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Sundar Popo, Earl Rodney: musical maestros

By Richard Braithwaite

IN April last year I wrote an article entitled “the wealth above the ground” in which I argued that the true riches in the deep south of Trinidad are the people living in the communities and not only the oil and gas below the surface. It is a pity that this human resource remains largely untapped despite its potential as a catalyst for sustainable community development. I also indicated that, despite the millions that have been spent on various PR and CSR programmes, “many of the poorest communities in T&T today can be found on the doorstep of the lucrative energy sector.”  

There are several reasons for the apparent contradiction and one of them is the tendency to use superficial, “quick fix’’ solutions to address complex, long-standing social problems. This is not unique to south Trinidad and the philosophy is sometimes reflected in the approach to dealing with so-called “at risk’’ communities. Too often the emphasis is on the photo-opportunity and on many occasions the candle costs more than the funeral. It is therefore not uncommon to see a $10,000 advertisement publicising a $5,000 donation. 

Another reason is that many of the traditional models of development ignore the socio-cultural assets that already exist within a community. This form of social capital is often undervalued as a component of community development especially at the youth level. So it was good to see that belated recognition has been given to the late Sundar Popo and an auditorium at the National Academy of Performing Arts, South Campus, was named in his honour. 

The legendary chutney icon was a product of Barrackpore, a community that played a significant role in the growth of the local petroleum industry. Barrackpore has also produced some outstanding national cricketers including Samuel Badree, Jason Mohammed and former national captain Daren Ganga. 

Sundar Popo is one of several musical maestros from this part of the country and southwest Trinidad in particular has a history of cultural and sporting excellence. Another creative genius who is still alive and living in the deep south is a man who is widely regarded as one of the greatest steelband arrangers of all time, Earl Rodney of Point Fortin. 

Under his guidance, Solo Harmonites dominated the Panorama scene capturing four championship titles between 1968 and 1972. With his very first Panorama title, Rodney demonstrated his brilliance with a masterful arrangement of “The “Wrecker’’ by Lord Kitchener. 

In a recent interview he admitted that his choice of tune was not popular with some members who would have preferred something that reflected the joy of Carnival instead of a calypso about “wrecking old cars”. He held firm and Solo’s “The Wrecker’’ took the town by storm, running away with the top prize. 

The following year Rodney chose Sparrow’s “Bongo’’ to defend the title but had to settle for third place although he maintains that “Bongo was my ‘baddest’ arrangement”. Harmonites and Earl Rodney were back in winners’ row in 1971 and repeated their success in 1972. Since then he has opted out of Panorama because “it is too limiting and you can’t step out of the box. I like to experiment and let the music come from inside me. I don’t study the judges”. He is also not too impressed with the quality of local music today and he thinks that much of it is “disposable, ‘styrotex’ music that will not stand the test of time”.

Largely self-taught and with a “good ear for music” Rodney extended his arranging skills beyond the steelband and became the musical arranger for several top calypsonians including the Mighty Sparrow. He insists that his musical gift is “from above” and he remembers the first time he took up a bass guitar and began playing without much difficulty. 

“It was at a beach club in Los Iros,” he recalls “ and the regular bass player didn’t turn up. I took up the bass lying in the corner and began to play.” He was so successful that he was soon asked to join the famous Dutchy Brothers, one of the leading dance bands at the time. 

It was just a matter of time, however, before he was pulled back into pan and it was due to the intervention of renowned pan tuner Allan Gervais, another Point Fortin son-of-the-soil. Gervais was working with Harmonites when the band’s resident arranger had to leave the country. He recommended Rodney and the rest is history. 

Today Earl Rodney continues on his marvellous musical journey and his current dream is to “write a musical score for a play or a movie”. It is definitely something that local music aficionados can look forward to. 

Later this month, on June 22  at NAPA, he will be the featured artiste at the annual Birdsong concert to raise funds for musical scholarships. The Birdsong Music Academy, which includes the Birdsong Steel Orchestra, continues to demonstrate the vast potential of the steelband as a catalyst for human and social development. It is fitting, therefore, that their latest concert should feature the genius of Earl Rodney.

Today Point Fortin can brag about having a King of Soca in the person of Austin “Superblue’’ Lyons and it can also lay claim to be the hometown of the Duke of Calypso, the late Kelvin Pope. Now the borough can add another icon to its impressive list of cultural heroes, the Earl of Steelband.

• Richard Braithwaite is a

 management consultant

 

 

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