Music educator Ray Holman is considered a legend in the pan fraternity – and not without good reason.
The composer and arranger began making outstanding contributions to the steelpan industry as a teenager, and now, over 60 decades later, his extensive repertoire of work is being given due recognition by arts organisation Canboulay Productions, with the hosting of a steelpan musical, Pantopia.
"I feel tremendously blessed and honoured that people would consider that my work of music should be recognised and preserved in this way," Holman told Sunday Newsday in a phone interview.
"I'm looking forward to hearing the music and seeing the actors performing it."
The production will be staged at the Hadco Phase II Pan Groove panyard, Port of Spain, from April 5-7 and 12-14.
Holman said, as far as he knows, this steelpan musical is the first of its kind in Trinidad and Tobago.
The idea is the brainchild of director, playwright, lecturer and co-founder of Canboulay Productions Rawle Gibbons who wrote the script and will produce the play.
"Culturally, if not politically, the 1970s was an era of revolutionary change in the Caribbean. In TT specifically, the period saw the rise of Winston Bailey, the Mighty Shadow, overturning the Kitchener-Sparrow road-march hegemony, Black Stalin and Brother Valentino fortifying the Black Power legacy in calypso and the emergence of new forms within the music – rapso and Lord Shorty’s sokah.
"In steelband, the breakthrough year was 1972. For the first time, an original composition by a steelband arranger entered and swept its way to the finals of the Panorama competition. Pan on the Move ranks Ray Holman among the creative revolutionaries of the 1970s," Gibbons said.
Pan on the Move revolutionised Panorama that year – the same year Carnival was postponed from February to May because of a polio outbreak. In March 2022, the story of how the song was created and the challenges experienced by Holman in its creation was showcased in a documentary by Mark Loquan Music and Sthenic 22.
"I feel it is important to recognise his work and people like him who have given so much to improve the quality of life in our society."
Gibbons said because of the nature of Holman's work, this is something he has wanted to do for years and is glad he is finally able to see his vision come to fruition.
"He is one of our outstanding composers and his works need to be shared in other formats, not just at Panorama."
He said the honorary doctor of letters conferred upon Holman by the UWI, St Augustine in 2021 opened the conversation.
"I've always believed we need to celebrate our talent while they are alive. That's what Canboulay Productions has been doing. The process of writing the script would have taken a few months, and production is ongoing."
He said the production tells the story of Holman's work over the years and not his life's story.
"Pantopia draws on this signal moment and the sustained output of this composer as an example of the kind of creative courage needed to fashion change in any entrenched system of behaviours and values. The play is not a Holman documentary; rather, its characters emerge from the situations and intent of the story. In its turn, the story takes us through the period of the 70’s to the present and, possibly, future."
Gibbons said his production team believes it is important to celebrate TT's creative talent as an obligation of gratitude and a necessity of self-definition.
"If our artists prove to us that we have moved from a motley sprinkling of ethnicities to what might be considered a nation, the celebration of their works indicates that we share an even larger identity as a civilisation, one we can proudly call ‘Caribbean’. Equally significant at this time is that we can join Ray Holman in celebrating, not only his work but his 80th year among us."
Of course, Gibbons said, because Holman's work is so extensive, the songs that will be featured in the musical were carefully selected.
"I wrote the script and sat with him (Holman) and discussed what songs we should use to link to the stories. But there were some of the songs, like Pan on the Move, that selected themselves," he said.
"We chose the ones that fit the emerging story. The songs are very diverse in genre, mood and content." Gibbons said.
But, Holman noted, "Sometimes the script had to be changed a bit because it is not set in stone; it's a living organism that goes through periods of changes.
"He (Gibbons) is very flexible and it's a very beautiful play. It's interesting what he came up with. It didn't have to be accurate, the important thing is the broad contours."
The musical's characters are a caste of young pan players who were selected through auditions held last year, and its director is UWI lecturer Louis Mc Williams.
"We made an open call for auditions to people interested in pan and acting. Many young people came out," Holman said.
His character is named Solo, played by Kimani McPine, a newcomer to the stage.
Gibbons said the love for the art form was felt through the show of support from the National Steel Symphony Orchestra, Scherzando Steel Orchestra in Curepe, Birdsong Steel Orchestra in St Augustine, and the Lloyd Best Institute in Tunapuna, Pepper Advertising, among others.
"And of course Fatima (College) Class of 1975, to which Ray is still closely connected," Gibbons said.
He said the celebration of Holman's work began in October 2023 with schools’ workshops in four districts around Trinidad.
"These workshops gave CXC music students an opportunity to learn from Dr Holman some skills in composing and arranging, but most importantly, to receive creative inspiration for their own efforts. This educational aspect of our project will continue with a special school show on April 11. After the production, we plan to promote Ray’s music in local music festivals."
They are also planning a school show.
Gibbons felt it was important for the children to meet with Holman, the 1988 Humming Bird Medal Silver awardee for his contribution to the development of music for the steelpan.
And in spite of the accolades he has racked up for himself, Holman said he is far from finished.
"I'm always working on music. Sometimes I get sidelined by other projects, but then I get back on track and it's full speed ahead.
"I want the public to come out and support this venture, not only pan people but all who are interested in art and music. And I want to encourage others to take it up."
In 1957, Ray Holman began playing pan at 13 with Invaders Steelband, led by legendary pan tuner Ellie Mannette. Later, he became its arranger, doing classical interpretations such as Dream of Olwen and Etude in A b.
In 1963, Holman and others revived the band Starlift, and his arrangements made it the then most popular band in Trinidad. He had instant success with I Feel Pretty from the musical West Side Story.
At 20, he became the youngest player to win the solo Ping Pong (an early version of the tenor pan) competition in the 1964 TT Music Festival. He began experimenting with the jazz idiom as a soloist while touring and performing on television with the Queen’s Royal College Jazz Group, led by his teacher Scofield Pilgrim.
Holman emerged as the most musically progressive steelband arranger, and his innovative arrangements won two Panorama championships for Starlift in 1969, with Lord Kitchener’s The Bull and in 1970 with the Mighty Sparrow’s Queen of The Bands. In 1972, he became the first arranger to compose and play his own music for the National Steelband Panorama competition. Appropriately titled Pan on the Move, the composition won the National Preliminaries and is now a pan music landmark.
Since then, he has arranged for many top steelbands, among them Pandemonium, Tokyo, Exodus, Phase II Pan Groove, and Hummingbirds Pan Groove.