The Bertie Marshall story
'Pan Is Mih Gyul'
Bertie Marshall, pan innovator, was laid to rest on October 23. Late journalist Keith Smith had written about Marshall's life in a series of articles entitled "Pan is Mih Gyul", which first appeared in the Tapia newspaper. The following is an excerpt of those articles which was later reproduced in The Sun newspaper on April 6, 1984, and also appears in the book, The Best of Keith Smith – Making an Art of Newspaper Journalism, which is available in leading bookstores.
\In previous articles I have argued what was necessary to solve steelband's problems in 1984 was a revolutionary approach to "pan" technology and music. I noted that, given steelband tradition, those resources would be found within the steelband itself and that assurance was underscored by my own steelband experience and, today, I continue the discussion by inviting readers to relive some Laventille and national steelband history with a series of articles that first appeared in TAPIA.
Pray, play whe whe and shine shoes. That was my father. They were his own shoes that he shone, shinning them until, with a final rub of the cloth, he finished, put them on and went out to see if he had said the right prayers, if he or we had been given the right dreams – those would lead him to win a mark that day.
For although my farting on the deck chair that somebody had given him while he was a messenger at Queen's Park Hotel paid off and I am certain he knew the many dream books that came into our house off by heart.
I have said that we three children were part of my father's whe whe ritual. We had to, because there was money in it for us. If one of our dreams was the cause of my father winning a mark, he or she was certain to receive at least a penny from my father's winnings.
Naturally we used to lie about our dreams. Many a time I didn't dream at all. But to admit that would be to deny myself a cut in the winnings if my father was lucky that day. So, dream or no dream, we always had some story to tell our father. If he won, we got our money. If he lost, it could always be blamed on some error in the interpretation of the dream. Either way we had nothing to lose.
I have said that my father included us in his whe whe and not in his prayers. Perhaps that was the measure of whe whe's importance in our house. It kept us going in that little two-room house in Plaisance Road, John John. Winning a mark was the way many times for my father to get enough to buy food for my two sisters, my mother and myself.
Sometimes my mother was able to bring in some money by sewing a dress, but although she was a seamtress, not many neighbours brought their clothes to her door. I have always wondered if it was because the neighbours knew that my mother felt that she was above them.
My mother was obsessed with this: that somehow, in spite of the fact we were all sharing the same poverty, sh****** cock-up like Tarzan up in John John, we were different. It was this thing about her that put her into so much difficulty with the neighbours.
Whenever she went out and my father was not home, she used to lock us up in the house. I must have been about five or six at that time but I retain distinct impressions of that house. There were plenty pictures. Pictures of angelic-looking white women and one of St Michael standing above the devil, both of them looking like if they come out for real rope. We used to escape from the house of course. We would climb up on the woven chairs taking care not to stand on the crisscrossed cane that formed the chair bottom, unlatched a window and were out.
Sometimes we would be caught and then my mother would become a walking, screaming fury. She would beat us until she became tired, and although I felt my father disapproved, he never intervened for he was one of those short, quiet men that always seem to be attracted to women like my mother. Where my father was different about things, my mother was strong. Her only weakness was religion. I could never understand how my mother, who usually made up her mind quickly about so many things, could be as confused about religion as she was.
She belonged to all-she was in the Baptist faith, followed the Roman Catholics, forced me to attend long, boring Pentecostal services up by the L'Hospice and while my father never went to these churches, he was a religious man – always praying, and even if his prayers were aimed at winning a whe whe mark, it meant that he was praying that he would be able to take care of his family that was dependent on the whims of the whew he banker.
