Gillian Nathaniel-Balintulo, a gift of musical joy

Musician and composer Gillian Nathaniel-Bartulino - Photo courtesy St Joseph Convent Port of Spain Past Pupils' Association
Musician and composer Gillian Nathaniel-Bartulino - Photo courtesy St Joseph Convent Port of Spain Past Pupils' Association

Musician and composer Gillian Nathaniel-Balintulo is remembered as someone who brought the gift of joy to those around her throughout her life. Music was an integral part of that life, which she shared with her students in Trinidad and Tobago and South Africa, where she died on September 11, 2021.

She was born at the Port of Spain General Hospital on December 18, 1948, the youngest child of Naomi Phyllis Duprey and Raleigh Trevor Nathaniel, and grew up on Norfolk Street, Belmont, with her parents and siblings Gordon, June, Ainsley and Amery.

The household was a musical one, and Nathaniel-Balintulo began taking music lessons from her mother at five.

Family friend Sonya Moze said, “As close neighbours in Belmont I was a more than frequent visitor to their incredibly musical household, Gordon on bass, June’s exceptionally beautiful soprano voice, Ainsley, strumming guitar and the altogether gifted Amery (esquires). Who in Norfolk Street did not know of Naomi’s exceptional brood of talent. Music emanated from that house like a constant melodic waterfall. It was this that not only inspired me to become a performing artist but to recognise through their example, the discipline and commitment needed to hone one’s gifts. Thank you DiTi and to all those Nathaniels. Life is indeed short but memories are forever.”

Trinidad All Stars' musical director, Dr Mia Gormandy-Benjamin conducts the orchestra during the band's Classical Jewels concert in 2019. Gormandy-Benjamin's predecessor Gillian Nathaniel-Balintulo was the band's first female conductor and one of the few female arranges in the 1980s. -

Family friend Vindra, giving the eulogy at the funeral in South Africa, where Nathaniel-Balintulo was buried, said her siblings have fond memories of lying in bed listening to her practice scales.

“As the years passed those scales turned into test pieces for all the music festivals for which her mother entered her which by the way she always won, eventually coming number one in the Open Championships at the tender age of 13. This was an extraordinary accomplishment as she competed against musicians twice her age.”

Nathaniel-Balintulo attended St Rose’s Girls' RC, and then St Joseph’s Convent Port of Spain. She began winning the piano classes in her age groups at Music Festival as early as 1956 and represented SJC at Music Festival from the age of 12. She topped the piano solo classes for her age group in 1960, 1962, 1964, and 1966, also winning the Junior Instrumental Solo championship trophy in 1964 and 1966 against competitors in various instruments. She also competed in the vocal category in duets and trios. In 1966, she won both the Mezzo Soprano Solo and Girls’ Vocal Duet classes, the latter with Gylla Gatcliffe (née Reid).

SJC’s Past Pupils Association said she is among the most decorated of SJC’s music prodigies over the years. In a post on its Facebook page, it said, “Those of us who knew Gillian as a classmate and friend and in the decades post-1965 send our deepest condolences to her family. Memories of Gillian abound: watching and listening to her play the piano at SJC in the 1960s era, on stage in the grand hall, from time to time when she filled in for Ms Jocelyn Pierre, or as we strolled past the music rooms where she practised. She was unbeaten in her categories at Music Festivals in those years.

Massy All Stars during its performance at Classical Jewels in 2019. As it's first femal musical director, Gillian Nathaniel-Balintulo raised respect for the band, said PRO Stacy Ann Patrick. -

“We fondly remember her soulful body movements as she felt and lived the music she made; her elegant legs activating the piano pedals and those unique, long fingers flying up and down the entire length of the piano keyboard, seemingly at the speed of light. All of this was assembled in perfect unison; bars of written notes interpreted and rendered just as the composers had dreamed they would be, but better! Gillian’s music was as beautiful as the person herself, inside and out!”

Nathaniel-Balintulo attended the Royal College of Music in London, England and completed the Associate of the Royal of College of Music (ARCM) in piano teaching. On her return to TT, she accepted a job at Queen’s Royal College, Vindra said.

“In her spare time, she taught music privately at her home, to many students, who would testify to the positive influence she had in nurturing their musical ability. Many of her students went on to become celebrated and accomplished musicians in their own right.

“It was during this time that Gillian met her husband to be, South African sociology lecturer Marcus Balintulo, at a recital at the UWI, where he was a faculty member. After a brief courtship they married and subsequently moved to Botswana in 1974, where the couple focused on raising a family while navigating new geographical and cultural terrain. They had three children together, daughter Liziwe, and sons Liyanda and Siyavuya.”

The St Joseph’s Convent Port of Spain Choir performs at the school’s Hall of Excellence awards ceremony in 2019. As a student Gillian Nathaniel-Balintulo competed in music festivals as a pianist and vocalist. - File photo/Angelo Marcelle

The couple left TT in 1974 as Marcus pursued work opportunities in Botswana, Nigeria, and the United States, and returned to TT in 1980. On their return, Nathaniel-Balintulo resumed teaching and worked as a concert pianist and accompanist with several local organisations.

