The sun is dimming on the horizon and there are disjointed tinkles of tenors and rumblings of bass drums in the Woodbrook panyard of Phase II.
It’s hours after practice was supposed to formally begin on my first day photographing the band, and I’m still to make the time zone adjustment between intent and reality that’s part of the way that Phase II gets their work done. Dr Pat Bishop famously took ownership of calypsonian Shadow’s brilliant line, “I belong to the House of Music,” first for an exhibit of her art, and finally as a commitment to her work. This then is the yard of that house, a relaxed, familial space that’s as much a community as it is an extended family where music is also at the centre of its every existence.
The music is created in sections before it’s assembled and rehearsed by its arranger and composer Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and his drill lieutenants. First, the music is played at half speed, the senior musicians listening for misplaced or laggardly notes. This isn’t what casual pan fans come to the yard to hear, but if you’re patient can imagine the piece even in these component parts.
This odd little hollow at the dead-end of Hamilton Street is where Phase II has been putting together the chords that have become the defining music of an age since 1972, when six young men decided, with all the arrogance of their years, that they knew better than their elders in Starlift and struck out on their own.
The men, boys really, were Barry Howard, Rawle Mitchell, Andy Phillip, Selwyn Tarradath, Noel Seon and Sharpe, all of whom had been pursuing their own parallel dream in Starlift, often doubling back after band practice to do their own thing on the pans after everyone else had packed up to go home.
They found a home in a little clearing in overgrown bamboo and bush on the street, across the road from the home of one of their number, Selwyn Tarradath. The original plan was to pursue fusion music, working with traditional musicians and creating their own songs created for the pan.
Part of that plan worked out, and not in the way that they imagined. Starlift would spawn two other bands, 3rd World and Huggins Pandemonium, an all-girl band sponsored by the distributor that would often be supplemented by Starlift players.
Eventually, more of those players along with other Starlift players would drift into the compelling sphere of Phase II drawn by the musical explorations that the band encouraged and pushed away by the cussedness of the old school pannists of Starlift. “There was a lot of ill will with the band leaving Starlift,” band manager Errol Skerritt explained, “but there was a lot of goodwill in the community."
"As more pannists dropped by, it seemed possible to field a side that could go to Panorama in 1973, where they played Sparrow's Mas in May, the first and last time that they would play a traditional calypso in competition.
In 1984, they played I Music, the first in a four-decade-long run of original compositions by Sharpe (in 1994 and 1995 the band played Ray Holman compositions), daring arrangements and sometimes controversial appearances at Panorama that have made Phase II one of the most discussed bands in the history of pan.
The band now works on a seasonal basis with 160 pannists, with 35 of them forming the professional core of the band. At one time, many of those pannists came from within the Woodbrook community, but that’s no longer the case. “Woodbrook is no longer a community,” lamented Skerrit.
Over the years, the band’s striking arrangements and Sharpe’s personal commitment to powerful and individualistic playing attracted musicians like Nappy Mayers and Richard Bailey to the panyard to listen and to participate.
Until this year, the band hosted an annual jazz fusion event on the Wednesday two weeks before Carnival that attracted musicians to take part in jams with the most skilful players in the band. That didn’t happen this year, but it’s something that the band hopes to return to the musical calendar soon.
In 1984, when Skerritt joined the band, there was no electricity, no running water, no bathroom facilities and Tarradath’s mother was the emergency resource for all these services. “I remember coming into her living room and watching her look at television. The band was playing thunderously, things were shaking on the shelves and she was sitting there, stoically looking at her show,” Skerritt recalled. “The things that people have done for this band...”
In 1986 Errol Skerritt was appointed the band’s manager, taking over from founding manager Peter Aleong. One of his first missions was replacing the band’s instruments, which they played for the first time on the Savannah stage in 1987, performing This Feeling Nice, for which they won their first Panorama title.
This year they arrived at the Queen’s Park Savannah stage to play More Love, one of dozens of Sharpe compositions the band has played over the years and emerged in first place with 273 points, a single point ahead of longtime rival Exodus.
The band must manage its instruments carefully now, a sharp contrast to the carefree days of 1986, when a tenor pan, tuned, cost an average of $900. In 2013 that cost has jumped to $5,000 and the premium pans, once left out to the elements are now stored in air-conditioned shipping containers. Skerrit cannot afford to replace all the band’s instruments anymore and pans are chromed not for style, but for longevity.
Even with a sponsor, Petrotrin, with whom the band has had an irregular relationship since 1999, there are significant cost challenges to maintaining the band’s distinctly low-key presence, a huddling of used shipping containers, a shed and some ageing bleachers the only stake that the band has put down in Hamilton Street in 41 years. It’s a space now in the shadow of the towering presence of One Woodbrook Place, whose air-conditioning cooling towers continuously sprinkle the panyard with a fine mist of water spray when the wind shifts. Wayne Rajnauth, who provides transport for the band’s movements to the Savannah and back, describes the cost of maintaining a large steelband succinctly. “When I make the trip with the rostrum alone that’s a million by itself.”
Soon after he tells me this, the truck in front makes a sharp turn up to the Savannah and a pan rolls off the racks and hits the road with a sharp, ringing crash. Rajnauth brakes and we watch the pan roll across the road with a drunken wobble toward a young woman who watches it in shock.
As it arcs toward the drain, she steps forward and stops it, looking up with questioning eyes at the cabin of the truck we’re in. Rajnauth barks orders to his loading men and the pan is quickly scooped up.
Since Ray Holman’s Pan on the Move in 1972, much has changed for pan music. Far fewer traditional calyxsonians are creating songs for the steelband and the notion of bands coming to Panorama with their own compositions has become commonplace, but Sharpe’s adventurous arrangements and Phase II’s independent spirit keep it just one step apart from its competitors. Postscript Early on Carnival Sunday Morning, three hours after midnight and eight hours after the competition began, Petrotrin Phase II rolled its pans onto the Queen’s Park Savannah stage to perform its final arrangement of Len “Boogsie” Sharpe’s collaboration with Black Stalin, More Love. The band emerged winner of the competition, scoring 283 points, five ahead of Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars.
In addition to adding unpublished material to the story that appeared in the Sunday Guardian, this story also corrects an error in fact about the composer of Mas in May and the year I Music was first performed. Phase II wins 1987 - This feeling Nice 1988 - Woman is boss 2005 - Trini gone wild 2006 - This one’s for you Bradley 2008 - Musical vengeance 2013 - More love The band has placed second in the competition 11 times.