca Steel Band is understandable only from the terminology common to that island's folklore and folk music. Titles of bands and pseudonyms of singers are often allusions to places and events far from the small but strategic island in the Caribbean. During the war years, when steel band music had its initial development, natives of the island were recruited to the British armed forces and the United States was building up its defense installations there under arrangement with Britain. For once the asphalt lake at La Brea was more important than Angostura Bitters.

Calypsonians changed their names according to the times. Attila The Hun became simply Attila and The Lion, who sings the vocal on JIVE in this album, called his Carnival hut (where he challenged fellow singers of Calypso) The Manginot Lion. (That Jive is a take-off on jive or scat singing, with emphasis on Cab "Hi-de-ho" Calloway, Stormy Weather and Lena Horne is obvious from the words and scat-singing, which find The Lion in one of his funster moods.) Steel Bands are not traditional bands, as we'll explain in a moment, but their members were quick to name their bands in typical Trinidad style. In addition to Casablanca, other groups in this interchangeable fraternity were called Battan Spysmashers, Five Graves to Cairo, Destination Tokyo, Seabees, or, named for movies, e.g. King of the Underworld, Sun Valley Serenaders.

The Steel Bands' music hardly fits any ordinary definition of "Serenaders". Except for the occasional addition of a single instrument, such as a bugle, its instruments are created from tire rims, garbage can tops, oil drums and other discards of a war-busy world. A hollowed bamboo (bamboo-tamboo) beaten with a stick fulfills the rhythmic function of the rhumba bands' claves, the seed gourds (chac-chac) that of the maraccas. Singers are calypsonians but the instrumentation is new and unique, giving them the general term of "steel bands".

The musicians choose their weird instruments with a careful attention to tone but they don't mind if the tone is off edge a bit. Like many folk musicians they are no respectors of the diatonic scale. When the band is assembled it creates so much noise that for a time rehearsals were banned with in the city limits of Port-au-Spain. (sic) Except for the occasional use of bugle, the line-up was entirely percussive - a strange conglomerate of wash-tubs, biscuit tins, tire rims, a full size oil drum for bass and a smaller one for kettles. Even during its growth the steel band drew crowds, first of natives who considered any Trinidad folk music theirs and later of scoffers from, as it were, the other side of the tracks. Kids sat on fences while bands practiced in backyards and crowds of admirers followed the steelbands in parades as the latter, playing marches, rhumbas and other types of Carnival music, shook nearby buildings with the rumbling of their improvised drums. Kettles and oil drums, including the "ping-pong" drum described below, are beaten usually with a chair leg tipped with inner tube rubber.

The most unique instrument of the steel band was created about a year ago and because of its relatively less percussive impact, made inevitable the formation of smaller groups admirably suited for recording purposes. This instrument, cut from one half a sweet-oil drum, is perhaps a half foot in depth, but its diameter is more than two feet. It was created by heating the covered end over a fire. When hot from the flames this was beaten, bent out of contour and treated by other means of folk necromancy with the result that fourteen distinct tones may be played upon it. Functioning as a section, the ping-pongs (1) (as these instruments are called) dominate the band and, if musicologists will forgive us the liberty, sound something like a cross between the Balinese gamelon and a honky-tonk piano. But they have literally no relationship to either and the musical sources upon which they base their improvisations are typical of the islands - African, Spanish, French.

The man who keeps the instruments in shape, counterpart to the band boy for American jazz bands, is called the pan-tuner, and his job is certainly as important as it is unique for there is nothing accidental in the tonal scheme of these bands. If the ear is struck with a strangeness it comes from a freedom of tonal improvisation typical of much folk music but here arrived at with left-overs from the scrap heap.

Although the steel bands have not yet appeared professionally in the United States, some of the members of the Casablanca provided a rare treat for watchers of the parade on West Indian day in the late summer of 1947, playing with the unique steel band instruments. The listener will notice that ping-pongs are played at different pitch, i.e. when more than one player is heard. Here are some of the players in the band on these records: Philip Dunbar and Don Henry, ping-pongs; Wallace Reed, round disc of iron; Cocoa, Steel Drum. In addition Sidney Corrington plays an oblong piece of steel held so that with the forearm, a T-shape is formed - in this position it can be played the length of the piece of scrap steel, the fingers helping to vary the tone.

The lyrics on the two vocal sides of the four in the album are satirical, humorous calypso. Bandy-legs is perhaps the one you may want to follow to trace the vagaries of calypso pronunciation. Here they are, with the pauses between the verses indicated by asterisks, sung by Zigfield(2):

Yes, young ladies, listen,
Don't you think Zigfield is a funny person,
Yes, young ladies, listen
But don't you think Zigfield is a funny person.

I love pretty faces,
Tall and short girls in certain cases -
Well if you want me to fall on my knees and beg,
Only show me bandy-leg.

One night I went to the building
Me and the ugliest girl in the hall were dancing.
She told me, "Zigfield, darling,
I love you more than you can imagine".

I said, "Girl you're too ugly,
Your mouth too big, your nose shaped too funny".
But in the end I went down on my knees and beg
Just she had bandy-legs.

* * *

I was living with Milly
She had a lovely shape,
She was tall and stately,
Then I got in with Doris

And of all the women she was the fairest,
And although she was pretty,
I had to leave her for Ivy
But I don' how she treat me ( ) I had to beg
When I remembered her bandy-legs.

* * *

Some time a-back I got in with Emma,
She had a slight knock-knee but a lovely figure,
She told me plainly, "Sweet Zigfield,
I know a bandy-leg is a-real' your ideal

But I'll fix the position,
Go to the hospital for an operation".
And now the doctor has her walking with a wooden peg,
Trying to force up her bandy-leg.

