Farewell Bertie

In the 1990's, I spent a few years as a freelance contributor to The Express. Terry Joseph hustled up to me one day at the office and asked, "You have your car? You have your camera?"
Having possession of both, we went to Harpe Place to photograph ace pan tuner at his home.
Bertie Marshall died last week and what follows below is an extended version of my editorial for the Guardian of October 21, 2012 (#1039 since I began in December 2001).

On Thursday, one of the seminal technicians, scientists and artists of the steelband movement, Bertram Lloyd Marshall, 76, succumbed to the diabetes he’d been battling for more than a decade.
Over the latter half of the 20th century, there are few men who could be numbered alongside him as a driver of steel pan innovation or in his mastery of his craft.

Known as a master tuner of the instrument, the tone he coaxed from crude steel was both envied and imitated.
As tuner for Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, Bertie Marshall, as he was universally known, tuned the pans for nine of the band’s ten Panorama wins and established himself as a key part of the creative axis that built the reputation of the Laventille steelband.

Not content with working with the standard instrument he met, he become one of the steelband movement’s most notable inventors, counting among his innovations the double tenor pan, as fundamental a part of the modern steel orchestra as can be imagined.
After introducing harmonic tuning to the instrument in 1956 at the age of 20, Bertie Marshall went on to create the high tenor, soprano pan, ping pong and increased the range of many lead instruments by stretching the belly of the instrument from four inches to six and one-half inches, making room for three new octaves and making the pan more portable and manageable by reducing its skirt.

His bolder experiments, such as the chariot pan and the Bertfone tended to remain in his home workshop or in trials with Desperadoes, but his continuous re-examination of the instrument was a constant reminder that the achievements in steel pan development should not be considered done and that inventive thinking about the instrument should not only be encouraged, it should be continuous.

His tuning of the instrument for ace pannist Robert Greenidge remains a high point of the solo pan as part of recorded performances by the musician with bands from Grover Washington to Jimmy Buffet. For many who have encountered the steel pan as a musical instrument only through such music, Bertie Marshall’s unique tone is the one they associate with the instrument.

A quiet and humble man in his later years, Mr Marshall kept his dignity no matter the circumstance. In June, the master pan tuner found himself in the unusual position of receiving an eviction notice from the HDC.
It was a clerical error that threatened to turn nasty, but while Mr Marshall quietly dismissed the fuss as an “embarrassing mix-up,” it was left to others to raise enough of a fuss to bring then Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism Winston Peters and Minister of the People and Social Development to Harpe Place to ask after the status of the national icon.

Mr Marshall’s restless tweaking of the steel pan over his whole working life added immeasurably to the national understanding of the instrument, its capabilities and its possibilities.
As a founder of the movement and a major contributor to it, there are, no doubt, many things that Bertie Marshall liked have liked to see before he passed away this week.

He cannot have been happy with the way that the petty arguments that led to blood on the streets in the earliest days of the steelband movement have matured into petty arguments that continue to keep talented musicians, arrangers and composers locked in an annual tussle for competitive glory and a disturbing acceptance of a state sponsored welfare economy as its underpinnings.

Bertie Marshall was not just an inventor. He was very much an entrepreneur, first leading Metronomes Steel Orchestra and then securing a contract for performances at the US Naval Base in Chaguaramas for his Armed Forces Steel Orchestra. From 1961 on, his Laventille Highlanders set a standard for musicianship and tone that the movement did well to follow.
In 2005, the University of Trinidad and Tobago awarded Bertie Marshall a full professorial Fellowship and appointed him to head the new Advanced Tuning program.

While he was there, available to share his techniques, was his work codified and recorded for future students and professorial study? It’s to be hoped that this was part of the process of engaging this unique talent in a University environment.
Bertie Marshall worked hard and long and created more than we can properly evaluate or honour. He wanted more for the steel band. It's now left to others to finish the work he laboured at for so long.
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