A son of the soil who took our national instrument, the steelpan, with him when he migrated to the United States in 1986, has died from covid19.
According to an obituary published in the New York Times, Martin Douglas, who set the tone for the steelband in New York died on March 31 in a Brooklyn hospital less than a week after he was admitted with complications wrought by the virus. He was 71.
Douglas was just one of thousands of people in New York who lost the battle with the virus.
Described as a deft musician and beloved mentor, Douglas helped keep steelpan music, his bridge to the Caribbean, a vibrant part of New York life.
Director at the Carnival Institute of TT, Kim Johnson said unlike other kinds of popular music such as reggae or rock and roll, pan spreads by starting steelbands in other countries.
“It doesn’t spread by people buying CDs or records, not by consumption, but by doing. And in that regard Martin Douglas was exceptional in nurturing the growth of pan in New York. In that regard, he took his patriotism and gave it a tangible meaning.”
The New York Times stated that Douglas, after migrating to New York, worked, among other jobs, as a subway car inspector for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
He was born in Trinidad on May 3, 1948, where he spent much of his childhood roaming local pan yards and listening to the steelpan.
His obituary said said once a steelband was heard belting out its rhythm, chances were that Douglas was close by.
For over 20 years Douglas was a leader in Brooklyn’s steelband scene, playing his music everywhere, mentoring generations of young players and keeping steelpan music a vibrant part of New York’s cultural life. He was the founder of Crossfire and president of the US Steelband Association, the article stated.
He was active in his union, Local 100 of the Transit Workers, and was respected in his professional circles, but he really came alive around steelpan music, and could play any song. Penny Lane was a particular favourite.
Douglas saw steelpan music as a bridge back to the Caribbean and he returned to Trinidad annually for Panorama. He was also prominent in New York’s version of the competition.
Douglas, known to many as Dougie, worked tirelessly to carve out a space for steelpan music in New York, forming alliances with local community groups, convening public meetings, scraping for funding, and searching for rehearsal space, the obituary stated.
In recent years he spent much of his energy fending off noise complaints from new neighbours. He is survived by his wife, Jannette, and three children.
Today, the Douglas home is quiet without the usual sound of the steelpan resonating in the living room. His youngest son Jevon said he would start playing any time the whim took him.
“It could be midnight, middle of the day, middle of the night. Sometimes you would get mad. ‘Don’t you see what time it is?’ He would do it his way.”
In fact, something of a motto, My Way, a song Frank Sinatra made famous, was another one of his favourites.