Birdsong Fills The Air

The journey from Daaga Hall to Daaga Auditorium
By Jennifer Joseph

Photos courtesy Birdsong by Vibert Medford
Photos courtesy Birdsong by Vibert Medford

And so it was. The Homecoming. From Daaga Hall to Daaga Auditorium. Almost 36 years later, to date, birdsong returned to the UWI St Augustine campus, in the same spot that birthed it. Except that it was not the old gym and old Guild Hall, but the newly constructed and sophisticated Daaga Auditorium. It also was not the group of young, exuberant UWI students in the main, in our early twenties, eager to learn this truly fascinating and addictive musical instrument, but rather, a group of school children of the Tunapuna community and beyond, who had mastered the art of reading music, who were playing pan, and who had extended their skills to incorporate some of the standard musical instruments with a most varied and rich repertoire. What an achievement! The vision of the original birdsong is finally being fulfilled!
On Saturday August 8, 2009 at the Daaga Auditorium, it was an emotion-filled, nostalgic feeling, indeed, a deep sense of pride that enveloped me as a founding member who had played on that same spot, on that Saturday evening in September 1973 when the then Chancellor of UWI, Sir Hugh Wooding, had launched birdsong.
As I recall, it was hot and there were several speeches. We were perspiring with nervousness. We had practiced long and hard for that moment, all through the long vacation (“summer” as it is now called!) on discarded pans from Phase II, under the instruction of Selwyn Jones (Joe Beetle) and the visionary leadership of Teddy Belgrave. Unlike the birdsong Academy of 2009, our repertoire for the night comprised no more than six tunes, including what became our signature tune: “Memories” by the Mighty Sparrow.
We were dressed in our dark pants and blue-and-white flowered shirts that did not fit too well, but feeling excited and good, nevertheless—Freddie Lera (Bug), Eastlynne Greene, Anthony Bartholomew (Bartho), James Howard and Joseph Howard on tenor pan; Michael Adams, Leslie Callender, Dave Clement, Andre Moses, Rhoda Reddock and Albert Vincent (Vinco) on double seconds; Terrence Farrell, Gerry Kangalee and Cyril St Louis on the six bass; Jerry Sagar, Charles Da Silva (Charlo) and Anthony Taitt on the double tenor; Johnny Andalcio (Slim), Dennis Phillip and Margaret Hinds on the triple guitar; Cathy Ann Jones, Ronald Sandy and yours truly on the tenor bass; and the rhythm section comprising Teddy Belgrave, the other Taitt brother, Henry Williams (Henny) playing iron and “Panther”, one of the workers from Canada Hall cafeteria as the drummer. For the Homecoming on Saturday night, Teddy, Dave, Jerry, Dennis and I from the original group were present, as were several other persons who played in the band over the years.
But what was that original dream, that vision that had captivated all of us and made us head to the panyard three times a week and sometimes more? It was the dream that birdsong would make a “difference”; that we would bring “pan to the people”; that, by virtue of our very presence on campus and through our instrumentality, UWI would become the seat of pan research; that our music would be as sweet as the song of a bird; that the special brand of music we would be playing would have an everlasting impact on the society.
The event of August 8, 2009 tells us in no uncertain terms that the vision is alive. Dennis Philip, who assumed leadership of birdsong after Teddy Belgrave, has been determined, intentional and relentless in his effort to ensure that birdsong makes that difference that was our original raison d’etre.
Through the creation five years ago and the sustaining of the birdsong Academy, the band is finally having that positive impact in our society that is crying out for organizations and people to reach out and help our youths. By providing an official forum for young people to achieve music literacy, learn the national instrument as well as other conventional instruments, birdsong has gone where no other steelband organization has dared to go. Birdsong has taken the lead and is deliberately using the national instrument as a medium that could restore, renew and revive Trinidad and Tobago; birdsong has achieved that vision for the music to be as sweet as the bird’s song; birdsong is successfully playing a brand of music that incorporates the national instrument and conventional instruments in a variety of musical idioms through the work of Raf Robertson, Richard Quarless, Terrence Sealey, Mark Hosten and others.
Through the band’s close association with Professor Clement Imbert who is its current chairman, we can even claim to be part of the pan research that is taking place at UWI through Professor Imbert and Professor Brian Copeland. As Dennis Phillip articulated in his closing remarks on Saturday night at the Daaga Auditorium, the objective remains the same as it was in 1973 at Daaga Hall: “We have to leave the world a little better than we met it.” We, therefore, all have an obligation to make Trinidad and Tobago a better place and encourage community groups to take the lead in restoring our beloved Trinidad and Tobago.

(I apologise for any omissions or errors in the names listed as players for the band launch in September 1973.)

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