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Pan pioneer and founder of Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra Anthony Williams is honoured at the St James Amphitheatre in 2018.

Neville Jules was the organiser supreme of Trinidad All Stars; he was the captain who members listened to, not because he was a “badjohn” (“but I could take care of myself”) but because he exuded authority and respect from All Stars panmen.

Ellie Mannette with Invaders placed the band on the steelband map. He pounded the pans inside to create the modern instrument. Ellie migrated and trained generations of panmen in America.

Anthony “Tony” “Muff-Man” “Skip” Williams–Sun Valley, North Stars and Pan Am Jet North Stars (PAJNS)–is the scientist supreme of tuning and creating pans. He was master arranger, composer, innovator, leader, and a man ascribed the title by many I spoke with as “genius of the steelband.”

For the generations whom we have robbed of the knowledge of Williams, let’s set down a few markers which tell the story of the man who developed, arguably, the greatest steelband yet to interpret the calypso, European classics, jazz, among other forms of music.

First, the most colourful and interesting of his sobriquets: Muff-Man. He had a full head of hair with the muff projecting to the front. Often he wore a felt hat stylishly fitted over the muff. “It was considered a vagabond style in them days, and my own was big,” he said chuckling to himself. “Now I am hearing about Rasta style”; he again seeming to delight in a bit of self-accredited delinquency.

In his time from the late 1940s through the 1950s into the 1960s as leader, arranger, composer, tuner and innovator, Muff-Man converted North Stars (it was first Northern Stars) into the celebrated Pan Am Jet North Stars, initiating steelband sponsorship.

Under his leadership, Pan Am Jet North Stars won the precursor competition to Panorama in 1963 (The Best Road March Steelband Competition) playing Sparrow’s “Dan is the Man in the Van”. In the following year (1964) PAJNS won the first Panorama competition which was organised by the newly formed Steelband Pan Association of George Goddard, with Kitchener’s “Mama This is Mas”. In the year after, the band placed second to Guinness Cavaliers.

Williams and the band felt they were robbed and that was their last appearance in that competition.

In the 1962 Music Festival at Queen’s Hall, Williams arranged, and with his band played the “Voices of Spring”, still considered one of the greatest of renditions of European classics by a steel band.

“After I heard a recording of the music of a famous Viennese conductor, a friend sent the sheet music for me from abroad. We practised the piece for six months, six to eight hours every day,” Williams told me, seemingly still feeling the rigours and joys of taking the band through the “Voices of Spring”.

“The reaction to “Voices of Spring” was very good. From the time we played that, everybody said ‘you’re a winner’. The main adjudicator from England, Prof Northcote said: ‘When music was in existence your precision and close harmony are light to a musical clarity and real orchestral purpose. Total dynamics, excellently blended through a few crescendo effects,’” the Muff-Man told me all from his live and rich memory bank.

Next came the band’s victory in the 1966 Steelband Music Festival; then it was with Franz Van Suppe’s “Poet and Peasant”. The band tied with one of the pride steelbands from Behind the Bridge, City Symphony, with Philmore “Boots” Davidson. But according to entertainment journalist, David Cuffy they were separated by the marks in the Test Piece, “Intermezzo in E Flat Major”–Brahms.

After the 1962 Music Festival, North Stars became associated with Pan American Airlines through its local representative, David De La Rosa. In time, the band became a flag-ship bearer for the American airline and converted into Pan Am Jet North Stars. There is a story that Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams preferred that the sponsor should have been a local company, and the story goes too that West Indian Tobacco was interested in sponsorship.

Of the benefits received from its sponsorship by the American airline were the several flights made by the band through the Caribbean, the USA and South America, reaching as far as Argentina. In the 1960s, the band pioneered in touring and playing at historic halls such as Madison Square Garden and the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Williams also broke new ground when he associated his band first with the Marionettes Choir led by Joycelyn Pierre and then with the world-famous Trinidadian-born (Tunapuna) pianist, Winnifred Atwell. Here was this steelband no more than a couple of decades away from its birth with two-note bass pans playing in the grand music halls of the world with a great classical and jazz pianist. Do we understand and appreciate the accomplishments of these musically untrained and unlettered men and women?

