Pan researcher, writer and former director of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago Dr Kim Johnson describes Tony “Muffman” Williams as the most important panman in history.
Why? Because of his work as a captain, tuner and arranger, Johnson said.
Williams died on December 21 at 90 at the St James Medical Complex. He had been hospitalised with covid19 since December 7.
To Johnson and many others, Williams was the father of the modern steel orchestra.
Johnson explained that Williams covered the three spheres of being a panman.
He led what many consider the greatest steelband ever, North Stars, as it won the first two Panoramas and set the template for “all subsequent arrangement of Panorama tunes,” Johnson said.
Not only was the band successful, but it was also socially progressive, he added.
“It was run like a co-operative. Even the people who pushed pans, everybody had a stake in the band, and if the band made money everybody got a share, depending on what they did and how much they did. It was very much a socialistic approach to the organisation of the steelband.”
Williams also sought to have his band members learn music and music theory, Johnson said.
“The band tried to educate everyone in every way possible.”
Williams is best known as a tuner for having invented the tenor pan using fourths and fifths which is the standard tenor pan around the world today.
“He was also the person who introduced oil drums to the background pans, the bass and cello.”
Johnson said until then, the background pans were biscuit drums which were smaller and lighter so they could be carried.
He added because of Williams, the Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) of 1951 was really the first modern steelband because all his instruments were made of oildrums.
He introduced wheels to the road band.
“Because he had oil drums, you began to get proper notes, the bass playing proper bass lines, and you began to get multiple drums.”
Williams was the person who introduced multiple drums with one pan having several drums.
“Now we have a 12-bass with 12 drums, but it is one pan.”
“In a sense, he was the father of the modern steel orchestra.”
Johnson said the Ivory and Steel concert played with TT-born pianist Winifred Atwell is still considered one of the greatest pan records ever.
In all of those fields, Williams was the leader and that is why Johnson referred to him as the greatest panman. Williams’ passing is the passing of the foundational generation of pan.
“If I had to name three men who made the pan – the three most important – I would put him at the pinnacle. And the other two would be Ellie Mannette and Neville Jules. Now all three have passed.”
Pan Trinbago described Anthony “Tony” Williams’ life as “one of the finest examples of the creative genius” of Trinidadian people. Its vice president Keith Simpson said Williams’ contribution to pan was “invaluable.”
His history began in Nepal Street, St James, where he was born on June 24, 1931, Simpson said. He attended Mucurapo Boys’ RC School .
He added that at 13 Williams tuned his first pan, and first played with a St James band called Five Graves to Cairo.
“Then he played with Sun Valley. He eventually ended up in North Stars and he became arranger, tuner, and welder.”
Simpson said Williams did a lot of research on his own and in 1951 he toured with TASPO when the band went to the Festival of Britain.
Williams was asked to tune some pans there, which he did, Simpson said.
“On his return, he hooked back up with North Stars. In 1955, he started to put stands for the pan. Remember, they were practising pan around the neck in those days. So from ’55, he was looking at experimenting with putting wheels on pans.
“J’Ouvert 1956, North Stars came on the road with wheels, and there is a live recording of the band playing Puerto Rico Mambo.”
Simpson said in 1955 the band won the Caribbean Exhibition with Williams’ arrangement.
In a 2019 tribute to Williams on its Facebook page, the Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad and Tobago (ESCTT) said, “As captain of North Stars, (Anthony) Williams immediately introduced the double strumming pan to replace the single strumming pan or alto pong. He made stands for the double pans using wood.
He also introduced metal stands to replace the neck strap used for the Ping Pong and placed the double cellos on legs.
“Williams had become convinced that the major reason why some notes on the steelpans were of an inferior tone when compared to others was because of the pattern of placement of the notes. He then began an extended study of this problem using sketches and calculations and in 1953, he created the fourths and fifths tenor pan,...
“With the notes laid out in a cycle of fourths and fifths, the tenor pan now resembled a spider’s web and Anthony Williams called it the spider web pan. This new pattern of placement of the notes resulted in the improvement of the tonal quality of the pan and has contributed to the tenor pan becoming one of the major teaching tools for music theory.”
In 1962, Williams won the music festival with Voices of Spring. He also won in 1966 with Poets and Peasants.
Simpson said he won the first Panorama as an arranger in 1963 with Sparrow’s Dan is the Man in the Van and also in 1964 with Lord Kitchener’s Mama Dis Is Mas, which was also that year’s Road March.
Simpson said in 1965, Williams came second in Panorama with Hold on to Your Man and Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed’s Cavaliers came to Port of Spain and won with Melody Mas. Mohammed also died earlier this year.
After that, Simpson said, Williams never entered another Panorama competition.
He concentrated on North Stars, which was eventually sponsored by Pan American Airways, and became known as Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra. The band toured North and South America and the Caribbean.
He too said the recording with Atwell is often considered one of the best recordings of pan. The band also made a number of LPs.
The ESCTT’s tribute said Williams was a strong advocate of the scientific study of pan production and raised issues about the carbon content of the steel used to make pan, the controlled tempering of the steel by burning and the impact of the absorption of oxygen during the burning process.
“He and Bertie Marshall (fellow pan pioneer, musician and maker of the pan) were important members of the famous Steelpan Research Project at CARIRI, UWI, St Augustine, from 1973 to 1974,” it said.
He received many awards, including the country’s highest award, the Order of the Republic of TT, as well as the Chaconia Medal (gold) and an honorary doctorate from the UWI, St Augustine campus in 2016. He was also one of the first people honoured by the We Beat festival held in St James.
Pan Trinbago mourns his passing and awaits information on his funeral from his caregiver, Yoland Thomas, Simpson said.