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Steel pan man's 40 years of music

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Crowd pleasers: an album back cover, which also marked the Esso Steel Band's first self-produced album, circa 1972. The album's title was Front Street (Photograph supplied)

Rudolph Commissiong, a pioneer of steel band music in Bermuda, recalls his life and times as a pan man played against a backdrop of revolution and segregation

I started learning how to play the steel pan in my late teens — at 17 years of age, actually. I was influenced to do so by one of the most famous bands at that time; a neighbourhood band called Casablanca and by one of the best tenor pan players I had ever heard named Ormond “Patsy” Haynes.

With about eight friends, we started a band called the Hit Paraders. We were fortunate to have a well-known and talented musician by the name of Art De Coteau teach and arrange the music for us. We soon started playing for private parties and were doing quite well, but most of the guys had other interests as young men and so the band folded.

On the advice from one of my friends, I joined a band from the Woodbrook neighbourhood called the Dixie Stars. This band was formed after members decided to split from a band called Dixieland, which was the most popular band at that time. This was 1952 and by 1953, I became the band’s leader.

Soon we were offered a job by Errol Lau, who lived near where we practised. He was the manager of the Bel-Air Hotel at Piarco International Airport. We started playing there two nights a week and within three months, we were asked by the owner, Sonny Hamid, to do five nights.

We became the only steel bandsmen to make a living as full-time musicians then, with each member making $48 per week. In 1953, this was considered a very good wage. There were other advantages as well. For example, by working at the hotel at the airport, it gave us great exposure to the rest of the world. With Trinidad being an international flight hub, all flights going from Europe to South America and vice versa would overnight in Trinidad.

Because of this, a lot of influential people from overseas would see and hear us play. The band also became very popular with the locals in Trinidad. We were always overbooked for private parties on weekends and were regular fixtures at the Trinidad Country Club, the Yacht Club, the Arima Tennis Club and the US Naval Base at Chaguaramas.

In 1953, we also became the first band to be sponsored by a major company. We became the Shell Dixie Stars Steel Band. Our instruments were painted yellow, with the Shell logo on each drum. In March 1954, we got our first job overseas. We were contracted to play in Barbados at the Coconut Creek Club and later at the Club Morgan in Bridgetown, the capital. For this trip, we adopted the Bel-Air Hotel name and were known in Barbados as the Bel-Air Dixie Stars. It was during this engagement at Club Morgan that we were recalled to Trinidad because the Trinidad Commissioner for Trade with Canada, Rex Stollmeyer, had arranged with Imperial Oil and Esso for their sponsorship in order for the band to play at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

That is when we became the Esso Steel Band. Their sponsorship lasted until 1987, when I left the band.

We departed Trinidad for Canada sometime in August and our appearance there was a huge success — the first organised tour of a steel band to play in Canada.

After two weeks in Toronto, we went to Montreal. We played about three or four shows there, with the last appearance taking place at McGill University. After the show, a lot of West Indian students studying at the school at that time came backstage to offer congratulations and their thanks. It made them feel like they were back home in the Caribbean, if only for a couple of hours.

Interestingly, one of the people who came and chatted for a while was Stanley Ratteray, of Bermuda. He introduced himself and we had a short but very nice talk. Little did we know that our paths would soon cross again. On our trip back home, we stopped in Caracas, Venezuela, and did a half-hour spot on Venezuelan television that was arranged by our sponsor, Esso. We arrived in Trinidad a couple of days later in October 1954 and soon after we were asked by someone in government to take part in a mini-carnival that was being staged for Princess Margaret at Government House grounds. She must have been impressed because she asked that we play again at another reception in her honour at the Princess Building in Port-of-Spain.

In March 1955, someone passing through Trinidad from Brazil to his home in Bermuda saw us playing at the Bel-Air. On his return, he suggested to the manager of a nightclub called the Alibi Room in the New Windsor Hotel in Hamilton, Bermuda, that he should fly down and take a look at the band. In a couple of weeks, a fellow by the name of Don Gibson came down to see us, a contract was signed and we were on our way.

We arrived in Bermuda in April 1955 and were met at the airport by a couple of reporters from The Royal Gazette and Mid-Ocean News, officials from Esso and representatives from the Department of Tourism. However, what was really special was that we were serenaded by Hubert Smith and the Coral Islanders, who were playing right on the tarmac as we disembarked the aircraft.