To substantiate that rant, Pan Am Jet North Stars music is recorded on three great albums: Trinidad’s Leading Steel Orchestra, Ivory and Steel (with Atwell) and Souvenirs in Steel. The piece I love most with Atwell is her composition, “Devil’s Daughter” with the pan arrangements done by Williams.

The technical purity and playful fluttering over the notes by Atwell and the power of the steelband, in parts carrying the lead, and then the grumbling of the drums in the background telling of the drama of the Devil’s Daughter continues to enchant while I write.

However, my personal best love for North Stars music is its J’Ouvert morning (1956) arrangement and playing of “Puerto Rico Mambo”–I wish I can squeeze it through in this format.

The music was captured outside the Transfer Station (that’s the point where the tramcars and trolley buses changed routes) Frederick and Park Streets. The music was recorded by an RCA engineer. It’s the most bewitching piece of music I ever heard at J’Ouvert–and I am a great fan of Bomb Competition music–when the morning is cool; when your legs feel only to shuffle with your special lady in front of you, and thoughts of David Rudder’s call for praise to the Almighty to bring ‘ah little music for the vibrations” to wash over you.

If you listen carefully to the YouTube recording (Puerto Rico Mambo) you will hear the call of “Zambie”, the proverbial three times, a friend calling out to Neville “Zambie” Gaskin strumming his double second pan in North Stars.

The making of Williams the genius

Williams is a native of St James, where he still lives and recently turned 90. Hail up the man. As to his formative years, they were a combination of exciting boyhood adventures, distanced from school work, and like many a boy of the time, he grew up in difficult social and economic conditions; rough guava seasons.

His primary school education came at the Mucurapo Boys’ School. “After school, we boys would go down by the sea in Cocorite. On Wednesdays, the head teacher took us to the Royal Victoria Institute. There we learnt geometry, woodwork, English classes and architectural drawings.

“But I did not pay much attention at school, the subjects did not interest me,” Williams shared. “I used to pay more attention to Sun Valley and the music they played. When I went up there (Upper Bournes Road) I was about 13 years old. I remember too how a policeman used to run down Sun Valley panmen,” Williams said recalling the days when steelbands were outlawed as being “noisy” and a disturbance to public peace.

Academically, however, Williams’ attention and imagination were captured and fired by a science teacher when he attended night classes at Tranquillity School. “My science teacher was a white man from England. He taught me music from the book and a strobe tuner, and about harmonics. I paid attention, and then I became involved in Sun Valley and then North Stars,” said Williams, picking up the energy in the conversation.

He, like most boys of his social class of the time, came from very poor circumstances. “I was the little boy that Santa Claus forgot,” he says. “Yes, I used to get leftover food from the Breakfast Shed that was on Wrightson Road. I used to get things like black pudding and souse, accra and float, but that was what was left back,” Williams says completely without the pain of deprivation. But it clearly was not easy for this pan scientist in the making: Where does genius originate from?

A painful story of his past brought tears to his eyes in the conversation. “My mother. One day, we used to live at Nepaul Street,” where I conducted the interview with him, “we had a standpipe in front the house; she was going to catch water; she pitch the bucket on the ground and it hit another girl. The matter end up in court and the magistrate sent my mother to St Ann’s Mental Home. After that I lived with my grandmother. My mother died some time ago; once I wanted to bring her home but it did not work out,” says Williams with much regret.

With a measure of desire, he said he does not know much about his father, Oscar Williams, “just that he was a foreman on the road; but we were never close as he never came by us.”

“My wife died. When she was alive, we used to listen to Oral Roberts on the radio, and we got a Bible from him,” which he grasped and requested that we, my cameraman/producer, Dion Boucaud, and I read specific chapters and verses (he had lost his sight), one of the readings was from Deuteronomy 29, the story of the disobedient Jews. While we read a few of the verses he recited them verbatim.

