Bajan John Archer was so notorious in Trinidad & Tobago at the turn of the twentieth century that his nickname “Badjohn” entered that nation’s vocabulary. He was one of many Bajans who contributed significantly to Trinidad & Tobago’s history and culture. Take for instance pan, that quintessential Trini art form. It’s early development was accelerated by the input of Bajans, most notably: Cecil Ward (Bajan Cecil) and Lt. Joseph Nathaniel Griffiths.
Cecil Ward was known to the early steelband world as “Bajan Cecil”, whose story is found in: The Illustrated Story of Pan. Born in Barbados in 1923, Ward grew up with his father and grandparents, his mother having early on migrated to greener pastures in Trinidad.
Bajan school children at the time had some training in music, for singing was on every primary school curriculum. Trinidadian school children only studied music if they were in an orphanage or took piano lessons, which only girls did.
But Ward’s background was even more musical. His father and grandparents sang in a church choir, and there was a piano at home. And when he was in Ebenezer School’s sixth standard, teacher Sergeant offered to teach him music.
“Next door to the school was the church and there was an organ,” recalled Ward. “I joined the music class to be in the church choir.”
As for teacher Sergeant, he had a particular interest in instructing the boy in music: Ward’s half-brother’s older sister taught in the school, and teacher Sergeant had taken a fancy to her. So he made sure the boy learnt well.
“‘Home Sweet Home’ had an F# in the passage that I will always remember,” he said. “Teacher Sergeant hit me a lash with a tamarind rod on my hand because I couldn’t expand enough to reach the F#.”
In 1939, the year the steelband movement was born, when Ward was 13 years old, he joined his mother in Trinidad, and moved in with her in Isaac Terrace, St James. “I didn’t know her and I wanted to meet her,” he said.
After World War II, however, in St James near his home, however, Ward heard the real thing for the first time: the Harlem Nightingales, a band which many people refer to by the mas they played in 1946, St James Sufferers.
Ward’s mother didn’t too like his involvement with any steelbands, but his stepfather did and he encouraged Ward, who became friendly with Carlton “Sonny” Roach, the gifted tuner, arranger and captain of a nearby band named Sun Valley.
“We had a contrary beat and at a certain time they had a little pan beating and I realised they had three notes on the pan what gave me ‘Rum and Coca Cola’,” he recalled. “Sonny Roach and I were making pans so I said ‘Let’s get a few more notes’ and he got some sweet oil drums and got eight notes in 1946 plus F#.”
With those nine notes Ward played “Home Sweet Home”. And though Ward was a law-abiding young man and Roach was more wayward, the musical partnership between them gelled.
Once Ward heard a band playing in the Bombay Club in Kandahar with a “box-bass” – the creole variation of the African thumb piano in which you plucked bent pieces of metal attached to a resonating box – and he made a small one with bits of clock spring. Sonny Roach took the idea and transferred it to a biscuit drum to get a bass pan.
Before they’d made the nine-note “Home Sweet Home” pan, Roach used to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, and Ward would play a sort of counterpoint to it on his pan. So when the first ever island wide steelband competition approached in September 1946, Ward had Roach make a pan with higher notes to his nine and he taught Roach “Home Sweet Home”.
“Sonny Roach had the gift for playing, he was faster than me,” recalled Ward. “I’d only play the basic thing but he’d play in a stylish rhythm. He was faster but I was the basic fella, I’d correct his bad notes.”
Accordingly, Roach played the basic melody while Ward accompanied him three tones lower. “When he played ‘Home Sweet Home’ I followed on the second pan,” explains Ward. “It was alto to the song, it played like a chord with the ping pong, a third below.”
On the night of the competition the Sun Valley players wore ordinary clothes, unlike the other panmen who had uniforms of some kind. But Sun Valley had the talent, with members like young Anthony Williams, who is perhaps the greatest panman ever.
There is a conflict of memory here, for Ward says that he had no problem going to the competition. Indeed, he got a lift in the car of one Ramkit, a shopkeeper from nearby. Nooksin Sampson, however, says Ward’s mother didn’t want him to go out with his stepfather’s white shirt. “He went inside and pass the shirt through the window. We take the shirt and gone and later when he come we give him the shirt,” said Sampson whose own mother was similarly disapproving.
Be that as it may, that night Red Army steelband, who placed second, would be chosen as the Best Dressed Band and would be taken on tour to British Guiana in 1947 – the first steelband to go abroad. Red Army was a band with many pimps and sweetmen, all stylish dressers. Sun Valley was more modestly attired and would only be invited to play in Royal Theatre. Still, the band which dazzled them all with music at that first Islandwide Steelband competition was Sun Valley, with a sound never heard before in steelband: Sonny Roach on lead pan and Cecil Ward on second.
Until then panmen didn’t know anything about playing in key or harmonizing. Anyone played anything in any key. Then Sonny Roach played a solo version of “La Paloma Blanca”, a difficult tune which went down well, enough to get him the ping pong solo prize.
Then came the ensemble section, with all the powerful bands like Invaders, Casablanca, Destination Tokyo, Tripoli, Belmont Stepyard, bands with up to 30 players. Up came Sun Valley, a small band with no bugles like the others, and no rhythm section to maintain a jamming tempo. But when the band hit them with “Home Sweet Home”, an arrangement that drew from all the music Teacher Sergeant had beaten into Ward years before, the adjudicator – Major Dennison from the police band, took notice.
“When I play the alto pan and hit them the F#,” recalled Ward, “Dennison – he had he foot cock up – he sit upright.”
Thereafter Ward withdrew from steelband. He was always a disciplined kind of fellow and he was getting ahead in the construction business, whereas Sonny Roach was drawing closer to the more rough types in the band. And by the time the talented Sun Valley youths such as Tony Williams and Roy Harper broke away to form North Stars in 1950, Ward was out of it, having made his seminal contribution to the steelband movement.
About our guest author: Kim Johnson
Dr. Kim Johnson was until Carnival 2020 the Director of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago. He is an accomplished journalist, author and researcher. He has directed and/or written several prize-winning films, including PAN! Our Music Odyssey.
Dr. Johnson’s crowd funding Indiegogo campaign to print the second edition of “The Illustrated Story of Pan” launched on 3rd February 2020 and was delivered to backers in May 2021. This book charts the history of pan and includes profiles on two Bajans:
- Cecil “Bajan Cecil” Ward, who first showed the steelband how to harmonise pans in 1946.
- Lt. Joseph Nathaniel Griffith of the Trinidad Police Band, who directed the first modern steel orchestra, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) in 1951.
Further information can be found here: The Illustrated Story of Pan: Second Edition.