Invaders: the pan yard under the breadfruit tree

Jeannine Remy and Ray Funk mine the rich history of Invaders, one of Trinidad’s oldest steelbands

  • Invaders performing at the annual Pan in the 21st Century in 2004 with Verna Francis as flagwaver. Photograph courtesy Trevor Cooper
  • Caribbean Airlines Invaders performing outside the company`s new Nicholas Towers office, downtown Port of Spain. Photograph courtesy Caribbean Airlines
  • The famous breadfruit tree. Photograph by Jeannine Remy
  • The Oval Boys in the 1940s before they became Invaders. Photograph courtesy Andy and Jeff Narell

The name “Invaders” brings back memories of the Mannette brothers, Ellie, Birdie and Ossie, hordes of Carnival celebrants and tourists congregated at the yard for the start of J’Ouvert morning, and the beautiful sound of their instruments, nicknamed the “Sweet Pans” and the “Golden Harps”.

But the band, one of the oldest in Trinidad, and a steelband of legend, is still active at its panyard at 147 Tragarete Road, in the heart of Woodbrook in Port of Spain.

Invaders received a national award, the Chaconia Medal (Gold), in 1996, for their contribution to culture. Many of the most important innovators in pan music came out of Invaders, among them composer Ray Holman; Trinidad’s first genius at improvisation, Emmanuel “Cobo Jack” Riley; and Errol Zephyrine, a man whose orchestration included extended chords and featuring different sections of the band equally. Their first records, such as “Liebestraum” in 1959, were legendary.

Some of the players have become famous abroad. These include educators like Clifford Alexis at Northern Illinois and Dawn Batson at Florida International University; jazz pannist Othello Molineaux, known for his key presence in Jaco Pastorius’s groups and more recently in his own ensembles; and legendary jazz bassist David “Happy” Williams, who came from a family of musicians only a couple blocks from the yard and, despite his father’s disapproval, started playing pan in Invaders in his teens, and only later took up the bass.

In the late 1930s, a group of boys who lived across the street from the Queen’s Park Oval would occasionally field the balls for a little pocket change. When they grew tired of hanging around the Oval, the boys would cross the street and practise their music in a little plot of land under the breadfruit tree where Francis Wickham, the Mannettes, and Kelvin Dove’s family lived. Too young to join Alexander’s Ragtime Band from Newtown, just down the road, who championed the move from beating bamboo to beating metal, the boys started to imitate the rhythms they heard from metal-beating bands and Shango tents. They formed their own little band, first known as the Oval Boys.

According to Francis Wickham, the founding members of the Oval Boys included Kelvin Dove, Conrad “Coco” Hunte, Irvine Taylor, Vernon “Birdie” Mannette, and Milton “Ossie” Mannette. In 1942 the Oval was a venue for one of the first steelband competitions, and although Alexander’s Ragtime Band took first place, Oval Boys, captained by Stanley Hunte, came second, with Hell Yard third.

When World War II came, Carnival was banned, but metal-beating bands like the Oval Boys continued to experiment with tuning various metal containers to specific notes. At first, the early innovators were only able to isolate a few pitches and perform simple nursery rhymes. As they learned to isolate the notes, and added more, they tried to copy tunes they heard by ear.

Because he was still at primary school, Ellie Mannette joined the Oval Boys a little later than his brothers. He was fascinated by the pans, and was one of the great innovators in using a 55-gallon drum rather than the smaller biscuit tins, sinking the playing area so that it was concave, and putting rubber on the pan sticks.

The US military presence in Trinidad, at the naval base in Chaguaramas, from October 1940, had aroused an overall fascination with anything military, including music played on the radio, sailor attire, and even movies. War films were very popular amongst the youths, who started naming their steelbands after the popular war movies. The Oval Boys went to see the movie called The Night Invader at the Roxy and decided to change their name. They came out on the street with their new name for the first time on VE Day in 1945.

After the war, Invaders emerged as one of the leading steelbands, and other bands became jealous of their success and their middle-class support. Invaders had to learn to defend themselves and build a core of protectors – they were involved in some of the worst steelband clashes. It has been said that Invaders men had the bait to catch the eye of any young woman. The good-looking Invaders saga boys dressed the part, especially Ellie Mannette, whom many considered to be the best-dressed saga boy in Woodbrook. Invaders even sang a boastful ditty warning mothers to keep their daughters inside when they passed by! Every Carnival, it seemed, Invaders got into some confrontation or other. Their encounter with another steelband, Tokyo, was immortalised by Lord Blakie in his 1954 calypso, “Steelband Clash”, a favourite still sung to this day.

Throughout the Forties and Fifties, the Woodbrook community supported the band. Beryl McBurnie, dancer, choreographer and founder of the nearby Little Carib Theatre, started to use Invaders in her events at the Little Carib, giving the band a unique status at the time. From the beginning, other prominent supporters also assisted Invaders and its members in all kinds of ways. Lennox Pierre was known for carrying his violin into the panyard to help with arranging, and attorney Bruce Procope, QC, would help if players needed legal assistance. Everest Telfer, an agent for RKO Pictures in the Caribbean, would use Invaders to promote any film he brought to Trinidad. The film company would hire Invaders, rent a truck, and put them on board. Invaders would attract attention as they played through the streets, and members passed out movie flyers to the crowd.

But the bloodshed needed to stop. A government-appointed committee was put together to try to solve the rivalries between the bands and end the violence. As part of this effort, in 1951, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) was assembled from members of different steelbands to represent Trinidad and Tobago at the Festival of Britain. From Invaders, Ellie Mannette was chosen to perform and to build instruments for the group. With the help of TASPO’s musical director/conductor, Lieutenant Joseph Griffith, Ellie Mannette and his fellow tuner and innovator Anthony Williams (later of North Stars) were educated on the necessity for chromatic instruments. Both later continued to experiment and invent creative solutions for the pan. TASPO performed all over England and went on to Paris. The orchestra created pride in pan and seemed to help reduce the violence, although it would be years before it would completely cease.

