Pan’s labyrinth

Ralph James at his mini-pan workshop in St Augustine. Photos by Mark Lyndersay. - Mark Lyndersay
Ralph James at his mini-pan workshop in St Augustine. Photos by Mark Lyndersay. - Mark Lyndersay


My name is Ralph James and I do everything to do with pan.

I remember the days when pan didn’t have respect. Is there I come from.

I grew up in a very powerful village called Tunapuna, a borough! Something like Port of Spain, but not really like Port of Spain. Every little thing you think about, you get it in Tunapuna. You don’t have to go nowhere.

It had
three big cinema. Eros, Palladium and Monarch, right on the Main Road.

I come from a big family. A worldwide family. Money does follow them.

Boy days in Tunapuna is so powerful. The talking is nice. Football, riding roller skates, not much cricket, scooter, trolley. Swimming. Fighting. Thiefing. Mango. Anything, anything, anything, we thiefing.

But wasn’t me alone. You have to go in a group.

That is school days. Almost the whole class plan to do that.

Primary school was Tunapuna Government, which anybody could go, even a bachac, and they don’t want to know where you from. But the rest of schools taking you in a religion styling.

It was the only school I went to. I reach in the secondary department in post-primary and I start to work after that. They just put you to work to learn something.

That was the first thing: to learn something.

I didn’t like too much school, but staying away, I couldn’t do that. All friends in school, Monday to Friday. Everything you have pack up in book, from foundation to finish, but you have to go home and learn it.

I carry it home but to learn it, that is where the trouble start. Because the amount of thing it had outside. Going in the savannah, going in the river.

Hear nuh, when you come back home, is late evening. You had to clean up the yard, do all what you didn’t do. And, time you make two turn, is night.

And that lesson thing in the night? I ready to sleep!

My parents wasn’t too strict on the home-lesson thing. Nah, they let you do what you want.

I think this was much better. Because I watch friends study and become police and reach sergeant, military and thing.

But when I watching the ending, is a resigning thing!

Is this one want me, that one want me, you have to choose them, because you getting versatile, you understand me? The practical understanding is something in that, it have a secret.

Everything have something they call “techniques.” And you doesn’t learn them thing until you old. Techniques is secret. You reach a point and you getting problem but you have to have somebody good or you can’t find out nothing. And I
always bounce up on somebody good. The people I find, they taught me the secrets of what I doing!

Since I small, these pans around me. Pan was a serious, serious thing since in the earlies.

Ralph James - Mark Lyndersay

From the first few weeks I leave school, about 13 going in 14, I used to be outside just liming but my brother put me to learn in a big tyre company.

Just like the pan and them, tyre all over you!

Me and my friend went up. He is a big-time panman. He is a overall, too. Glen Ward. They’s call him Sandopie from Tunapuna. He’s a favourite.

He does come here by me. He is one of my teacher. He teach me to play the pan, not make it.

I taking lunchtime from the tyre shop and helping them sink pan, I see what they doing. Next time I come back, I see they grooving the pan and I just feel I could do that kinda thing too and I’ll tell you why: in school, they have a subject they call art, and I was tops in art and signpainting. And when you could use that stencil brush and make the letters, and you take up a piece of iron and they mark out on the pan, it come like the same art!

When I coulda call myself a pan-tuner?

Well, all right, 1965. ’66. ’67. 1968. All that is coming through, learning and playing. (In) 1969, I get a break: the captain Glen went away with a next band and we band can’t come out.

So the big man tell me, “You does always be in the yard with your proom-proom and your bram-bram, you have a chance to see how far you could reach!”

He talking now ‘bout thing for people to kill yuh!

But when I hear him say so, I know what I could do!

They bring drum (for me to sink pan).

And I end up leaving my work for a while because is a whole steel band I was tuning. Five tenor pan, double-tenor, double-second, bass, everything-everything. The tenor pan is the lead and I get stick up there. When I start to see the notes small so, I start to get frighten because I get through the rest, but this tenor pan now…The note wouldn’t sound!

I had a friend who was learning too, he had done gone far already.

So I go up easy-easy-easy by he, tell him I take over and I bringing out the band, but I get block by the tenor pan.

He say, “I will do the whole front, you do all the rest.”

I have to be there because I is the boss now and I watching. And I watching. And I watching.

If you see how nice he do them three tenor and and the double-tenor pan.

It was his break, too, same time as me.

The band Jazz Cat come out for the Carnival. Jazz Cat doesn’t come out again. Everybody get big. And who die out and thing.

When they hear that is me putting over the music – that mean “arranging” – nobody ent coming!

The way we band does sound, them can’t believe I could run past that! You could be my brother, you don’t want to go on the road and people boo me down.

I can’t doubt them, they never hear me. Nobody want to play.

So I bring my neighbour and them, little boys, about 20 of them. Root them out of school and thing. And I teaching them and I teaching them.

Who say they didn’t catch up? And a two weeks later, when the band start to perform they little thing, the big men now want to see what going on.

But I can’t leave out the little boys and let them go back home. Everybody get pan and by everybody get pan, I show up on the road. I do it.

And the band sound good. That was 1969.

The band that I form and stand up for 15, 20, 25 years, Tropical Ebonites, Fairley Street, Tunapuna. Coming through the exercise, not Panorama, music.

Don’t bring no friend to play in your band. They will hambug the players who learning.

When you learning and your players learning, everybody will rise up together.

But if you bring somebody who know more than you, he become your teacher!

The nicest part of being in pan is knowing you could make and play the pan on your own, a solo pan, playing by yourself to enjoy it.

The hard part is playing with a steelband, because you have to practise.

And you have to go and practise; the solo pan, you could practise home.

A Trini is somebody who born and grow in the island.

Trinidad and Tobago to me mean the world of everything.

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