THE BLOODY ART OF LONGTIME BADJOHNS
By Dalton Narine
Blade it was in that period to survive, for blade walked the gun talk of yesteryear.
Blade that would butcher a gutless man’s back, cracking open skin like fine leather and pumping blood dark and horrid down his buttocks.
“Ah hear he get 76.”
“Well, ah had to give him mih mark.”
In a flashback to the dawn of the sixties, the cutter man would pick at the scab on pan’s conscience after leaving his mark (and his adversary in serious stitches) on the cutting edge of an urban culture that one day would advance to the World Cup of Mas.
Badjohnhood (badjohns in the ’hood), flaunted its swagger as early as the mid-’40s, the tuned pan’s first outing on the road, through the mid-’70s, when steel band clashes in Port of Spain began to cool down.
Google the early period. You’ll be right there at the rainy season, in the drizzle of the new pop culture.
Look for East Dry River. See how it simmers from a continually violent social storm? Now, watch the ripples of the teething steel band movement meander from side to side, bouncing this way and that off the concrete wall of an edgy society.
See how they fret?
See badjohnsim posing as metaphor for pan’s revolution? Hand-to-hand combat among pioneers for experimentation props? The battle for the template of an instrument that, it being still early in the day, finds milk at the breast of its evolution?
Yet East Dry River, or “Behind the Bridge,” a blighted quadrant of Port of Spain at one time or another, has always seemed to value stale glory above culture, what with Catholic churches looking down on the peasants from the high ground in Gonzales and Laventille. Not unlike the statue of Christ atop the Corcovado Mountain in Rio that welcomes visitors with gaping arms, instead of embracing scratch-grain communities that loaf in the foothills.
Read that as scratch-grain communities in OUR hills, behind GOD’s back; communities that had laid the DNA of a new world culture, for Christ’s sake. Pan in the Garden of Eden. In Hell Yard by the River.
In context, the badjohn story (a dark celebration of the invention of pan), particularly its East Dry River saga, and the Western element, too, carried the keen edge of a parable back in the day — like a cutlass; like a barber’s ivory-handled straight razor — that could wring out gut-wrenching tears the colour and viscosity of abbatoir blood; even though the parable would read as blunt as an iron bolt from the foundry, or as a bull pistle, retooled from, well, a bull’s pistle.
The great Mighty Sparrow gives his take on bad-johns of a bygone era, and his relationship with him. A fine calypso , and those bad-johns were real !
One could argue that the drama was more about a den of iniquity (men reveling in evil) and less about an allegory of inner-city inventiveness, or urban sociology, or the twinges of culture. All psychobabble to the badjohn. Instead, he would implore you to feel the cut of his cloth and the lash of his inner voice.
Check the cock of his hat:
* Justice is the will and the brute force of the strong man.
* The sweet man may rule, but his way of life will inevitably sap his strength and tax the will, because turf wars will spring up over, of all things, turf. And women. And, yes, pan.
* The glamour girl, the sweet man’s lover, flirts with history as the femme fatale of the new culture’s subculture, but loyalty has its price. It could be as costly as a steel band clash. No ordinary woman she, the femme fatale arrives (with whoever’s the prevailing man) as a dangerously seductive siren.
These parables illustrate a morality of its own.
Never interfere with unemployed unsavory characters, including dressed-up dudes who shill for bands like Casablanca and Tripoli, and especially those Red Army panmen with housekeeperly ethics. Their fashion plate decked out in Parson’s Grey, flannel or tweed pants, imported hand-tailored silk shirts, “two-tone” shoes with white eyelets, felt hats, stingy brims and gold teeth. And the threads to be updated when Cab Calloway, a popular American bandleader and jazz singer shows up in a zoot suit in the mid-‘40s movie, “Stormy Weather.”
It was Red Army panmen, gambling, and preening for women on Globe plaza, who adopted the baggy high-waisted pants, narrowed at the ankles. Forty-two inches wide at the knees and 16 at the fold.
Who’s to say, then, that the peahen never gets jealous of the peacock?
“When you’re knocking about, fighting is part of life,” says Norman Darway Adams, a pan historian and former right-hand man of Ellie Mannette, the face of Invaders. “And Red Army was the saga boys in town. Dressing nice DID cause a fight — between them and Casablanca.”
Extending the morality of the parables, it’s worth the skin on your back not to “trouble” the women, by and large prostitutes, who “mind” the badjohns to gain protection. For not only was a man’s advances rebuffed he was also violently redressed by the sweet man.