About one week later, we started doing one show a night at the Alibi Room in the New Windsor Hotel on Queen Street in Hamilton. There were long lines of people, mainly tourists, all the way up Queen Street, trying to get in. The one thing that we were not told, though, before we left Trinidad was that Bermuda was rigidly segregated racially. The only blacks that we saw in the room were the waiters. This really bothered members of the band tremendously, as that was not our experience in Trinidad.

One day during rehearsals I took a break and walked through the terrace, which was part of the building at the back and side of the nightclub to a bar, which I thought was part of the hotel and called Casey’s Bar. There were about half a dozen white men drinking and talking. I ordered a beer. The bartender stood there rather frozen, then one of the men who I assumed knew who I was told the bartender something about the band. The bartender then said: “OK, but you will have to take it with you. You can’t drink it here.”

That was very degrading and something that lived with me for a long time.

I think that it was August 1955 that we were contracted by the Travel Writers Association of America to play at its annual dinner. This was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in one of the large ball rooms. It was attended by some 500 writers and their guests, and some really big stars headlined the show. It was a most exciting night for us.

We returned to Trinidad in November and by March 1956, we were contracted by Don Gibson and the owner of the Coral Island Hotel in Flatts, Bermuda. Mr Barber had just opened a new nightclub in the hotel, which was called The Pirates Den.

The show was headlined by a top American act, “Tony & Eddie”. They were fantastic entertainers and the club was sold out every night.

We spent that winter in Bermuda and it was the end of the tourist season, so The Pirates Den closed and reopened in April 1957, a month before my first-born son was born. Again there were large crowds every night. Meanwhile, two executives from Esso Cuba, who had seen us at the Alibi Room in September 1955 while at a convention on the island, went back to Cuba and arranged for us to tour Cuba, Nassau and Jamaica exclusively for Esso Standard Oil, a company originally founded by John D. Rockefeller.

We left Bermuda for Cuba in October 1957. This was solely a promotional tour for Esso. We would do television and cocktail parties or any other promotional activity that we were asked to do, such as opening a new plant or gas station.

We arrived in Cuba to great fanfare and were met at the airport by the media, executives from Esso and officials from the Ministry of Culture. Esso rented a house in Marianao, a suburb of Havana, for us to stay. This was a fairly big house with six bedrooms and four baths. The reason why they put us there was so that we could practise and store our instruments (drums), which we would not have been able to do at a hotel.

We became friendly with a lot of people in the neighbourhood because they loved the music. It was a really upscale area, but we were warned to be careful because the house was once owned by a captain in president Fulgencio Batista’s police force.

They were major fears at the time that Fidel Castro’s guerrillas, who were already terrorising Havana in 1957, could have their eyes on the property.

At least twice or three times a week, we could hear bombs exploding in Havana. On one occasion, we were booked to appear on TV, so Esso sent a couple limousines, which was customary, to pick us up.

As we were approaching downtown Havana, a police officer on a motorcycle rode up alongside the car, waved us to stop, got off his bike with his gun drawn and started talking to the driver, who was forced to explain why these six guys were in his car.

Considering that so much was going on in Cuba, we were all very scared when we got to the TV station, as we were searched and patted down about three times before we got to the studio with its cameras and lights. However, we did the half-hour show without a hitch, but the experience was extremely traumatic.

We spent three weeks in October, and most of November in Cuba, but because Castro’s fighters were getting closer to the capital, Esso decided that we should leave. They did not want to be responsible for us being caught up in a civil war. Everybody was trying to leave Cuba; it was getting really bad.

We were sent to Nassau earlier than they had planned and the timing could not have been better. Soon after, president Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro, Che Guevera and the victorious insurgents entered Havana on January 1, 1959.

The morning that we left Havana for Nassau, Jose Marti Airport was in complete chaos. Thousands of people — some middle class but mostly well to do or wealthy — were trying to get out. We were ushered through the crowd by some Esso people and some strongmen that they had hired. It was very chaotic. We had mixed emotions, but we were glad to leave because everything was so uncertain in Cuba. But at the same time, our emotions were mixed, as they were tinged with sadness because of the beautiful people and the great culture that we were leaving behind.

