Steelpan virtuoso Earl Rodney dies at 85, leaving ‘quality’ music and questions as to whether Trinidad & Tobago could be doing more to honour its cultural icons

Trinidadian pannist, composer and arranger Earl Rodney in 1964, the year he joined the Harmonites Steel Orchestra. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).

Revered pannist, composer and steelpan arranger Earl Rodney died on December 3, 2023 — and even as news of his passing sent the local musical fraternity into mourning, he is being remembered as a valuable pioneer of the steelband movement who “has left an indelible mark on Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural landscape.”

His lifelong love affair with the steelpan began in Egypt Village, Point Fortin, where he was born in 1938. He began playing what has since been designated Trinidad and Tobago's national instrument at a tender age. His entire life was centred around pan music which, being frowned upon at that time, partly due to the perception that it was a pursuit for “lower-class” people, Rodney had to hide from his mother. At age 10, he joined the southern town's Intruders Steelband (originally called Morning Stars) after being caught trying to steal a pan. Sensing his interest, the band's founder, James Neverson, asked Rodney's grandmother to let him be part of the orchestra. By 12, he and a friend from Intruders formed a band, Tropical Harmony, which became quite popular on the event circuit in south Trinidad.

According to an account by Tropical Harmony band member Vincent Lasse in Kim Johnson's book “The Illustrated Story of Pan,” the youngsters were informed that they were not playing complete chords, which “should be at least three notes.” To achieve a more rounded effect, Rodney taught himself to play pan with four sticks, two in each hand. Music was to become his life and livelihood. He was skilled at playing every type of pan, and in 1962, enjoyed a short stint playing with the National Steelband of Trinidad and Tobago. He also learned to play the acoustic bass, and joined the band The Dutchy Brothers the following year as a bassist and arranger.

By 1967, Rodney joined the steelband Solo Harmonites. The following year, he won his first Panorama title as a pan arranger with the band, with a rendition of Lord Kitchener's song “The Wrecker.” Rodney would go on to win other coveted Panorama titles with Solo Harmonites: in 1971 with “Play Mas” and in 1972 with “St. Thomas Girl,” both by Kitchener; and place third in 1969 with The Mighty Sparrow's “Bongo” and in 1973 with King Wellington's “Steel and Brass.”

He was always pushing musical boundaries, perhaps inspired by the social landscape at the time. On the heels of Trinidad and Tobago's 1970 Black Power Revolution, and the birth of soca music, Rodney was contributing to a new representation of local music, evident in his “Friends and Countrymen” album in which he fused African rhythms and American funk, merged seamlessly with pan and other percussive instruments. He placed a lot of emphasis on melody in his arrangements, which were always vibrant and emotive.

He was soon being sought out to collaborate on albums with calypso greats like Sparrow (“More Sparrow More,” 1969); Black Stalin (“To The Caribbean Man,” 1979) and Brother Valentino (“Stay Up Zimbabwe,” 1979).

His family remembered him as “a very special musician” — he even dubbed his home the “House of Pan” — and a serious man who took every opportunity to share his knowledge with younger, aspiring musicians.

Pannist and jazz fusion musician Chantal Esdelle, on learning of Rodney's death, posted on Facebook, “The Maestro has left us. Thankful for his life, the music he blessed us with and, me in particular, for his performances at the EJC studio and concerts. He was ready to go… May his journey be swift and safe. Earl Rodney — pannist, bassist, arranger, composer, master musician.”

Facebook user Nigel A. Campbell remembered how much his mother loved Solo Harmonites Steel Orchestra, saying, “That was my beginning to understand who this man was and his role in defining Trinidad music: calypso, early soca, steelpan jazz, island fusion, and whatever other genre markers we can create, he was an industry. […] He was niche, he was quiet and subtle, and that was quality.”

He noted, however, that in googling photos of Rodney, there were few to be found. “We know Earl Rodney,” Campbell explained, “the world would be hard pressed to find him.” Lamenting the fact that there was no more available information about Rodney, which would be “key to sustaining [his] legacy,” he added, “As we continue to note the passing of our music icons, I look forward to printed recollection, ephemera collection, archival publication and broadcasting, intellectual property management, and celebration of this pioneer who blazed a trail for generations of musicians to follow, to emulate and to celebrate.”

The website When Steel Talks called Rodney “one of the esteemed champion arrangers of the Golden Era of pan,” while ethno-botanist Francis Morean shared that Rodney's “whole life in pan had in fact been a spiritual journey,” saying, “Trinidad and Tobago and the world would mourn your passing. But there is no need to mourn. You poured out all that was possible. That seed of a musical genius, which God had planted in you, was well nurtured […] while you were yet a boy, and it grew into a mighty tree.”

Musician Michael Low Chew Tung observed, “Giants walk among us, making their mark on the space with a glorious noise to celebrate our existence. Yet when they fall, nary a sound is heard. Rest in Peace Earl. May your sound continue to resound throughout this land.”

Saxophonist Anthony Woodroffe agreed: “[W]e produce so many wonderful creatives but fail to give them the respect and acknowledgement they're due. [I've] been blessed to meet Earl on a few occasions. Definitely a name that should be recorded and uplifted in our cultural history.”

Facebook user Valentine Young was among the many voices that lamented Rodney passing “without his flowers.” One of Rodney’s last public performances took place in 2019 to mark his 81st birthday.

Renowned Trinidadian jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles, who admits to being “blown away” by Rodney's “approach and clever way of improvising,” posted an emotional tribute: “I’ll say your name forever maestro […] the touch, tone and note choices on the pan, the brilliant arrangements and bass playing, the soft spoken warmth, humility and hospitality, the way you inspired generations.

“[Rodney] played the steelpan like a piano, mastering the four stick chord melody technique that is seldom seen anymore on the pan. And that was just one aspect of his genius. […] It is said that Soca was ‘born’ in 1973. But Earl Rodney’s bassline innovations well before that definitely mark part of the transition from calypso to Soca. A great example is on ‘Pan Man’ by Mighty Sparrow, recorded in 1970.

[A] musical giant, an unsung hero, a pioneer, a gentleman of class. I’m grateful to the powers that connected us in this realm. Surely the ancestors are already watching in awe as he serenades.”

Editor's note: Following a comment by reader Errol Phillips, this post was amended to reflect the fact that Earl Rodney did not win the Panorama title with Solo Harmonites in 1969 and 1973, but rather, placed third in both years.

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