BIRCH KELMAN SPEAKS

The following interview was published in the newspaper of the Committee for Labour Solidarity: HOLD THE FORT ((Vol. 3 no. 4 June 1985). This website thinks the interview is worth reproducing for its historical and cultural value.

This interview may quite well be the first done by “Birch” Kelman

A gentle giant. The ‘unknown’ man behind the sound of the known bands and superstars. Speak of Boogsie, Panorama Champs then and now like Harmonites and Renegades, the Samaroo family, Phase II, Silver Stars and you have to mention Bertrand “Birch” Kelman. Player, tuner, innovator, traveller, band leader. HOLD THE FORT journalist RAE SAMUEL spoke to Birch about his life of over twenty years in the steelband movement.

RAE: How did it all begin?

BIRCH: I was simply interested in music. Mine was not a musical environment. Pan was the cheapest, most easily available musical form.

RAE: How old were you then?

BIRCH: Just twelve.

RAE: That was the era of the ‘outcast" panman. What special problems did that present for you?

BIRCH: Social pressure. Nobody on Beaumont Hill was for pan. Piano and violin, yes! I had to head for the bush, literally and figuratively.

RAE: Who were panmen then?

BIRCH: Workers, men on the block. The roughnecks as they used to say. People like Beau Jack and others.

RAE: Who or what kept you going?

BIRCH; I was on my own really. Determination. I must mention the late Mrs, Coudray. She stood the worse with all that noise near her house. She never complained. In addition she always had a kind word of encouragement.

RAE: Why did you go on to tuning?

BIRCH: Curiosity. After constant playing, I wished to discover what more there was to the instrument. I wished to progress beyond a certain point.

RAE: Do you have any formal musical training?

BIRCH: A bit under Mr. Prospect. I never finished the course. But I was already a tuner.

RAE: Do you know of any other top tuners with formal musical training?

BIRCH: Only Anthony Williams.

RAE: Has not having training ever been a handicap?

BIRCH: Yes. Once in Italy the classical musical director left me a score sheet indicating flat sounding notes on our performance. Having given me the score, he left. I could not grasp immediately but Had to sound it out to discover exactly where it was.

RAE: Has this posed a problem as a player too?

BIRCH: Not really. I have a quick ear.

RAE: How did you master the fundamentals?

BIRCH: I am self taught. I would acquire a drum somehow and teach myself. It was a tough task. I used to listen to Tony Williams pans a lot.

RAE: Have you ever wondered about the extensive creativity of untutored people like yourself?

BIRCH: Yes, Right now I am experiencing something that l really appreciate. I developed an idea I saw on television. I saw a pan with holes instead of grooves. Mine sounds a lot like piano. It holds notes a lot longer. Tuning has given me an appreciative ear and a disciplined approach. I try to understand rather than criticise musical effort.

RAE: Which known band was the first to approach this unknown tuner?

BIRCH; SILVER STARS. A friend of my brother Bobby had heard my work and decide to give me an opportunity.

RAE: Who came next?

BIRCH: HARMONITES, because of my success with Silver Stars. Then the Southern bands like CAVALIERS followed.

RAE: What major changes have you seen in pan tuning?

BIRCH: Tuning is now more accurate, due to the availability of equipment like strobes, chromatic tuners. Tuners can become more professional in their work. I see the marriage of Pan and electronics as inevitable. Also people like BERTIE MARSHALL and TONY WILLIAMS have given us younger guys, standards to surpass.

RAE: What kind of contact do you have with other tuners?

BIRCH: The relationship is casual. KARLOFF ALLEYNE and I are still friends. LINCOLN NOEL and I of SOUTH STARS have worked together. That has been a productive combination. Tuners need to meet and have something like a tuners association.

RAE: What is your view on the question of standardisation of pan?

BIRCH: There is a need. Once in London I met a band that came in from Birmingham. All they travelled with was sticks. All the pans in the schools have been standardised. Stevie Wonder does not have to walk with his own piano. Trinidad is behind in that respect.

RAE: How urgent is the need for a pan factory?

BIRCH: It would help the economy.

RAE: Where would that leave you?

BIRCH: People like me would have to staff it. We would be employed. Less financially fortunate bands would benefit. Then Trinidad could export pans of a sufficiently high quality. Pan is not what it ought to be in that respect on the outside.

RAE: Pan is highly competitive. How does the pressure affect you?

BIRCH: I have two months to produce a winner. For the last four years I have had to concentrate on a single band. Apart from the psychological pressure, it limits the number of jobs you can do.

RAE: After Birch, who are your favourite tuners?

BIRCH: Lincoln Noel, Bertie Marshall, Karloff, Not in any particular order.

RAE: What happens to ex-tuners?

BIRCH: There ought never to be ex-tuners. The guy who tunes a piano may be 65. Our contribution ought to entitle us to better treatment at the hands of society.

RAE: What is your relationship with PAN TRINBAGO?

BIRCH: Very, very good. I consider them my union. Whenever I travel I let them know where I am going, and what I am doing.

RAE: Someone told us you have two hammers you "use" to silence boastful travellers. Where have you and your hammers been?

BIRCH: Italy, England, France, Belgium, Israel, USA, Canada, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, the Caribbean, Gabon, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. DEFINITELY NOT SOUTH AFRICA.

RAE: What have been some of your memorable moments abroad?

BIRCH: Playing in the Royal Albert Hall. It is an experience. The place itself. I found myself almost stopping to listen to the band. The Amoco sponsorship allowed us to take a full band to Washington for a concert. Hearing a full bodied sound was enjoyable. All on stage. Yet another time was in Syracuse with the Samaroo family. The announcement of the evening’s programme caused murmurs because as a classical programme it was tough. The crowd response at the end and personal appreciation shown to us was gratifying.

RAE: Off stage, what were your memorable moments?

BIRCH: Getting mugged at the Commonwealth Arts Festival. The guys cleaned us out. Another time in South America a security guard thought I was a danger in flight because of my two hammers.

RAE: Are you involved in the effort to revive SOUTHERN MARINES?

BIRCH: Yes, We tried a lot of bands like AVALONS, SCARLET SYMPHONY, PEOPLE’S MUSIC, but none lasted. We are going back to the Mother - Marines.

RAE: What caused the break up in the first place?

BIRCH: The younger guys were not satisfied with the way the band was being run.

RAE: How many old Marines are involved?

BIRCH: All the old Marines living in Trinidad, Those abroad have written expressing happiness at the idea and congratulating the effort.

RAE: Who has worked with Birch over the years?

BIRCH: TREVOR ELLIOT, popularly known as "T. C.", NORBET DORSET, "CAKES".

RAE: Pan tuning is long hours of working in heat, loud noises, missed meals and worrisome panmen. How is your health?

BIRCH: In order, I always try to exercise. I manage to cope.

RAE: Is “Pan in Danger"?

BIRCH: Society must be careful lest we lose the art. A tuner on the move can be lured abroad as in the case of Ellie Mannette, Why say no to financial appreciation? We have no gratuity to get if we cannot continue in our trade.

RAE: What happens next to Birch?

BIRCH: Travelling to all the Carnivals - St. Vincent, Grenada, Notting Hill, Labour Day.

RAE: Thank you, Birch.
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