Williams responded to my questions and inserted his own thoughts in a kind of stream of consciousness manner as he remembered and reflected on his experiences. At times I had to hang on, not lose focus as he moved through the decades of his life, but once I caught up with his thoughts, they made absolute sense and he was crystal clear on them.

One of his reflections brought us to the 1950 steelband competition at the Savannah. Sun Valley failed to even place, Casablanca won the competition playing “Nocturne in E Flat”, Southern Symphony and All Stars filled the other positions.

“So when that happened the captain of the band “Sire”–Sony Roach–and I always remember that night; he called a meeting of the band three days after Carnival and said he was disappointed with the band and he is going to finish with that. So the young fellas in the band say we want to continue. He said ‘alright but not in this yard,’ which was his home yard. So we moved to another yard lower down Bournes Road,” Williams explained.

The new band started out as Northern Stars, but that quickly changed to North Stars. He said most of the members of the new band “loved European music so we started playing pieces such as “Come Back to Sorrento” that we used to hear on Rediffusion.” Through the 1950s, the band developed with Williams playing an increasing leadership role until he was made captain. By that time, he had started tuning pans and arranging the music.

In 1951, the Trinidad All Percussion Steel Orchestra (Taspo) was formed, with many of the leading players of the day inclusive of Williams, Mannette, Roach, Oscar Pyle and others, to go to the Festival of Britain. The musical director and arranger for the band was Lt Joseph Nathaniel Griffith, a Barbadian.

“Lieutenant Griffith wrote all the parts for the pan and he taught us to read music. It was one of the greatest things to happen to the steelband. Lt Griffith introduced the chromatic sound to the band and by then we had reached a four-chord playing songs. He drilled us and even taught us how to speak properly,” says Williams.

Sadly though, laments Williams, when Taspo returned, “the whole thing turn into ole mas and nobody was interested in pan again. And for weeks George Yates and myself used to go down Duncan Street where Progressive Educational Institute was to hold meetings, but very few people came because certain things went wrong with Taspo and money.”

The famous Spider Web Tenor–creation of Anthony Williams. “I studied science and mathematics at Tranquillity. Since the circle was a perfect mathematical form everyone was showing the notes in circular fashion. In order to achieve the 29 notes on the SWT I needed room.

It took me years to find out how to tune the pan: I don’t think I have it perfected yet. I could not get an octave. Standard size drum allowed for 23 notes, I added six, I am working on that now,” he said but he did acknowledge that his colleague Herman “Rock” Johnson also did a lot of work on the Spider Web Tenor.

“But I perfected the harmonics with a strobe tune; that is when you hear a note it is the perfect note not fundamentals of the frequency,” he explained to this non-musician.

When the Pan Am North Stars hitched up with pianist Atwell after her 1968 tour here, Williams says Atwell became concerned that we could go to music halls and find that the pan not blending with the pianos. “She said alright she will send a tuning fork for us to tune the pans with so that anywhere we go the pans will match the pianos,” says Williams. However, when the band reached New York, Williams said he had to fine-tune many of the pans to match the pianos.

Seven years ago he told me that he had not finished his work on the Spider Web Tenor on which he had created 29 notes and was still experimenting–in his mind as his physical condition did not allow him to conceive of where he could situate the additional notes in the pan to make it the perfect instrument.

Sadly, Williams and the band members, like all steelbands and players even today never got the financial recompense they so richly deserved; but these men and women who created the steelpans and bands must never be forgotten. In addition to the Muff-Man, thanks to Neville “Zambie” Gaskin, Desmond “Yankee” Belle, Lennox Glasgow whose home overlooked the Bombay Street headquarters of the band, and the research work of Cyril Matthew for information for this feature.

Not too incidentally, the spot on Bombay Street (one of the practice yards of the band) remains desolate, not a marking to say “Pan Am North Stars played here.”

We place little value on our greatest creations and creators.

Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from UWI

Williams received an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from the University of the West Indies at its graduation ceremonies in October 2016.