Student and friend Caroline Taylor said, in a tribute on her blog, that in 1988, Nathaniel-Balintulo was among a group of women whose roles in a handful of prominent bands marked a significant moment in steelband history. She said this was recorded in Judith Laird’s documentary Prelude to Finale: Three Women Arrangers/Conductors, and in texts like Stephen Stuempfle’s The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in TT.

Nathaniel-Balintulo's groundbreaking appointment as musical director of Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra (TASSO) came the year after she performed with them as a concert pianist in Classical Jewels VI, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Nathaniel-Balintulo was appointed musical director and conductor after the retirement of Jerry Jemmott. She led the band in its performances of Capriccio Italien, for Pan is Beautiful, at the World Steelband Festival in 1988 for Classical Jewels VII in 1989; and on the band’s tours of Jamaica in 1989 and the UK in 1990.

She was the band’s first female conductor, and one of the few female arrangers at that time. Taylor said she also reportedly earned the nickname “Steroids” from the band.

In a release from All Stars, the band’s PRO Stacy Ann Patrick said Nathaniel-Balintulo’s entry brought an advanced understanding of respect to the band.

“The practice space had a renewed energy reflective of a spirit that understood and appreciated the depth at which flair and joy were married. Her ability to bridge the gap that sometimes separated the formally trained from those who learned and performed music intuitively was a blessing upon us. The bond between her and the players ensured that her vision of combining the voices of children from three primary schools with steel voices came to life. Her many gifts allowed the impossible to become possible. Her experience and appreciation for diversity supported the orchestra in standard-setting tours to Jamaica and the United Kingdom in 1989 and 1990.”

Longstanding band member Denise Riley said Nathaniel-Balintulo was meticulous to a fault not because she was the first female musical director of the band but because she was simply Gillian: a relentless visionary and implementor in all aspects of performance.

The release said Nathaniel-Balintulo, through her power, opened the door for the members of Trinidad All Stars to continue having conversations on what role-modelling, professionalism and perfection should look and feel like in the turbulence of the late 1980s.

“Impeccably dressed, with head held high, she navigated the mazes that the country had built around pannists so as to keep them at the milepost reached since the 1940s. Under her reign members continued to explore and succeed at learning how to read and arrange music; competencies that Jerry 'Uncle Jem' Jemmott nurtured in the band during his tenure. Under her rhythm members continued to hone their skills in bringing classical music to many. Under her smile, fear melted and confidence on and off the stage flourished.”

Reflecting on the significance that Nathaniel-Balintulo had in their lives, founder and leader of the legendary group Panazz Barry Bartholomew says, "She was special – her attention to detail positively impacted me and so many other players that we too strived for perfection."

Ace panman Dane Gulston added, "Gillian understood our rhythm – she worked with it so that each of us became a part of the music. Gillian was elegant. She made a difference in our lives."

Members today may also say that her unreserved energy when it came to her approach to rehearsals is alive and well in the band's manager and drillmaster Nigel Williams.

Nathaniel-Balintulo moved to the birthplace of her husband, South Africa, in the late 1990s, once her children finished secondary education. Vindra said she continued teaching music while overseeing the children’s tertiary education.

“The family initially lived in Durban and then settled in Cape Town in the late 90s. During this era Gillian continued pursuing her love for music and always shared this passion for teaching. In Cape Town, she worked in the music department at Herschel Girls School in Claremont and in 2006 she joined the music department of the German international School Cape Town, where she taught until 2020. With her deep West Indian roots, Gillian always managed to connect with people who straddled TT and South Africa.”

Nathaniel-Balintulo joined the Cape Town Steelband’s advisory board in 2011 and became chairperson in 2015.

“The core focus of the steelband project is to provide quality music education to young people in the western cape with particular focus on youth-at-risk, and under-resourced communities.”

Vindra said Nathaniel-Balintulo was proud of her grandchildren and relished the role of grandmother. She returned to TT frequently, with her last visit being in late 2018.

Not long after Marcus Balintulo’s death in December 2020, she was diagnosed with cancer. Despite her illness and the pandemic, she continued her work and teaching until about a month before her passing.

Vindra said Nathaniel-Balintulo had a strong and positive outlook especially in the last few months.

“Whenever I asked how she was in my daily phone calls, she would always respond by saying, 'I’m doing fine,' or, 'I’m doing well today.' She fought her illness with such inner strength, poise, dignity and grace to the very end. My family and I will always remember her as a flamboyant, colourful, vibrant, exciting, knowledgeable human being who oozed...joie de vivre. You will be sorely missed by all of us, Gillian, but you will always live in our hearts.”

Nathaniel-Balintulo died at home in her sleep on September 11. She is mourned by her three children, six grandchildren, surviving siblings Amery, Ainsley, and June Nathaniel, her family and friends, students, and the music communities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Information used in the writing of this article was collected by Marcia La Borde, Terri Roxborough, and Caroline Taylor.


"Gillian Nathaniel-Balintulo, a gift of musical joy"

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