01 Oct Derron Ellies
“There are a lot of ways to go about enjoying yourself during Trini Carnival” says Derron Ellies. The pre-Lenten rites of Trinidad & Tobago have provided a template for celebrations elsewhere in the Caribbean. In the Instagram era, the daring, dazzling costumes of the bacchanal have attracted influencers eager to show the world – or their sponsors – whatever it is they have got.
As a musician and composer, Ellies is mainly concerned with the rhythmic manifestations of The Tradition. Long before anybody spoke of Google or gigabytes, singers weighed in on the trending topics of the day. Starting in the early 20th century, calypsonians competed to determine which song would serve as the anthem of each year’s celebration. Over the decades a new style, grounded in calypso but slicker and more staccato, has come to dominate airwaves in the Twin Island Republic.
“I love my soca”, Derron says. Performers he admires include Nailah Blackman, Lyrikal, and Superblue, who won the first Soca Monarch title in 1993. He also speaks highly of Rem Bunction, a multi-talented songwriter and animator whose hook-laden tunes are too often dismissed as novelties. “There’s no reason” Ellis opines “that Rem Bunction should not be bigger than he is.”
For all his appreciation of his homeland’s vocal heritage, he is more focused on the instrumental repertoire of steel pan, the national instrument often – and erroneously – called the steel drum. Revelers are understandably drawn to Port of Spain, in northwestern Trinidad. A career in Pan means Ellies spends most of his time in and around the bustling capital city. Yet his musical journey began on the other side of the island, a region famed for sprawling coconut plantations and pristine, isolated beaches.
Derron Ellies was born in Sangre Grande in 1983. His parents and extended family still live in the nearby community of Manzanilla. “The big thing with my family was Dimanche Gras” or Fat Sunday, when the Calypso Monarch finals took place, and those vying to be king and queen of Carnival showcased their finery. “We would sit around the TV and just take in the offerings the contestants would have”. Yet the excitement didn’t end when the broadcast concluded.
“When I was growing up, there was always a small J’Ouvert band coming around about 4:00 in the morning.” J’Ouvert, or Dirty Mas, is a street party that commences at the break of day on Carnival Monday. In contrast to the feathers and sequins masqueraders sport at other times, members of the community dress in old clothes and playfully smear each with mud, paint, oil, or some admixture of the three.
Words like “Dimanche Gras” and “J’Ouvert” are legacies of French Planters and the Africans they enslaved; both groups shaped the celebration in T&T. Yet Trinidad – located just a few miles off the coast of Venezuela – was actually a Spanish colony before being captured by the British in 1797. Iberian influences can still be heard in parang, a genre of Christmas music. Derron’s parents, Beresford and Margarete, were founding members of Los Tocadores, a parang ensemble. He frequently accompanied the group as they brought holiday cheer to the Caribbean diaspora in New York and London.
“When I was four years old, I went to a function with my parents, and there was a band set up. During the break, I went over to look at the pans. Somebody who was watching told me: ‘you’re gonna be big one day. Listen up!’” Fostering his son’s musical inclinations, Beresford took the boy to Merle Albino-De Coteau, a music teacher described as “Top Tier. She did some tests, and told my father I had perfect pitch”. At the age of ten he joined the Manzanilla Police Youth Club, “and that was where I actually started learning steel pan.”
Queen’s Park Savannah, a grassy expanse near the center of Port of Spain, is the site of many Carnival activities, and a popular attraction throughout the year. Around its periphery, one finds The Magnificent Seven, a cluster of Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Among them is Queen’s Royal College, a prestigious secondary school.
Distinguished alumni have included Dr. Eric Williams (T&T’s first Prime Minister), Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, and celebrated costume designer Peter Minshall. Derron was accepted there in 1995. “I’m not going to lie” he admits “I had a lot of rage when I was younger, and I didn’t know how to channel it”. Of course, the same can be said of many adolescents. Ellies remembers his seven years studying at QRC as a time of intellectual and personal growth: “I learned a lot about myself, and how to interact with others”
An heir to the musical riches of the West Indies, Derron’s tastes extend well beyond the region. In 2009, during The Pan on De Move competition, he garnered praise by arranging the Sam Cooke classic “Cupid” for the ensemble Pan Stereonettes. Of late, he has especially been drawn to Fela Kuti, Sho Madjozi, and other African artists. He also loves the sounds of New Orleans, explaining “I’ve been there twice, and both times I ended up playing with some brilliant musicians.”
