Dis week ah revisiting an article ah wrote in June of 2018 about an unsung Hero named Frank Laborde. Ah very quiet, humble and approachable man. Oh how he loved his privacy. But when Paddy Corea, ah Pan-ah-maniac mentioned his name and told me dat Frank was a Legend of Pan and don’t let him escape, ah went chasing him.
Wid ah great deal of sweet-talk, ah finally got Mr Frank to sit down and talk foh ah while. He was born in New Town, Old Montrose now known as Block 2000. He refused to disclose his age, told me dat was not important. But my calculations tell me dat since he was ah lad in Met-dis and Anglican Primary School during de Riot of 1935, den Frank had to be closer to100 years, dan he actually looks.
In De early 1940’s, dis youth-man migrated to Trinidad, de land of steel band. He be-friended Norbert Vanderpool, a co-worker and a member of Invaders steel band. Norbert invited Frank to a practice session in the Pan Yard in Woodbrooke, and Frank was simply fascinated with everything he saw and heard, in particular the Ping Pong or lead instrument dat is today deTenor Pan. Wid his photograph memory he took ah lot ah mental pictures. In his own words: “ Ah noticed de notes on de Tenor Pan were not arranged in the diatonic scale, or normal alphabetical order, dey were scattered all over the pan, dat was called de “Scatter Note Pan.”
When Frank left Invaders Pan-yard dat night he vowed dat he was going to build a Pan exactly like de one he saw. His main ambition was to be able to play de song: “Oh Danny Boy” ah song dat climaxed wid ah flow of notes in de higher octave. He frequented Invaders Pan Yard and got ah lot ah tips in Pan-making. So in 1948, it was SVG here I come, back to good Ole Montrose, Block 2000, home of Rising Star Steel Band and later, Starlift.
By now he had warmed up to me and began to speak out: “ From de time ah reach I went to work on my Scatter Note Pan, Dat Pan!” He said, “eventually became de first of its kind (ah Pan wid Scatter Notes) to be built in SVG;” In his own words he stated dat he obtained an oil drum from ESSO at Arnos Vale, cut-off seven inches from the bottom that has no holes/nozzles. Next step was ‘sinking the Pan’ i.e. pounding the surface inwards creating a bowl (concave). With a chalk he drew the elliptical shaped notes, bigger shapes for the notes in the lower scale, and small shapes for the higher notes. His tools were ah punch or small cold-chisel and a hammer, and skillfully he carved along the chalk marks to form or separate the notes, each note with a convex shape. Grooving stage complete with eighteen notes, de Pan was heated for fifteen minutes on ah ‘wood fire and three stones’, then immediately thrown in the small stream nearby ‘to cool down’.
. Frank’s own admission is dat he had no experience or training in Pan building or any knowledge in music, except he knew only de major scale: “Doh-Ray-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Doh!” (no Sharps or Flats). However he tuned every one of those 18 notes beginning with the lowest note “G” on the Bass Clef climbing the scale up to high“C” on the Treble Clef. Lie-Za swears dat dis man was given ah gift from de Almighty. The actual tuning exercise was dramatic as the entire community including one of my classmates, de same Paddy Corea, came around daily to witness that historic development.
Following Frank’s Tune Pan, came Rising Star, Ole Montrose first Steel Band. Rising Star rose to fame in de early 1950’s placing first in a “Local Talent Show” at Lyric Cinema. And by no coincidence, de Band played “Oh Danny Boy,” Ah dream come thru foh Frank.
It was time to move again, dis time to de USA leaving his Pan behind. After spending twenty years in de US, Frank was back in de 1980’s. Wid pan in his vein, he soon got around to building himself a Tenor Pan that now sits on a stand in his dining room. De Pan looks a bit on de ole side, sound a bit on de ole side as well, de notes badly need tuning. Those Scattered Notes have become ah challenge to Frank to find de C scale. His hands ah bit slow but he however managed to find de Major Scale on an out of tuned Pan. And den he battled away finding de notes from his fair-foh-hit Song “Oh DannyBoy!”
On Wednesday morning I was awakened by Marcus Browne who called from de US to say dat Frank at 93, had gotten ah call to perform in St Peters Valley Harps Steel Orchestra, his hand-made scatter-note Tenor Pan is now all chromed and waiting, and de Band has been rehearsing “Oh Danny Boy!” Frank is indeed ah Treasure. May he find Peace in Heaven. And wid dat is gone ah gone again.
One Love Bassy
Bassy Alexander is a land surveyor, folklorist and social commentator.