The Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) goods building at the site of the Siparia Railway Station now serves as the engine room of the Petrotrin Siparia Deltones.
Pan in the train yard
...the birth of Siparia Deltones
Richard Charan Multimedia Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
“GANG” rivalry in the hillside villages overlooking Port of Spain is not new. From the 1940s, the decade of pan’s development, boundaries were drawn not by drug block and head don, but by which steelband side you backed and were willing to defend in a street confrontation that often led to bloodshed. It was a time when the musical form was frowned upon by the upper crust of colonial Trinidad, and panmen were considered badjohns and hooligans who needed to be crushed by the police.
It is under these circumstances that Nelson Street-born Ellis Knights, pan player with the storied John John Boys steelband side (later to be named Toyko), had to escape the city to save his skin.
Whether he was suspect or victim is uncertain. But one day, Knights bought a one-way ticket, got on the train at the Port of Spain Railway Station and rode that train all the way to the end of the line in Siparia. It was a distance of 83 kilometres from Port of Spain to “The Last Stop”.
But Siparia at the time might as well have been another country and culture. It was a place important to the economy because of the developing oil industry and to people across the country as a result of Soparee Mai festival and street fete. And here is where Knights made a new life, meeting and marrying Sybil and fathering seven children.
But Knights also never forgot that magical instrument that sent him running in the first place. He co-founded the steelband side that would later be named Siparia Deltones at his home at Dandy Lane, Siparia, in 1964. And helped develop an orchestral style celebrated by pan lovers to this day and a band, now four generations on and sponsored by Petrotrin, that has made a big impact on the
community. Knights, who was born in 1928, died seven years ago. His contribution to the village that gave him refuge is recognised by a statue at High Street, near the old velodrome. However, those who know about the history of the Trinidad Government Railway and its importance to Trinidad’s development have credited Knights’s pan side with an equally important act, and one you may want to know about.
The railway line linking San Fernando to Siparia was opened in 1913 and the last train left Siparia on August 30, 1965, marking its closure. Six years later, the Deltones, squatting at various locations (and chased from one by an unimpressed acting Police Commissioner of the time), moved on to an abandoned railway station compound which, along with all TGR assets, became the property of the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) when the TGR folded. The band has been making music there ever since.
The TGR goods building, 101 years old, became the pan theatre. The buildings that served as accommodation for the station master and the steam and diesel engine crew all survived. Two of those buildings are untouched. Some of the rail lines are buried. Portions of the turntable on which the locomotive was turned to prepare it for the north-bound trip are still there. While the TGR’s lines were ripped up for scrap, and the infrastructure was lost almost everywhere else, a significant part was preserved by the pan people of Siparia.
Now, the steelband side has taken the initiative to preserve the place for the benefit of all citizens.
Last year, the orchestra, led by its captain Akinola Sennon and architect Clive Alexander, began working on a dossier detailing the history of the location, plans for restoration, and suggestions on how the space could be used as a heritage site.
According to the band’s public relations officer, Jesse Cooper, the band is being assisted by researchers Angelo Bissessarsingh and Wayne Abraham, and former TGR man Clive Nunez.
The information is to be presented to the Historical Restoration Unit of the Ministry of Works, and the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration, which has oversight of the National Trust, which is empowered to give the place legal protection.
Cooper said, “We want to save this place because it is socially and culturally important. When (celebrated South African percussionist) Hugh Masekela visited earlier this year, he spoke about starting a heritage restoration institute in South Africa recently. We saw that we could do the same. This place where people came by train is now a place that has theatre, dance, song, pan, percussion instruments. We want to develop it into an institute to further the various art forms”.
Recently, the train station compound was visited by former TGR station master Monteith Saunders, whose life was chronicled in an Express article in this space earlier this year. Saunders, 89, mind and body as strong and sharp as a man half his age, worked at the Siparia station, along with every single railway station and train stop from 1941 to December 28, 1968. Saunders was on duty at the Port of Spain Railway Station to receive the last TGR train before its closure, and is among a handful of TGR men still alive and able to share what they remember. Saunders’s testimonial forms part of the dossier to be presented to those who can authorise the funding.
But there is another person who knows even more about the operations of the TGR, all the way back from when it was first conceived – researcher Glen Beadon. He has compiled an astonishing amount of information about the rail system in Trinidad. Beadon knows what it took to build the railway line to Siparia and why it was done.
Next week: Beadon’s story on the building of the railway to Siparia
SIDE BAR – Public Relations Officer with the Deltones, Jesse Cooper has spoken with Knights’ relatives and the band’s co-founder Terry Wallace, in order to record the history of the Siparia Deltones.
He said that Ellis Knights was born on October 4th 1928 to Arnold Knights and Anesta Gomez on Nelson Street Port of Spain. His mother died when he was young. In the 50s, he found himself in Siparia and found work with British Petroleum, later to become State-owned Tesoro and presently Petrotrin.
Deltones emerged from a group of young men who called themselves “the Drifters” which hosted parties in the community. They conceptualised steel band as a way of making a bigger impact and Knights, a former member of a Siparia band called Torrid Zone, was sought because he had knowledge and experience in pan tuning and arranging. In 1964 under the guidance of Terry Wallace and Ellis Knights the band, first named Angel Harps started in Dandy Lane at the Knights’ residence. In 1967 the band then moved to Wallace’s address at Allum Street, and changed its name to Deltones, since there already existed a band named Angel Harps. The band then moved in 1968 to a State-owned building at the corner of Murray trace and Gamble Street, and entered Panorama playing Sparrow’s composition “Carnival in 68". Mainly due to opposition from a senior police officer, they moved on. According to what Cooper learned “This move was welcomed by members of the band because there was no electricity and the band had to practice with the use of flambeau and sometimes snakes were found under the base drums. So in 1969 the band moved to the old Regent Cinema at Mary Street”.
In 1971 when Deltones was practicing for Panorama the drum skin for the trap set ripped, and the band had no money to replace it (All monies spent on the band was contributed by working members, donations from contractors and contributions from the community)
Knights and Wallace went to the Prime Minister’s Office to seek assistance on behalf of Deltones. When they arrived they met members from other bands there for the same purpose. After meeting with Dr. Eric Williams they got no assurances that they would get any assistance. When they stepped out of the taxi in Siparia they were greeted with cheers from members of the band saying they had just heard on the radio that Deltones had gotten sponsorship from Texaco. After carnival that same year they got a call from the PTSC that the band had secured a lease to use the Siparia Railway compound. Knights served as the captain arranger and tuner and Wallace ran the practice sessions as the driller for over 30 years. In the 80s, the Deltones changed its name to the Siparia Deltones to recognise the support of the community.