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'Divine' no more: a Manning parable

By Lennox Grant

On the last Sunday evening of 2012, Trinidad and Tobago history was quietly made as private citizens rallied to carry forward a project from which the state had pointedly walked away. It made for a story identified with the news value of "unusualness", given the familiar pattern for the state to succour people or causes fallen into distress.

At the Cascadia Hotel ballroom in St Ann's, "The Friends", as they called themselves, had brought along friends of theirs, not to help out people left homeless by a landslide or a landlord. We bought $300 tickets in a drive to put a roof over the heads and to support not a "hot spot" pan side whose members have to be distracted from crime.

We had pitched in to sustain an elite formation that once enjoyed the hands-on sponsorship of the Prime Minister of T&T. The event was the launch of "Echoes The Band", so rebranded as to catch the eyes of putative promoters who had engaged Kes The Band for Old Year's night at the Hyatt Regency.

A vaguely heroic air pervaded the St Ann's venue, where Echoes The Band presented themselves in circumstances so straitened as to mark a steep come-down from the former stature under the name, Divine Echoes. Five years after founding, the band had lost "divine" association connected with the born-again piety of then prime minister Patrick Manning.

He had dedicated Divine Echoes, as his own band of angels to "the renaissance of formal, elegant ballroom dancing to live music." It was a mission for the salvation of youth, based on his personal experience around 1962, of dancing to the Dutchy Brothers and Joey Lewis orchestras. By unhappy contrast, the dance music today is not conducive "to the kinds of directions that we consider ideal for the young people of T&T".

At first, Cabinet colleagues had laughed. They came around upon noticing he was serious about creating this special-purpose state enterprise inside the Prime Minister's Office. If any expense was spared, it wasn't clear where, but Mr Manning said he expected the Divine Echoes would be "weaned" off state sustenance, once its music had gained a market.

Meanwhile, the PM's office invited applications for five saxophone positions; four of trumpet and trombone; two guitarists; two bassists; two keyboard players; two G pannists; three drummers and percussionists; five singers; plus bandleader, administrator, clerk/secretary, and sound engineer. The state supplied the instruments and equipment.

The lavishing drew criticism. Musical maestro Rellon Brown, noting other unsatisfied expectations of state support, blasted a "political pipe dream" and the funding of "ideas conceived by conceit and arrogance".

As the Manning administration's house band, Divine Echoes earned its keep with command performances at state events and other favoured occasions. Unlike, the Police Band, it had no other reason for being.

Nor did it figure in any national campaign to promote ballroom dancing among youth, its original dedication. Nor did it ever dispel the image of being a Patrick Manning vanity project.

Still, Divine Echoes represented, if not a band of role models, then a musically lettered resource in reserve, or in development. In furtherance of such development, the government arranged a study trip to Cuba.

A lover of band music, I preferred to have the band than not to have it, though troubled that it didn't amount to a "sustainable development".  Again, its repertoire showed no particular commitment to exploring and building upon the T&T songbook of local compositions, including by its own members.

To this extent, Divine Echoes marked a backward step, or a marking of time, in a period of advances in other musical areas. Mr Manning was fated to preside over a time of positive ferment. T&T produced two symphony orchestras, and a steel symphony; and a Music Literacy Trust that combined with industrial sponsors to reward production of serious original local works.

A Jazz Alliance came to life; Rellon Brown led the Dominant Seventh Calypso Jazz Band; Raf Robertson led calypso jazz explorations at Birdsong. The Rainmakers, experimented  with "A Tropical Journey in Percussion and Steel", new music, blending pan with marimbas; also from UWI, came the G pan. UTT appointed professors of calypso and pan.

In May 2010, Divine Echoes survived the sinking ship of the Manning administration, only because of People's Partnership indifference about further rocking of the boat. Partnership people, notably Anand Ramlogan, could hardly bear the thought of "wasted" state expenditure on ten grand pianos acquired for music programmes.

By their launch last Sunday, Echoes musicians had mostly remained mobilised, but without instruments and equipment that had been repossessed by the state upon expiry of the Manning-era contract. High drama marked the arrival of the man whose brainchild the band exclusively remains. He arrived in the conspicuous absence of his closest former Cabinet colleague, and long-time dance partner, Hazel, as if to enact a parable of our times.

The band, too, diminished in size and sound, but unimproved in repertoire (playing a segment of 1980s disco music!), forcibly "weaned" from state support, remains unready for the prospect of life without a deep-pocketed sponsor.

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