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You are in: London > Features > Events > Carnival > The story of steelpan

Sterling Betancourt

Sterling Betancourt

The story of steelpan

Steelpan pioneer Sterling Betancourt remembers how it developed in Trinidad and came to Britain and recalls the first Notting Hill Carnival

Each year at the Notting Hill Carnival Sterling Betancourt's Nostalgia steel band walks along the march route, trying to make themselves heard over the noise of the huge sound systems.

Mr Betancourt, 74, a pioneer of steelpan music, has performed at every carnival since he was first invited in 1964.

Then he and two friends began the marching tradition at Notting Hill that today sees huge crowds squeeze into the area's residential streets.

But Nostalgia, the only 'pan around the neck' band in England, has had to modernise as carnival has changed over the years.

They have their own float with a bass player, drummer and amplification equipment which the band walk behind playing a mixture of calypso, hymns and old favourites.

"The sound systems forced us to get something so people can hear us a bit, " conceded Mr Betancourt.

"If you are behind one of the trucks, you can't hear what you are playing because you can't compete with electronic music."

It is a far cry from the roots of steelpan music which he saw develop in Trinidad as a young boy.

Back in the 1940s, while big demonstrations and carnivals were banned because of the war, a new type of rhythm was developing.

The old 'tamboo bamboo' bands of the 1930s gave way to a new sound as musicians started trying new tones on old paint pots known as kettle drums.

"There were lots of children with donkey carts, false moustaches and an African drummer with drums made from an elephant's foot"

Sterling Betancourt on the first Carnival

"In 1945 at the end of the war everyone went into the streets and picked up dustbins, little paint pans and discarded the bamboo - that is how steelpan originated," said Mr Betancourt.

By 1951, Trinidad's new steel bands put forward their best players to join the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra for the Festival of Britain.

The British didn't know what to think when they turned up with drums left rusty for authenticity - one newspaper called them the Dustbin Lid Boys.

But once they began to play Blue Danube, the crowd's sniggers turned to surprise.

"When we started to play people said 'oh', it's black magic, it's unbelievable - they have a record somewhere, they are miming. It was strange to them that these old oil drums had music to them," recalled Mr Betancourt.

The band left after touring Britain and Paris but Mr Betancourt returned with his drum.

He hooked up with Russ Henderson and Mervyn Constantine and the new band was a big success across the country in the 50s - playing alongside entertainers such as Frankie Howerd and Spike Milligan.

In 1964 social worker Rhaune Laslett approached them to ask if they would play at a small event she was organising in Notting Hill to soothe tensions in the wake of serious race riots.

"She asked Russell if we could come and play, she was having a carnival but it was a children's carnival, it wasn't a big thing, " said Mr Betancourt.

The three men told friends in The Colerne pub in Earl's Court, a favourite haunt of London's West Indian community, about their performance and they followed them down.

"So everybody went down to Ladbroke Grove and we started to play. There were lots of children with donkey carts, false moustaches and an African drummer by the name of Ginger Johnson with drums made from an elephant's foot."

"While we were standing there, Russell said 'Let's all take a walk', we call it a road march, and we decided to move off, " said Mr Betancourt.

"The crowd got bigger and we got crowds of people coming in with lots of different things - pots and pans, it was just like beginning of carnival in Trinidad."

"We passed the church and it had just finished and this woman came up with her purse and she just jumped in the band and started to dance with her purse."

They walked down Bayswater Road, making up the route as they went along.

But they caused some confusion among onlookers, perhaps because the band was a regular fixture at CND marches which they joined just for fun.

"Some people didn't know what it was, they thought it was a demonstration, they said: 'What are you demonstrating about?

"Why don't you go back to your own country? They didn't know it was just a carnival, that we were just having fun."

Ebony steelband at Carnival

Ebony steelband at Carnival

After their successful first appearance, the band returned each year and watched as the event became run as a costumed West Indian carnival.

Although Russ Henderson's Steel Band split up in 1976, Mr Betancourt has been back every year as well as travelling Europe to bring steelpan music to new countries.

He was a particular hit in Switzerland, where he still has his own youth band, Sterling Angels, who usually come to play at the Notting Hill Carnival.

His band, Nostalgia, is a regular carnival fixture and its core ranks of 30 members are swelled to over 100 as players he taught all over the world come to west London for the event.

It also plays as a guest band for Panorama on the Saturday night - the competition between steel bands.

Although it has been forced to modernise, Nostalgia continues to walk the 4-mile parade route while others drive past on floats.

"Now they have the big floats people can't imagine it really started with walking.

"I keep that tradition, I think it is beautiful to see people mobile. You can see the expressions on people's faces, everybody smiling - they can see and touch you. When you're on the float it is not intimate."

This year they are planning a calypso, 'Trini to the Bone' as well as more traditional favourites.

"I usually go for the old musical tunes - people love it, they love to have the tunes that they know."

At 74, he still goes back to Trinidad for carnival each year and says he will only stop going to Notting Hill when he is no longer able to.

"A lot of people look forward to it and I wouldn't like to disappoint them, it gives me the incentive to go back. "

last updated: 23/07/07

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