Hugh Borde – Someone we can all be proud of

By: Jenny Baboolal

Hugh Borde left us on February 18, 2020. Although it was not a shock to hear this news, it brought a flood of emotions and memories of a dear friend. We met by chance, standing in a line waiting for service. Over the years I grew to know him as a generous, caring, funny, talented, gentle man and a giant in the pan world. He was an extraordinary Trinbagonian.

At this time in our history, it is worthwhile and encouraging to look at what one of our own accomplished.  

As one of the founders of the steelband movement, he witnessed the birth of the steel pan from the instruments that preceded it and had intimate knowledge of its history.

In 1945, he formed his first twelve-member steelband called “Hell’s Kitchen” sponsored by the Robinson Crusoe Rum Company. This was the first organized sponsored steel band in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T).

In 1951, he was appointed Musical Director & Band Leader of the Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band and was the longest reigning steelband leader in history.

In 1962, Mr. Borde was appointed by Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams to a committee that was set up to prevent steelband clashes and rioting among the bands. This resulted in the formation of the National Steel Band of T&T, which brought together leading players from the different bands and improved relations amongst the bands. The National Steel Band of Trinidad & Tobago consisted of forty-four members and went on to travel internationally including England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Hugh and Liberace

In 1964, he took the Tripoli Steel Band to its very first victory, winning the Prime Ministers Trophy playing the lead tenor pan for the band. Once again, he took the band on international tours to the United States, Canada and the Caribbean taking steel band music to a higher level.

In 1966 the National Steel Band performed at the Royal Albert Hall in England, with Queen Elizabeth attending the command performance and later, for Princess Margaret, on the Royal Yacht Britannia. That year the Tripoli Steel Band played for the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie 1, on his visit to T&T.

In 1967, the Tripoli Steel Band played to an international audience outdoors at the Expo ’67 world fair in Montreal, Canada, in the T&T Pavilion. It was the first steel band to perform in Canada. During Expo ’67. The world famous pianist/entertainer Liberace witnessed their performance and decided that he absolutely wanted this featured act to be the opening band on his 1969 concert tour. Mr. Liberace would later introduce the band using these famous words: “I’ve never before had the thrill of introducing an entire group of people such as the one and only Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band. This group is the first touring act I have seen to receive a standing ovation at every performance.” Due to the success of the 1969 tour, Liberace contracted the band to tour with him for another year introducing thousands more in the United States and beyond, to steelpan music.

The International Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band was the only steel band to appear on every major television show in the United States. These included The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, and the David Frost Show. They also performed at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Waldorf Astoria, The Hollywood Bowl, Las Vegas Hilton, The Sahara Hotel, Caesars Palace, The Flamingo Hotel, The Golden Nugget Casino, Harrahs Hotel in Lake Tahoe, the Diplomatic Core in Washington, D.C., the Rockefeller Plaza in New York and The Museum of Fine Arts, in Montreal, Canada.

Mr. Borde and his band appeared on the Easter Seal’s National Jerry Lewis Telethon in 1969, with such stars as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bob Hope, Smothers Brothers, Barbara Streisand, The Jackson Five with Michael Jackson and Dionne Warwick and also did a one-year tour with Sergio Franchi.

His band released fourteen albums and in 1972, it was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Island Music for their album “Liberace Presents”. He toured the USA with family members from 1977 until his health declined recently. Their touring included colleges, state fairs, conventions and corporate and club engagements all over the United States of America. Their repertoire ranged from classical to calypso, jazz, country, polka and rock and roll…. all on steel drums. He was also a lecturer in colleges and universities across the United States.

Hugh Borde

He is the only Trinidad Steelbandsman to receive the Gold Medal of Merit by a United States President, Ronald Regan, for his contribution in Steel Band Music –  ” the new art form of musical bands in the United States”. He did two command performances for two United States presidents.

In 1995, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Caribbean Sunshine Awards in New York City. He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Motown Metro Musical awards in Detroit, Michigan, was granted the Kentucky Colonel Award in Steel Band Music and received the Hummingbird Medal Award in Trinidad.

Every year, he brought together pan players of all ages and all types of people from the industry to meet and enjoy each other, share stories and honour the steelband movement by holding the popular Pan Pioneers Day. Mr. Borde is one of the first steelband musicians selected by the pan musicians themselves to adjudicate the annual national steelband competition called Panorama and he did this for many years.

More than anyone else, Hugh Borde brought steelband music to the wider world. Because of his excellence as a musician and band leader, he dedicated himself to presenting nothing other than professional musicians, stellar performances and world class music. He gave steelband music world credibility and took it from its modest beginning and advanced it to a musical art form for people from all over the world to appreciate and enjoy.

What is undeniable is that we’ve lost an extraordinary Trinbagonian who gave a lot to his community and made the pan world and our country proud.