* * *

From the days that I can remember
Ever since I was on my mother's shoulder
The only thing that attract me
Was a man or woman who had a bandy,

And I grew up with the nature,
The ugliest woman I could admire -
I mean her face can be harder than an old nutmeg
Look you, mon, if you' bandy-leg.


(1) The word "ping-pong" is perhaps onomatapoetic usage. If the idea seems far-fetched, it is less so with names given other instrument: "talk-talk" or "bamboo-tamboo" for bamboo clave, "chac-chac" for gourd shakers.

(2) Zigfield's name was previously Siegfried, we are informed by a fellow calypsonian from Trinidad where these records were made. The change of name therefore might be attributed to a word identified with the Siegfried Line.

NOTE: The only article we've seen on steel bands appeared late in 1947 in the magazine Ebony. None of these bands has yet played in the United States (as of December, 1947)

DISC Company of New York 117 W. 46 ST., Asch Recording Studios New York, 19, N. Y.

Copyright 1948 DISC Co. Printed in U.S.A.

(END OF INSIDE COVER NOTES)


I hope that there aren't too many typos in my transcription. Some of the original spelling doesn't agree with my spell-checker. I left it as was.

The four sides are:

6077A
calypso
Trinidad Steel Band
Medley
Casablanca Steel Band
782
matrix D782

6077B
calypso
Trinidad Steel Band
Bandy Legs
Casablanca Steel Band
vocal by Siegfried
783
matrix D 783

(note the singer's name seems to have reverted to Siegfried, despite the cover notes.)

6078A
calypso
Trinidad Steel Band
Jive
Casablanca Steel Band
784
matrix D784

(note no mention of vocal by Attila present on cut, mentioned in cover notes.)

6078B
calypso
Trinidad Steel Band
Calypso rumba
Casablanca Steel Band
785
matrix D785

There are a couple of fascinating things here.

The earliest dated steel band (or steel pan) recordings credited in Jeffrey Thomas's discography "Forty Years of Steel" were the Paris, France "Vogue" recordings of TASPO in October of 1951 (I have copies of six of the eight numbers recorded.) These Casablanca recordings were obviously made in 1947, apparently late 1947. That places them four years earlier. Thomas makes mention of rumors of earlier recordings than TASPO, and discusses the probability that pan was included in the numerous recordings made in Trinidad in the 1940's, but was unable to locate any. He does not list these "Disc" Casablanca recordings in his book.

Thomas does mention and list Casablanca recordings made on the Sagomes label. Casablanca made the first of a number of Sagomes 78 RPM recordings of different steelbands (and calypsonians) that were apparently made in the early '50s, but have no positive date. (I have some of these 78's as well.) I will again attempt to contact members of the Sa Gomes family while I am in Trinidad, to see if they have any better date information. I don't have great hopes, as one who has tried says that all documentation of those recordings was destroyed years ago. It appears certain that the Sagomes recordings were not made before 1950.

The steel pan was in a state of rapid development; this is obvious from comparing the recordings and text. The tenor pan (or ping-pong) in the TASPO photograph appears to have 21 notes, up from 14, but not yet up to today's 29 or so notes. The 1947 Casablanca cuts may have a single bass (one note) or possibly a "du-dup" (two notes). TASPO had two "Tenor Booms" and one "Bass Boom". TASPO also had several Second Pans, not mentioned in the Casablanca notes.

By 1951, the musical range of the instruments were much more complete, though the pan had yet to develop much of its musical "ring". The ring would come from the tuned harmonics developed by Bertie Marshall and the "4ths and 5ths" note arrangement invented by Anthony Williams, both of which became popular some years later.

Comparing the sound of the 1947 Casablanca recordings to the 1951 TASPO recordings (and the Casablanca recordings of the early '50s), it is quite apparent how far the steelband movement had come in a very few years. First, both Casablanca and TASPO were now referred to as "orchestras", not "bands". The arrangements reflect this, with good use of the expanded instrumentation. You can hear the full bass and good use of the mid section. The pans sound much more melodic, apparently due to improved tuning, the increased number of notes, and more attention to blending to an accurate scale.

The technical quality is also greatly improved, particularly in the TASPO recordings. The 1947 Casablanca recordings suffer from some severe distortion, particularly of the pans. It appears that the recording equipment used was overloaded by the instruments. This was not true in 1951. I own a 45 RPM EP re-release of four of the TASPO Paris recordings. These were apparently originally recorded on magnetic tape and the recordings, although in mono, hold their own in comparison to many recordings made today, 50 years later.

Even the Sagomes 1950ís recordings, made in Trinidad, are technically far better than the 1947 recordings. They are still 78's with all the limitations of that medium. I suspect that they were recorded direct to acetate, not magnetic tape, as I doubt anyone in Trinidad could justify (or afford) the purchase of a tape recorder in the early '50s. Nonetheless, the Sagomes recordings are much cleaner, with little or no distortion.

The appearance of Casablanca players in the 1947 New York (in those days, presumably in Harlem) West Indian Day parade is also interesting. Before that, the earliest date for pan in New York I had heard from New York pan old-timers was 1949, when some of the old-time players migrated here. Kim Johnson of the Trinidad Guardian has refreshed my memory with the name of Rudy King, who still lives in New York, and plays rhythm with local steelbands here.

Finally, a curiosity: While the recording is of Casablanca, the David Stone Martin print on the album cover shows stylistic pan players wearing hats from Invaders, a band from "the other side of the tracks" (more accurately the other side of town). I suspect that must have caused great consternation among any Casablanca players who might have acquired a copy of the album, and may further explain their current rarity...

John Schmidt

 

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