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Earl Rodney’s big wish

More recognition needed for one of the country’s top arrangers
Published: 
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Earl Rodney doesn’t feel he’s been given enough recognition for his accomplishments in the world of steelband.

Winning arranger of four out of eight attempts at Panorama (a 50 per cent winning achievement with second and third places thrown into the mix) is not too bad of a record for a “country-boy come to town” to jam against the likes of Bradley, Holman, Jules and other “big noise” arrangers of the day.

Earl Bostic Rodney intervened in 1968 in the Panorama competition with Kitchener’s The Wrecker.

“It was an opening with drama and excitement that had not been previously experienced in a Panorama,” says Rodney, beating out the opening bars of his arrangement that won Solo Harmonites the Panorama competition. I wish I could reproduce on paper his verbal simulation of the arrangement. Check it on You Tube.

The arrangement was among the first in the evolving trend of taking up the tempo but still weaving in the melody of the piece with extrapolations on the theme—there are those who would argue, Rodney amongst them, that the Panorama arrangements of the present era lack sweetness of melody, demonstrating only pan-playing virtuosity, but that’s another argument for another time.  

To show to all those big, bad town arrangers that The Wrecker and his victory were no fluke, Rodney and Solo Harmonites had victories on three other occasions, once sharing the top spot (Play Mas) with Holman’s version of Sparrow’s Queen of the Bands.

But going back to the start of his musical journey as a boy growing up in what must have then been considered a backwater of Trinidad, Guave Road, Egypt Village in Point Fortin, Rodney became aware of a musical melody through the bugles of the British military camp established in Point during World War II.

Earl and his brother, Carl, had the “wall and floor boards” as their first instruments, beating out rhythms on them while they waited for lunch to be served. Earl graduated to Intruders/Morning Star, the first band of sorts he found a place in, to express what was inside.

Important influences on his development and career from that era came from Neverson “Bumpy” James and the man who went on to become one of this country’s most accomplished pan tuners, Allan Gervais. 

The 1946 Butler mobilisation of oil workers to march into Port-of-Spain provided the band with an opportunity to bring the villagers together with energy and rhythm. His grounding in Tropical Harmony was his most important early experience. The steelband took Earl into PoS to play at the Penthouse then managed by bandleader, Choy Aming.

“We used (Tropical Harmony his foundation steelband) to play in Clifton Hill, in Forrest Reserve and Pointe a Pierre, and we earned $40 to $50 for a performance, each member of the band going home with $10, during Carnival time the band got up to $150. Them days I was playing what we used to call Ping Pong, we had heavy percussion in the band and the “Grundig,” the guitar pan.”

Rodney says the famous Philmore “Boots” Davidson, who went to London with the Taspo—the Trinidad All Percussion Steel Orchestra, stayed in Point for a time and was an influence on the young players.  

One of Earl’s most significant moments in the steelband and in his personal development as a musician came when Tropical Harmony had an engagement at Clifton Hill Club, and he was just hanging out ”pitching marble” with his peers, only to be told by Allan that “the band could not start playing without you.”

“I was not aware of how important I was to the band. I learnt responsibility from that experience,” says the man who came to arrange for big name steelbands and calypsonians in the decades ahead as his career progressed. Earl also played with Southern Symphony in La Brea, the band led by the Bonaparte Bros.  He says the music of the band was “smooth and mellow” unlike the driving rhythms of the Point band.

During Rodney’s jaunts to San Fernando looking to broaden his musical horizons, he fell under the spell of the music of the Dutchy Bros, which in the 1960s playing at the Oxford Club, was one of the foremost of the big bands of the time. “I knew the Dutchy’s music by heart,” says Earl. In between San Fernando and playing at the Penthouse in PoS, Earl taught himself (as he has done with almost all things musical, reading music too) to play the upright bass, and when the opportunity came that the Dutchy’s needed a bass man, Rodney presented himself.

“How did you fit into that family band,” I asked of Rodney: “I was part of the musical family of the Dutchy’s” he laughed back his response to my provocative question.   Two weeks before Panorama of 1967, he being fully occupied playing in fetes with the Dutchy Bros, Earl receives a call that Solo Harmonites wanted him to arrange for the band.

He admits to having been intimidated by the task of arranging for a band with 130 players—a long distance from the eight to ten panman aggregation of Tropical Harmony.  But sensing an opportunity, Rodney plunged into the effort: “We were practising for 18 hours at a time.”  Sparrow’s Governor’s Ball was the first tune he arranged for Harmonites. For the Panorama competition, Earl led the band into Kitchener’s Sixty Seven. But Solo did not succeed that year.  

But come 1968 Earl, Solo Harmonites, “with excellent and dedicated panmen,” mash up town with the Wrecker. I asked about the second placed band that year, and Earl boasts that the distance between Harmonites and the second was so wide, that “I don’t remember who the band was.” Put that down to “pan man ramajay.” In the years ahead, Rodney and Harmonites won with Jerico, St Thomas Gyul and Play Mas all Kitchener compositions. He tied with Ray Holman and Starlift Play Mas.

How did the capacity for arranging (which he says has been his greatest strength in music) develop? Earl does not know: “I just did it,” he says while developing as a musician.

Earl’s immersion into the world of T&T music pushed-off further when Sparrow was looking for an arranger after the death of Bertram Inniss. In the first year (1969) Rodney arranged five calypsoes for Sparrow, among them Sparrow Dead, Lizard and Mas in Brooklyn. During the period 1969-1971 he arranged 26 Sparrow calypsoes School Days and Earl’s own composition, Steelband Music, a source of controversy.

To cut a long story short, Rodney’s publisher did not appreciate Sparrow being named as “supervisor” on the credits for Steelband Music.  The matter went to court and Rodney says he does not know what became of it.  “Today whenever we meet (Sparrow and Rodney) we hug-up and greet each other warmly,” says the man who remains resident in his hometown of “Point”.

Rodney also placed his trade-mark arrangement on the compositions of Black Stalin, Arrow, Short Shirt Squiby and others. 

With Stalin’s Caribbean Man album, he led the band at the Wizards calypso tent founded by William Munroe.  There was “happiness with the music and disappointment” with how that episode in this part of his career ended.

Rodney had to get justice in court to collect the band fee of ($16,000) owed to him and his band for playing on Dimanche Gras night to accompany Stalin. As Rodney tells it, the matter had nothing to do with the Black Man (Stalin) and everything to do with the tent owner who insisted that Rodney and his band play on the final night with Stalin.

That unpleasant episode, and a few others, one involving a calypso monarch who refused to pay him for his arrangement of his winning calypso, forced Earl to seek solace and playing opportunities outside of T&T.   

Between 1997 and 2008 Earl played in street theatres in Bath, England for six months of the year.  He sold his music and played for weddings and other such ceremonies.  It was a satisfying and beneficial end to his formal career; but how much more Earl’s music would have benefitted T&T.

During an extended period of reflection in New York after a tour had ended, Earl created his Friends and Countrymen album, for which he pulled together an ensemble of Trini musicians out in the “cold”.  The music, with invigorating sounds and shades of country life with its folk characters, took Earl back to his roots in Point.

Today he is still playing his alto pan, tuned by Gervais, and planting his kitchen garden. His circumstances are comfortable, but lingering on his mind is that he has not been fully appreciated, most of all by the National Carnival Commission.

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