Flashes of the pan

Kim Johnson is on a mission. He is compiling a National Steelband Archive but finding photos is hard. Beware, he may come knocking on your door soon

Starlift Steel Orchestra. Photograph courtesy Percy Pitts

From the beginning a year ago my aim was impossible.

A coffee-table book requires at least five times more photographs to choose from than are actually used. Three hundred pages with only one photograph per page meant I had to find 1,500 vintage photographs of old steelbands.

I’ve pestered hundreds of people. Captains of bands, aficionados, friends of my parents, complete strangers everywhere: do you have any old photographs of steelbands, or know anyone who might?

No. No. No. No, people didn’t have cameras in those days. That, hundreds of times. Even the companies that spent a fortune sponsoring bands never thought to take a photograph. Solo kept no Harmonites photos, Coca Cola no Desperadoes, Catelli no All Stars. But Angostura, always with a sense of history, preserved a dozen Casablancas.

I pressed on because everyone—every single person I approached—thought the project an exciting and important one and offered to ask their friends. I recalled what Simeon Sandiford of Sanch Records said years before when he began the arduous task of recording the bands. “This,” he explained, “is God’s work.”

Far less often than “No” I got: “Maybe, I’ll check.” Then, weeks later: Sorry, I can’t find them, they must have got lost when we moved house.”

And very occasionally, the cousin of the friend of a security guard I met at a warehouse might say: “Yes, I think my father has one or two.”

Then came the phoning, the nagging: Did you get around to searching for them yet? Can I come over next Wednesday after work to help you look?

So there was a trickle. Finding a mutually convenient hour, visiting someone and scanning two photographs in Diego Martin. Four in Laventille. One in Siparia. Two in Arima. A bonanza: 12 in Belmont! That made my week.

I’m way short of my target. Far more surprising is their distribution: few of the large and mighty. I have one of Despers, three of All Stars, none of Harmonites, two of Tokyo, four of Invaders. But 23 of Birdsong, seven of Corregidores, 10 of Fonclaire. It all depends on whether there was a band member alive who kept records.

But the real shocker has been the dizzying beauty of many of the photographs I’ve found. Those moments in the creation of an instrument, an ensemble and a music frozen on celluloid, the innocence, the pride, the joy.

Stand before any one of the 300-odd photographs I’ve scanned so far and your mouth drops open in surprise. You are wrenched from the everyday taken-for-grantedness of life into contemplation of the beauty that these young men and women wrought, for which you can only feel that most profoundly spiritual of emotions: gratitude.

If you have any photographs of steelbands between 1940 and 1980 and would like to contribute to the National Steelbands Archive Project, please contact Dr Kim Johnson at + 868-742-0822 or eshu55@gmail.com