Starlift to cast spell with Sparrow's Witch Doctor

Proman Starlift Steel Orchestra musical director Dante Pantin rehearses with the band for the 2023 Panorama competiiton. Photo courtesy Proman Starlift
Proman Starlift Steel Orchestra musical director Dante Pantin rehearses with the band for the 2023 Panorama competiiton. Photo courtesy Proman Starlift

Musical director and arranger for Proman Starlift Steel Orchestra Dante Pantin has his eyes set on the 2023 National Panorama title with his re-mastered version of the Mighty Sparrow’s 1976 calypso, Witch Doctor. The Panorama finals will take place on February 18, Carnival Saturday.

“In the band’s renewed direction and focus, we are privileged to honour and celebrate Dr Slinger Francisco, with whose songs Starlift won two of its three Panorama titles – Queen of the Bands, 1971 and Du Yemi (Natasha) in 1978,” Pantin told Sunday Newsday.

Pantin said Witch Doctor was in the cards to be the band’s Panorama song of choice some years ago, but he felt 2023 was the right time to re-record and perform at the competition – when the public was being offered much more than just a “taste of Carnival” after the covid19 pandemic restrictions had been lifted.

“The song was given to me by the late Dr Desmond Waithe four years ago. We were speaking in the carpark and he said, ‘I know you are strong in minor songs (songs that influence moods).’” Pantin was a student of Waithe's at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), where he studied music with an emphasis on the steelpan. He later went on the study music for film at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Pantin said shortly before his death last year, Waithe again reminded him about the song, and he decided it was time to start working on its release in 2023.

“We spoke about using Bunji (Ian Alvarez) or Kes (Kees Dieffenthaller) to do the song, but we made a full circle and came right back to the Mighty Sparrow.”

In December, Pantin flew to New York to meet with Sparrow at his home to record the song. It was recorded at The Birdie’s apartment.

“When I got to New York it was extremely cold,” Pantin said.

“I touched base with Sparrow and we started recording the following day. I had walked with some of my equipment and borrowed some from friends in New York. We set up at his apartment and we recorded until we got it done because I had decided that when I visited him again, it was to talk and lime.”

But Sparrow had a different take on things. In a phone interview with Sunday Newsday, he said with a hearty laugh, “He didn’t like the cold and he was trying to get out of New York fast...I don’t think he will come to New York in winter again if you give him a million dollars.”

Pantin said when they were finished, Sparrow said, “Dante you real wuking me.” He said they both bonded over the music and humour, making the age difference seem non-existent.

Proman Starlift Steel Orchestra musical director Dante Pantin, right, and the Mighty Sparrow share a light moment after recording a re-mastered version of Sparrow's 1976 Witch Doctor, which the band will play for Panorama 2023. Photo courtesy Proman Stalift

The new version was directed by Pantin with Proman Starlift Steel Orchestra as executive producer, and Alex Gooding as producer. It is almost identical to the old, with minor tweaks.

“It’s Sparrow’s voice in his 80’s, same melody, same lyrics with a few minor changes people would not really notice.”

Pantin, 33, grew up in panyards, starting with Merry Tones in Diego Martin, and listening to the music of the Calypso King of the World. He said there are two versions of Witch Doctor, with the second being recorded in the early 2000s. He gravitated to the original, faster version and said both he and Sparrow are quite satisfied with the final product.

“On Saturday, I was having dinner before small band finals. Sparrow called and he was very excited. He said ‘Dante I love it and I am looking forward to working on future albums.’ He really put his stamp of approval on it and that made my year,” even though it’s still January.

Sparrow told Sunday Newsday the new version has a very special place in his heart for sentimental reasons.

“Yes I like it. I love it,” he said of the song.

“When Dante told me he was doing it for Starlift, I quickly agreed because I really love this band…Dante and his boys did a fantastic job and I’d like to commend them on that.”

As the band prepares for the Panorama competition, Pantin said he is really trying to get in character with the song because he sees the competition as a medium for arrangers and composers to express themselves.

“What the 125 players in Starlift perform is an extension of me and my thoughts; how I feel and interpret the lyrics and melody, that’s why I’m always so careful about the story I want to tell. It’s an emotional time for me and, as I always do, I am pouring and putting myself 100 per cent into this product and the culture.”

Pantin has officially been with Starlift since 2019, but had had been involved with the band some time before while at UTT. He plays the pan, drumkit, keyboard, among others.

"The drumkit was the first instrument I learned to play," he said.

This year he has plans to launch his own music academy, Steelnation, through which he will teach writing, arranging and producing music.

“It’s a full music school. I want to show young people the different avenues they can explore as careers through music…I have never worked an eight to four job in my life because of my love for music.”

He said after two years of not participating in the “real” Carnival, Proman Starlift Steel Orchestra is bringing its A game.

“Not to sound boastful, but I’m going into this competition with winning music, winning musicians and a winning attitude…We have a strong core and I think there is something about year that is special.

And will there be more collaborations with The Birdie? Sparrow certainly thinks so.

“There’s something coming up, Dante is hinting at something. Tell him just say when and that the Mighty Sparrow is ready, willing and able to jam down the place. Tell him I said yabba dabba doo,” he said with his signature rumbling laugh.


"Starlift to cast spell with Sparrow’s Witch Doctor"

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