Perfect Sound Forever


A 1970s Steel Drum Artifact
By Kurt Wildermuth
(February 2024)

An artifact--physical, cultural, like a time capsule--can be a window onto a world. That world may exist in some form, but the view may be obscured.

Consider the LP Huggins Pan-Demonium at the Holiday Inn Trinidad, released privately by Hug Pan in 1976. One look at the cover, and you know you've happened on a cared-for creation. The confidently rendered artwork combines aesthetic merit with retro-kitsch appeal, which extends to the inclusion of the Holiday Inn logo and colors. Even if the record proves defective or the music is not to your liking, the cover could serve as an eye-catching wall decoration.

The LP's back cover includes anonymous notes that present the Huggins Pan-Demonium Steel Orchestra as something special--"third place winners of the 'Panorama' competition held during the Trinidad Carnival Celebrations of 1976...Obviously the band has come a long way since its inception [in 1973, when most] of its members had never 'played pan' before."

At an online message board, a pan player named Peter Blood offers some historical details: "My early days as a founding member of Huggins Pandemonium . . . were happy days as I had the pleasure of playing for two iconic arrangers in the persons of Ray Holman and the late Clive Bradley. Back at its start Pandemonium, managed by Conrad Franklyn, comprised a mix of women from CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce] and Geo F Huggins [George F. Huggins & Company, a goods trader and steamship operator] and its earliest captains were Carlyle Baptiste and Deryk Faria. We practised in the Huggins carpark on South Quay and our first public gigs created much excitement for all of us as players."

The reference to women suggests an intriguing back story, perhaps signaled by the breasted player depicted on the front cover of At the Holiday Inn Trinidad. By 1976, judging from the photo on the cover, men played most of the Huggins pans. In any case, the LP's back cover does credit three of the key figures mentioned by Blood: arranger Ray Holman, captain Carlyle John Baptiste, and manager/producer Conrad Franklyn.

A secondhand-record crate digger who happens on this magnificent piece of history sits at an intersection of people, places, and times. For example, a Trinidadian's take on this album and what it represents may differ widely from a non-Trinidadian's. In addition, because of the songs performed, someone versed in 1970s pop would have a different relationship to these recordings than someone coming to the material cold.

Especially important here is knowledge of what was on the radio, certainly in the U.S. and presumably in Trinidad, in 1975. Perhaps the Holiday Inn Trinidad simply had excellent acoustics for recording. More likely, the Huggins Pan-Demonium entertained guests at the hotel, presumably by playing a mix of local favorites and hits of the moment, and this record served as a souvenir.

The opener, "We Kinda Music," certainly sets the stage, with enough steel drum enthusiasm to fill a roller rink. The tune was composed by Slinger Francisco, who is world famous as the calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow, and the album's liner notes call this "the arrangement with which the band achieved its greatest success to date, at the 'Pan Fever '76' competition." The rhythmic complexity on display might remind the omnivorous listener of, say, "The Third Man Theme," Nino Rota, George Gershwin, and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," a Tin Pan Alley number famously covered by They Might Be Giants. Back in '76, audiences must have gone wild as the Huggins players executed such complicated moves and syncopations.

Next comes the first 1975 pop song: an angelic rendering of Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." Unsurprisingly, Wonder's timeless melody shines through the trilling delivery and accompanying undertones.

Melissa Manchester's "Midnight Blue," cowritten by Manchester and Carole Bayer Sager, features the record's only vocal. The singer, Paula Atherly, may or may not have recorded again. She remained associated with Carnival in Trinidad at least into the early 2000s. Here, with a very gentle pan accompaniment, her straightforward delivery of the melody proves captivating, so unimbellished that you listen for imperfections, which never appear.

"Flag Woman," by Aldwyn Roberts--a legendary calypsonian known as Lord Kitchener--continues the classic groove of "We Kinda Music." Short and sweet, with pronounced dynamics, stops and starts, this rendition "really set the country on fire in 1976," according to the liner notes, "and it has been preserved here with all its verve, tempo, and compulsive 'prancing'!"

The world certainly needs more compulsive prancing, with or without infectious music.

Side 1 of At the Holiday Inn would have ended well and sufficed with "Flag Woman," but in a stroke of genius the record makers included one more track, a masterpiece. Barbra Streisand costarred in The Way We Were and made famous its title song. You know the one: "Memories / Light the corners of my mind / Misty watercolor memories / Of the way we were." Here, steel drums give us that unforgettable melody, by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch, as though it were being strummed on a mandolin. Below that, more steel drums give us a rhythmic counterpoint like violins being plucked. Depending on your relationship to this tune, the movie, Streisand, and the seventies, you may end up in tears.

Flip the record, and your feet may start tapping. Orleans's 1975 hit "Dance with Me," by John and Johanna Hall, has never been more fun. This arrangement brings to mind Fleetwood Mac's use of marching band on "Tusk." Lindsey Buckingham & Co. could have saved so much money by bringing a few pans into the studio!

Huggins returns to the movies with the Diana Ross vehicle "Theme from Mahogany." Normally, a mostly instrumental collection like this album would include one Lennon-McCartney song, but instead, in a sonic switch, this arrangement makes clear how much this 1975 hit, by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin, recalls the Beatles' 1966 ballad "Here, There and Everywhere."

The Beatles were in Splitsville by '75, of course, but the Four Seasons were busily celebrating bygone days. Here, their "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" comes across as "Dance with Me" revisited, the steel drum equivalent of comfort food, if comfort food can be nutritious for the soul.

In "Please Mr. Please," by Bruce Welch and John Rostill and a Top Ten hit for Olivia Newton-John, cascading runs deliver the melody, as counterpoint from various directions delivers the rhythm.

Wrapping up the proceedings, "Rock Yuh Panman" is the album's one original by arranger Ray Holman. This tune continues the good-timey sounds of "We Kinda Music" and "Flag Woman," reminding us of no-frills steel drums' charm, power, and beauty.

Ultimately, this record's cache of 1975 pop hits puts a special spin on At the Holiday Inn Trinidad. One comparison would be a hipster sensation from 2001: Innocence & Despair: The Langley Schools Music Project. Irwin Chusid, an expert in outsider music and a veteran crate digger, oversaw this CD release of two LPs that documented performances in 1976-77 by Canadian elementary-school children. At the Langley Schools, music teacher Hans Fenger had directed the kids through his sensitively arranged, ethereal covers of songs from the sixties and seventies by, among many others, Paul McCartney and Wings, the Beach Boys, and David Bowie. The spare instrumentation consisted of guitar, piano, and percussion, not necessarily on the same tracks but generally in the same time signatures.

Listeners to the Langley Schools CD thrilled at hearing familiar, even overly familiar, pop/rock hits in strikingly different arrangements. The amateurishness combined with a sophisticated understanding of the songs and the low-budget recording process, even if full appreciation of the music required a degree of irony.

By contrast, Huggins Pan-Demonium was no novelty. However Trinidadians or tourists felt about hearing the hits of the day rendered by steel drummers--amused, delighted, even moved, I imagine--dedicated musicianship made the Huggins album possible.

Despite their differences, seriousness of purpose and the desire for fun unite these projects. At the Holiday Inn Trinidad resembles The Langley Schools Music Project in the sense of having familiar pop hits recontextualized, without tongues in cheeks or condescension toward the material. Given a wider audience, these steel-drum versions could retune jaded ears.

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