He particularly enjoyed jamming with Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes. Before pursuing a career in music, Barnes played in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs; he now serves as the Big Chief of the North Side Skull & Bone Gang, a fraternal association founded in 1819. To Ellies, he is “a humble giant. He loves his zydeco, but I think he can play anything. First he was on piano. Next the accordion, then singing…” Although Derron has yet to experience Mardi Gras in the Crescent City, it remains a cherished goal. “I’m really looking forward to that” he says.
In Trinidad & Tobago, steel pan music can be heard at any time, but reaches its apotheosis during the annual Panorama festival. Beginning in early January, ensembles of various sizes compete regionally. Those who get highest marks from the judges have a chance to perform in the capital on the final Saturday of Carnival.
Outside of the Caribbean, the pan is usually employed, way down in the mix, when producers want to imbue pop songs with a vaguely tropical tinkling. Such recordings seldom convey the dynamic range of a steel pan orchestra playing before a crowd – and the term “orchestra” is not simply a case of impresarial hyperbole. The most well-known groups may include up to 120 players.
Yet even smaller configurations are capable of dynamic sonic flights, from gut-pounding syncopation to ethereal meditation. Panorama champions tend to win with crowd pleasing renditions of Soca hits, but a disciplined orchestra can play virtually any genre: Viennese waltzes, Latin jazz, even show tunes. Such versatility is especially impressive when one reflects that pan contests consist only of acoustic percussion. Conventional drum kits, cow bells, or discarded auto parts may be included in the arrangement, but no strings, horns or keyboards.
For generations, players have aspired to take to the big stage on Carnival Saturday. But to truly grasp the idiom’s place in Trini life, a visit to a panyard is in order. A yard typically consists of sheds or trailers where the instruments are stored, and an open air compound. This is where members of the various sections learn their parts and – just as importantly – draw energy from the surrounding community. Panyards can be found in cities and towns throughout the islands, and the public is generally welcome. Snacks and cold drinks are available, along with abundant Carnival spirit, even when Lent is months away.
Before the first note is sounded, orchestra members must prepare. It is one thing to take a clarinet from its case or rub rosin on a bow; affixing a heavy chunk of steel to a metal frame is something else entirely. Many players come to rehearsal directly from jobs that are equally demanding on a physical level. Eventually, the yard resounds with a complete tune played from the top, yet much more time is spent going over four or five measures until everybody is in sync. Considered strictly as entertainment, it can be tedious, but to see so much effort devoted to the cause of celebration is an absolute thrill.
A Panorama championship brings pride to the entire ensemble, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to one individual in particular. The arranger is responsible for wordlessly preserving the essence of a popular song, while extending it in a way that highlights the players’ instrumental prowess. Adding to the challenge, it is not at all unusual for orchestras to compete with different renditions of the same song.
Over the years, Ellies has played with a number of Panorama bands, including Pamberi, Hummingbirds Pan Groove, and Court Sounds Specialists. The experience helped him develop his chops and stage presence. Yet it also opened his eyes to the mechanics of competition – and he didn’t always like what he saw. To his mind, judges too frequently rewarded “Copy-and-Paste” arrangements at the expense of true innovation. He also grew frustrated by a “lack of support and accountability” by the Executive Board of Pan Trinbago, the organizers of the contest.
Pan is a labor of love, with an equal emphasis on both. At the top level, winners do receive cash prizes up to USD $150,000. Such sums sound impressive, but when one considers that winnings are shared by scores of musicians, arrangers and support crew, the amounts are minimal. Factoring in the cost of costumes and the hours spent rehearsing, very few players even recoup the cost of going to and from the yard. While a significant amount of state and corporate largesse flows into Panorama, the length of time it took for monies to be paid out proved a chronic irritant. After all his hard work and passion, Derron made a difficult decision: “In 2010, I put down my sticks”
While his personal memories are bittersweet, he is excited about more recent developments. “We are seeing radical ideas from Pan Trinbago’s latest executive”, he says with enthusiasm. “It’s a new era with fresh blood all around, especially in the arranging aspect.” Although he is unlikely to perform in Panorama again, he has no desire to “downplay its national importance and global impact”.