Above all, never disrespect the badjohn’s band, or a decent band that hires an enforcer to protect itself from badjohns. For in a world without saints, one is obliged to reverence personalities such as Slade, Gunbelt, Big Sarge, Batman, Copperhead, One Man, Eddie Boom, Jeff, Slim, Gold Teeth, Mastifay, The Butcher and the remainder of their ilk. Boysie Singh, too, whose heart was later taken by the executioner’s song.
Popular calypso legend Lord Blakie (Carlton Joseph ) aka “The Warlord” was also a feared badjohn of his era. In this calypso , he salutes another badjohn called Mackie Scott.
All in all, you won’t ever capture the utter dread of the East Dry River badjohn, unless you had examined his lifestyle, as did Retired Supt. Randolph “Rannie” Babb, who grew up on Clifton Hill, East Dry River, and captained the Hill 60 steel band prior to joining the Police Force in 1953.
Babb would straddle the bridge between pan and police work, his name carrying real, real weight, both in the steel band world and law enforcement. A steel band man crossing sides and stopping cops from raiding pans. Not an easy feat.
“He’s a liver; an engaging, fun guy,” says Leslie “Professor” Slater, a former Highlanders arranger and president of the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute in Brooklyn. “An excellent people person.”
Babb, 79, who relocated to Brooklyn, New York, in 1987, heads security operations for the Labour Day festival. He cuts a more familiar figure, though, walking the streets with his tenor pan, on his way to a wedding or a wake or just for companionship, his wife having died in ’85.
She had lived longer than badjohns like Copperhead.
“Copperhead was a white [U.S.] Marine stationed at Chaguaramas who used to search the belongings of the workers as they were leaving the Base,” Babb recalls.
On occasion, at the end of their shifts as MPs, Copperhead and his mates joined regulars at a Green Corner bar. The toughest of his clique, Copperhead became an untouchable because of the clique. His fame, infamy, really, had gathered across the city like moss. And badjohns yearned for the day he would slip up. For, how else to deal with a Marine who, an example, would walk a suspected Base thief out into the sea until the waterline inched to the tip of the nose?
Maybe it was an accidental death wish, maybe it was I-‘fraid-only-God arrogance.
Copperhead took a chance one evening and drank by himself at the Green Corner bar.
“Word spread quick,” Babb says, “and some badjohns rushed down to the bar. They beat him up so bad he died in the hospital the next day. But that wasn’t the end of Copperhead.”
When Babb dredges up the local version, the man who had stolen the rightful owner’s alias materializes within your vision. He’s a strong, wicked fighter, a flim-flam who limes with wrestlers on the bridge at Duke and Nelson Streets. He can take you out with fists, or with a knife, or, pity the adversary, his gilpin. But the vision inevitable leaks out like the life of an old street soldier.
Sall wonder, because Copperhead ends up being charged for murder. Babb and Darway, who lives in Woodbrook, suggest he may have been executed, for the last remembrance of Copperhead, like his namesake, is toes up.
When Babb hopscotches across time it’s as if he’s taking his pan back to the future. Recollecting the instrument’s history as an outgrowth of happenstance. Difficult as it is to reconcile creativity with extraordinary repercussions. Clearly, he wishes both feet were on one side of the river, not astride it. On pan’s side, badjohns be damned.
“It started with rhythm,” Babb says of the 1930s. “Young fellas would go in the Shango tent and beat the drums. They took the rhythm to the streets and when police harassed them, they took up the kittle pan (emptied of lard), biscuit drums, bamboo, bottle and spoon and the humdrum (the brake drum of a car).”
Neville Jules, a former captain of Trinidad All Stars, soaked up the percussion as a youth in Mango Rose. Up a ways, Hell Yard lay at the top of the steps built alongside the west wall of the dry river. It sat obliquely across the current location of Simpson’s, the funeral agency, quite familiar to police because Second Fiddle made a lot of noise and that could have been reason enough to raid their “instruments.”
Jules joined the band as a tenor kittle player when it reemerged as Cross of Lorraine. He says during World War II he’d hammered out the first pan, convex, like the surface of a sphere, 14 inches around, with four notes. He brightened when he picked the do-re-mi chorus from a King Radio calypso on the pan.
“The band was the first with that pan when it went on the road in 1945 for VJ (Victory over Japan) Day [celebrations],” says Jules, who also tuned a four-note for Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide of Hill 60. Soon, the assembly line started to hum and Spree Simon of Tokyo got one from Andrew Pan. It surprised Jules, and Darway, too, that in 1946 Spree told a newspaper he was the first to play a melody on a pan.
“There are so many stories,” Darway says, “but people ought to recognize Victor Wilson of Alexander Ragtime Band in Newtown.”
Wilson, he insists, tuned a four-note to the ping-pong chime of the QRC clock in 1939.
