Invaders coming!

"Invaders" is one of Trinidad's oldest and best-respected steel orchestras. Now sponsored by BWIA, the band can trace its history back a good six decades. Pat Ganase tells the story

  • BWIA Invaders. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Lining up the pans in the road, outside the Savannah. Photograph by Sean Drakes

The story of Invaders Steel Orchestra

One of the oldest steelbands in the world is BWIA Invaders. From their location on Tragarete Road in Port of Spain, Trinidad — “under de breadfruit tree” — they have sent forth panmen to the universe. Here’s how it all started 60 years ago

Each J’Ouvert morning, when Invaders set out on the street, an army of five or six thousand follows. It is a victorious army reclaiming emancipation 50 years after the battles for the street.

“The road make to walk on Carnival day,” sang Lord Kitchener of an era when steelbands were community gangs asserting supremacy over the streets, by braver danger (force or finesse) or later by music. Street music was as likely to be the noise of pelting bottles and stone as the rhythm of pan.

Remember the way it was, in the 50s and 60s, when brave citizens of Trinidad and Tobago in the sedate suburb of Woodbrook took courage in hand to go out on the street behind the band on J’Ouvert. They were typical bourgeois souls, but come carnival, they were willing to lend force of numbers to territorial claims. They went prepared to fight or flee.

“Woodbrook people are decent, but not cowards. And when Invaders started to riot, it was because we had to fight to defend them. Tokyo and Desperadoes used to say we can’t come in town. They would send us all kind of threats. Well, they had to learn to respect we. And we achieved it.”

Francis Wickham, founding member of Oval Boys, which later became Invaders, is philosophical about why Invaders had to be a “badjohn” band. He is big and well-built for 72 years. His cap, the armless jersey, the towel hanging out of the pocket of his army-cut corduroys, are badges of street savvy, but his demeanour is calm, his tone even, barely pitched above the drone of the sanding machine working on pans in the yard.

In the 1940s, he explains, the boys in the area used to lime in the Oval (home of the Queen’s Park Cricket Club). It had a “galvanise” (galvanised iron) fence in those days, and the entrance was across Tragarete Road from the yard where they lived “under the breadfruit tree.” They played cricket and football, and made rhythm on “old pans we pick up all ‘bout the place.” They were the Oval Boys, making music for Carnival.

Most of the founding members are now dead, but Wickham remembers them with fondness: Birdie and Aussie Mannette, Kelvin and Beresford Dore, Harold Mascall, Estick, Bob Hewitt, Francis Innis, Fitzroy Hunte, Ellis, Clarence Gulston, Conrad Hunte and John Doyle. Ellie Mannette didn’t start Oval Boys, but came in later. He was their best tuner, choosing and moving to “caustic soda” pans, then bigger, oil drums, getting more and more notes, more octaves, improving the sound all the time.

When they started, the small (biscuit, sweet oil and salt butter) pans were held in one hand, and played with one stick in the other hand. At first, Aussie did the tuning, getting two or four notes depending on the size of the pan. They learned from Alexander’s Ragtime Band in Newtown, led by Humbugger, George Goddard and Totee, who tuned pans before Spree Simon was on the scene.

Wickham remembers one Oval competition in which Alexander’s won, Oval Boys were second and Hell Yard (later All Stars) were third. “Hell Yard wanted to beat us up. But we didn’t know nothing ‘bout fight. We accustomed to school and church, we were li’l fellas.

“We never played outside of Woodbrook. When Carnival was banned during the war, we played in the yard. When the war ended in 1945, and everybody come out on the streets, we come out for the first time, in the night. Roxy had a movie showing, Invaders. We called ourselves Night Invaders, then just Invaders.”

Being a “social” Woodbrook band, they played a lot of Latin music: La Paloma, Ciboney. Then Oscar Pyle from Casablanca invited them to play in San Fernando, a gig every week for about 20 players. No fighters, just people interested in music like Zephrine, Ray Holman, Happy Williams, Roy Horsford. Invaders even went to Aruba in 1950 for about four months.
By then, Ellie Mannette was learning the trade of welding and turning that would blend with his musical ability to make him the most skilled pan-tuner in the world. Wickham was a machinist with Public Works, and later the railway.

