Vagabonds, Hooligans and Badjohns – The Violent Past of the Steel Bands

 

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The only acoustic musical instrument to be invented in the twentieth century was the steel pan. This instrument was invented in Trinidad and Tobago during the 1930s in the communities surrounding the city of Port of Spain. It was through the development of the steel pan that the tamboo bamboo bands evolved into the steel bands which have become an integral aspect of annual Carnival celebrations. Even though the steel band is now accepted in society, during its early evolutionary and transitioning years, the steel band was stigmatized as being low class and violent. From 1945 to 1965, the steel band movement was plagued with various forms of violence.

One of the leading causes of violence in the steel band movement was turf rivalry. The steel band spread throughout the communities surrounding Port of Spain including, Laventille, John John, Gonzales, Belmont, Woodbrook and St. James. Each community had its supporters who would band themselves into gangs and who fought battles amongst each other. Ultimately these bands would attach themselves to the steel bands from their respective areas such as the Desperadoes from Laventille Hill, the Invaders from Woodbrook, the All Stars from Hell Yard, Tokyo from John John and Casablanca from La Cour Harp. Earl Lovelace in his book “The Dragon Can’t Dance” summed up the situation as,

“These were the days when every district around Port of Spain was its own island and the steel band within its boundaries was its army, providing warriors to uphold its sovereignty. Those were the war days when every street corner was a garrison; and to be safe, if you came from Belmont, you didn’t let night catch you in St. James, if your home was Gonzales place, you didn’t go up Laventille; and if you lived in Morvant, you passed San Juan straight.”

Turf rivalry between the bands increased during the 1950s when numerous accounts of violence were reported amongst the steel bands. In 1950, during Carnival, the Invaders and Tokyo Steel bands clashed and the headline in the Trinidad Guardian read, “Steel Bands Clash; Corrosive Fluid, Cutlasses Used; Masqueraders and Spectators Alike Flee in Terror.” Many were injured during this clash especially so from the Invaders Steel band. This clash was immortalised in Lord Blakie’s 1954 Road March winning composition, Steel Band Clash.

Another cause of violence in the steel band movement was the way in which the steel bandsmen were treated by society. From 1945 to 1965 steel bandsmen would find themselves being thrown into jail for simply being a member of a steel band. Often the steel bandsmen would have their instruments seized, the players would be rounded up and marched into prison cells and in most cases they would not be granted bail. They were often convicted for petty larceny, assault and crimes of personal violence. Thus the police men who carried out these orders would face the brunt of the retaliation of the steel bandsmen. The Mighty Sparrow’s calypso the Outcast describes the status of the steel bandsmen of that era.

Branded as vagabonds, hooligans and badjohns, the steel bands of this period were steeped in violence. Yet as time progressed the violence and attitude towards the steel band changed as the steel band eventually became accepted. Thus the steel band has now become inherent to Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival.

 

Work Cited

Blake, Felix I. R. The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan: History and Evolution. Great Britain: Publisher Not Identified, 1995. Print.

Smith, Angela. Steel Drums and Steelbands: A History. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012. Print.

Stuempfle, Stephen. The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1995. Print.

“Steel Bands Clash;Corrosive Fluid, Cutlasses Used; Masqueraders and Spectators Alike Flee in Terror.” Trinidad Guardian 21 Feb. 1950: n. pag. Print.

“Steel Bands Clash: 30 Hurt.” The Port of Spain Gazette 21 Feb. 1950: n. pag. Print.

“When Pan Men Clash.” Trinidad Guardian 11 Feb. 1959: n. pag. Print.

 

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