Profiles of Caribbean Artistry
Composer, arranger and steelband virtuoso, Len "Boogsie" Sharpe is a legend
in Trinidad, the island that invented the instrument. Pat Bishop, artist,
pan and choral conductor and herself an acclaimed steelband arranger, discusses
the brilliance of Sharpe’s work over the last 30 years
Some time in the period between the two World Wars, Trinidadians of the urban
underclass transformed drums, which had been used to contain oil, into musical
instruments. Lennox Sharpe, also known as "Boogsie", plays this steel drum or
steel pan better than most of the instruments’ other practitioners. He also
invents music for it for himself as a solo performer, as well as for bands. In
the manner of the jazz musician, he improvises with virtuosic skill upon popular
melodies but he also produces original music, even to specific themes. This
music is hardly ever commonplace and could hold its own in the wider world of
musical composition, if Trinidad ever got around to taking its music seriously.
But Trinidad is geographically small and remote and is seen as utterly
unimportant in world affairs. As a consequence, Boogsie endures the same fate as
the island which is his home, and, ironically, his inspiration.
It is said that Boogsie learned to play his first pan at the age of four, and
while he was still a little boy he became an established member of the
now-defunct Crossfire and Symphonettes steelbands. As a youngster, he also
played with Invaders. Then he went to Starlift, the steelband for which Ray
Holman was taking the revolutionary step of composing music specifically for the
Boogsie was quick to continue what Holman had started, and by 1972 he had
established Phase II Pan Groove, the band which he continues to lead. Through
that association he has been enriching the music of Carnival with his own
remarkable sense of sound, of harmony and rhythm and of the musical
possibilities of the steel drum instrument in ensemble.
Carnival has always needed music. It is the driving force behind Carnival
energy; it is the "motor" which keeps the Carnival processions moving. Steelband
had its birth in the Carnival requirement for musical accompaniment. For this
reason, the music is described as needing "a high tempo, volume and energy
level". Panorama is the main pan competition and its music is seldom soft, slow
or contemplative. It is difficult to coax musical originality in the face of
these limitations. But Boogsie can. There is a piece by the American minimalist
composer, John Adams, which he calls Short Ride In A Fast Machine, and
that title very aptly describes Boogsie’s Carnival pan music.
Boogsie’s contributions to Panorama range from Pan Rebels through to
’79 is Mine. These are the years of his growth, leading to the seminal
I Music of 1984. Today his Panorama music continues to be the most
innovative. According to Knolly Moses, a New York-based Trinidadian writing in
the Key Caribbean Carnival magazine of 1984, I Music began with a
ripe and textured introduction and a phrasing of the low pans that must be the
sweetest line ever heard on a Panorama night. The band then laid out a clear-cut
melody through the mandatory number of bars to establish the tune in the
listener’s mind. Then Boogsie went to work. The tenors swiped at notes in what
jazz musicians would call riffs. He twisted and reshaped the melody sometimes
beyond recognition. Frills and flourishes flew in all directions.
"Sometimes the tune would appear out of a floating line only to disappear
into a skirmish of chords. He phrased lines so obliquely they sounded like jazz
licks from some jam session. Most of all, he jammed in classic fashion though at
a slower tempo . . . At one point, the pans whispered a line so softly it
swapped a silent secret between the arranger and his audience. Boogsie drew
pulse and breath from his major musical influences, Stevie Wonder and Herbie
Hancock. He fused funk, rock, jazz and soca."
During the 1960s and 70s, young classically trained American composers
increasingly rebelled against the conventional futurist opinion that serialism
of a kind was the only valid language for truthful and original modernist
expression. To them, the European avant garde was irrelevant, and they
began to draw inspiration from the music of their everyday milieu, notably
contemporary rock. Boogsie Sharpe had come from no such background. Musical
education was not widespread in his youth and, in any event, who in Trinidad had
ever heard of serial music? Then or now? But the outcome of these
divergent processes was closer than one might imagine. By the time Sharpe
produced Musical Wine for Carnival 1985, he was creating music bi-tonally
— within the same bars, one set of instruments was playing in one key and a
second set, simultaneously, in another.
But nobody had taught Boogsie anything. Instead, he was listening to the
noises of the street and participating in jazz sessions on his steel pan with
other musicians. By 1985, Andy Narell, the American jazz-pan musician, described
Phase II, Boogsie’s band, as being "at the cutting edge of steel band music."
