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Forgotten cavaliers of pan

Published: 
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Lennox Bobby Mohammed, right, and band members

How can a man devise a way to share the love for his wife and his dedication to his music without any compromise?  At the height of his musical career, Lennox Bobby Mohammed encountered such a debilitating dilemma; a passionate and sensitive pannist, now in his late 60s. Looking back to his past, he recalled the event when he and his wife parted ways. He suddenly grew melancholy and poetic as he mused: “How could love be so beautiful and turned out to be so painful?” Mohammed recalled his boyhood days when he lived with his parents in a humble home in Siparia Old Road, Fyzabad. In those days he listened with horror to the many weird and scary stories. A childlike smile played on his face as he explained, “Boy, my grand moddah used to tell us some scary stories about jumbies and lagahoo wid chain dragging behind;   soucouyant, la diablesse and douennes wid feet turned backwards.” Many nights he was forced to sleep alongside his father for comfort and security against those ghostly, nocturnal characters. However, the village life was generally a happy one, mingling with his elder sister Lynette and younger brothers Selwyn and Lester along with neighbours and other school friends.

Leaving the confines of country life, his family moved to Lazzari Street, in the then Borough of San Fernando, where he attended the Mon Repos Roman Catholic Primary School. On many occasions he suffered bouts of fainting spells and had to be taken back to his home, which was within close proximity. He became withdrawn, silent and mostly kept apart from his mates. Because of his inactivity in many of the school events, he was nick-named “deddy.” In later years, when he entered Presentation College, unfortunately, the nickname followed him. At college he was not considered “a bright student.” He never fared well in mathematics and science, but showed interest in English, literature, essay and short-story writing, and history. As if to compensate, on many evenings he was seen very close to his mother,  following attentively as she played the piano.  Even though she encouraged him to learn the formal way of playing, he continued to avoid the scripted sheets and fingered the tunes by “ear.” With an ear for rhythm and music, he could not resist the attraction of the piano and so he persevered, stumbled with the chords and melody while his mother was away.

After graduating from college, Mohammed made several applications for employment. His first appointment was at the Brechin Castle Sugar factory as an office boy, where he worked for just a short spell before being fired for bungling up the files and important official mail. Later, he was employed at the Texaco Oil Refinery, where he found it difficult to turn “on” or “off” the valves in the prescribed order. He was found unfit and was also dismissed. A series of disappointments followed. At Standard Distributors, he failed as a salesman. At Alston’s Hardware he was at a loss to calculate board feet measurements. Mohammed walked away in sadness, thinking of himself as, “not of this world of convention.” It seemed inevitable that Mohammed was later introduced to the steelband by Nerlyn Taitt, who played with and arranged the musical scores for the Rhythm Stars Steelband of Fyzabad. In those early days, Taitt won the National Prize for the Best Ping Pong Solo.

Unfortunately, Taitt migrated to Jamaica where he contributed to the founding of reggae. Bobby’s brothers Selwyn and Lester joined him playing pan. The sounds attracted a close friend, Zaid Tusca Mohammed, who tuned several pans for them and encouraged Bobby to form a band. Shortly after, Mohammed joined the Gondolliers Steelband which was located behind the San Fernando Market. That move was prompted with encouragement from a band member, Cyril Stoute. It was not long after when Mohammed, together with others, founded the Cavaliers Steel Orchestra. At that time Mohammed was employed as a merchandiser, promoting Guinness Stout throughout the southern region. As a result of the discipline and quality of musical rendition of the Cavaliers, his employers were convinced to sponsor the band, taking on the new name as the Guinness Cavaliers Steel Orchestra.In 1964 Mohammed went on a tour as a member of the National Steel Orchestra under the arranger, Junior Pouchet. They performed to distinguished and appreciative guests at the Moral Rearmament Conference in Michigan, USA.