The first Carnival night that Invaders decided to go in town was a turning point, says Wickham, “from one state of life to another.” It was a couple years after 1945. They had played sailor on the streets around Woodbrook and decided to go “in town” in the night.

“We were going up Duke Street to George Street. Tokyo was coming along Duke Street. Well, they mash us up flat. Ellie had a pan he called Barracuda. They carry it up the hill, put it on a tree, and tell him if he want it come for it. It was massacre. We couldn’t fight back. All we could do was run.

“Later, when Stanley Hunte, from Luis Street, joined the band, he said this must stop. He was a warrior. Stanley mobilised us like troops, and we marched in town, and we start to beat: Tokyo, Red Army. We mash up a dance in Princes Building where Tokyo was playing.”

The most famous clash of all, however, was the one with Tokyo on Charlotte Street, immortalised by Lord Blakie:

And when the two band clash, if you see cutlash!
Never me again, jump up in a steelband in Port of Spain!

It was the second time Tokyo “mashed us up flat!” recalls Wickham.

Then there was the J’Ouvert morning that Boysie Singh and his gang led the band in town to raid Tokyo. Boysie, also known as the Rajah, was later convicted for murder. They got respect. “Six o’clock J’Ouvert morning, the first flag going in town was Invaders, with all Woodbrook behind us, the respectable families of Woodbrook in tow, the Clarkes, Bruce Procope, Ronnie Williams, Norman Tang, Telfers, Springers, Robinsons, Armstrongs. Without them we would have been nothing. They didn’t know what they were going to meet. And maybe, we would all have to run back.”

In the early 60s, Dr Eric Williams had the idea that business should partner steelbands. Invaders was the first band to be sponsored. Shell was the first sponsor to come forward. BWIA arrived at Invaders’ yard the day after Shell was committed, so they went down to St James to sponsor the BWIA Sunjets. It gives Wickham comfort to know that after 40 years, BWIA has become their “business” partner.

The movement from fighting on the streets to musical competition was as hard a battle for Invaders. At Queen’s Hall, Dixieland beat them into second place by half a point (for stage appearance). Wickham considers their rendition of Ketelby’s In a Monastery Garden, arranged by Jocelyn Pierre, one of the best pan performances, alongside Strauss’s Voices of Spring played by Pan Am North Stars. Another time, after Invaders had been announced as Panorama winners with Kitchener’s Mas in Madison Square Garden (1971), there was a subsequent announcement to say that they had only won “best dressed.” Like other bands, Invaders has had to contest rulings in competition.

Ellie Mannette left in 1967. He had already created all Invaders’ special pans: tenors, guitar, cellos, high and low basses, made readily available through the business that Invaders partnered: oil. So the period from the 50s into the 60s were years of prolific creativity, experimentation and the development of instruments.

When they visited him in the USA in the early 70s, Ellie was still “stretching” the range of music on the face of the pans. He is now artist-in-residence and an adjunct professor in the College of Music at the University of West Virginia.

No one can beat Ellie as a tuner, Wickham says. Top players from Trinidad — Boogsie, Ken Philmore — go to Ellie to get their special pans. His brother, Birdie, was also an ace tuner. He was challenged to get a third octave on one pan, something he worked at until he died.

Pan is being played and standardised in places far from Invaders’ breadfruit tree these days. The world is playing its music with this unique Caribbean instrument. But there are some things about pan that still exist only here in Trinidad. The panside “under the breadfruit tree” continues to be a living archive of a process that was first communal, then spiritual, and finally musical.

Corporate partner BWIA West Indies Airways was born in the same year as Invaders, and now continue to soar together under the banner of Caribbean culture. In November 1999, when BWIA started their service between Washington DC and the Caribbean, a set of Invaders pans was presented to the Museum of the Organisation of American States. If you go there, you might even hear them being played.