Celebrating an outcast
Story from the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian by Peter Ray Blood
Born in East Dry River, Port-of-Spain in 1940, Owen Serrette’s family moved to Morvant when he was just one year old, a move that eventually saw him become a bona fide Harmonites Steel Orchestra member, a steelband he still faithfully serves. Serrette did return to his birthplace as a child, at 10 Bonaparte Lane, Basilon Street, to attend Rosary Boys’ RC School.
It was during his return as a primary school student that Serrette first got involved with the steelband. At the age of ten he played with City Syncopators for the Carnival of 1950. At that time, calypsonians and steelbandsmen were considered “outcasts” as eulogised in Sparrow’s calypso Outcast with the famous lyrics: “If yuh sister talk to a steelbandman, yuh family want to break she hand, put she out, outcast.”
Said Serrette: “Because I was living in Basilon Street and attending Rosary Boys, I was attracted to City Syncopators.”
Serrette’s family was a very religious one so it is no surprise that his mother, on learning of his involvement in pan, broke down in tears. She refused to believe that her dearly beloved boy child was seen “beating pan” on the road, believing that he was associating with “bad johns” and “jamettes” who formed part of the steelband fraternity. Ironically, it was okay for Serrette’s elder brothers to “beat pan,” but not little Owen, who she saw as becoming a priest.
Indeed, Serrette’s venture into the world of pan was cut short when he enrolled at the seminary at Mt St Benedict. But, though ensconced in the hallowed halls of the seminary, he managed to frequent the panyard of Flamingoes Steel Orchestra, located in “the Village” on St John’s Road, the roadway to the Mount.
Upon departing the Mount, Serrette rejoined the Teenage Serenaders steelband in his then hometown of Morvant.
As its name suggests, this was an aggregation of young panmen who did not qualify to play with the loftily perched and legendary Ebonites Steel Orchestra.
Natural progression followed and Serrette eventually became a member of the renowned Ebonites outfit as a tenor player, his instrument of choice. This was a dream come true and at the time Ebonites, of Roses from the South fame, was known as “the dance band of the sixties.”
In 1966, Serrette was lured away from Ebonites to Harmonites Steel Orchestra by its first captain Winston “Skull” Flemming and arranger Knolly Bobb. From that fateful move, in addition to being a stalwart playing member, Serrette served Harmonites in several capacities, inclusive of becoming an executive member, being appointed captain in 1980-90, and as manager from 1990-94.
Serrette represented this Morvant steelband, and by extension T&T as a cultural ambassador, with pride and distinction, performing regionally in Barbados, Suriname and the Cayman Islands, and internationally in places like New York, Atlanta, Switzerland, Spain, England and Brasil.
There is some historical significance to when Harmonites toured New York, then sponsored by Solo Beverages, in 1979, as Serrette is the only member of the contingent to voluntarily return to Trinidad.
Solo Harmonites, described by Serrette as “the beacon of Morvant,” has won the National Panorama title on four occasions with some creative and unique arrangements by Earl Rodney.
Proud of his band achievements, Serrette said: “My favourite pan arranger is Earl Rodney. I honestly believe that Earl was way before his time, especially with his arrangements of stage-side music. Jit Samaroo, Renegades’ arranger, confirmed that to me.”
In 1994, a core of Harmonites players, led by Serrette and Lloyd Manswell, severed ties with the legendary steelband, taking with them the prized Solo Beverages sponsorship to form Solo Pan Knights Steel Orchestra.
With Pan Knights he toured Nigeria, Colombia, London and returned to the Cayman Islands. The two Morvant pan giants reunited in 2000 but the relationship again irretrievably disintegrated in 2013.
In the steelband world, Serrette is widely respected as a leader, so it came as no surprise when he was elected as the assistant secretary of the now defunct National Association of T&T Steelbandsmen (NATTS).
When NATTS dissolved and Pan Trinbago formed, Serrette served as Education Officer of the new organisation in 1982-’88. He subsequently succeeded president Arnim Smith upon his demise, many of the opinion that Serrette was handpicked by Smith to be a successor.
Indeed Smith was Serrette’s role model in pan. He said: “My favourite president was Arnim Smith. I believe that not too much credit is given to him. Because of his street (common), and not necessarily (book) sense, he was able to carry the movement to a point which made my reign as president the success I believe it was.”
Serrette, his quiet demeanour in stark contrast to the robust attitude of previous steelband organisation leaders like Smith and George Goddard, had a very successful tenure as Pan Trinbago president. In 1992, it was his recommendation to the Patrick Manning administration, that led to pan being declared “the national instrument of T&T.”
The formation of Panvesco and the introduction of the Panyard Development Programme stand out as just two of many success stories of Serrette’s stewardship. It was during his tenure at the helm of Pan Trinbago that the business sector was said to be “most pan friendly,” seen as a declaration of its confidence in the national steelband organisation.
Said Serrette: “Corporate sponsors seemed more appreciative of work done and partnerships were developed in hosting events and providing financial assistance to steelbands.”
Programmes initiated under Serrette’s stewardship which provided sponsorship to the steelband fraternity included the National Junior Panorama and National Junior Steelband Music Festival competitions; Pan on the Road competitions; Arima Panorama; Carnival Monday Night Steelband Explosion; Borough of Point Fortin Pan on the Move; Pan Chutney; Pan Ramajay; Hindi Foundation’s Steelband competition; The Panman’s Ball; Steelband Week and many more.
Serrette initiated music literacy for pan musicians at UWI, no doubt inspired to do so having being a member of the UWI steelband in Mona, Jamaica in 1973.
He also instituted training in management and administration for young managers of member steelbands. He insisted, and still insists, that pan musicians become musically literate and be referred as “musicians,” and not panmen.
In 2014, Serrette was honoured by Morvant’s St Dominic’s Ex Pupils and literary and cultural associations for “outstanding contributions in the field of culture in the Morvant community.”
As president of Pan Trinbago, in order to internationalise the organisation, Serrette established Pan Trinbago chapters in Canada, New York and Arizona, and formed alliances with Caribbean steelband organisations.
Cultural exchange programmes were also established, with lasting relationships, whereby local musicians, tuners and arrangers secured performances and work abroad.
An amazing caveat of Serrette’s stint as president is that he served strictly in a voluntary capacity. “At no time during the years I spent as president of Pan Trinbago did I receive a salary,” he revealed.
Serrette has been a recipient of several awards and honours from various organisations including the Laventille Steelband Festival Foundation, the Order of St Clement, the Order of Emancipation, Exodus and Pan Trinbago.
Serrette is especially pleased with the recognition and honour bestowed on him by the British Association of Steelbands last December.
Besides pan, he has been a career public servant for 42 years, working in the postal system and in government’s organisation and management division.
He retired from the public service in 2000 as Assistant Director of the Public Management Consulting Division, in the Ministry of Public Administration.
Since retiring from the public service, Serrette continues to serve the national community through the National Carnival Commission (NCC) where he is currently employed, offering his vast knowledge, skills and experience gained for over half a century.
Serrette has been married for 49 years and has four children, all of whom are currently professionals in their own right.
Though now retired, Serrette continues to be a staunch advocate for the proliferation of the national instrument at home and abroad.
He said: “I believe that the steel pan is ‘the instrument’ of the 21st century and, if marketed as, say, the reggae, will definitely be the instrument of the music world.”