We were in Nassau for about three weeks, but after Cuba, this became a sort of a letdown. We left for Kingston, Jamaica, then on to Montego Bay, where Don Gibson from Bermuda opened a nightclub in a hotel called the Chatham. He hired us to perform there and brought Lance Hayward and his quartet from Bermuda to work as the resident band.

They became a big hit. Lance was a very talented jazz pianist and had some equally talented musicians, such as Tootsie Bean, with him. For whatever reason, the nightclub did not do very well and closed after a month.

I think it was February 1958, and we were essentially out of a job. The contract with Esso was up and the tour ended in Jamaica, so they asked us if we wanted to go back to Trinidad or back to Bermuda, where the tour started.

We said Bermuda.

We arrived in Bermuda not knowing how long we would be allowed to stay. We did not have a job, but all the guys had some money that we had made and saved from the now completed tour. After about three days, I got a call from Conrad Englehardt, the general manager of the Inverurie Hotel. How he found that we were back in Bermuda and my phone number, I do not know. However, he said he had a great idea and that I should come and meet him. I went over to the hotel the next day. He asked me what our plans were. I told him that I was not sure, but I was open to hearing anything he might have to offer.

He said he was thinking of having the Bermuda Hotel Association apply to the Immigration Board for us to stay on the island and work at the hotels. The hotels would apply for and hold the work permit. He was sure he would get the other hotels’ approval and had no doubt that immigration would go along.

He based this on us being a holiday attraction and on that there wasn’t anything in Bermuda that was comparable; we would be an asset to the island. That he knew Colonel Astwood, who was the chairman of the Immigration Board, and Colonel Gosling, the deputy of the board, for whom we had once played for no charge on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding in 1955, did not hurt either.

It was on the next Monday that we talked again, and with the Immigration Board meeting on Wednesdays, by Friday permission was granted. We started working Mondays and Fridays at the Inverurie, Saturdays at the Elbow Beach, Thursdays at the Bermudiana, Tuesdays at the Castle Harbour and Wednesdays at the Belmont Hotel.

It was June or July 1958 when I got a call from Stanley Ratteray. He reminded me that we met backstage the night we gave a concert at McGill University in Montreal. He was now a practising dentist in Bermuda, having graduated in 1956. We met for lunch at the Spot Restaurant, which was one of the only restaurants in Hamilton that served blacks.

We were there for about an hour, and except for the first 15 minutes, our conversation was all about the racial discrimination and segregation that black Bermudians had to endure. He was very angry and determined to do something about it.

We became very good friends, as a matter of fact, and I asked him to be the godfather of one of my sons. He would visit my home at Spanish Point for cocktails on Sunday afternoons and me and my wife at the time, Vera Le Gall Commissiong, did the same by visiting his house to join him and his wife, Pat, on Middle Road near Somerset Bridge.

Not long after, there were friends of the same mindset who would be invited to join these Sunday afternoon sessions. Some of them were friends of Vera, who was a schoolteacher. At that time, some of those who joined us were teachers as well. One of them, Rosalind Williams, and her husband, Ed, became the most important members of the Progressive Group (the name we adopted). Rosalind became the secretary and worked tirelessly. She was the most dedicated to the cause. She and Ed offered their home in Flatts as a permanent venue to meet, which was a huge risk to both.

Had the segregationists found out what was going on, they would have lost their home, their jobs and been blackballed for the rest of their lives in Bermuda.

At one of the meetings, I proposed that as a first step to break down segregation and white supremacy in Bermuda, we start with a boycott of the theatres. The motion was adopted unanimously and the rest is history.

Meanwhile, the band was doing great working at the hotels and it was in 1960 when I decided that we needed something other than the steel band music, so as to add some variety to the show. The idea hit me that I should add a featured vocalist to the band.

At that time, there was a group called the Chalets and they were very good, and everybody was taking notice of their lead vocalist, a young man by the name of Hubert Smith Jr. This guy could really sing, so I asked him if he would like to join my band. He said yes. We made a little history as well, as we became the first steel band to feature a vocalist.

Harry Belafonte was big at the time and his interpretation of calypso music was really making inroads on the American music scene. Hubert Smith Jr could sing all of Belafonte’s songs; some of them as good as Belafonte. He also had the tourists begging for more whenever we did Yellow Bird.

We were on top.

By 1964, most of the original members, including me, had acquired Bermudian status, so there was not a need for the Hotel Association to hold our work permits. While there had never been a problem, all the guys in the band felt a sense of being free.

