A Tribute to one of our greatest musical icons!
Growing up in Ethel Street, St James, P.O.S with its diverse communities afforded Gerald the opportunity to experience their various musical and cultural forms – Shango and Hosay drums, the Tamboo Bamboo – but it was the advent of the steelpan that was by far the most influential on his life.
He was introduced to the piano at an early age and it was his mother’s wish that he became a highly accomplished musician. However, in spite of his parent’s disapproval of the ‘instrument of the underclass’, he chose to use the benefits of his musical training to nurture his interest and develop his playing abilities.
In the 1940s he began playing pan at the Newtown Boys School stealing away to take a knock whenever the opportunity presented itself. However, ever mindful of his responsibilities to his sibling, Sam, he used to regularly chase his younger brother away from the pan yard. Despite her disappointment at his choice of instruments, Gerald’s mother urged him to play with Highlanders Steel Band because they were light skinned, half white, half-Chinese. Yet, he tells us, “Those nice little social guys would steal your chicken in the night to make a cook!”
Instead, it was Invaders Steel Band that was to be the early influence in his life. Although he was generally a fine, up standing member of his community, he appears to have had a trend for not wanting to agree to his mother’s wishes. When she made arrangements for him to attend the entry exam to attend Trinidad’s most prestigious boys’ secondary school, Queen’s Royal College, Gerald intentionally missed the appointment. His preference was to attend the Modern Secondary School because his friends were there.
After leaving secondary school he formed the Green Eyes Steelband, named after a nightclub in close proximity to their pan yard. Some of the players included Corbeau Jack Riley, Natsy and Bambi Contant, Boy Blue Mansing and Clifford Gill. Later, he turned his attention to pan making and tuning, studying under the illustrious Ellie Mannette at the ‘University of Pan’ – more commonly known as “Invaders Pan Yard”. Through Gerald’s instructions, his life long friend Michael ‘Natsy’ Contant made chromatic pans and Green Eyes Steelband was the first steel band worldwide to have them.
As his tuning skills developed, he travelled to other West Indian islands to practice his trade and in 1962 he migrated to Britain where he started gigging with Boots Davidson, Zigilee Constantine, Eamon Thorpe and Desmond Bowen. In 1964, he formed the Invaders Combo, which played regularly at the legendary Albany Pub and by 1966 he was in America teaching the pan.
On his return to the UK he formed a combo band and they toured Belgium, Italy and Spain. Whilst in Italy, he was approached by members of the Southern Symphony Steel Band with whom he toured Japan. In 1966, he returned to Britain and pioneered the teaching of the steelpan at the Islington Green School where he formed the New Sensation Steel Band. He will tell you that, despite the claim of other bands, it was New Sensation that won the first pan festival in Britain. Gerald with other pan tutors was responsible for setting up the London Schools Steel Orchestra and in 1978, he was appointed to the post of Instrumental Organiser with an office in the GLC through Audrey Dennett.
By 1990, he was responsible for pan being part of the curriculum in hundreds of schools across London. He was instrumental in the formation of the Pan Players Association. As well as tuning pans for a number of steelbands, this gentleman continues to teach the intricacies of playing pan and welcomes every opportunity to pass on his knowledge to future generations so that the artform can evolve with time.
Gerald is renowned for his love of cars – Rolls Royce, Porsche – he has them all! He takes great pride in telling people that pan has given him a high standard of living and allowed him to travel the world.
In 2005, the British Association of Steelbands added Gerald to their Hall of Fame list for the promotion and development of the steel pan art form.
Gerald is a founder member of the UK Steel Pan Tuners Guild where his knowledge and expertise has proven to be a great asset and was highly respected by all his peers.
Sadly, Gerald Forsyth OBE, passed away on Friday 3rd November 2017. His life’s journey will never be forgotten as his kindness, inspiration and musical knowledge will live on in the numerous musicians he tutored.
I say goodbye to an inspirational, talented and humble brother whose friendship I valued highly and who was a true cultural icon. God Speed as you continue your musical journey my Brother. R.I.P