Midnight robbers

September 27, 2000

TO face years of brutal assault, only on account of one’s work, then be forced to witness the destruction of cherished intellectual property, must inflict deep and lasting pain, of the type that transcends the physical.

But to have accumulated glory stolen in the twilight of your years, must wound the head and heart in the extreme, particularly when the people who organise the robbery are the same ones who frequently tell the world what a wonderful thing you have done for Trinidad and Tobago.

Pan inventor and innovator, Bertie Marshall has been subjected to all three of those devastating conditions, the latest episode of this continuing savagery coming on Thursday night last when, after being properly nominated, he was denied the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Arts and Culture. Consequently, he was also robbed of the $100,000 cheque that came with the accolade.

The task of determining the recipient was left to the Tourism and Industrial Development Company (Tidco) and the National Institute for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology (Niherst). Their choice was Peter Minshall, a design genius, whose costume creations have undoubtedly lifted the overall aesthetic of the Carnival and brought a new level of scholarship to the event.

But for all his truly abundant talent, Minshall did not invent mas. And while he made significant improvements to it (like the incredible Midnight Robber), the original concept of pretty mas was imported and later enhanced by the likes of George Bailey and Jack Brathwaithe, allowing the Minshall ascendancy to commence from a higher plateau.

Marshall, on the other hand, began with a rudimentary version of pan, one that did not yet understand orchestral integration, harmonics and other critical fundamentals of a legitimate musical instrument.

He corrected all that, then invented the double-tenor, a voice that none of today’s steelbands would dare leave home without. He also developed the middle tonal range, fleshing out music that was hitherto largely treble and bass noises.

Before Marshall’s work, no pan tuner could have used an electronic strobe to check accuracy of the note, since its harmonics were all over the place and without integrity.

He knew that pan did not sound as good as it could. He knew that the fledgling instrument needed continuing research and development. He did it all and at personal expense that simply cannot be quantified by mere arithmetic.

Nor is he is just a pan tuner, difficult as the proper execution of that portfolio might singularly be. He was leader of one of this country’s most celebrated steel orchestras, its arranger and a virtuoso to boot.

His knowledge of electronics led to experiments with amplification of the instrument. He premiered the first version of an amplified tenor pan at Jouvert 1965, taking the top prize at the Bomb competition with his still celebrated arrangement of Handel’s “Let Every Valley be Exalted”.

But pan traditionalists felt that Marshall’s amplification initiative, if allowed to proceed unchecked, would reduce the number of players required.

They developed antagonisms toward his band, the Forsyth Highlanders. In fact, using the term derisively, they described the band’s music as “Chinese”. He took all that.

For all his efforts and advances, the Laventille band was regularly routed by jealous Philistines. So predictable was the annual assault that Highlanders became known as “The Bobolee Band”, a nickname given it in 1967 by Express Editor-at-Large, Keith Smith who, like me and so many others, remain admirers of Marshall’s work.

But the barbarians continued to pounce upon Marshall and his membership every Carnival Tuesday until 1971, after which he retired hurt from the street parade, to continue his experiments at home.

Later that year he invented the Bertphone, described by many as the greatest single leap forward in pan technology, an achievement that enabled the player to sustain or dampen notes and adjust tone and volume electronically.

That experiment was also a victim of thoughtless violence. One of two warring brothers in a house next door to his Erica Street, Laventille home, set fire to their premises on May 7, 1980, and the flames spread, torching the Marshall residence and Bertphone prototype as well.

Having been born of Marshall’s pocket, it has never been replaced. Marshall, 64, continues to turn out Stradivarian quality instruments, which may now be experienced in the prize-winning sound of the Witco Desperadoes Steel Orchestra.

He is the pannists’ pannist, his work having been celebrated by the finest arrangers, players, bandleaders and tuners, including the late Rudolph Charles, Ellie Mannette and Tony Williams.

Even the State once gave him a short-lived and petty grant to work with engineering experts (including Michael Paty) at the University of the West Indies.

But let me sum up boldly: Were it not for Bertie Marshall, none of us would be proud of pan today and certainly, there would have been no World Steelband Music Festival.

No other individual can claim to have influenced the appreciation of the national musical instrument to a degree anywhere near that of this humble man, who still lives and works in a rented apartment Behind the Bridge.

Perhaps just as Prime Minister Basdeo Panday had to beg at the Tidco/Niherst function for a Millennium Award for pan, Marshall’s incredible contribution to its furtherance will only be rewarded if Mr Panday makes a similar supplication on his behalf.

Because it is clear to me that the mocking pretenders who set out to judge his work were clearly not up to the task.


Terry-J at I-Level

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