No word such as "icon" offered itself to me, as I was moved to recall Bertie Marshall on the morning I read on "When Steel Talks" that he had "passed". Now, I suppose, as in the reference with such Shakespearean resonance, he belongs to the ages. But Bertie Marshall, decorated steelband hero, did once belong to a world I knew, to the place where we both lived.
In the 1960s-1970s, the word "icon" was familiar, if at all, only to those favoured with some classical learning. He was already, in that place, a notable, maybe even a "noble", as that term might more nearly have been intuited.
The place was Laventille, and the people who shared that address hastened toward precision about where we meant. Our Laventille was the alluvial plain defined by the Eastern Main Road and Old St Joseph Road. Laid out on a grid, our place scaled upward to the base of steep slopes that operated like a barrier reef against the tidal influence of that other, more famed, Laventille, Up the Hill.
By 1965, Derek Walcott had dedicated his "Laventville" to that up-the-hill from where, the poem said, "to go downhill from here was to ascend". Our downhill Laventille was likely not what Walcott had in mind. Rolling east to Morvant junction, Success Village was, however, a promise land of upward mobility, identified with Bertie Marshall and others.
Those others were listed last December in an address by Junior Augustus Howell at the launch of The Best of Keith Smith. Like moving a finger west to east along a map, Howell named the streets and the musical, sporting and other notables who could be claimed by the place called Success Village.
He described the map as "dotted with pearls of greatness". The musical part of which included Carl and Robbie Greenidge, Leston Paul, Johnny Gomez, Roland Gordon, Martin and Merle Albino, Freddie Harris, the Bonaparte Brothers, Tony Slater, Mervyn Williams, Jomo Wahtuse, Chalkdust, Crazy. Howell himself survives as an advanced musician, music educator, bandleader and diversified entrepreneur. The area also produced writers about music in Keith Smith, Terry Joseph and Peter Ray Blood.
Music most memorably defined the promise of Success Village-pan, calypso, jazz, dance band, classical. Howell remembers eight steelbands in yards east of the Erica Street base of Bertie Marshall's Hylanders. The Bonaparte Brothers, playing alto and tenor saxophones, rehearsed their band within hearing distance of the street where I lived.
Next door, Mervyn Williams, playing vibraharp, rehearsed his Afro Jazz Quartet. He introduced me to the Modern Jazz Quartet and the jazz magazine Downbeat.
In excitement, I later recognised, in Hylanders' arrangement of "Bells of St Mary's" a "sampling" from the MJQ's 1957 piece, "The Golden Striker" (Bertie Marshall was also a jazzman!). For a "combo" band we organised in the late 1960s, Keith Smith and I recruited as arrangers both Mervyn and Bertie.
"Celebration of life" is the reigning rubric for occasions marking deaths. Preferring plainer speech, I call such occasions funerals, at which no need arises to remind everyone that the deceased, however deserving, may not have been "celebrated" at all while they lived.
Most of last week's newspaper photos of Marshall had been taken, near the end of his life, wearing the 2008 Order of T&T medal. My own files retain a sharply well-preserved claenphoto from 1940 of Cab Calloway assembled with other musicians at an Atlanta, Georgia doorway bearing the sign "Colored Entrance". By contrast, for sad example, most of the photos dating from 1962 Independence appeared faint and ancient.
A haunting ever-presence these days, death has become the reference category for more and more of the people with whom I shared life and times in Success Village and elsewhere. That goes for Mervyn Williams and Keith Smith, and now Bertie Marshall.
Dead men telling no tales, I am left with the singular opportunity to recount events that helped shape such life as now remains to be celebrated. To learn to live was to learn to lime.
Bertie, then nicknamed "Boodhoo", with his closest liming partner who, for no readily apparent reason, called himself "Coolie", on one blurringly recalled occasion, inducted two youngsters fresh out of Fatima College into savouring hospitality comprising Crystal White rum with curried cascadou, at the home of a redoubtable working woman, one Maefield, in Yankee Trace.
I got to know Bertie as one a type I call unlearned intellectuals. He expressed himself in Trini Creole with the articulation and imagery of an accomplished calypsonian.
With himself as leader, philosopher, father figure, big brother, and all-purpose doyen, Hylanders became the finest expression of Success Village.
On a Carnival Monday afternoon, hours after the band had won the Bomb competition, Hylanders appeared to have assembled the entire young population of Success Village, for a demonstration of joy on Port of Spain streets.
The glory days turned out to be as short-lived as the promise of Success Village. The decline and disappearance of the band coincided with large-scale migration out of Success, including eventually of Bertie Marshall himself. Beyond Hylanders, his work in pan survived, even advanced, but his availability as a symbol of leadership and possibility in the place was no more. Success Village remained a promise unfulfilled.