Known as the pride of Black Rock, Katzenjammers is one of Tobago’s leading steel orchestras.
The medium-sized band, managed by Pan Trinbago president Beverly Ramsey-Moore, has won many titles over the years, including National Tune of Choice in 1967; Pan in the 21st Century (2004 and 2008); and National Panorama champions (medium band category) in 2011 and 2012.
In fact, the band’s accomplishments has enabled it to be a sought-after entity for numerous cultural events in TT and other parts of the world.
When Queen Elizabeth II visited TT in 1963, Katzenjammers was asked to entertain her at Government House. And in May 2004, the Tobago House of Assembly also chose the steelband to perform for late South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela during his official visit.
The band has also entertained several other visiting dignitaries.
“Katzenjammers is a household name,” boasts Ramsey-Moore, who has been its manager since 2004.
“We are the oldest playing steelband on the island and although we are from Black Rock, the people of Tobago always come out to support us.”
A significant part of Katzenjammers’ success, Ramsey-Moore said, has to do with its watchwords, discipline, dedication and excellence. She said community pride continues to play a major role in its achievements.
“That is what binds us together.”
She said 95 per cent of Katzenjammers’ players come from the closely-knit, seaside community, and the band comprises members of several well-known families, including the Jordons, Dukes, Ramseys and Douglases.
“So we would have sometimes four or five people from one home playing in the band. That helps to keep us grounded as an orchestra.”
She added five of Katzenjammers’ foundation members are still actively involved, lending guidance and encouragement to the younger players.
The band has a storied past.
Ramsey-Moore said her late father, his brothers and several other young men in the village were enjoying Carnival celebrations in 1951.
“It was about 12 of them from the village and they danced to the music of Wonder Harps Steel Orchestra from Plymouth on Carnival Tuesday."
She said the sound they heard inspired them to form a steelband of their own in Black Rock. Wonder Harps’ captain George Josey Richardson, seeing their enthusiasm, loaned them a few pans.
In March 1951, three of the young men, Maynard Eastman, Jeremy Williams and Hugh Cassie Ramsey went to Plymouth to collect their first set of pans to set up a band. But on their way from Plymouth, in the Courland Bay area, some fishermen who thought they had stolen the pans ran after them.
‘They ran for their lives, ensuring that they did not let go of their prized possession.”
With whatever money they had at the time, the men bought more pans and got permission to practise under a mango tree in Aden Gordon’s yard at Black Rock Trace Junction.
A member of Katzenjammers steelband in Trinidad saw them practising and gave them the name Katzenjammers Kids. As time passed, the band morphed into Katzenjammers, and as its membership grew, so too did its popularity within the steelband movement and the wider cultural fraternity.
In the early years, the band included captain Ethelbert Williams, manager Vince Learmont and treasurer Gerald Robinson.
By the late 1950s, the band managed to secure sponsorship from Texaco Inc and was featured in the documentary film Land of Laughter, which was filmed in Tobago.
During that time, Katzenjammers was the dance band of choice. They played alongside music bands from Trinidad such as the Dutchy Brothers, Clarence Curvan, Joey Lewis, Imperial Brass, Ron Berridge and Bonaparte Brothers at prominent fetes in Tobago.
Katzenjammers was also the first steelband to entertain guests at several top hotels in Tobago. They were contracted to Arnos Vale, Blue Haven, Crusoe, Mt Irvine, Turtle Beach (now Starfish) and Grafton hotels.
Between 1960 and 1970, Katzenjammers won every music festival in Tobago. In 1967, the band won the Tune of Choice, playing the Rupert Mc Cardy-arranged Funiculi Funicula.
When they became the first Tobago band to win a national competition, a 15-cent stamp, bearing the name and picture of the band was printed and sold.
In 1975, the band toured Quebec, Canada and held several summer camps promoting pan music.
In January 2002, Katzenjammers launched Pan Out Your Fullest Potential, an initiative aimed at increasing youth involvement in the steelband movement. Its objective was twofold. While it sought to promote an appreciation for the national instrument among the youth, the initiative also provided a much-needed forum for them to use their energy in productive activities.
Ramsey-Moore said, “The main objective of youth participation in the steelband was to increase their personal development through education and training in the panyard to bring about meaningful change in their lives. Youth represents a storehouse of human resource potential which could be released and energies driven into channelling activities to stimulate positive attitudes, skills, good sportsmanship and economic growth.”
The following year, Katzenjammers’ mission was accomplished. The band welcomed a cadre of dynamic young pannists into its fold and has continued to grow from strength to strength. Ramsey-Moore said Katzenjammers’ young players have taken the organisation to another level, representing Tobago with pride at every national pan event.
From 2013-2018, Katzenjammers was sponsored by Petrotrin. But the closure of the state-owned oil company in November 2018 meant the band had to restrategise to continue.
Ramsey-Moore said the band’s resilience has since enabled it to fulfil its agenda.
‘Thank God for the businesses that we operate. That is what has kept the band going since that time.”
But like many of its counterparts in the steelband fraternity, Katzenjammers has been affected by covid19 over the past two years.
“We continue to face hardship during the pandemic, because all of our businesses are a spin-off of what takes place in the panyard, and also the cruise ship industry – those tourists who would normally visit – it has impacted on us, and we definitely faced hardship, because we have our utility bills to pay. We have maintenance fees. So it is a struggle.”
Ramsey-Moore also said the band, which usually has 90 players at full strength, has been reduced to a stageside ensemble of about 50, as many of its players are not vaccinated against covid19.
Despite its challenges, she said Katzenjammers will soldier on.
“Katzenjammers is not just about the music alone. We see ourselves as business-oriented and within our space, we have three different businesses operating: a bar, gift shop and food court.
“Before covid19, when cruise ships would visit Tobago frequently, our pan theatre would be one of the stops, where it would be turned into an interpretive centre, providing entertaining along with demonstrating and showcasing the history of the steelpan movement. That would have enabled us to raise some revenue, because we sold our T-shirts and CDs.
“So we look forward to the opening of the tourism industry in Tobago, and we will continue to be a main part of providing that entertainment to all and sundry.”
The band performed Voice’s Peace of Mind on Saturday night as a guest performer at the Musical Showdown in De Big Yard at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain. The piece was arranged by Ramsey-Moore’s nephew, Kersh Ramsey.