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July 21, 2020
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July 21, 2020

Singing with a steel band

Founding member of the Assumption Folk Chorale, Nigel Boos remembers singing with one of the nation’s top steel bands one Christmas season.

1970 was the year that Amoco Renegades Steel Orchestra came to play at our Christmas Vigil at Assumption Church.

The Black Power Revolution of 1970 had soured relationships between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ of Port of Spain society. There was ill-feeling in Morvant and Laventille, where many poorer black people lived and where indeed, several steel band men lived including members of the Amoco Renegades Steel Orchestra.

Coincidentally, in June 1970, I had founded the Assumption Folk Chorale (AFC) in Maraval, where dozens of young people would congregate each Saturday evening to sing at the 6 p.m. Mass and would then hang out together at one or the other’s home, or dance hall, ice-cream shop or whatever.

Youngsters came from every stratum of Trinidad society. There were black kids, white kids, Chinese, Indians, Syrians, Lebanese, French stock, Spanish backgrounders, Germans, English, and Irish kids, and they brought with them their own religious beliefs.

Most were Catholics, but we also attracted some Protestants of various stripes, and there were Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and so on. All were attracted by the vibrancy of our music, but in addition, there was always the attraction of meeting their peers in a non-threatening, controlled atmosphere, and of getting together socially afterwards.

At the same time, as the Public Relations Co-Ordinator of Amoco Trinidad Oil Company, I had been given the responsibility of handling budget meetings with the management team of the Amoco Renegades, a company-sponsored steel band of approximately 40 members. I was also responsible for bringing their concerns and suggestions to the attention of Amoco’s management.

We were getting close to Christmas when the thought struck me, that I was in the unusual and enviable position of bringing the two groups together, the AFC and the Amoco Renegades, to play at a function at the Assumption Church.

Now, wouldn’t that be interesting? No steel band had ever, to my knowledge, played at a Mass before, and as churches went, the Assumption Church in Maraval had to be considered one of the bastions of the white ‘French creole’ establishment.

It was probably fair to say that very few members of the Laventille/Morvant community would have ever ventured into the precincts of the church.

I called together several members of the chorale and put it to them, that we might consider presenting our 1971 Christmas Vigil at the church in conjunction with the Amoco Renegades.

The reaction was immediate and intense. Yes! The decision resounded loudly among the group, and we decided to seek the permission of the parents at least of the younger choir members, since we would need to drive into the Laventille/Morvant area at night to practise with the steel band, and we would need the assurance of safety for the young people.

I also spoke with the leaders of the Renegades, to sound them out and to see whether they would be interested in an effort such as this. Wilfred Cox, the  captain, was enthusiastic but quite naturally, he wondered aloud, “Do you think that the priest would allow a steel band into the church? How would the white people react to our presence? Will we be in trouble?” and so on.

Somehow, we were able to allay all his fears, and I explained to him that we would consider it an honour to have Renegades play at the Assumption Church.


At the pan yard

A few weeks later, a convoy of some 8–10 cars, jam-packed with excited youngsters, all spruced up for an evening in the pan yard, a destination none had ever seen before, to practise with the Amoco Renegades.

Some parents accompanied us, to act as chaperones, and the youngsters huddled together as we proceeded slowly up the hills, watched by inquisitive faces as they wondered what was going on.

We arrived at Oxford Street, where the newly built Renegades Pan House was located, and got out of the cars. I certainly hadn’t expected to find hundreds of local people already congregated, looking, staring at us, inquiringly. It really was a bit intimidating, and I worried whether this social experiment could succeed.

But I shouldn’t have worried. When I announced that we’d like to start with ‘Silent Night’, and the band struck up their opening movement, moving softly across the metallic notes and into the first verse, I could have sworn that we were in chorale-heaven.

Our choir was suddenly and unexpectedly swollen by the addition of hundreds of voices emanating from the trees and the general unlit darkness, as the entire mass of local residents took up the harmony and joined in the singing. It was marvellous! ‘Silent Night’ had never sounded so sweetly before this.

We moved from song to song, and the Renegades themselves, with no musical scores to follow, but playing only from memory and from their hearts, led us all the way, from ‘Away in a Manger’, through ‘Go, tell it on a mountain’, to ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, and through many more as well.

It was all impromptu, all perfect, and there was no need for a second practice. But as we left that night and headed back to our homes, with many young black teenagers running alongside our cars, the general feeling of goodwill and joy which we all felt was echoed by the question that someone shouted out as we drove off:

“When all yuh comin’ back again?”

That Christmas Eve was one that would be remembered by the entire Assumption Parish community. There were tears from the beginning to the end of the Mass  and to this day all who experienced it and are still around would say that it was the most beautiful spiritual experience that they have ever had.

Isn’t it strange—in 1970, tensions were running high in Trinidad and the Black Power Movement was in the news every day. The AFC became a medium to calm the rough waters of Trinidad society. Today, 50 years later, in 2020, with Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, could we try to repeat that performance?