But Darway acknowledges that Jules invented the guitar (cuatro) pan and the first bass (from a caustic soda drum).”
Mannette turned the pan inside out and grooved notes onto a 55-gallon drum. Anthony Williams innovated a tuning and note-placement technique called the spider web. Bertie Marshall invented the double tenor; the Bertfone, an amplified double tenor that could control tone via damper pedals, like an organ; and the amplification of the steel band. Rudolph Charles contributed the quadrophonic pans.
“And the whole thing spread like wildfire,” Jules says.
So had steel band riots.
Tokyo and Invaders warred in 1947. It was over Mannette’s biscuit tin Barracuda pan.
“They had a song, ‘We looking for Ellie Mannette, We want to cut off he hand,’ ” says Darway of Invaders, who kindly refers to badjohns as defenders of the steel band.
Apparently Tokyo stole the pan, which fell on the street during an earlier brawl, Darway says. They hung it on a tree in John John with a note attached. If he wanted it that bad, Mannette had to come and get it.
“That’s how the 55-gallon drum became today’s pan. He never went. He wanted a better drum.”
Riots usually spill out during J’Ouvert, which provided a sweet opportunity for bands in heat to paw their mark, lay down their music, on Charlotte Street, between Park and Duke Streets, whether or not All Stars was back in the panyard. In 1950, wheeling into the band’s turf, Invaders “bounced up” advancing troops from Tokyo. In a classic military ambush as old as warfare itself, Casablanca, an Invaders ally, swooped down from Observatory as a blacking force. The “planned” battle was joined.
Steelband clashes of yesteryear were not only about women and turf , but also about the pan itself.
The infamous 1950 steelband clash between Invaders and Tokyo steelbands was also the culmination of a war that started in 1947 over a stolen pan.
Here the Lord Blakie sings his classic calypso about that historic steelband event. When asked once about his background knowledge of the incident , Blakie said simply “I was there”.
The clash of Titans centred around a woman nicknamed Little One. She had befriended both Zigilee of Casablanca and Carlton Blackhead of Invaders. And, of course, Tokyo had this thing about the Barracuda pan.
“We, the defenders, are always prepared for war,” Darways says, “so you’ll find us at the front of the band as well as the back, just in case. Razor in the back pocket, cutlass concealed under your arm and slipped into the waist. You wouldn’t even know it.”
But the combined firepower of both bands overwhelmed Invaders. Many people suffered wounds and injuries. “Ellie cut a man with a knife before police intervened,” Darway says, “so they laid a charge on him.”
Later that morning it is said that Boysie Singh, an underworld don and Invaders supporter, stormed into the panyard and begged the men to finish the job, offering five guns and ammunition. Monday evening, the band, newly armed, found Tokyo on Park Street.
“When they saw Boysie and his henchmen in front the band, Tokyo took off and ran back Behind the Bridge,” Darway thinks back.
Days afterward, a truce signed, all charges were dropped.
It wasn’t always love that made the blood bad, though. Musicianship also took blame. Music being the food of love, panmen fought for it in the gut. Indeed, when a steel band was kicking, the music would elicit taunts from supporters: “Yuh hear pan, yuh hear pan.”
Such attitude might have laid a protracted siege in the Laventille hills during the “war” between Tokyo’s “Marabuntas” and their neighbour Desperadoes.
“At the time, two ignorant bands,” says Ret. Supt. Babb. “It was about who could beat better pan and who could take away whose woman.”
Babb attributes the battle for the hill to the THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, in a potent form of the drug. “THC can disturb the nerves and alter your thinking.”
Four decades ago, a lot of altered states came together on a Carnival Tuesday at the Savannah, resulting in “a lot of cutting up” before police eventually broke the back of the fight.
“It’s a pity, because many bands were respected not for [bravado] but for their music, like All Stars, for instance.”
All Stars was “protected” by just three badjohns. Big Head Hamil took advantage of everyone he met. Big Jeff, a pimp for thieves, could swell your face with a punch. And Big Sarge lost three encounters with Jules. He also lost both arms in an incident that involved another Sarge and his brother who had earlier robbed a sailor, the Yankee returning to the Boysie Singh club with a grenade in a bag. Big Sarge died in the Carrera prison while serving time for cutting up his woman, his case called after the grenade action.
All Stars brooked no nonsense, though. The riot act read to prospective members included no arguing and no visits to other bands. Members were fined for infractions.
“We’re not a fighting band,” admits Jules, who, in 1958, authored the Bomb, classical music played in calypso tempo particularly on J’Ouvert. Jules had had Invaders, the most popular band, on his mind.
