“Play one” for a master tuner of the Pans

By Jabari Fraser, writing from Port of Spain



Trinidad and Tobago has become known as a creative and inventive nation, perhaps beyond what can be expected of a country with 1.3 million souls.
The twin-island republic has produced world beaters in sport - among them Brian Lara, Dwight Yorke and most recently Olympic gold medallist javelin thrower Keshorn Walcott – as well as VS Naipaul, Nobel Laureate in literature.
But, for many back at home, none of those world-famous figures shine brighter than Bertram “Bertie” Marshall - a scientist, modern before his time, an inventor and innovator and master tuner of the Trinidad and Tobago paradise instrument, the steel drum.
The culture’s pre-Lenten Carnival is famous the world over.
Versions exported by Trinidadian nationals are the templates for London’s Notting Hill Carnival, New York’s Labour Day West Indian Carnival and Toronto’s Caribana.
Steel pan, acknowledged as the only new acoustic, orchestral musical instrument of the 20th Century, is very much identified as the pillar instrument of Trini Carnival.
The steelpan was created in the foothills of Trinidad’s Northern Range, in Laventille.
Bertie, as he was universally known, was a musical creation of the lively area, known affectionately as “Laventy”.
Bertie died on 17 October at the age of 76, having suffered a series of strokes.
His friend and collaborator from the Laventille community, the late journalist Keith Smith, had written a series of newspaper columns about Bertie in which he quoted the master tuner/innovator as having said to him: “Pan is mih gyul [girl]”.
Laventille tradition
The majority of people from Laventille are rooted in the cultural heritage from the chanting and rhythmic traditions of emancipated Africans who made their home there in the post-slavery period.
As many in Laventille describe him, Bertie Marshall was a steelband leader, master pan tuner, pan innovator and pan scientist.
Through his technical innovations to existing instruments and the creation of new ones, Bertie Marshall proved himself to be a man full of ideas and music.
He was also one of a select group of tuners, pan innovators and steelband leaders such as “Spree” Simon, Neville Jules, Ellie Mannette and Anthony Williams.
Bertie Marshall But Bertie was not only a tuner. He was also leader and arranger of the band he created from his area, Forsythe Hylanders.
Bertie later became the master tuner of the steel drums of the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, a band started by a handful of young men from a depressed part of Port of Spain which has played with its distinctive sound around the world at some of the most prestigious concert halls, including Carnegie Hall.
As inventor and innovator, he was the first to employ canopies for steel bands ping-ponging through the streets of Port of Spain on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
Early on, he recognised the distorting effect the Caribbean sun had on the pans, warping the instruments out of tune.
In an interview I sat in on with venerated pan tuner a few months before he died, Bertie said, “I didn’t come up with the covers to shade no man. It was for the pans.”
Walking up the narrow stairway, entering the gallery of his apartment in East Port of Spain, it is easy to see how dedicated he was to his work and the intense concentration he applied.
“NO VISITORS. DO NOT DISTURB,” shouts a bold sign, one foot long and one foot wide.
He needed absolute silence while his refined ear listened to the harmonics he achieved in tuning the notes on the steel pan.
He told stories of people ringing his doorbell while he worked and sending him into a rage over their silly disruptions.
As Bertie explained, every note moulded into the circle of the pan is related to another and the adjusting of one affects all.
He would outline how each note reverberated and caused the other to sound - what he referred to as harmonics.
He worked tirelessly on getting the purest sound possible from each note, adding: “I consider harmonics to be my greatest achievement in tuning.”
‘So many good ideas’
Others give testament to Bertie’s steel-pan technical invention.
One of the smoothest steel-pan players in the business, virtuoso Ray Holman, had his own opinion when talking to Caribbean Intelligence©.
“He had so many good ideas and I think one of his best was the amplification of the steel band.”
Ray, as he is known among steelband men, said he and Bertie had regular musical conversations.
“We always discussed the best sound for the pan. You know? When he brought the double tenors, I employed them in my band, Starlift.
“He was a real visionary.”
In the same breath, Ray noted that it was unfortunate Bertie did not receive the type of support he should have had.
“The sad thing is that he was not supported to continue with his inventions and research.”
A protégé of Bertie’s from Hylanders thought pan amplification was one of his best ideas.
Lesley Slater told Caribbean Intelligence©: “The amplification of pan, all of those things, just showed him to have a very progressive take on what the steel band is supposed to be all about.”
Hylanders was famed for having won many a "Bomb Competition" in the 1960s.
The Bomb was a competition in which steel bands would play a classical piece in calypso style.
Bertie has also been credited as the person who originated the double tenor in the orchestral music family of steel pans, to fill the space between the high tenors and the guitar pan.
Not only one for technical ground-breaking, Bertie was also a controversial band leader.
In what was then seen as an irreverent, almost sacrilegious move, he began to arrange and play hymns and religious music on the steel pan.
He did this in August 1965 for independence celebrations, with the able assistance of the curate of the Anglican Cathedral in Port of Spain, Rev John Seawell.
In some quarters, Bertie was seen as bringing “uncivilised” pan men and their instruments, which had been referred to as the “work of the devil”, into the Anglican Church – the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port of Spain.
At Bertie’s last rights, Anglican Dean Knolly Clarke noted the historical significance of Bertie carrying the tuned, percussive sounds of the barrack yards of the depressed east Port of Spain into a house of worship.
Handel’s “Let Every Valley be Exalted”, from Handel’s Messiah Oratorio, was the piece arranged and performed by Hylanders and first used in Christian worship in Trinidad.
“Bertie brought that great hymn here, as well as on the road on J’Ouvert morning,” Dean Clarke said at the ceremony.
“We thank him for that, because he consecrated the national steel pan in this Cathedral,” he added.
Although the image of a pan man in church is not a common one, Dean Clarke said Bertie was a religious man and that “Bertie’s talents and wonderful contributions to pan and T&T culture were direct gifts from God”.
Outside the Trinity Cathedral, with the sun beating down, a man full of music, that ever-composing calypsonian, The Original De Fosto Himself, broke out in song for his own tribute to Bertie.
“As you prepare for disembarkation,
Create some more pan in heaven
With Rudolph, Winston Spree and Bradley to jam, yes!”
And going up an octave, in those augmented and diminished chords that give calypso its chromatic colour, De Fosto belted out,
Bertie! Thank you yes for all the music we say!”
Bertie received the nation’s highest award, the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, in 2008.
In his time, he worked with every big name in the steel pan world, from Robert Greenidge and Ralph Mc Donald of ‘Just the Two of us’ fame to Rudolph Charles, Clive Bradley and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe.
As Black Stalin has advised us to do for the cultural heroes: “Play one for Bertie for tuning all dem sweet pan for we….”


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