Reporter JOAN RAMPERSAD tells of her experiences covering Ken "Professor" Philmore's career as a pan arranger and the friendship that grew over nearly 30 years. Philmore died at hospital on September 30, five days after an accident. His funeral took place on October 5.
When Ken “Professor” Philmore passed away on September 30, I became numb. So much so that it was most difficult to put pen to paper because the death was just too much for me to grapple with. I was in a daze that morning when his wife Sophia called me 20 minutes after his passing.
In between seeing in my mind’s eye, his exuberant self in flashes of the numerous joyful moments spent in his company and the thought of never being able to experience any of that anymore, as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t hide how I felt about his passing. The tears flowed for hours.
Later that night, one of the first things that came to mind was that Professor went to his grave knowing that he was robbed of a national steelband Panorama title and that plans were in the making for him to be conferred with a doctor of letters degree by the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine campus. The tears welled again because my dear friend more than deserved to have the two things he was so passionate about.
When UWI registrar Richard Saunders spoke to Philmore and me about the degree late last year, I remember seeing that overwhelmed, gracious and humble look on his face that also said, "this is going to be my biggest achievement yet, and I am so very honoured by this gesture". That memory brought on more tears.
Then I remembered when we first met. That would have been almost 30 years ago when I was working at the original Trinidad and Tobago Television station (ttt). As a production assistant on all live Carnival broadcasts at the time, for Panorama I had to source arrangers for live interviews after their steelbands performed. Ken was always upbeat after performances. After guiding him away from excited players and fans for the interview, he was humble and gracious. And that was his modus operandi each time I had to do it, plus the hugs and kisses to go with it. But what got us really close was when I started the production of the show The Man and his Music. His was the first episode. Several trips to San Fernando with a crew that included editor Linus Pitt, Benedict Joseph, Colin Olliviere and Orville Murray, for interviews with family, friends and the people in his pan life, as well as to panyards where he operated with Grantley Auguste and Natalie Skinner in tow, started a bond between us that grew and became properly well cemented to his death.
When the show was completed, Ken was elated. He hugged me and thanked me for putting his life on record.
Over the next 15 years or so, Ken spent a lot of time overseas each year after Carnival promoting steelband music in a very big way. He had shared stages with world renowned artistes such as Tito Puente, Nancy Wilson, Little Richard, Arturo Tappin, Andy Narell, Ralph Mc Donald, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke and Mercer Ellington and Lou Rawls. He had performed to audiences for Queen Elizabeth II, presidents and prime ministers, and played in some of the most prestigious venues in the world including Carnegie Hall; Madison Square Garden; Apollo Theatre; and the Waldorf Astoria, New York; The Hollywood Bowl; and The Royal Albert Festival Hall, London, England. He had also lectured at the UWI, Yale, Harvard, Howard, Michigan and West Virginia universities and other educational institutions in the US.
During that time we never lost contact. He eventually cut back on his overseas travels and started spending more time at home and we saw more of each other either at shows where he played, in the panyard, playing at my birthday parties or just simply hanging out.
It was at one such hangout at The Harvard Club when Ken came to visit me, and with his usual exuberant self he said loudly, “Oh lord sister, so long I eh see yuh,” to which I replied, “Yes if you want to sangabranga your tail all over the place, what you expect?”
He burst out laughing then got excited and said, “Aye! Ah like that word! Sangabranga! Sangabranga!” he started to chant. He continued to use the word throughout the night, sometimes out of context, and when told so he said, “I know but I like it. Sangabranga! Sangabranga.” What can I say. I made up the word but it was made popular by Professor, and a number of speakers at his funeral service used it without knowing where it originated.
Another memorable encounter was two years ago, quite by accident when in Tobago, Natalie and I attended a show at which he was performing. Ken was so happy to see us, he insisted that we stay in Plymouth for J’Ouvert. It was the most fun all of us had had in years, with Ken in his element, hugging and kissing everyone, man, woman and child, and professing his love. Though we talked of doing it again, unfortunately we couldn’t get our schedules in sync. But whenever we met we thoroughly enjoyed those occasions. The only time I ever saw him angry or hurt was when large band Panorama results were announced.
I remember when interviewing him for a TV show, Ken said to me God had to come down on earth and tell him that Fonclaire didn’t win Panorama in 1990 with his composition and arrangement of Pan By Storm. It was the first time I saw that look of sadness in his eyes. Then three years ago when he arranged Sweet 50 for Fonclaire in celebration of the steelband’s 50th anniversary, I remember him screaming on the phone to me during an interview after the results and Fonclaire had placed ninth. “Robbery! They wicked to me after all these years. The problem is I never went to school with those judges. They learnt theory but I learnt it the practical way. None of them represents TT like me. My degree came from God. They could rob me in Panorama but I go places they have not."
But I must conclude my story with a bit of happiness, in that new efforts are now being advanced to have that illusive doctor of letters degree conferred on the Professor posthumously by the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and it could come as soon as next month, if not, next year.