Between the years 1955 and 1970, there were other steel pan players who joined the band and made us better: Kelvin Dove, originally from, and one of the founders of Invaders Steel Band, Herman Johnston, tuner, arranger, leader of West Symphony from St James, Trinidad, and Steve Dupres, who rejoined the band after a few years with Pierre’s Dixieland Steel Band and after winning the Music Festival with the Dixieland Steel Band.

In 1963, we were sponsored by the largest newspaper in Hartford, Connecticut, to play at the annual expo at the Armory in Hartford. This was for two weeks and I was told that we were seen by at least 20,000 people during that time.

During the years we switched from some hotels to others. For instance, we quit the Belmont Hotel and went to the Hamilton Princess. We also quit Castle Harbour when the Sonesta Hotel was built and opened. We also started working two nights per week at the Elbow Beach and one night per week at Southampton Princess. We always worked seven nights per week and life was good.

In 1985, we were brought by Mayor Flynn of Boston to appear at City Hall Plaza in conjunction with a series of free outdoor summer concerts put on by the city each year. Some of the jazz shows, for example, would be right on the Boston Common itself. This was such a success that they would bring us back in 1987. Each time that we played at this event, it was estimated that there were at least 5,000 people in attendance.

As early as 1984, I noticed that the tourist trade was declining in Bermuda. Some of the visitors that I would talk to would express the view that Bermuda was becoming too expensive. For instance, the cost to take a taxi, whether it was by way of a tour of the island or just to go from Elbow Beach to Hamilton, was becoming prohibitive for growing numbers of visitors.

I myself, while travelling during the winter break, noticed that some islands such as Aruba, Barbados, St Maarten to name a few, had more to offer for less than what it cost back home.

I told the guys in the band of my observations and that they should consider moving on. In 1987, my present wife and I got married in Honolulu, Hawaii. We chose Honolulu because we had been there at least four times and loved it. I retired from the band, and as a musician, and moved to Boston. We lived there for a short while, then moved to Maui, Hawaii, in 1989. In 1990, my wife, while working at the Wailea Four Seasons Hotel, saw a drummer walking through the lobby with his instruments. Being one who always boasted about her husband and the Esso Steel Band, she stopped this fellow and struck up a conversation. It turned out that he knew everything about the band, having met Neville Paynter. Neville was our vocalist and drummer between 1968 and 1981, after Hubert Smith Jr left the band. He was on his honeymoon when he met this fellow, and sent him three or four of our record albums after returning to Bermuda.

A few days later, I got a call. It was from the drummer my wife met whose name was Bryan. He wanted to know if I could come out of retirement and resume playing again. He said there was plenty money to be made. At first, I said no, but after about the fifth call, I said I would try it for a while. I had taken a single tenor pan with me, so I started practising. We soon put an advert in the paper for a bassist, guitarist and a vocalist.

A young lady by the name of Eva, who like a great Brazilian footballer went only by her first name, was soon hired as a vocalist. She was more than I could ask for. She was from Sacramento, California, loved to sing jazz, had a really great voice and, of course, star presence.

The two guys — Jan Nielson, the guitarist and bassist, and Joe Miles, the congo player — were very talented as well. We called the quartet Steel Groove and started working at a restaurant called Hamburger in Paradise, a very popular place with tourists.

Soon we were doing only conventions at all of the large hotels: the Ritz Carlton at Kapalua, The Westin in Kaanapali, Four Seasons in Wailea, the Hyatt in Wailea and others.

One day in 1995, we had scheduled a rehearsal for two in the afternoon. I found it strange, however, that Eva was late as she was a real pro and never late. At about one hour later, she came in with tears streaming from her eyes. She informed us that she just came from her doctor who told her the terrible news that she should get all her business affairs straight, as he estimated that she only had about six months left to live because of a diagnosis of cancer. We were all shocked because none of us knew about the cancer that was about to take her life. That information sucked the energy out of the three of us, especially me because I was a cancer survivor, having had cancer diagnosed in my right vocal cords in 1990.

Eva — her name means East — was loved by all of the musicians on Maui. It did not matter what genre: whether it was jazz, country, popular or traditional Hawaiian. She lived the true Hawaiian life of being nice to all, loving the land and being positive at all times. She started taking care of her business interests and making sure that the homes she owned in Hilo and Hana were in good shape. She also made arrangements for her son, who was about 12 at the time, to join his father in Germany. She made one last effort to defeat the illness by going back to Sacramento, where there was a hospital that treated people with cancer.

