Excellence is the name of the game with Flabej Now Ensemble.
Music theory, it’s practical application, and good grades are a must for the steel pan orchestra’s manager, John “Poison” Douglas as he pursues his goal to help parents produce well-rounded and valuable citizens.
Formally launched in 1980, Flabej was an acronym for the founders of the band, Fitzgerald Jemmott, Leon 'Smooth' Edwards, Anthony Guy, Barbara Crichlow-Shaw, Earl Wells, and John Douglas, who were the members of the Trinidad All Stars executive committee at the time.
“As with anything else when you have a successful organisation everybody feels they know what to do. There was a difference of opinion that would have led to a bad outcome so we said, ‘No problem. Leave them with their band. We will form this group.’ And that’s how Flabej was born.”
He said the objective was to have all players musically literate and to train musicians in a more proficient manner backed by scientific research. Eventually, the original members migrated, moved on, or died, leaving Douglas to carry on its lofty ideals. “I have been carrying on that tradition for the longest while, ensuring that everyone who comes to play here must learn to read and write music, and to play the pan properly.”
Douglas insists the players learn music theory because, in his opinion, it makes no sense to teach anyone to play a song by rote, as it is a slow and arduous process. The young members are also encouraged to take music exams from grades one to five, with grade five being the requirement for tertiary education.
In addition to the theory, Douglas said his players learn to play all the steelpans including the tenor and cello pans, the dudup, and the double seconds. They are also expected to get good grades in school so the band has several volunteers, many of them older players, to assist younger ones with home work, preparation for exams, or tutoring. Because of this, he said many of his players over the years went on to do their bachelors and masters degrees in music.
“So it’s not just about coming and playing pan. We want well-rounded students that would be an asset to the country. So we are prepared to work with them and help them in any way we can... And when we recommend a student to go to UWI or UTT, or some other university, most of the time they take them because they know the quality education they are getting here. They know if they come from there they could play a well as understand the music.”
Despite a lack of sponsorship, Douglas does not charge his players for any of this because it is his way of giving back to the country as well as keeping youths from the age of five out of trouble. “From the time it was formed the band had a name for excellence, so after I opened it up to young people and worked in schools, that continued. My only requirement is they must be disciplined. Once they come here I demand they be serious. All they have to have is determination and a will to learn.”
He also encourages parents to attend the practices or lessons, and be around to be part of their children’s lives because Flabej is not a babysitting service.
Douglas said the Flabej is a travelling band, which had visited Panama, Haiti, Cuba, Canada, and other countries to play at cultural event or for cultural organisations. He said the repertoire is wide and varied, and includes jazz, Latin, pop, and calypso.
“Any time we play anywhere the remarks from people are of amazement that youths could produce that type of music. But it’s simply because they learned music like a subject in school. They understand the music, they understand why they do certain things, and why the band’s sound is so unique.”
This year, for the first time, the band had enough members to meet the minimum requirement to enter as a small band in the Panorama competition. Last Sunday, the judges visited the Pembroke Street, Port of Spain pan yard to hear the choice, Tension by the late Mighty Shadow, arranged by band member, Roger Charles.
The band was not successful in making it to the semi-finals but Douglas said that did not deter them from continuing to work hard or trying again next year. He admitted that the young members were disappointed, but he spoke to them and they are already looking forward to playing for Panorama next year. He said he is already working on bringing the players to an even higher level of skill.