While he was in TASPO, Ellie Mannette left Invaders in the hands of his brother Birdie, who took a side of eight Invaders members to New York, to perform at a conference organised by the New York Herald Tribune that was broadcast coast to coast in the United States. It was the first steelband from Trinidad to receive such exposure.

During the 1950s it became more acceptable for people from all walks of life to join a steelband. The college bands were appearing, formed by more middle-class members of society, and the first all-women steelbands were formed. Everyone came to Invaders’ panyard to get pans and learn from Mannette, the master. For many, Invaders panyard was the university of pan, as Mannette was constantly experimenting to build better-sounding instruments. Hazel Henley of Girl Pat, one of the pioneer female steelbands, approached him for instruments and help in learning to play them. Boscoe Holder and his wife Sheila, who recorded and performed pan on British television before TASPO came to England, got their pans from Mannette. Upon hearing the steelbands in Trinidad during the 1957 Carnival season, Admiral Gallery of the US Navy returned to San Juan and insisted that Chief Musician Charles A Roeper had his musicians put down their conventional instruments and learn how to play the pan instead. He was tired of the same old military brass bands that accompanied him. Mannette built their instruments and regularly flew to Puerto Rico to tune and train the band.

During Carnival, Invaders’ supporters were legion, and Invaders, like many steelbands, featured mas bands. They were famous for their sailor mas and Aztec Indians. George Bailey, one of the great Carnival designers and bandleaders, started out designing sections for Invaders mas bands before he branched out on his own. Over the years Mannette would also take time out to design Invaders masquerade bands, such as 1965’s Splendour of Java.

Invaders have been regular finalists at the annual national steelband competition, Panorama. They were the first band to roll onto the stage at the first Panorama, in 1963, and the first steelband to hire a woman arranger for Panorama – Geraldine Connor, in 1978 and 1984. Many of the greatest arrangers in pan have worked with Invaders over the years, including Boogsie Sharpe, Ray Holman, Earl LaPierre, Steve Achaiba, Pelham Goddard and Junior Pouchet, and yet they have never won, despite having produced performances that remain legendary. Their Panorama arranger for the last several years, Arddin Herbert, grew up playing with Invaders. He now arranges for one of New York City’s top steelbands and last year arranged for an English band for the Notting Hill Carnival. Invaders have also been fierce competitors at the annual music festivals and Pan is Beautiful competitions.

Invaders were the first steelband to be sponsored by a major corporation, the Shell Oil Company, starting in 1960. With the sponsorship came the responsibility of presenting an image that the oil company could promote. The years of steelband clashes were finally over for good: if there was any bad behaviour, the band risked losing their sponsorship. Invaders continued to be sponsored by Shell’s successors after it was nationalised and became Trintoc and later Petrotrin. BWIA came on as their sponsor in 1999 until the airline was relaunched as Caribbean Airlines in 2007. Caribbean Airlines has proudly been their sponsor since its incorporation.

Over the years many Invaders have gone on to other bands. In the Sixties, players who were brought up in Invaders moved on to Starlift, and then another exodus, from Starlift, resulted in the formation of Phase II. But a major change came when its captain departed. Murray Narell, father of pan greats Andy and Jeff Narell, persuaded Ellie Mannette to migrate to the United States in 1967 to help him use steelband for youth development in Manhattan.

Since leaving Trinidad, Mannette has become a major force in building and tuning pans. For the last couple of decades he has been based at the University of West Virginia. Mannette Steel Drums are a major manufacturer of pans, and their annual summer camp for “steel drum” students is the most respected such programme in the United States. He has also received numerous prestigious awards: the US National Endowment Award for the Arts in 1999, and, at home, a Chaconia Silver Medal, and an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies in 2000.

With Ellie’s departure, the leadership of the band fell to his younger brother Birdie Mannette, who had been in the band since the beginning and also been deeply involved in building and tuning pans for Invaders and other bands. He would lead the band until the 1990s, and was honoured with the Humming Bird medal in 1989.

Over the years, the strongly macho image of steelbands started to change and women started coming into the band. Invaders welcomed them. Indeed, by 1994, in the band’s election of officers, four women took posts: Roxanne Christian as vice-captain, Desiree Myers as secretary, Barbara Jenson as treasurer and Michelle Anderson as assistant public relations officer. Women remain in leadership roles in the band, which looks very different from the Fifties; now, over half its members are women.

One of the band’s longstanding challenges has been that it doesn’t own its panyard. In 1979, the owner of the property evicted Invaders from what had been their home since they started and the pans were put out into the street. Broadcaster, composer and pan aficionado Rocky McCollin and sporting hero McDonald Bailey came to the rescue, getting a judge to get the pans off the road and back into the panyard. But the issue still hasn’t been resolved. The band raises money to help buy the land with annual Pan Parang and Pork concerts in November. Recently, the government designated the panyard a national historical site.

Over the six decades since they started, Invaders has sustained a strong presence at Carnival, winning all three bomb competitions for Carnival 2009. They have an active elders’ association, healthy membership and an active stage side that performs year round both in Trinidad and Tobago and outside the country. The band regularly sends its stage side overseas; they recently appeared at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as well as winning a pan competition in Barbados in 2008.

Invaders’ manager Michael Dinchong looks to the future. “I consider this period to be a period of rebirth in the life of Invaders. Our players are young and vibrant, and in a sense, posses the resilience and courage of our founding fathers. We proudly carry the flame of the symbolic torch in our pan sticks.”

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.