I believe I spent the years between my fourth and eighth birthdays in this manner in John John. Yes I am sure of it, since I was born in February of 1936 and I know I was in John John during the war. At that time John John was a crowded, barrack-type place. Plenty people always cussing and fighting by the pipe. We were situated not far from the La Basse and I remember that when I first started school the other fellers in the class used to insist that the boys from the
John John areas lived in the La Basse. Both my parents drank. My father, outside with his friends, my mother in the privacy of her home away from the sight of my neighbours. She drank heavily, though, and there were times when she and my father had sustained fights. Young as we were then, these were terrible scenes for my sisters and myself. That the noise from these fights reached the ears of our neighbours didn't seem to worry my mother, although she took great care to make neighbours realise that everything was prim and proper in our house. Perhaps the neighbours accepted fights between man and wife as normal in John John. Or, perhaps, my mother felt that neighbours should be willing to forget the one blot in her life of "decency" she had mapped out for us in that small two-room house in John John. About keeping ourselves to ourselves, she was firm, stubborn. Even when we were relatively grown up, between 15 and 17, say, she kept close watch and ready hand over us. And it was this that caused me to wait ten years between the time I first saw a pan being tuned and the time when I should attempt to tune one myself. I didn't have to ask my mother's permission to play pan. I knew her well enough to know that I would be able to hang around pan and panmen only over her dead body, so I put the thought out of my mind and interested myself with boyish pastimes of the day, with variations that were all my own and about which I must tell you later. Things was bad, my mother cried the Christmas of '43 in the house in John John. My father had hit a bad patch- whew he was a waste that December. He wasn't winning and, as the day came closer, my father and mother became more and more desperate. Daddy's luck didn't improve and the Christmas of '43 was not a Christmas at all. But things must have improved. In addition to his whe whe, my father began getting odd jobs and we subsequently moved to Laventille, where we had to pay a bigger rent. We used to eat better too. I know that because, although we had moved to Laventille, my sisters and I were still attending the "Pound School" in John John. And after school I used to go to meet my father who would give me bread, shark, pudding or some such thing to carry home. Naturally, my father remained a John John man. That was where the whe whe was. He used to leave home in Success Village in the morning and go back to John John to lime with friends and play whe whe. So that although I was living in Laventille, John John still played the biggest part in my life, particularly since my mother kept up in Laventille all her prejudices. We were forbidden to play with young people in the area so that, in Success Village, I had no friends initially with young people. So the move to Laventille didn't change my lifestyle much. To get to school I still went to Plaisance Street, went through the track, past the bay leaf and samaan trees that led to the school building. It was along that track that I first heard a pan being tuned. I don't know whether it was when I was going to school, or when during recess I sneaked out with fellers like Hugh Mulzac, who later became a big –time footballer for Colts. But, I do know that the scene along the track was one that I knew very well. Of course the teachers used to warn us about hanging around "Spree" Simon and "Patcheye" and them but these fellers used to be in the track for the whole day. Big bonfire, and whole day is pounding and a pounding. We could hear the sounds from the classes in which we sat. So, in spite of everything, we hung around. And I came to know "Spree" himself, a feller they used to call Dog, Big Drum and Lil Drum, Andrew Beddoe, Dudley, Rugg and others. Plenty butchers, too. For across from the John John hill was the slaughter – exactly where it is today – and at lunchtime the butchers would come across and, while the fellers were looking and beating notes on their pans, the butchers used to keep time with their knives. Spree was undoubtedly the boss. He used to hammer the pan outwards and not inwards, as is done today. The pans were first punched outwards and the inwards to get a surface to accommodate the note. That was during the day. In the night, the steelband – Spree, Patcheye and the boys – used to come out on the roads. I never, because of my mother, took part in any of this. We used to hear the sounds – all the pans playing only three notes – B, D, E but plenty rhythm and people jumping up and waving coconut branches. All this we saw while peeping through the jalousie, and all the time my mother yelling: "Move from the jalousie before they chook out all yuh eye. Before all yuh say yuh prayers and go to bed all yuh looking at stupidness." And she would then turn down the lamp low to make sure that the neighbours understood on which side of the steelband line we stood. It was during these nigh sessions that the police made their raids. They would swoop down into John John and men would run through the night, all of them dropping their pans. When daylight came they would be back at it again, pounding and pounding. And plenty, plenty gamble. I don't want you to feel that all this time the call of pan was running through my blood. I was about eight years old and while the tuning of the pan and the sessions and the police raids were exciting, I don't think my interest was any greater than that of the average child at that time. Surrounded by the excitement and the daily activity under the bay leaf and samaan trees. I was unmoved. I understood that Spree and the rest of the gang were trying to make music from pans, but it wasn't until much later that I saw that I had a definite role to play in the music-making. Part two of this article continues tomorrow.