I called her about two days before she passed. She was too weak to talk, but told the nurse to tell me that I should tell all the musicians that we knew that she loved them and that she would see us on the other side.

Her body was flown back to Maui, where her friends made sure that she had a true Hawaiian funeral out at sea. We were not the same after Eva’s death. I remember taking a couple of jobs after she passed, but eventually we just stopped playing.

Maybe we were haunted by her beautiful voice, now stilled.

My wife, Patty, and I started thinking about returning to Massachusetts because her parents were much older and developing some health issues. She wished to be closer to them. I told her I would rather live in an area where there were beaches. After growing up in Trinidad and living in Bermuda for 32 years and Maui for 7½, I had to live near the ocean. She agreed.

We came back east and bought a house on Cape Cod, and we are still here today.

I have not played music since.

Esso Steel Band roll call (1955-1987)


Rudolph Commissiong

Carl Borde (former leader of Tripoli Steel Band)

Mervyn Oliver

Kirby Rambert

Maxie Perez

Ivan Nelson

Steve Dupres

Herman “Rock” Johnston (founder and leader of the West Side Symphony)

Kelvin Dove (former member and founder of Invaders)

Georgie Ng-Wai (former member of Dixieland)

Carl Rodney (brother of Earl Rodney)

Junior Martinez

Neville Paynter (vocalist/drummer)

Hubert Smith Jr (vocalist)

David Cannonier (percussionist/vocalist)

Tony Antoine (drummer)

Maurice Nearon (vocalist)

Rudolph Benjamin (vocalist)

We made eight albums ...

The Esso Steel Band (Bermuda Master Tone label)

Esso Steel Band (Live at the Elbow Beach Hotel)

Esso Steel Band “On Top” (O.U.R. label)

Sunshine (O.U.R. label)

Bermuda Gold (O.U.R. Label

Front Street (O.U.R. Label)

In Bermuda (Edmar Label)

Still a Beautiful World (O.U.R. Label)

Awards and citations

Medal and Certificate of Honour from Queen Elizabeth II (in recognition of valuable services as an advocate and active campaigner for racial equality as a member of the Progressive Group) December 31, 1999

Founders Award (presented to the Esso Steel Band for music) 2005

The Trail Blazers Award from the Bermuda Government (for the 1959 Theatre Boycott in Bermuda as a member of the Progressive Group) 2009

Drum Major Award (from the Progressive Labour Party for bravery in helping to secure social and racial justice as a member of the Progressive Group, which was the architect of the 1959 Theatre Boycott) 2009

Family man: Rudolph Commissiong at his nephew’s wedding in New Jersey, circa 2000 (Photograph supplied)
Fan favourites: the Esso Steel Band, circa 1974: from left Herman “Rock” Johnson, David Cannonier, Neville Paynter, Carl Borde, Steve Dupres, Calvin Dove. Rudolph Commissiong is in front (Photograph supplied)
An earlier iteration of the Esso Steel Band, circa 1965. From left, Rudolph Commissiong, Carl Borde, Steve Dupres, Calvin Dove. Kneeling are Ivan Nelson and Hubert Smith Jr (Photograph supplied)
Close siblings: musician Rudolph Commissiong in Bermuda with his now deceased sister, June Dupres, circa 2009 (Photograph supplied)
An album back cover from the mid-1970s (Photograph supplied)
The Esso Steel Band was one of Bermuda’s premier acts for three decades, along with Hubert Smith and Coral Islanders, The Talbot Brothers, The Strollers and a number of other bands (Photograph supplied)
<p>Rudolph Patrick Commissiong</p>

Date of birth: March 29, 1930

Place of birth: Port of Spain, Trinidad

Father: Edward Commissiong

Mother: Beryl Commissiong (née Sealy)

Siblings: Ancil, Ruel, Gemma, Nello, June, Kenneth, Janice (I was the third child of eight)

Married: Vera Jackson-Le Gall (Bermuda 1956)

Children: Rolfe, Dane, Troy

Divorced: 1971

Second marriage: Patricia Graban, of Taunton, Massachusetts (Hawaii 1987; still happily married)