Later, they played at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London. That magnificent perform­ance brought recognition to the band and to Trinidad and Tobago. Unfortunately, Mohammed suffered a bout of pneumonia and was forced to be absent for the remaining performances. In the year 1965, his band, the Guinness Cavaliers, won the South Panorama Competition as well as the final National Panorama Competition in Port-of-Spain, with the tunes Waltz in A Flat and Melody’s Mas. During that period, the Cavaliers enjoyed a series of top positions in every competition in the south. They also played in their own Carnival band as the Fancy Sea Bees. In the following years they won every Carnival competition in the south and very close contender for the National Panorama in Port-of-Spain on several occasions. In the early 1970s the band was taken on a tour through Canada. While on tour, the orchestra was unfortunately divided into two smaller bands by a sponsor; seemingly, for commercial reasons. That disturbed the teamwork as a complete orchestra and brought much grief to Mohammed. From that moment he became silent and withdrawn. After three days on the tour, he fell into a deep depression, and was forced to return to Trinidad, leaving his fragmented Cavaliers Steel Orchestra behind.

On his return, the relationship with his wife was not the same.  From early he found it difficult coping with the time spent in rehearsals and engagements, and time for family life with a wife and two daughters. He blamed himself, but it was useless for the separation was inevitable and Mohammed was alone. While taking treatment for his depression, he encountered a woman who seemed concerned with his state and gave him some hope for recovery. During that second union with the woman, his condition worsened. Mohammed was separated once more, becoming a loner. “Dat was a hard blow, boy.  I stayed in house all day and night.  Sometimes I didn’t even know myself or where I was.  I became a recluse. I didn’t want to see anybody.” He looked away, the tears welled in his eyes. He continued: “On two occasions I became suicidal.  One evening I left de house after being inside for so long.  Ah sat on de culvert near a drain, and everything seemed strange.  I was in a different world. I nearly did it dat evening.”  He confessed that his third and present wife Myrtle had made a great change for the better in his life. “She is a tender and gentle person who stood by my side with the human feelings and caring which I so wanted.” He spoke about a meeting with a Hindu Swami who asked him to retrieve a key from his pocket.  When he poked his hand into the pocket, he received a sudden, jolting shock; similar to that of an electrical shock.

That night, he witnessed an unusual and frightening event.  While lying on bed, he observed an intense, bright light approaching his window.  The light moved mysteriously into his room. He shuddered in awe as the light shone on him.  A tingling sensation ran through his body.  He felt his body floating above the bed.  He flipped over facing downwards. He continued to be airborne and moving upward towards the ceiling.  When the ordeal was over, he felt calm and somewhat sanctified. Following Mohammed’s strange experience, some members of his band reported having strange dreams about him.  One member explained that in his dream, he witnessed “a halo of bright light emanating from Bobby’s hands.”  Another member had a vision and received a prayer for the band, which they recited together, before their performances.  Another Hindu spiritualist read Mohammed’s hands and predicted that he had a great mission to share with the world. Years later, he began to experience shockwaves running through his arms to his neck at which times he felt that his “brain cells became numb.” It was from then that he began to pray earnestly to be given the opportunity to rebuild his mission through the steelband music, and to restore the vibrations and energy of peace, love and unity to our blessed Trinidad and Tobago.

Today, like the proverbial, “Phoenix rising out of the ashes,” the New Cavaliers Steel Orchestra is being formed. Frequent meetings are being held at Mohammed’s home against the background of a full room of steelpans. The steering committee comprises, apart from Mohammed, his three veteran players—Mervyn Diljohn (tenor pan), Elvin Martin (double tenor) and David John (trumpet).  Even though the focus will be on the pan, there will be a fusion or marriage of the wind, string and other percussion instruments.  The fusion of this ensemble will produce the big sound of a complete orchestra. The repertoire will comprise classical, Latin, local, religious and other music, and will be structured to include vocals. The New Cavaliers will be having a grand reunion of members of all those bands who have touched the life of the old Cavaliers, at the popular Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra Panyard on Coffee Street, San Fernando, on March 12, at 3 pm, to share the memories of the past and to restore that southern brotherhood and camaraderie among the bands. The Sunday Guardian wishes the New Cavaliers all success in the future.