Profiles of Caribbean Artistry
A Find: 1947 Casablanca Steelband Recordings
Many of us are always looking for early recordings of pan music. Once
in a while we find something that is particularly noteworthy.
I recently acquired an album of two 78 RPM recordings of the Casablanca
Steel Band recorded in 1947 in Trinidad. The album is copyright 1948, but
as the jacket notes make clear, it was recorded some time in 1947.
While the recordings are interesting, the jacket notes are even more
DISC album 719
A New Trinidadian Music
Notes by Charles Edward Smith
For a distinctive group of creators of Trinidad's latest type of music
to call themselves the Casablanca Steel Band is understandable only from
the terminology common to that island's folklore and folk music. Titles of
bands and pseudonyms of singers are often allusions to places and events
far from the small but strategic island in the Caribbean. During the war
years, when steel band music had its initial development, natives of the
island were recruited to the British armed forces and the United States
was building up its defense installations there under arrangement with
Britain. For once the asphalt lake at La Brea was more important than
Calypsonians changed their names according to the times. Attila The Hun
became simply Attila and The Lion, who sings the vocal on JIVE in this
album, called his Carnival hut (where he challenged fellow singers of
Calypso) The Manginot Lion. (That Jive is a take-off on jive or scat
singing, with emphasis on Cab "Hi-de-ho" Calloway, Stormy Weather and Lena
Horne is obvious from the words and scat-singing, which find The Lion in
one of his funster moods.) Steel Bands are not traditional bands, as we'll
explain in a moment, but their members were quick to name their bands in
typical Trinidad style. In addition to Casablanca, other groups in this
interchangeable fraternity were called Battan Spysmashers, Five Graves to
Cairo, Destination Tokyo, Seabees, or, named for movies, e.g. King of the
Underworld, Sun Valley Serenaders.
The Steel Bands' music hardly fits any ordinary definition of "Serenaders".
Except for the occasional addition of a single instrument, such as a
bugle, its instruments are created from tire rims, garbage can tops, oil
drums and other discards of a war-busy world. A hollowed bamboo (bamboo-tamboo)
beaten with a stick fulfills the rhythmic function of the rhumba bands'
claves, the seed gourds (chac-chac) that of the maraccas. Singers are
calypsonians but the instrumentation is new and unique, giving them the
general term of "steel bands".
The musicians choose their weird instruments with a careful attention
to tone but they don't mind if the tone is off edge a bit. Like many folk
musicians they are no respectors of the diatonic scale. When the band is
assembled it creates so much noise that for a time rehearsals were banned
with in the city limits of Port-au-Spain. (sic) Except for the occasional
use of bugle, the line-up was entirely percussive - a strange conglomerate
of wash-tubs, biscuit tins, tire rims, a full size oil drum for bass and a
smaller one for kettles. Even during its growth the steel band drew
crowds, first of natives who considered any Trinidad folk music theirs and
later of scoffers from, as it were, the other side of the tracks. Kids sat
on fences while bands practiced in backyards and crowds of admirers
followed the steelbands in parades as the latter, playing marches, rhumbas
and other types of Carnival music, shook nearby buildings with the
rumbling of their improvised drums. Kettles and oil drums, including the
"ping-pong" drum described below, are beaten usually with a chair leg
tipped with inner tube rubber.
The most unique instrument of the steel band was created about a year
ago and because of its relatively less percussive impact, made inevitable
the formation of smaller groups admirably suited for recording purposes.
This instrument, cut from one half a sweet-oil drum, is perhaps a half
foot in depth, but its diameter is more than two feet. It was created by
heating the covered end over a fire. When hot from the flames this was
beaten, bent out of contour and treated by other means of folk necromancy
with the result that fourteen distinct tones may be played upon it.
Functioning as a section, the ping-pongs (1) (as these instruments are
called) dominate the band and, if musicologists will forgive us the
liberty, sound something like a cross between the Balinese gamelon and a
honky-tonk piano. But they have literally no relationship to either and
the musical sources upon which they base their improvisations are typical
of the islands - African, Spanish, French.
