It is difficult to grasp the full range of Anthony Williams’ contribution to the creation of the steelpan, Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument. The three men who rank in statue with him – Ellie Mannette, Neville Jules and Bertie Marshall – all were great panmakers, arrangers and captains of their bands, Invaders, Trinidad All Stars and Hilanders respectively. But even amongst those titans, Williams stands out because in all three areas, panmaking, music and leadership, he stood at the pinnacle.
Born in 1931, Williams joined the steelband movement at the time of its first flowering, VE Day in 1945. He soon joined Sun Valley Steel Orchestra, led by another great innovator, Sonny Roach, who made the steelband movement’s first step into orchestration when in 1946 he introduced two pans, a ping pong and an alto pong, to play harmonies. Until then panmen played anything in any key, with no knowledge of harmony.
Williams chafed under the older man’s leadership and left with others to form North Stars around 1949, quickly establishing himself as a top player and tuner. So when the country’s top 11 panmen were chosen for the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) to represent the colony at the 1951 Festival of Britain, Williams was one.
Being among the most gifted panmen, and under TASPO director Lt Joseph Griffiths, the police band leader and a jazz saxophonist, catalyzed Williams’ creativity. At the time background pans were biscuit drums, whose thin metal could not hold notes with any precision, so Williams experimented with oil drums. They Griffiths the Music Director, accepted the innovation and suggested Williams use multiple drums so a single bass pan could play an acceptable range of notes. Thus was created the first modern steelband, capable of playing full bass chords, and also the first orchestra comprised exclusively of oil drums.
This development separated the stage side from the road band, which still retained the lighter, portable biscuit drums, until 1956, when Williams, dissatisfied with their musical limitations, put an oil drum on wheels. Thus was born the mobile orchestra.
Griffiths had taught the TASPO group the rudiments of music theory, and Williams brought this knowledge into his experiments. He accidentally tuned two tones in one note, a C and another C one octave higher (like a man and a woman singing the same note) – the most harmonic interval in music. That discovery would be elaborated years after by Bertie Marshall to create the modern pan’s ringing tone. Williams, however, took it in another direction.
The difficulty of tuning discrete notes of a full scale on a single sheet of steel came from the transfer of vibrations from one note to another, discordant notes clashing with harmonic ones. Scientists thought this an insurmountable obstacle. Confronting this, Williams developed a note placement scheme whereby each tone was surrounded by other harmonic tones, so its sound was enhanced. The inside ring of notes on a ping pong carried the same tones as the outside ring, only an octave higher. And either side of each note on these rings were notes a fifth higher, that being the second most harmonic interval in music.
This ring of 12 notes moving upwards in fifths, and a smaller identical ring inside an octave higher, is what is known in Western music theory as the “cycle of fifths”. Williams had intuitively found his way to the basic formula for harmony, so that today the pan is uniquely comprehensible to every musician trained in the Western tradition.
If the 1950s was his decade of invention, the 1960s crowned him as an arranger, when North Stars went on to win the steelband component of the Music Festival in 1962 and again in 1966, thus teaching panmen to voice the different pans to interpret European classical music. The crowning glory of this achievement was the famous 1968 Ivory and Steel concerts with Winnifred Atwell, considered then to be one of the world’s greatest pianists.
By then Williams’ instrument was the steel orchestra in its entirety, and he strove to elevate it to the level of a symphony orchestra, with which he showed his virtuosity when he arranged Sparrow’s Dan is the Man and Kitchener’s Mama Dis is Mas to win the first two Panorama competitions in 1963 and 1964. Thus he laid down the basic template for all subsequent Panorama arrangements.
Although he disbanded North Stars in the early 1970s and suffered a nervous breakdown, Williams continued developing steelpan as a member of the Steelpan Research Project team established by CARIRI (Caribbean Industrial Research Institute) between 1973 and 1976. Some of his earliest creations made in this period were donated to another young innovator, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and his band Phase II Pan Groove.
Williams’ influence has grown as his cycle of fifths design has become the international standard for note placement, even as researchers take the pan into the digital era. As such, Williams was named as a Caribbean Icon by NIHERST, the National Institute of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology in 2005; and he was the first inductee in Pan Trinbago’s Hall of Fame (2008). He was recognised twice by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. First with the award of the Humming Bird Medal (Bronze) in 1969, and then in 2008, he received The Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago for his contribution to the development of the Percussive Harmonic Instrument or PHI.
The Editor thanks Dr Kim Johnson, Director of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago for this contributed feature