The Diaspora Music Village is a biannual series of (mostly free to attend) cultural events spanning approximately a fortnight, organised by Cultural Co-operation. Part of this years incredibly varied programme was a series of Festival Club events held at The October Gallery, off Queen Square in Bloomsbury, Central London, including a series of lunchtime concerts held in the gallery's intimate courtyard.
The 30th June Lunchtime Concert featured an 11-piece ensemble from one of Trinidad's premier large conventional steel bands, Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra of Coffee Street, San Fernando (Coffee Street may be familiar even to non-Trinidadian pan connoisseurs as the title of a Panorama competition composition for Skiffle Bunch by American ace-pannist and arranger Andy Narell, who also recorded a version of this on one of his solo albums), with Tassa Drummers, likewise from South Trinidad.
Skiffle Bunch are something a bit special in the steel pan world. I have fond memories of them as one of Trinidad's very finest traditional or "Pan Around De Neck" steel bands, especially of their appearances in 'de big yard' (the Queen's Park Savannah Stage in Port of Spain) for Panorama, beating some of the finest pan around as well as fielding some of the prettiest chicks for flagwoman and banner bearers. (And I also remember Skiffle's captain, Junia Regrello, in his alter ego 'playing mas' from many of his appearances at Dimanche Gras as King of his mas band.) Originally founded in Vistabella, San Fernando, around 1976, Skiffle Bunch went on to win many accolades and competitions including Panorama, before converting to a large sized 'conventional steelband' in 1993. Since this conversion, there has been no shortage of success either, and in competition this includes First Place in the inaugural World Steelband Festival in 2000, although a (national) Panorama win has so far proved elusive. But don't let the latter fool you, this by no means is any real indication of the band's quality or lack thereof. They are also already an unusually much-traveled band. Skiffle Bunch in the short time since their conversion have in fact turned into one of the premier pansides and deserve a place in the exclusive "Premier League" so far only occupied by Despers (Desperadoes) and Renegades. Whether the full sized 100-plus member band or small ensemble, Skiffle Bunch really are that good! Even as a lifelong and fiercely loyal Despers man I have to admit that.
A small but appreciative crowd had assembled this balmy, sunny summer's Wednesday lunchtime in the pleasant, intimate courtyard of The October Gallery. The thunderous, booming Tassa Drummers, who had traveled with Skiffle Bunch from South Trinidad, started the concert, while Skiffle members continued to set up their pans in the crowded space. The tassa drummers were a typical group of four, consisting of two tassa drums, respectively known as the cutter and the fulley, the jhanj (cymbals), and bass drum. A typical tassa ensemble such as this is capable of an ear-splitting volume (but can only give a small foretaste of the massed tassa drummers during the Hosay festival in St. James!), and sure enough, the glorious noise came as something of a surprise, if not shock, to most of the crowd. These four South Trinidadian Tassa Drummers put on as polished and accomplished a performance as you could have wished for and certainly brought back fond, nostalgic memories of Hosay days on the streets of St. James (a suburb of Port of Spain).
Skiffle Bunch and Tassa Drummers in full swing!
(For more photos please see the slide show below.)
Soon, it was time for the "main event" - Skiffle Bunch kicked off their set with a lively piece and a big sound for such a small ensemble. The eleven piece ensemble of the cream of Skiffle Bunch consisted of three tenors, a double seconds, a double guitars, a triple guitars, a four cello, the uncommon seven-bass, and an "Engine Room" consisting of congas, trap set, and other percussion such as the iron, scraper, etc. played by Captain Junia Regrello. The "big sound" referred to before was no doubt greatly aided by the fact that one of the tenors was a bore pan, which made the tenor section sound two or three times as large as it was. A bore pan is distinguished by the perforations between the individual notes of the pan, which result in a crisper, cleaner sound and enhanced carrying power. However, what was unusual about this one was the length of its skirt, or rather, lack thereof. All the (tenor) bore pans I'd seen previously had skirts of about 9 inches, about the same as standard double seconds, while this one seemed to have a pretty much normal skirt for a tenor of about 6 inches or maybe 7. Whatever the length of the skirt, the sound was fantastic.
Somehow, one cannot help but be somewhat reminded by the extremely crisp sound of Skiffle Bunch, of that of Renegades. Now I am told that Skiffle's pans are in fact tuned by Bertrand ‘Butch’ Kellman, long-time head tuner of Renegades. If that information is correct, that of course would explain a lot.
Today's performance by Skiffle Bunch highlighted a small selection from their wide repertoire. The performance itself was a breathtaking one, exhilarating to the point of leaving you gasping for air but of course wanting still more. The soloing by the high tenor and bore pan pannists were particularly outstanding and had real star quality about them. For about half an hour or so, one felt transported back to Trinidad, where the sound of pan is never far away. A bottle of Stag (a local beer) and a bowl of pelau (a local dish), and you really could have been there. The total infectiousness of Skiffle Bunch was not lost on the audience, who had warmed to the music very quickly.
For the climactic finale, Skiffle Bunch were joined by the Tassa Drummers. It was a simply glorious performance. The exuberant enthusiasm of the players of Skiffle Bunch made this event pure joy. Alas, the little lunchtime concert reached its end all too soon when it should have lasted all afternoon as well! However, there was at least the consolation of a further performance early that evening in the Theatre Court at the National Theatre, which is reviewed here. Skiffle Bunch truly gave us pan sweet pan!
As this inspiring lunchtime event resulted in a fairly sizeable number of excellent photographs that it would not really be feasible to use in a short review such as this, a selection is presented below in a slide show.
Skiffle Bunch's star tenor pannist on a
Skiffle Bunch's high tenor pannist