“They would take the whole of town back to the West,” he’s saying now, “and I found that by dropping the Bombs (three or four) people came back.”
Good that All Stars initiated the tradition of serenading police at their headquarters on Carnival Tuesday with those Bombs. Plain-clothes cops willingly joined revellers one night after the band received a tip that Tokyo was on the warpath. Thereafter, the Prime Minister’s children took their annual las’ lap with the band.
Meanwhile, the fighting flared across the city. Stromboli, a Belmont band, destroyed pans belonging to Nightingale and Invaders on Cipriani Boulevard, triggering The Belmont-Woodbrook War.
Badjohns were dismembering each other in East Dry River. Gold Teeth, who had a devilish right hand, was beaten in a fight with “Pone Head” on the hill. The police strengthened its hand with the addition of a narcotics unit and the Vice Squad. Elephant Walk, perhaps the Pat Garrett of the Force, flexed his muscle in the San Juan area, “walking down any stretch and leaving it clean.”
A Holy Thursday night on Wrightson Road, Renegades, Desperadoes and Invaders duked it out with iron bolts and bottles. Mannette bent over to check an injured shin and an iron bolt, on target to bust open his face, was deflected by Darway. The night ended for him with six stitches in his left palm.
In 1968, in front of the hospital, East Side Symphony of San Juan chopped its way through Highlanders, a Laventille band with amplified pans.
Franklyn Ollivierra of Diego Martin and Phase II Pan Groove still can’t shake the experience. He was playing the amplified tenor pan that Carnival Tuesday afternoon. “We had 30 double tenors and they were chopping them up.” Ollivierra, administrative manager of the National Steel Orchestra, took off with his pan. Others tried to rescue instruments as they fled. A few players bravely wheeled the amplifier into the hospital compound.
“Almost everything was destroyed. The drum set was in ribbons, but we escaped with our lives.”
It was the second time within two years the band had been attacked.
Ollivierra attributes the licking to jealousy. “There were girls from San Juan playing mas with us, and East Side didn’t like that.”
The incident reminds one of a teenage girl at the centre of the Belmont-Woodbrook riots in the late 1950s. Rival gangs butted heads for four years over the local Cleopatra. In 1962, Gene Williams of Belmont, 16 and enrolled at Fatima College went along with The Chaplains who had planned to celebrate the release of two members from the Youth Training Centre. They had allegedly stabbed a Navarrone gang member. Now, they were going to stage a “we-get-them-back” raid on the enemy.
That eerie night, on its way to Woodbrook, the band of young warriors stormed through the Savannah, chasing the wind with lighted candles.
“People in Woodbrook started to shut their jalousies,” Williams recalls. When the gang found no action on the street, it vented on the police station with bottles and iron bolts.
“Understand, we had come out to riot,” says Williams, who resides in Lauderhill, Florida.
That they did. With police on their tail, they roughed up innocent people, stabbed a man and threw acid on a couple before escaping to Belmont.
Williams appeared at a police lineup with a prayer book in one pocket and a Novena booklet in another. He wore a Rosary and a Scapular with a pendant of the Virgin Mary around his neck. When the couple who got the acid didn’t show, his family put him on a plane to New York.
“We had nothing to do, no guidance, no challenges,” says Wilfred “Fatty” Blanche, a former Navarrone who lives in Miami. “It was like living in another world. Everything was so easy. But we didn’t have guns. You had to run down a man to chop him up. If he got away, OK. Nowadays, kids got Glocks. No time to talk. No time to compromise. Hostility doesn’t pay. Kids should stay in school.”
In the battle of street smarts versus book smarts, street smarts is the third “e” when life is at risk.
Darway tells of an experience that could have led him and Mannette to a dead end.
It is late.
They head down Charlotte Street after visiting Mannette’s wife, Joyce, at the hospital.
Sunland badjohns, depart Royal cinema. They bop up the street on the way to Belmont, Shaker Bones leading the side.
Darway and Mannette pick them up under the dim lights. Only two nights ago, Darway had fired on them five times when things got ugly at the Stork Club on Wrightson Road.
Now they are many against two.
“Ellie, you have anything.”
“No. Nothing at all. Don’t run. I’ll stay on the pavement. You walk in the canal.”
Darway slips his hand under his jersey. Shaker Bones thinks he’s got the gun.
“Red Man, wha going on?”
“Ellie, wha happening?”
The gang moving on in the rear view, Darway whispers to Mannette: “if they turn back, run for your life.”
Dalton Narine grew up in Belmont, East Dry River and Success Village, Laventille. He played pan for Trinidad All Stars for 20 years and Highlanders for a Carnival season.
A version of this article was originally published in the Trinidad Express Newspaper.