Narell had come to Trinidad to play in the Carnival Panorama and joined Phase II
for the occasion, putting his own pan sticks at the service of Sharpe’s
It may, therefore, be useful to review the steelband environment in order to
give some sort of framework through which Boogsie’s work may be better
understood and evaluated. The people who transformed the steel drum into a
musical instrument were the urban underclasses of the various suburbs of Port of
Spain. Most steel band histories like to trace an unbroken pattern of
development in respect of the musical capability of the drum as a musical
instrument. They take account of its origins as a drum — both as a container
and as a percussion instrument. Indeed, it is ironical that in the steel
band lexicon, a drum is also a drum! Because the steel drum’s origins lie in the
bamboo drum (the patois bamboo tambour) or the skin drum. The decisive
change occurs when metal containers with drumheads on which the tuning can be
fixed are substituted.
The steelband story continues to tell that, first of all, the drumhead is
raised. Later it is sunk. Nobody quite agrees about who tuned the first note.
Popular legend attributes the discovery to Winston Simon, also known as "Spree".
It really doesn’t matter who did it, because in the fierce rivalry which
obtained among the districts, today’s invention became everybody’s possession.
In the manner of street gangs everywhere, the groups were young and rebellious,
giving themselves names of war and danger. Such groups included Invaders,
Desperadoes, Tokyo, Casablanca; and, as the movement spread throughout Trinidad
and Tobago, we find the "Free French" in San Fernando. Intra-class rivalry was
to involve these gangs in pitched battles, especially at Carnival, when the
steel drum was both shield and shibboleth.
The rise of nationalist politics in the 1950s was to change all that.
Commercial sponsorship institutionalised and tamed steelband gang rivalry by
giving money to bands for good behaviour and also for good music. This gave rise
to the Panorama Competition and created the artistic milieu in which Boogsie
Sharpe principally works.
It must not, however, be forgotten that the music which is being discussed at
the moment is Carnival music. Essentially populist, the Panorama tune is a theme
and variation work of 10 minutes’ duration in which the theme is derived from a
calypso of that particular season. Supporters of the bands are often fanatically
partisan, not perhaps to the degree of soccer hooligans, but the analogy will
What Ray Holman did in 1973 was to give Starlift, one of the youngest bands
on the scene, a compostion of his own and not a calypso. In those days, to "do"
one’s "own tune" was to strike terror into the hearts of pan players. The simple
logic was that "the people" wouldn’t know it, wouldn’t respond positively and
the band would lose the Panorama. It was also felt that there was a special
relationship between the calypsonian and the steelband which the intrusion of
the specially composed theme would upset.
Despite Boogsie Sharpe’s own personal respect for calypso and its singers,
his band, Phase II, has almost always played an original Sharpe composition at
Panorama. On the other hand, the old calypso tradition has held, as a
consequence of which, Boogsie belongs to a small and not very influential group
of pan player/arrangers who pursue the path of experiment and innovation.
It may be useful now to identify the current elements which comprise the
steelband movement. They are, first of all, the old community-based
organisations which produced the first panmen. These organisations continue to
constitute the main foundation of the pan movement.
There are also the new congregations of youngsters who are essentially
school-based. They rehearse in the yards of the community bands and are
numerically strong, but they have not yet achieved the steelband political power
commensurate with their numbers.
Boogsie belongs to the third group, the handful of individual panmen of
talent and skill who have been forced to seek musical careers abroad (since
there is little opportunity for such activity on a year-round basis at home).
We therefore find Boogsie abroad as much as he is at home, seeking paying
gigs wherever he can find them, for all that Trinidad and Tobago is the
birthplace of steelband music. It is everywhere at Carnival time but interest in
it diminishes at the level of both player and listener at other times of the
But from time to time there are festivals which call for a wider range of
music. Traditionally, these festivals showcase classical music transcribed for
steelband, and some of these performances have been splendid by any standards.
Boogsie has chosen a different route, and it is in these non-Carnival pieces
that his range as a composer may be best evaluated.
This essay now becomes more personal because it is in this regard that my
closest contact with Boogsie Sharpe has been occurring.
I get a telephone call from pannist Junior Regrello. He plays a fragment of
pan music over the telephone and asks me to give it a name. Well, of course, I
cannot do any such thing. Instead, I go to the panyard with Boogsie and we
discuss what the music sounds like. You must remember that I am talking to a
composer who can neither read nor write music but whose sense of musical
adventure is highly developed.
To me, those opening bars sounded like shuffling feet. The music sounded like
the feet of douens dancing. (In the folklore of Trinidad, the douen is the
spirit of a child who dies before it has been baptised. As a consequence, it is
doomed to wander with its head facing one direction and its feet pointing the
opposite way.) This little shuffle of Boogsie’s seemed to be a minimalist kind
of phrase repeated over and over, breaking into six-eight time for a bar or two
before being repeated.