The man who keeps the instruments in shape, counterpart to the band boy
for American jazz bands, is called the pan-tuner, and his job is certainly
as important as it is unique for there is nothing accidental in the tonal
scheme of these bands. If the ear is struck with a strangeness it comes
from a freedom of tonal improvisation typical of much folk music but here
arrived at with left-overs from the scrap heap.
Although the steel bands have not yet appeared professionally in the
United States, some of the members of the Casablanca provided a rare treat
for watchers of the parade on West Indian day in the late summer of 1947,
playing with the unique steel band instruments. The listener will notice
that ping-pongs are played at different pitch, i.e. when more than one
player is heard. Here are some of the players in the band on these
records: Philip Dunbar and Don Henry, ping-pongs; Wallace Reed, round disc
of iron; Cocoa, Steel Drum. In addition Sidney Corrington plays an oblong
piece of steel held so that with the forearm, a T-shape is formed - in
this position it can be played the length of the piece of scrap steel, the
fingers helping to vary the tone.
The lyrics on the two vocal sides of the four in the album are
satirical, humorous calypso. Bandy-legs is perhaps the one you may want to
follow to trace the vagaries of calypso pronunciation. Here they are, with
the pauses between the verses indicated by asterisks, sung by Zigfield(2):
Yes, young ladies, listen,
Don't you think Zigfield is a funny person,
Yes, young ladies, listen
But don't you think Zigfield is a funny person.
I love pretty faces,
Tall and short girls in certain cases -
Well if you want me to fall on my knees and beg,
Only show me bandy-leg.
One night I went to the building
Me and the ugliest girl in the hall were dancing.
She told me, "Zigfield, darling,
I love you more than you can imagine".
I said, "Girl you're too ugly,
Your mouth too big, your nose shaped too funny".
But in the end I went down on my knees and beg
Just she had bandy-legs.
* * *
I was living with Milly
She had a lovely shape,
She was tall and stately,
Then I got in with Doris
And of all the women she was the fairest,
And although she was pretty,
I had to leave her for Ivy
But I don' how she treat me ( ) I had to beg
When I remembered her bandy-legs.
* * *
Some time a-back I got in with Emma,
She had a slight knock-knee but a lovely figure,
She told me plainly, "Sweet Zigfield,
I know a bandy-leg is a-real' your ideal
But I'll fix the position,
Go to the hospital for an operation".
And now the doctor has her walking with a wooden peg,
Trying to force up her bandy-leg.
* * *
From the days that I can remember
Ever since I was on my mother's shoulder
The only thing that attract me
Was a man or woman who had a bandy,
And I grew up with the nature,
The ugliest woman I could admire -
I mean her face can be harder than an old nutmeg
Look you, mon, if you' bandy-leg.
(1) The word "ping-pong" is perhaps onomatapoetic usage. If the idea
seems far-fetched, it is less so with names given other instrument:
"talk-talk" or "bamboo-tamboo" for bamboo clave, "chac-chac" for gourd
(2) Zigfield's name was previously Siegfried, we are informed by a
fellow calypsonian from Trinidad where these records were made. The change
of name therefore might be attributed to a word identified with the
NOTE: The only article we've seen on steel bands appeared late in 1947
in the magazine Ebony. None of these bands has yet played in the United
States (as of December, 1947)
DISC Company of New York 117 W. 46 ST., Asch Recording Studios New
York, 19, N. Y.
Copyright 1948 DISC Co. Printed in U.S.A.
(END OF INSIDE COVER NOTES)
I hope that there aren't too many typos in my transcription. Some of
the original spelling doesn't agree with my spell-checker. I left it as
The four sides are:
Trinidad Steel Band
Casablanca Steel Band
Trinidad Steel Band
Casablanca Steel Band
vocal by Siegfried
matrix D 783
(note the singer's name seems to have reverted to Siegfried, despite
the cover notes.)
