Cordettes’ pan music legacy
Story from the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday by Corey Connelly
Cordettes Steel Orchestra may be an unsponsored outfit, but it remains an institution in the eastern district of Sangre Grande.
Established around 1962, the band has held its own as an ensemble, having made it to the finals of the medium conventional band category of the National Panorama competition on 15 occasions, its last appearance being in 2012 with the Philmore/ Loquan/Destra composition, “Vibes”, a piece arranged by Anders Kappel Ovre.
The band has performed extensively throughout the country and is also known for its vibrant stage side and varied repertoire: it is said that Cordettes can play more than 90 minutes of continuous music, at a moment’s notice, on any given day.
Moreover, Cordettes’ panyard on Foster Road is an unofficial stomping ground for players, pan lovers and residents alike, many of whom venture to the revered space to reminisce about the band’s early years in the steelband movement and brainstorm on ways in which it can retain its stature within the fraternity.
But to members of the band’s management team, Cordettes is much more than a steelband. In fact, over the years it has spread its wings to include a range of social interventions, specifically targeting the youth in the eastern district.
Four years ago, the band joined forces with what was then known as the Ministry of the Arts and Multiculturalism (now the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts) to launch a “Music Schools In the Panyard” project.
The hugely successful initiative provided music literacy to young people in varying age groups and has produced over 200 graduates thus far.
This year, the band’s Music School has set its sights on the Junior Panorama competition and, in so doing, also has extended an invitation for students in schools throughout the region to participate in the ground-breaking project.
“A lot of students have been showing interest, with some even telling their friends,” Candice Hughes-Bengochea, co-ordinator and parental liaison, Music School Programme and Junior Panorama Band, said of its launch of the Junior Panorama initiative last month.
In a Sunday Newsday interview, an excited Hughes-Bengochea said she had sent letters to primary and secondary schools within the region toward the end of the last school term, providing details about the Junior Panorama project.
She said the response was overwhelming.
“At the launch, last month, there was a full house to register.
We already have 32 for Junior Panorama, a mixture of students from our Music School and Stage Side and other schools.
So, word is getting around,” Hughes-Bengochea said, adding that the hopefuls were given a comprehensive historical overview of Cordettes’ youth band at the event.
In keeping with the band’s thrust to forge greater ties with the community, Hughes-Bengochea said local government representatives, alderman John Renn and Sangre Grande North- East councillor Lorraine Heath were in attendance.
“It is important to partner with the community because we cannot do it alone,” she said.
Hughes-Bengochea expressed gratitude to Sasu Music Store, for donating vouchers for the launch, as well as Tiger Promotions, for sponsoring the banner for the event. She said Tiger Promotions also has graciously agreed to supply the artwork for all of Cordettes’ future endeavours.
Practice sessions for the Junior Panorama have already begun at the band’s panyard, Hughes-Bengochea, drawing from the talent that she has already witnessed, expressed optimism that Cordettes will deliver creditable performances, ahead of next year’s competition.
An outright win in the prestigious competition, she said, would cement Cordettes’ status as one of the more consistent steelbands in the country.
Once led by late cultural activist, Alwin Chow-Lin-On, Cordettes emerged from a group of freelance pannists in the early 1960s.
As the decades wore on, the group of talented pannists participated in music festivals, later becoming a staple act at the Hilton Trinidad in the 1970s and 90s.
Under the guidance of the late Paul Campbell, whom many players regard as a legend in Sangre Grande, prolific arranger Jit Samaroo and more recently, Ovre, Cordettes continues to be a formidable entity on the local steelband landscape.
It’s involvement on the “Music School in the Panyard” initiative was a signal moment in the band’s development, which has encouraged a younger generation of players to embrace not only pan but music as a way of life. Hughes-Bengochea, who joined Cordettes’ executive team last year, told Sunday Newsday that outside of the steelpan, students were asked to select another instrument of their choice to perform. These include the guitar, trombone, trumpet, saxophone and clarinet.
Students who participated in this year’s Music School graduated in August. The event, titled The Ruby Experience, was held at the Five Rivers Secondary School and players affiliated to Potential Symphony, Pan Jammers, Golden Hands and the Amarjyoth Sabha Mandir received their certificates.
To promote the talents of the youngsters, Hughes-Bengochea said Cordettes, which won an East Zone National Panorama title in the early 1990s, will host a series of charity events between now and December.
She said play-outs already have been planned for the Home for the Aged (Graham Trace); a women’s shelter (Brooklyn Settlement); a Christmas Treat (Pine Settlement); and Green Acres Geriatric Home (Foster Road). A grand Christmas extravaganza is also being planned for Sangre Grande in December.
“Our aim is to really develop a youth orchestra in Sangre Grande. But in order to do that the youths have to be literate in music,” Hughes-Bengochea said, adding that the band’s impact on the young people and family life, generally, has been phenomenal.
“Whenever you have activities in music and sports, everybody comes out to see - tanty, nen nen, god-parent, the entire family,” she said. Hughes-Bengochea recalled that during a recent function to honour Olympic medallist Keshorn Walcott at the Monte Cristo Park, Sangre Grande, a parent of a young boy, a new member of the Music School, spoke glowingly of her son’s interest in the activity.
“She told me that when he is at home washing wares, he goes through his notes and is always practising.” Hughes-Bengochea said many young people are striving for excellence despite the crime situation and economic constraints plaguing the country.
“It is all very empowering to display our youths in a positive manner so that other youths can be inspired to engage in similar activities,” she said. “We are trying to empower the youth in our community through music.”