Sitting with Boogsie and the players of the Skiffle Bunch steelband, we
concocted an imaginary scenario in which the douens give a party to which they
invite a whole host of other characters from folklore. The interesting thing
about this music is the fact that Boogsie invented it upon a set of traditional
pans with a very limited range of notes. Each intervention in the music
represented the arrival at the dance of a new character. The end of the piece
recapitulates the opening ideas and is finished by crashing sounds of sonic
The piece came first in its category in the Steelband Music Festival. Not
surprisingly, the choreographer Patricia Roe recognised its balletic qualities
and created a piece for The Caribbean School of Dance, in which the band itself
was choreographed into the ballet. No photographs of this event have survived,
but later on Boogsie developed the piece for Phase II, in whose repertoire it
survived for a longer time.
The same process of music and story line in combination persisted through
The Saga of the San Fernando Hill and The Three Seasons. Later on, he
was to do Faces for the St Augustine Senior Comprehensive School Band.
Most recently, he set a Rain Forest scenario to music for the Skiffle
Bunch, now reconfigured into a conventional steelband with the full range of
notes. That piece helped Skiffle Bunch win the first World Steelband Festival in
2000; in it, Boogsie improvises a few bars of such virtuosic authority that no
one could deny his genius as a performer.
I have mentioned minimalism. I also need to say that Sharpe’s understanding
of counterpoint is highly developed. His method of working is instructive. He
goes to an instrument — he plays them all — and starts to play whatever is in
his head. Or perhaps he calls the notes and note values to a player. It is only
after he has gone through the full range of instruments that we hear what the
piece really is. Each section is given something to play which is often quite
complete in itself. But the magic is made in the combination.
In recent years, as he has become more familiar with the piano and because he
plays increasingly alongside musicians on other instruments, Boogsie’s sense of
music as melody and chord has been strengthened, at the expense of the wild
counterpoint of his earlier years. But what has grown is his minimalism in which
small phrases are repeated again and again until they achieve a mantra-like
For all that Boogsie is a popular personality, his music remains a mystery,
even to his fans and to those who play it. But there is no question about his
virtuosity as a soloist. His improvisational skills are as good as any and
better than many.
A few months ago, Boogsie played for a gathering of recovering drug addicts.
I had gone to speak; he was there to play. The material which he offered was
simple enough — a medley of Christmas melodies. Ah, but the magic! There was no
accompanying band, not even a piano. But with two pans and two sticks, he made
all kinds of harmonic inventions and interventions, laying out metallic music
like a tapestry of sound, the like of which, it seemed, I had never heard
One of the most interesting of Carnival experiences is to go to a panyard to
watch the arrangers at work during the preparation of a steelband for Panorama.
Of these, Boogsie Sharpe at Phase II may be the most interesting. It is not
entertainment. Many of the fans want to hear the whole piece quickly so that
they can go on to the next band. But it is worth taking the time to watch the
growth of a Boogsie creation.
My own experience occurred during the Carnival of 1986. The piece was Pan
Rising. I heard it and watched it unwind from the mind of the musician,
night after night, seamlessly, each section following, with musical
inevitability, one on the other. I would go home night after night to work on a
painting — 12 feet long — which tried to show what I was hearing. The painting
didn’t turn out to be much. But the music . . . that, as we say, was something
else! It remains with me as both hope and achievement. Hope that one day the pan
will really rise and take its place among the existing family of musical
instruments. Achievement in that Pan Rising may, more than most pan
pieces, indicate that pan has already risen. But as I said before, this is
Trinidad, which is small, geographically remote and unimportant in world
affairs. As a consequence, Boogsie Sharpe endures the same fate as the island
which is his home and, ironically, his inspiration.
An enthusiastic Boogsie-watcher described a performance of his in 1984 in the
With arrangements of high tenors, double-tenors and guitarpans, Boogsie led,
with Valentino’s Life Is A Stage, playing the different pans in a jazzy
interpretation and using the pitch of each pan to highly dramatic effect. Then,
he switched to Relator’s Gavaskar. The finely tuned pans answered his
every call of musical expression — forte to pianissimo.
But it was when Boogsie, member/arranger of Phase II Pan Groove, switched
from Terror’s Pan Talent to Kitchener’s Sweet Pan that the
capacity audience roared its acclaim of the versatility.
More was yet to come. Next, Boogsie was playing the high tenor pan held
upside down by an assistant. In other words, he was playing the tune on the
bottom side of the pan. He then ventured into extemporaneous musical expressions
that brought the crowd to its feet.
For the finale, he sobered the crowd with an exhilarating performance of his
own 1984 composition, I Music — this time playing the pans from the front
side of the instruments, rather than from behind the pans — the customary
position. By the close of his half-hour performance, this superstar of second
generation panmen was as fresh as when he had started.
This article is included with the permission
of the publisher
Caribbean Beat, September-October 2002 issue
© 2002 Media & Editorial Projects Ltd