Golden Hands: Trinidad’s band of gold

Ray Funk profiles Golden Hands, a pan ensemble from South Trinidad, who are travelling to Texas to present their innovative preformance piece The Rain

Dr Jeannine Remy (left), composer of The Rainmakers, and Franka Hills-Headley, writer and director. Photograph courtesy UWI Marketing and Communications Office/Aneel KarimOne of San Fernando`s more adventurous steelbands, Golden Hands, costumed for a performance of The Rainmakers. Photograph courtesy Vibert Medford

Trinidad and Tobago’s steelbands focus each year on Panorama, the national steelband competition. But some bands are more adventurous. One such group is San Fernando’s young Golden Hands, who premiered a theatre piece, The Rainmakers, in January. That performance led to this youth group’s being invited to the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Austin, Texas this November.

Based in San Fernando, with members aged from three to 19, Golden Hands came into existence a decade ago in the backyard of Franka Hills-Headley. She began the band as a vehicle to teach her own daughter Vanessa, who has become a leading young pan soloist and is starting to arrange and compose on her own. The band is made up of young people from her neighbourhood in San Fernando, and what was once a normal backyard has now grown into a serious panyard.

Golden Hands have performed not just at Panorama but also at the biannual national music festival and on trips to the United States, doing a well received residency in Delaware in 2004 and 2005 after a visit to Washington, DC, in 2003. They were special guests at the 2006 San Fernando Jazz Festival, had an impressive win at Antigua’s Moods of Pan Festival in 2007, and a thunderous ovation as special guest artists at the 28th Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival in February 2008. Golden Hands went on to win eight trophies at the festival, four of them for excerpts from The Rainmakers.

Their most remarkable achievement, Rainmakers was conceived, written and directed by Hills-Headley, with music composed by Dr Jeannine Remy, a teacher at the University of the West Indies (UWI), and incorporates a narrator, dance, costumes, the 30-member Golden Hands and the 20-member UWI Percussion Ensemble. The Rainmakers is a nine-movement musical suite that includes two solos and a quartet. The other movements feature the ensemble playing in a modern musical style, often called “neo-classical,” that is unlike anything previously composed for pan.

“The music was written idiomatically for the pan and was designed to elevate the steelpan music repertoire to a different level,” Remy explained. “This is an example of taking the instrument into the 21st century and showing off its potential. It is drama, dance, composition, scenery, costumes—something that I don’t think has ever been done before.

“The percussion ensemble will be dancing the traditional sailor dance for ‘Chip in de Rain’ at the end of the show: we want to show traditional Carnival costumes and characters as well.”

The Rainmakers is contemporary, challenging, yet very melodic music which may in the future be seen as being as innovative for pan as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring proved for classical music. The subject is not dissimilar, in that Rainmakers focuses on themes of drought and rainfall, death and a spring renewal. The individual pieces have evocative titles like “The Thirsty Earth,” “The Burst from Heaven” and “Chip in de Rain.” And it is scored to give full effect to an orchestral style that is really challenging modern classical music, quite different from standard Panorama pieces.

For the members of Golden Hands it has been a challenge too. “It has been stimulating to perform music that requires them to push the limits of their technical ability and play it both as soloists and as part of an ensemble,” said Hills-Headley. (For a glimpse of a Rainmakers rehearsal, go to www.youtube.com and search for “Golden Hands” or “The Rainmakers.”)

The Rainmakers premiered on January 5 at UWI’s Learning Resource Centre, in a performance that drew a standing ovation. The performance was recorded by Sanch Electronix, which is planning to release a double CD set that also includes the scores, the script, and much more. The CD, which will be launched before the group goes to PASIC, is partly sponsored by the Music Literacy Trust.

The concert by Golden Hands in January grew out of an invitation from Satanand Sharma of UWI’s Centre for Creative and Festival Arts.

Remy has been immersed in pan since the early 1980s, when she went to a summer music camp in Wisconsin, met pan teachers G Allan O’Connor and Clifford Alexis, and fell in love with pan. She followed O’Connor to Northern Illinois University (NIU), where she got both a BA and MA in music and was an active part of NIU’s great steelband before getting a DMA from the University of Arizona. She led steelbands there and at Idaho State University before a Fulbright scholarship brought her to UWI in 2000, and since 2003 she has taught a variety of pan-related courses at the Centre for Creative and Festive Arts. It’s a unique honour for an American to teach pan in Trinidad to locals. Remy has also gone on to arrange for the Hatters steelband for Panorama and for Invaders for the music festival, as well as at the World Steelband Music Festival, featuring her composition on the 9/11 attack, and now arranges for Golden Hands.

The Rainmakers called for a new instrument, created by Bertrand Kelman, who makes and tunes Golden Hands’ instruments. Kelman, one of Trinidad’s legendary pan-builders and tuners, works with many leading steelbands. Remy and Hills-Headley called on him to create a new instrument to expand the range of the double seconds to facilitate four-stick playing.

Now the challenge is to gather the funds to get the group to Austin, Texas for the PASIC convention. Fundraising efforts are already in full swing. The CD will be released by the Sanch label in September, and a new staging of The Rainmakers is planned for the Naparima Bowl, San Fernando, in October.