None of this means the last decade has been a quiet period for Derron Ellies. He has continued to make a joyful noise during Carnival, as a member of Rhapsody Next Generation. “I have been blessed to play with a group that started out as a steel band, but is now a combination” — one that integrates the Percussive Harmonic Instrument, or PHI. Electronic technology means he and his bandmates can bring big sounds to more intimate venues. “We have been able to hit many all-inclusive stages” he says, referring to the fetes that are a fixture of T&T life in the weeks before Ash Wednesday.
As an art form, steel pan occupies an exalted place in the Caribbean psyche. But this has not always been the case. Abundant hydrocarbon reserves mean Trinidad & Tobago is less dependent on tourism than many nearby countries. As the industry grew during the 1930’s, Trinis began removing one end from discarded oil barrels to form resonating chambers. Cylinders cut to different lengths produced varying pitches and timbres. A series of dents, beaten into the remaining head, created individual notes.
The earliest pan players drew on a rich rhythmic heritage with links to West Africa and the Indian subcontinent. But they also anticipated the emergence, decades later, of punk and hip-hop. All three genres are examples of what happens when talented people of limited means express themselves with the resources on hand.
The first steel ensembles emerged in Laventille, an easterly district of Port of Spain. Then as now, it was a hardscrabble neighborhood where, despite Trinidad’s relative affluence, many struggled to survive. Miguel Street, a short story collection by V.S. Naipaul, includes a portrayal of one particularly menacing pan man:
It was people like Big Foot who gave the steel-bands a bad name. Big Foot was always ready to start a fight with another band…You would think that when he was beating his pan and dancing in the street at Carnival, Big Foot would at least smile and look happy. But no. It was on occasions like this that he prepared his sulkiest and grimmest face; and when you saw him beating a pan, you felt, to judge by his earnestness, that he was doing some sacred act.
Miguel Street is a work of fiction and Naipaul, for all gifts, was a writer with deep personal prejudices. The characterization of pan players as “Bad Johns” was surely exaggerated. But, at least in the early days, that reputation was not completely unfounded. During the Carnival season of 1950, two ensembles – Invaders and Tokyo – engaged in a massive brawl. The calypsonian Lord Blakie immortalized the incident in “Steelband Clash”.
The violent stereotype waned as the instrument gained the respect of the upper classes. Sadly, that has not has not been the case for the communities where it originated. Residents of Laventille, Morvant, and Sea Lots face industrial pollution, aging infrastructure, and a social stigma that perpetuates cycles of poverty. The fact that the police and military recruit from this populace has not helped matters. As Ellies explains, “it’s siblings in uniform beating up siblings and relatives in these battle scarred areas”.
Like Trench Town in Jamaica, or Beale Street in Memphis, Laventille is a place where adversity has been intertwined with ferocious creativity. “When it comes to the steel bands themselves” says Derron “They will always remember where they came from, but they’re always looking to where the next step is”.
That aesthetic informs HEAD SPACE, a suite he recorded on a single day during the summer of 2018. While undeniably Caribbean, the piece also evokes the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan, and Miles Davis at his most introspective. Emotionally and stylistically, the work is a departure from the frantic exuberance of most steel pan. The cycle was composed as the artist was going through a painful divorce: “What you’re hearing is pure, untouched me”.
Listeners are taken on a journey through Anger, Denial, and Reflection before arriving at the depths of Desolation; Derron Ellies admits “that melody haunts me to this day”. Of the final movement, Recovery, he says “that’s what I was working toward at the time. And that’s where I am right now”
Photo credits (Top to bottom): Elliot Francois, Hueloy Yip Young, Celeste and Reece Photography.
Postcard & Map in Public Domain