March 02, 2003
By Raffique Shah
IF any carnival character of yesteryear has made a big comeback in recent years, it's the "Grim Reaper". Ironically, the Angel of Death seems to have been making a statement about declining standards in this country's Carnival by snatching from us the most talented standard bearers of excellence, those who had the ability to blend the best of tradition with new trends. Three years ago, the Grandmaster of Calypso, Lord Kitchener, made his exit to the hereafter on the eve of the festival. Then recently Pretender, who had only just released a remix of one of his greatest calypsoes, "Never Ever Worry", died after a long illness. Now, on the eve of this year's very controversial Carnival, the doyen of this country's indigenous music, Andre Tanker, was virtually stolen from us as we partied or "panned" away Carnival Friday night.
To say that news of Andre's passing was shocking is an understatement. I was driving home from my Friday night lime in the city, listening to radio commentary on the Panorama Single Pan Bands finals when one announcer broke the news. I turned up the volume on my radio just to double-check what I'd heard. I was shocked and saddened. You see, when Kitch and Preddie left us, they had both lived full lives in the sense that they had crossed 80 years on this Earth, and given us many more good songs and music than we deserved. In Andre's case, he would have been just about 60. And although he seemed to have been around forever, he'd only just begun dishing out a different genre of music that ignited the festival's shrinking fare, his "Bin Lion" (done in conjunction with Three Canal) of last year literally lighting up from fetes to the road.
Although the religious and fatalists among us would say, "his time had come", those among us who recognised his immense talents, much of it still untapped, would disagree. I do. I mean there are so many evil people out there, so many high-society bandits who are worse than the gun-toting thugs who terrorise ordinary people, so many hypocrites and misfits. And of all the people Basil chose to rest his hand on, it was one of the kindest, most talented sons of the soil, "The Tank". Life—and the cold hands of death—is never fair.
The tragedy of the loss is compounded by the fact that most of today's radio personalities know Andre only as the man who sang "Sayamanda", or worse, as the creator of "Bin Lion". Trapped as they are in the world of "fast foods" music, they know nothing about the glory days of this genius who started playing pan in Woodbrook as a boy. I would learn a lot about Andre's earlier flirtations with music during the many private conversations we had. He moved on to become a pioneer of "combos" that ruled the dancehall roost in the early 1960s. I first heard his music and the name when he was the key player in a group named "The Flamingoes". He did play in other bands before that, though. In an era that could be described as one in which strings overtook horns, Andre's "Flamingoes" was more than a match for the likes of "The Commancheros", Monty Williams' "Cassanovas" and others.
Andre would migrate and spend some time in North America—a period I never did ask him about. But he must have expanded his mastery of music there because by the time he returned home sometime in the late 1960s/early 1970s, he did it with the proverbial bang. His first hit, "Ah Come Back Home" was a statement in song that went way beyond its musical appeal. Its lyrical contents, a kind of cry of the Prodigal Son, formed the root from which songs like David Rudder's "Trini to the Bone" would spring.
It was shortly after he returned home that he wrote and produced the soundtrack for the locally made movie Bim. That film remains the best local production to date. And the music—a blend of ole' time pan, club-room horns, haunting strains of Indian music from the mandolin—was out of this world. I still treasure a 20-plus year-old tape of that LP I made way back when. His "Jumbie Call" from that soundtrack still has listeners tapping to its beat whenever it is played. For reasons that are best defined by the lack of pride in our heritage, that movie seems to have disappeared, along with the soundtrack.
One of his finest moments, for me, was when he teamed up with Brother Valentino to produce a concert at Queen's Hall sometime back in 1973/74. "Valli", who had just come off a string of hits ("Life is a Stage", "Stay up Zimbabwe"), blended so well with Andre's offerings and accompaniment, the music was out of this world. I'll never forget "Valli" singing "Hark, Hark, The Dogs do bark", which, I believe, was an Andre composition. Then, as within more recent times, Andre would play the guitar and sing, then calmly extract a flute from his pocket to add a haunting piece, and later resort to the ever-present harmonica to give soul to his offerings. When he pulled out his pocket comb covered with foil and played music on that, those of us who considered that "child's play" had to think again!
Andre, who got many of his early ideas for "roots" music from hanging out with the brothers from "The Village Drums of Freedom" in St James, a group that came out of the 1970 revolution, went on to churn out a string of hits in the 1970s and '80s. "Sayamanda" might be the best known, but he rocked the party circuit and the airwaves with hits like "Basement Party", "The River Come Down" and "Steelband Times" (just a minute sampling of his works). With "Bin Lion" he injected subliminal lyrics with "rapso" to create a monster hit. I know he worked on some follow-up Jouvert jam music for this Carnival, but he never got the opportunity to complete his life's work.
In Andre's passing, this country has lost a genius, a trailblazer-supreme, one who was daring and talented enough to experiment with our various forms of music. His music contained healing properties, lyrics and soulful music that demanded from the society and end to schisms and racism. It's now up to the likes of Mungal Patassar and David Rudder to fill the breach.
My deepest sympathy goes to Christine and the Tanker family. You have lost a loved one. The country has lost an unsung hero.