Trinidad Steel Band
Casablanca Steel Band
(note no mention of vocal by Attila present on cut, mentioned in cover
Trinidad Steel Band
Casablanca Steel Band
There are a couple of fascinating things here.
The earliest dated steel band (or steel pan) recordings credited in
Jeffrey Thomas's discography "Forty Years of Steel" were the Paris, France
"Vogue" recordings of TASPO in October of 1951 (I have copies of six of
the eight numbers recorded.) These Casablanca recordings were obviously
made in 1947, apparently late 1947. That places them four years earlier.
Thomas makes mention of rumors of earlier recordings than TASPO, and
discusses the probability that pan was included in the numerous recordings
made in Trinidad in the 1940's, but was unable to locate any. He does not
list these "Disc" Casablanca recordings in his book.
Thomas does mention and list Casablanca recordings made on the Sagomes
label. Casablanca made the first of a number of Sagomes 78 RPM recordings
of different steelbands (and calypsonians) that were apparently made in
the early '50s, but have no positive date. (I have some of these 78's as
well.) I will again attempt to contact members of the Sa Gomes family
while I am in Trinidad, to see if they have any better date information. I
don't have great hopes, as one who has tried says that all documentation
of those recordings was destroyed years ago. It appears certain that the
Sagomes recordings were not made before 1950.
The steel pan was in a state of rapid development; this is obvious from
comparing the recordings and text. The tenor pan (or ping-pong) in the
TASPO photograph appears to have 21 notes, up from 14, but not yet up to
today's 29 or so notes. The 1947 Casablanca cuts may have a single bass
(one note) or possibly a "du-dup" (two notes). TASPO had two "Tenor Booms"
and one "Bass Boom". TASPO also had several Second Pans, not mentioned in
the Casablanca notes.
By 1951, the musical range of the instruments were much more complete,
though the pan had yet to develop much of its musical "ring". The ring
would come from the tuned harmonics developed by Bertie Marshall and the
"4ths and 5ths" note arrangement invented by Anthony Williams, both of
which became popular some years later.
Comparing the sound of the 1947 Casablanca recordings to the 1951 TASPO
recordings (and the Casablanca recordings of the early '50s), it is quite
apparent how far the steelband movement had come in a very few years.
First, both Casablanca and TASPO were now referred to as "orchestras", not
"bands". The arrangements reflect this, with good use of the expanded
instrumentation. You can hear the full bass and good use of the mid
section. The pans sound much more melodic, apparently due to improved
tuning, the increased number of notes, and more attention to blending to
an accurate scale.
The technical quality is also greatly improved, particularly in the
TASPO recordings. The 1947 Casablanca recordings suffer from some severe
distortion, particularly of the pans. It appears that the recording
equipment used was overloaded by the instruments. This was not true in
1951. I own a 45 RPM EP re-release of four of the TASPO Paris recordings.
These were apparently originally recorded on magnetic tape and the
recordings, although in mono, hold their own in comparison to many
recordings made today, 50 years later.
Even the Sagomes 1950ís recordings, made in Trinidad, are technically
far better than the 1947 recordings. They are still 78's with all the
limitations of that medium. I suspect that they were recorded direct to
acetate, not magnetic tape, as I doubt anyone in Trinidad could justify
(or afford) the purchase of a tape recorder in the early '50s.
Nonetheless, the Sagomes recordings are much cleaner, with little or no
The appearance of Casablanca players in the 1947 New York (in those
days, presumably in Harlem) West Indian Day parade is also interesting.
Before that, the earliest date for pan in New York I had heard from New
York pan old-timers was 1949, when some of the old-time players migrated
here. Kim Johnson of the Trinidad Guardian has refreshed my memory with
the name of Rudy King, who still lives in New York, and plays rhythm with
local steelbands here.
Finally, a curiosity: While the recording is of Casablanca, the David
Stone Martin print on the album cover shows stylistic pan players wearing
hats from Invaders, a band from "the other side of the tracks" (more
accurately the other side of town). I suspect that must have caused great
consternation among any Casablanca players who might have acquired a copy
of the album, and may further explain their current rarity...