DESPERS BOLT FROM U.S.S.A.
By ADIKA BUTLER
On a bright and sunny Friday afternoon sweet pan music emanates from the Despers U.S.A. Steel Orchestra panyard on Classon Ave. in Brooklyn. Despers President Clement Franklin sits on a bench adjacent to the entrance gate practicing a tune while fellow band mates converse amongst themselves.
Franklin and his buddies are highly anticipating the West Indian American Day Carnival Association’s (WIADCA) Pan-O-Rama competition coming up at month’s end. However, they are also struggling to move past the ideological differences that have contributed to the band’s shrinking membership.
The Despers, who have been first place winners in six of the last nine Pan-O-Ramas (1993-1998), have witnessed seven band members flee the group within the last few months, one of whom was a manager. Six started a new band of their own and will be competing at the same event. Former Manager Verne Roseman, 37, on the other hand, says that he will not be joining another for the time being.
Despite the sudden departure of his right-hand-man, Franklin is taking everything in stride. “We believe in what we are doing,” says Franklin. Evidently, the bands’ defectors do not believe in what the Despers are doing, which brings to light a strong paradox in the world of the steel band.
Speak with anyone who is a member of one and they will proudly say that
they are out of a burning love for their music and culture. Although that
often true, money and politics have a funny way of putting that love on
The Despers are an offshoot of Laventille, Trinidad’s Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, born out of a turbulent post World War II era. It was a time when Hollywood glamorized shoot ‘em up films about the wild west, that captivated young men in not only the United States, but those of the Caribbean as well.
The Despers, who began in Brooklyn, went on to dominate WIADCA’s Pan-O-Rama contests throughout much of the 90’s. In 2001 the band jumped on board with the newly formed United States Steelband Association, (U.S.S.A.) which holds a Pan-O-Rama contest of its own at the Thomas Jefferson Athletic Complex on Flatlands Ave. in Brooklyn. WIADCA will also have one behind the Brooklyn Museum on the same day (Aug. 31st).
The Despers’ new ties with the U.S.S.A. appeared to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, though eventually, it proved to be one short lived. Just a year later, the Despers are suddenly heading back to WIADCA for reasons Franklin believes to be very practical.
“The museum is right here, Flatlands is over there,” he says, in reference to the distances of the two contests in relation to his bands’ panyard. Franklin says that band members spend a lot of time and money preparing for Pan-O-Rama. Shelling out an estimated $15,000, they’ve practiced all year round, through the flesh piercing chill of winter and the sweltering heat of the summer months.
Moving their sets to Flatlands and back “would be a lot of work for the band members”, who practice as late as 2:00 a.m. he says. The Despers will also be starting a non-profit organization this Fall that teaches young people in the community about the steel pan, and the historical, as well as cultural influences that gave birth to it.
Given that WIADCA has more government connections than the younger U.S.S.A., Franklin is hoping that some of their political influence will come his way. However, he said that he would also appreciate financial contributions from anyone else with long arms and deep pockets. If anyone out there is interested in helping out that would be very nice”, says Franklin.
Ideologically, the U.S.S.A. was founded on the idea that steel bands should have greater options as far as allegiances were concerned. The formation of a new organization was a godsend for steel bands growing disillusioned with WIADCA for reasons that aren’t quite clear.
After a WIADCA Pan-O-Rama that took place a few years ago, some steelbands became livid after police officers roughed up and injured a member of the Pantonics Steel Orchestra. The bands thought that WIADCA management could have stepped in to avoid the incident but decided not to.
The incident may have been the primary motive behind the steelbands’ decision to jump over to U.S.S.A. However, there isn’t much of a consensus among the bands from either WIADCA or the U.S.S.A. to explain what actually brought about the exodus. With tensions high, U.S.S.A., the new kid on the block, looked that much more attractive to bands when last year they offered $20,000 to first place winners of their Pan-O-Rama competition to top WIADCA’s bid for $15,000.
Former Despers Manager, Verne Roseman, was among those who were dissatisfied with WIADCA. That explains why he was dumfounded when told by Franklin that the band was going back under their banner.
During a recent telephone interview, Roseman said that he would not follow the rest of his band mates because he believes the Despers are “going backwards instead of forwards”. He also said “I don’t think I could set an example for the youth by going backwards”. Roseman would not go into further details. He says however, that he is still on good terms with Franklin and the Despers and holds no ill feelings towards them.
Franklin has the same sentiments. “Verne believes in what he’s doing, and I respect what he’s doing,” he says. But that does not mean that Franklin buys into the U.S.S.A.’s reputation for being a bands’ organization. He says that if the U.S.S.A were truly an organization for the bands, they would not insist on holding their Pan-O-Rama on the same night as WIADCA. Instead, he says, U.S.S.A. should move their competition to another day “because that way bands wouldn’t be obligated to take sides” with either group.
The U.S.S.A.’s defending champions are the Pantonics Steel Orchestra, and according to their band Manager, Keith Roberts, it is only tradition that Pan-O-Rama is held on the night before J’Ouvert morning. J’Ouvert, which has its roots in Trinidad and Tobago, features participants decked out in provocative costumes leading a dancing procession that begins early in the morning.
The event is also held in Brooklyn, running from 2:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on Labor Day morning. The procession begins at Eastern Parkway and Flatbush, concluding at Midwood.
As Franklin and the Despers gear up for Pan-O-Rama, the six other band members who left the group to begin the D’ Radoes Steel Orchestra are preparing as well. The band members of course, adopted the name to highlight the fact that they are descendants of the Desperadoes from back home.
During a recent fundraiser at the D'Radoes' pan yard, public relations man, Cyrus Busby, says that he, and other members of D’Radoes left the Despers because he and “the guys wanted to go in another direction”. When asked what direction he thinks the Despers are heading in he refused to comment, saying only that he wishes his old band good luck. “We wish everyone good luck,” says Busby.
Pantonic will perform “Ben Lion” by Andre Tanker and 3 Canal.
Keith is their traditional arranger but they’ve brought in Clive
Bradley. D’Radoes is
also using Bradley’s services, but their traditional folks are Kurt Banfield and Roger
Sardina. D’Radoes will perform "Music for the Soul" by Horace Wright. The
Despers have Wilfred Kwele as their traditional arranger but will bring in Denzil
Botus and Scipio
Sergeant. They will perform “Firestorm” by De Fosto.
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(between Ralph and Buffalo Aves.)