Wednesday 21st May 2003

Witco Desperadoes survives - The Laventille challenge
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A view of the Witco Desperadoes pan complex

Kevin Glasgow, son of Witco Desperadoes captain, Bertram Glasgow, rehearses on a guitar pan at the band’s Laventille pan complex.

Photos: Keith Matthews

Crime has put Laventille in the national spotlight. But as murderers continue their rampage, even amid police and army patrols, reporter Wayne Bowman looks at how a cultural icon, Witco Desperadoes Steel Orchestra continues its struggle to uplift the community that gave birth to it.

The Hill is the centre of attention throughout the nation. Crime is the focus and it seems that all the good that has been produced by Laventille has been forgotten.

Warlords receive the hero worship once reserved for those cultural ambassadors of the community, who gave their all to ensure the Hill was spoken well of despite the many challenges.

The likes of Winston “Spree” Simon, Brother Resistance, Rudolph Charles, Clive Bradley and so many others brought the Hill a good name.

Then there is the binding agent that for many years brought the community together. An entity that was created with the blood, sweat and tears of young warriors who more than 50 years ago, laid down their ivory-handled switchblades to take up sticks and steel.

Who decided to create melodically sweet rhythms as they beat out their frustrations at being forgotten by the overseers of the society.

Desperadoes is the Hill and the Hill is Desperadoes.

Musical warlords

The legendary steel orchestra began as a simple pan-round-de-neck side known as The Dead End Boys back in the early 1940s. They were a notorious bunch who sought to protect the honour of their community. They clashed with the police and any other group that challenged their manhood. Around 1950, two members, Wilfred Harrison and Donald Steadman, decided to encourage the young men to become more organised and focused on developing as a band.

So the title Desperadoes was adopted and the band began to participate musically in the Carnival celebrations. By 1955, the band had signed a sponsorship deal with Coca Cola and changed its name to the Coca Cola Gay Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. From here the band members began to set their sights on excellence. They participated in the first ever Panorama competition in 1963, placing third. Three years later it took the championship with a Beverly Griffith arrangement of Sparrow’s classic “Melda.”

Since then the band has claimed nine other Panorama championships as well as three National Steelband Music Festival titles in 1986, 1988 and 1992.

Despers is not only synonymous with Laventille, though. In 1964 sponsorship of the band was taken over by the West Indian Tobacco Company Ltd and became known as Witco Desperadoes.

To this day when you mention one entity, the other is understood. Manager of the band, Dr Finbar Fletcher, said you can’t have one without the other as far as Despers and Laventille and Despers and Witco are concerned. He said Despers brings a mark of excellence to both the community and the company.

“The role the band plays within the community is integral. In the midst of all that is happening around us, Despers continues to bring a spirit of unity to the community. At present we are steadfastly seeking ways through which the band can be a more active part of the solution to the crime situation and other negatives that are affecting Laventille,” he said.

The veteran panman said one of the contributing factors to the problems of the community is the absence of positive role models.

Youth orchestra

Laventille produces many talented people in all areas, he said, from music and the arts, to academics and technical skills. Having these skills and talents is not enough, though, since once one comes from Laventille, it’s more difficult to break through.

So, Fletcher said, those who do manage to find success eventually move out of the community, leaving the youths with few positive role models.

Fletcher said Despers is setting things in place to go into the community’s schools and help them set up their own steel orchestras. He said this will help the young people acquire not only musical skills, but also aid in their all-round social and academic development.

As for the relationship between Despers and Witco, Fletcher said that is as solid as ever. He said the company has contributed much to the band over the years, just as Despers has given back much to Witco in return.

The level of excellence maintained by Despers throughout the years reflects positively on Witco, and anywhere the band has travelled around the world, Witco has enjoyed the best representation.

“We greatly appreciate the role they have played in the band and look forward to a long and positive relationship.

Captain of the band Bertram Glasgow said Despers is at one with the community of Laventille, which is these days getting a bad name because of the foolishness of a few people.

He said the elders of the band are looking out for the youth and are seeking ways to get them more involved in positive activities. In fact, a Desperadoes Elders Association was formed about two weeks ago.

Glasgow added that the band is in the process of assembling a Desperadoes Youth Orchestra to work alongside its 50-member senior stage side. The stage side performs regularly at events and functions across the country as well as abroad. Work is expected to begin on the orchestra’s 500-seat auditorium, which was built two years ago.

The auditorium, which forms part of the Desperadoes Pan Complex was never officially opened and fell prey to vandalism. Both Glasgow and Fletcher are confident that it will be completed this year and plan to ensure that adequate security is put in place to prevent it being vandalised in the future. Once completed, the plan is to produce as many entertainment and educational events for the community at the auditorium as possible.

Glasgow also announced that ace arranger Clive Bradley is still working with Despers, preparing new material for both the senior stage side and the coming youth orchestra. Glasgow said Bradley was never fired from the band as had been reported in the media after Carnival.

“That was a misunderstanding. Bradley is very much still a part of Despers and is working on new material for us,” Glasgow said.

So while other steel orchestras are facing challenges in holding on to or securing sponsorship, Despers seems to be sailing in smooth waters, for now at least.

“Whatever the future brings, Desperadoes will survive and maintain excellence. That will never change, and the band will continue to strive to affect the community of Laventille in a positive way,” Fletcher said.

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