At 50 years young, Hadco Phase II Pan Groove is celebrated as one of Trinidad and Tobago's most successful and internationally-recognised pan orchestras.
Its year-long, half-century milestone celebrations certainly could have come at a better time, though. If 2022 were like any other year, the band would have vied for an eighth Panorama title.
As it is, two years into the pandemic, Phase II, like most other local steelbands, continues to itch for a full complement of performers and the elusive Panorama, a staple of Carnival.
But its co-founder and leader, composer and pan maestro Len "Boogsie" Sharpe says this year presents a good opportunity for the band to look back and appreciate its successes and contributions to exposure of the pan as TT's finest creative product.
Sharpe spoke with Newsday days before Phase II performed at Pan Trinbago’s Musical Showdown in de Big Yard on February 26, a non-competitive medium and large bands event at the Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain.
n February 26, fans supported their bands from "pods," squared-off sections installed as a solution to restrict excessive mingling in crowds, a feature of this year's Taste of Carnival.
Sharpe credits the Government for “trying something” with the temporary fix for spectators.
Phase II put on a strong challenge for the title of best performing band and people’s choice after performing tenth among the 12 bands.
But these count for small bragging rights, said Sharpe and captain Terry Bernard, since, when it comes to competition, Phase II and the other bands have their eyes set on the return of Panorama, the event that really matters.
Bragging is also something that Sharpe isn’t too interested in. Anyone familiar with pan knows the instrument and the name Boogsie are almost synonymous; his achievements speak for him. His humility when discussing his orchestra and his personal feats is almost surprising in light of his international acclaim and recognition by means of countless individual awards. For instance, in 2020, Sharpe was made an honorary doctor of letters by UWI for his pan arrangement, composition, and performance.
The 68-year-old says he is not exactly proficient in music theory, and thus wouldn't teach a student in much the same way a regular music teacher would.
"The music just comes to me," says Sharpe. "Almost like a vision. I see it and hear it – but I can't read or write it,” something most pan fans are aware of.
Sharpe and Phase II are seven-time Panorama champions, winning in 1987, 1988, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2013 and 2014, trailing Desperadoes (12 wins), Renegades (11) and Trinidad All Stars (ten) in terms of titles won. Phase II also claims 12 runner-up finishes, more than any other orchestra.
But in 2005, the band made Panorama history, winning the competition by the widest margin ever with 20 points, playing Trini Gone Wild.
Sharpe is the youngest of Phase II’s six founders. He and the others – Noel Seon and Rawle Mitchell (both US-based), Andy Phillip (based in Canada), along with Selwyn Tarradath and Barry Howard, who still live in Trinidad – formed the band in 1972 and played wherever they could for varying lengths of time before finally settling down on Hamilton Street, Woodbrook, not far from St James, where Sharpe grew up and still lives.
With normality on the horizon as it pertains to public health restrictions and by extension, pan competition, Sharpe said he is looking forward to seeing "young ones rise up and perform" after a couple years of practise without the pressure of competition.
He spoke highly of Phase II’s current crop of young players, confident that they will carry its illustrious legacy for decades to come.
Phase II’s players number about 160 overall currently, including approximately 30 players in the steel section. In many past editions, its massive membership would have seen it forced to trim its numbers to be able to field the maximum number of players in Panorama’s large band competitions.
Pan has seen noticeable rises and dips in popularity at home over the decades. Panorama and the instrument itself, Sharpe said, remain popular among the elders, though it may have seen a lull in interest over the past couple generations or so before rising once again in prominence and popularity in recent years. There is a greater interest among primary and secondary school students, once again, he believes.