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… A GIANT STANDING TALL… by Dr. Louis Regis

posted 7 Sep 2016, 10:03 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 7 Sep 2016, 10:28 ]
Dr. Louis Regis: Lecturer Literatures in English (University of the West Indies. St Augustine); researcher; author.

Publications include
: Popular music as communication: the political calypso in Trinidad and Tobago 1962-1987; 

Black Stalin, the Caribbean Man; 

Maestro: The True Master; 

The African Presence in the Pre-Emancipation Trinidad Carnival; 

Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Post-1970 Calypso of Trinidad and Tobago; 

La contribución de la música hispánica al calipso. (Translation: Andrés Seijas).


My first distinct memory of Dennis “Charlie” Phillip is of a centre-half standing massively at the heart of the off-campus defence in the UWI St. Augustine Inter-Hall football tournament of 1972/73. While I was dazzled by the amazing skill of midfielder Martin Bourne, I do remember Charlie anchoring the defence with an uncompromising man-or-ball approach which stopped Canada Hall and Milner Hall players in their dancing forays towards the off-campus goal.

In September 1973 when I joined birdsong he was there literally behind the guitar, and remained there doggedly trying to master the arranging styles of Pat Bishop, Earl Wright, Bertie Fraser, Boogsie and birdsong’s resident arranger whom I knew only as Joe Beatle formerly of Starlift (editor’s note: Selwyn Jones).

I was never particularly surprised to see him striding through the campus’ north gate equipped only with cello sticks in hand because his entire circle, captained by Teddy Belgrave, religiously added pan sticks to the schoolbags in which Dr Williams expected us to carry the nation’s future.

I remember his imperturbable calm throughout that long September-December 1973 season when birdsong played at every single blockorama organised by steelbands along the East-West Corridor. I remember him calming and reassuring the many excitable Corridor panmen who participated in birdsong’s first blockorama at the JFK parking lot, a massive festival that went into the night.

But his characteristic calm deserted him at Panorama 1974 when we were crossing the stage and he exploded in a frenzy of excitement pounding at the hapless guitars with the enthusiasm with which, according to one steelband creation myth, Winston Thick Lip Bartholomew of John John dented in his namesake’s kettle drum and so inadvertently initiated the birth of the steelpan.

After my undergrad career ended I became lost in the mechanics of my own survival and lost contact with the band and with the steelband movement in general. I did hear though that birdsong was evolving into an academy of music and was a living model of corporate citizenship. One evening I met Charlie at the JFK building where he was waiting to escort the blind player (Nyol Manswell) from a class and he raved at the player’s musical talent. He did not claim a role for birdsong in the development of this amazing talent. (I only found this out when the player made it public at the town meeting.)

Then came Monday 29 August 2016. Charlie opened the town meeting by saying that this wasn’t a wake, meaning that birdsong wasn’t dead. Sometime later he declared that he was glad that matters had come to this head because it meant a new beginning for the academy. Replaying the town meeting in my head it occurred to me that at no time did Charlie excoriate the passing parade of politicians past and present, nor did he eviscerate the evicting businessman. It was as though he had taken them out of his mind, to borrow from Jordan Kush Ngubane. All that he wanted on that Monday evening is to publicly declare birdsong’s history and current position, stressing the culture of self-sufficiency, independence and hard wuk. He also wanted to thank publicly The UWI, Vasant Barath, Exodus, Sound Specialists and all those who rallied round birdsong in its time of need.

I think that he welcomed the presence and support of birdsong parents, committee members and supporters; of Keith Diaz and Richard Forteau, Pan Trinbago’s president and PRO respectively; of pan fanatic Martin Daly SC; I have chosen to believe that he was glad to see the birdsong old boys: David Abdulah, on national duty for the past 40 years; Gerry Kangalee, now on over-extended loan to Southern Marines; and me, who just drifted along. But I suspect that, even as he listened to us, his mind was racing ahead to the four-storey building cum basement which would be birdsong’s new home, not yet built on a property not yet acquired but a reality in his imagination.

He is very grateful for all the support, sympathy never entered his thoughts, but what he really needs is time, time for the system to sort itself out and so allow birdsong to complete the purchase which it initiated some years ago, time to amass the money needed for the new building. Given this one can understand his irritation provoked by media dissemination of unjust unreasonable conclusions drawn irresponsibly from misapprehensions about the situation.

When I was about to leave I looked for Charlie but he was helping the sound men with their equipment. This seemed like a menial task for the man of the moment but the Charlie I know moved birdsong from place to place on the Cave Hill campus when as part of the St Augustine contingent we played at the Inter-Campus Games in 1974. I did help him then, (my 90-pound frame managing only front-line instruments and moveable stands) but if I hadn’t he would have moved the entire band by himself, without complaint, just as, and this is Gerry Kangalee’s memory, he toted those drums up and down the stairs of Daaga Hall before a mysterious fire conveniently extinguished the tension between the band and the campus.

So, the band was evicted then and now but birdsong will play on because Charlie has willed this to be.
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