By Andre Moses
Sometime in 1973, the late Teddy Belgrave initiated discussions about forming a steelband on the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.
Stored in a room there were some black pans, evidence of a previous edition of a campus steelband.
Teddy had been a bassman in Laventille Highlanders while he was still a student at Queens Royal College He had also played pan during his student days in Canada, so he had some panman credentials
Jerry Sagar, a campus freshman, and some of his friends from the neighbouring community of Tunapuna, had formed a little band that used to practise some tunes that Jit Samaroo had shown them in the Lodge building at the corner of Sherriff Street and Tunapuna Road.
There was also Freddy ‘Bug’ Leira, the sole survivor of the band with the black pans. So Teddy, Jerry and Bug constituted the sum total of the pan experience when Birdsong was formed in 1973.
Experienced or not Teddy was very clear, this band that he was forming, was not to be just another campus club, it was to be a “serious band”. By Teddy’s definition a serious band had to enter Panorama and following the inspiration of the late Sir Frank Worrell (when he served as Dean of Students and Director of Sport at the St. Augustine Campus) he insisted the band also have a strong organic relationship with the university’s surrounding community. Teddy was also adamant the band’s membership must include workers on campus.
And so it was that in 1974, less than six months after the launch of Birdsong in Daaga Hall, representatives of the Gibbs, Serrette and Sandy families and members from the adjacent Monte Grande community, began to filter through the university’s side gate to begin practice for Panorama 1974. Christopher Tait, a student who had played with Highlanders, was skeptical. “Teddy yuh sure dem half-a-decent girls ready for Panorama?”
Half-a-decent in Tait’s mind was not a comment on morality but an expression of apprehension as to whether students – Pat, Cathy Ann, Jenny, Margaret, Edwina and company – were ready for the rigors of panorama practice, since back then, the Steelband Panorama was still a male dominated arena.
By the end of the preliminary round of Panorama 1974, Teddy’s “serious band” had been duly consecrated. Birdsong had travelled down the Savannah “bull tract” (paved area leading to the stage) and arrived on the “Big Yard” stage, student, community resident, campus worker, and half-a-decent girls, side by side with members of San Juan East Side and Curepe Scherzando, in full moral and logistical support.
The band played Singing Francine’s Wake up Alfred arranged by Selwyn ‘Joe Beetle’ Jones. Cultural icon, Pat Bishop (then a lecturer in history at the university) had collapsed in the stands but had revived in time to hear the band, and “UWI” Birdsong was the talk of the town, not the least because of its bevy of attractive “half-a-decent girls”, commandeering their notes in the steelband Panorama.
Strengthening Community Ties
As the early years passed by, Birdsongs designation as a serious band that was building organic links with the community began to take shape. Experienced panmen were coming to join the road and stage sides. While the core of the band came from the neighbouring Monte Grande community and from the Tunapuna community further east, Birdsong’s Panorama catchment area was steadily extending to other communities in the East West Corridor (a transportation artery that links the suburban towns in the east to Port of Spain the capital city in the west).
By 1976, a Monte Grande man, musician / soldier Earl Wright had carried Birdsong to its first Panorama National Semi-Finals with his arrangement of Kitchener’s Pan in Harmony.
From the Campus to the Community
All this signified to Teddy that Birdsong was ready for its next step, away from the campus and into the Tunapuna community. By this time the university was becoming uneasy with the band’s expanded budgetary requirements and the community of “outsiders” whom Birdsong was inviting past the university’s secured gates and fences. After a brief sojourn on the Eastern Main Road opposite Hadeed’s store the band settled in its present location at the corner of Connell and St. Vincent Streets in Tunapuna.
To many, Birdsong may seem to be a strange name for a steelband. The name emanated from Teddy’s vision of experimentation. He thought a university with faculties of science and technology should play some role in experimenting with the sound emanating from the steelpan.
He spoke passionately about the university’s betrayal of veteran pan tuners Bertie Marshall and Lincoln Noel, whom he considered to be legitimate scientists, and he thought that a steelband on campus would be ideally suited to harness science and technology in the area of pan tuning. The very name Birdsong was a play on the varied sounds emanating from bird whistles. Pat Bishop began but never completed writing a steelband opera called The Swamp exploring this very theme of bird sounds.
Writing and Research
In 1979 Birdsong hosted a major concert Crescendo, at the JFK Lecture Theatre at UWI St. Augustine.
Teddy’s point was that Panorama was not enough, full length concerts in which the steelbands could address key issues of sound and steelband orchestration, original composition, and also the collaboration with other voices, must also to be a part of the focus and it was in this context that Crescendo was conceptualized.
Also included in the brochure was an article entitled Steelband the Truth which is one of the best-researched and respected accounts of the evolution of the steelband.
Pan in Education
Today the Birdsong Academy stands as a testimony to Teddy’s vision that extended beyond the scope of the Steelband Panorama.
After leaving Birdsong Teddy was a founding member and the first president of the Pan in Schools Coordinating Council that successfully spearheaded the thrust to put pan on the primary and secondary school curriculum and he was also the coordinator of the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s inaugural Advanced Pan Tuning Program.
Legacy lives on
Teddy, while you may have completed your earthly tenure in a physical sense, your legacy continues to positively impact the steelband institution and so you may rest in peace in the knowledge that you have handed over your baton with the steelband in a position of significant advantage because of your contribution.