Saving the picture history of pan

Invented in the streets of Port of Spain, the steelband now has a photo archive recognised in Unesco’s Memory of the World register

  • Desperadoes coming off the Savannah stage, Carnival 1951, playing “Cranes” fancy sailor. Photograph by Jack Williams
  • Earl Rodney and Tropical Harmony in Penthouse nightclub. Photograph by Julia Edwards
  • Ellie Mannette tuning a pan in Invaders panyard, Tragarete Road, mid-1950s. Photograph by Jean Pearse
  • Gene Miles and North Stars Steel Orchestra at Government House, Independence Ball, August 31, 1961. Photograph by Government Information Services
  • Jab Molassie (molasses devil), 1933. Photograph by Howard Nankivell, courtesy of Edmund Nankivell

It began with a single photograph.

Five years ago I was invited to write a book commemorating the bicentennial of Chinese arrival in Trinidad & Tobago. (The book was published under the title Descendants of the Dragon.) Hearing of my project, one distant relative gave me a studio portrait shot around 1902 of ten formally-dressed Chinese: three young men in coats and ties, three young women in long dresses with high collars, two children, a babe-in-arms, and, presiding over all in black silk, a matriarch.

That small, severe-looking woman was my great-grandmother.

I’d known nothing about the ancestor who’d made the trip from China. My heart lurched. Suddenly, part of me I’d never spared a thought became as tangible as a dream.

It was a revelation of not only personal but of social significance.

So when someone suggested I write an illustrated book on the mas of Carnival, I countered with one on pan instead. I’d spent years interviewing pan pioneers without ever considering that there must have been photographs, but now I returned to them, this time with a portable scanner and my laptop. I also asked everyone I knew if they had photographs. I asked the same of strangers. I sent out thousands of e-mails, wrote articles in the press, spoke on television and radio. Through an association of retired US soldiers I wrote to servicemen stationed in Trinidad during and after World War II. And I asked everyone to ask people they knew.

Most had never thought to take photographs of something so mundane as steelbands in the Forties; and some who did lost them when they moved house, got a divorce, threw out the dusty boxes in the garage, migrated, were flooded out, or let their grandchildren play with them.

Still, one per cent still had photographs, and what gems they were, to me like fragments of the true cross to a believer. And one per cent of several thousand is hundreds. I ended up with anywhere between three and four thousand photos of the steelband movement between 1942 and 1980, after which the newspaper libraries are overflowing.

It was an archaeological find of historic significance, enough so for UNESCO to nominate it to the Memory of the World Register, because Trinidad & Tobago has no archive of images and all of those would have been lost for ever. Much as that first photo of my great-grandmother had given me roots, so too I felt I’d given the steelband movement, and by extension the country, roots.

Every photograph had been lovingly preserved for decades, which spoke of their importance to their owners, and as such every owner had stories surrounding each photo, stories of adventure and discovery, of love and danger. Every story animated those slices of frozen time, and brought to life once again the heady, early days of pan. Now The Illustrated Story of Pan offers these stories and the photographs they elucidate to the public.

The Illustrated Story of Pan
is published by the University of Trinidad & Tobago
(ISBN 978-976-651-004-6)


Jab Molassie (molasses devil), 1933

Photo by Howard Nankivell, courtesy of Edmund Nankivell

Jab molassie is one Carnival character which used metal percussion before the advent of the steelband. The photographer was the Colonial Secretary, who was fired in 1938 because of his liberal approach to strikers in 1937.

Nankivell’s liberalism was also manifest in his choice of photographic subject. There are almost no other photographs of the plebeian masquerade before World War II, because such subjects were not considered worthwhile.


Desperadoes coming off the Savannah stage, Carnival 1951, playing “Cranes” fancy sailor

Photo by Jack Williams

Until the early 1960s Desperadoes was more important as a mas band for which steelband music was merely a necessary accompaniment. Interestingly, this photo has a very faint image (left, in the shade, wearing a white shirt) of politician, cultural activist and steelband advocate Albert Gomes.


Earl Rodney and Tropical Harmony in Penthouse nightclub

Photo courtesy Julia Edwards

Dancer Julia Edwards gave me permission to use the photos through her daughter Janet. Unfortunately, Julia was too unwell to be interviewed about the images, so many remained unidentified, including this one, which I especially liked because of the unknown dancers in the foreground.

One day I was in Point Fortin interviewing  the great arranger and all-round musician Earl Rodney, and I decided to show him the best photos I’d gathered. When I came to this one he remarked in surprise: “That’s me! I recognise the pattern on those pans, I painted them myself.”

He then told me the story of how he came from Point to the bright lights in the early Sixties with the steelband Tropical Harmony, which began playing alongside Choy Aming’s dance band. Aming ran the Penthouse nightclub and hired them to play there. Rodney played and arranged for Tropical Harmony, but every night, when Aming’s band took a break, he would play with the acoustic bass until he learned how to play it, and that he did so well as to become the bassman for the great Dutches Orchestra.

Thus from being beautiful in my eyes because of two dancers in long-ago fashions, the photo became precious owing to an out-of-focus panman in the background.


Ellie Mannette tuning a pan in Invaders panyard, Tragarete Road, mid-1950s

Photo courtesy Jean Pears

Ellie Mannette was the steelband movement’s first star. The band he led, Invaders, was based in the middle-class neighbourhood of Woodbrook, and was supported by prominent members of society such as choreographer Beryl McBurnie, solicitor and political activist Lennox Pierre, and cultural activist Patrick Jones.

Additionally, Mannette was a gifted tuner, whose pans made Invaders famous throughout the island and the envy of many other bands. Mannette was also a gifted teacher, whose influence, directly and through the many tuners he trained in Invaders, made his lead pans, with their large F# circle in the centre (visible in the photo), the first standardised pan.

In 1967 he migrated to the US, where he became a distinguished professor at the University of West Virginia and was awarded by President Bill Clinton in 2000 for his work in furtherance of indigenous culture.


Gene Miles and North Stars Steel Orchestra at Government House, Independence Ball, August 31, 1961

Photo courtesy Government Information Services

On the previous night, when the Union Jack was lowered and the national flag of Trinidad and Tobago raised, Desperadoes performed at the Hilton Hotel. At the state ball on the first night of independence, however, North Stars performed.

Miles was a civil servant who later exposed government corruption, lost her job and was ostracised.


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