Caribana stalwarts honoured at gala

By RON FANFAIR

Ian Jones began playing the steelpan 50 years ago with the popular Invaders Steel Orchestra in Trinidad while he was still a student at Queen’s Royal College.

It was quite an accomplishment, defying social norms at the time that frowned on students from the prestigious college – which has produced some of Trinidad & Tobago’s leading thinkers and politicians – playing pan.

Though he wasn’t a radical, Jones was not interested in preserving the status quo. He could play pan very well and he was also an academic – he later obtained a Masters in Economics from Queen’s University after migrating to Canada in 1965.

Canada has benefited from this cultural legend in a very large way in the last 44 years.

Jones was the band arranger for the Queen’s University Steelpan Orchestra launched in 1964 and he started the steelpan program at the Harriet Tubman Centre for young people in 1975 when he moved to Toronto.

He also designed curriculum and instructed steel pan credit courses at Georges Vanier Secondary School, founded the Pan Alive Steel Orchestra and has served as the musical director for several pan and theatre productions.

Jones’ remarkable cultural achievements were recognized last Friday at the second annual Scotiabank Caribana gala at the Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex.

Jones said he was honoured to be nominated and recognized with an award. “That, however, is not something that I want to dwell on,” Jones, a former Caribbean Cultural Committee board member, said. “Seeing young people with whom I have worked over the years develop as musicians and to see the art form grow are the things that I am most happy about. That is my satisfaction.”

Caribana’s stakeholders, the Ontario Steelpan Association which nominated Jones, the Festival Management Committee (FMC), the Organization of Calypso Performing Artists (OCPA) and the Toronto Mas Bands Association (TMBA), were each invited to nominate deserving individuals for the awards.

The FMC nominated Albert Fredericks – who did not attend the event because of a family emergency – and Selwyn “Nip” Davis while OCPA and the TMBA presented John “Jayson” Perez and Whitfield Belasco respectively.

“It’s nice and it feels good to be recognized after being in this business for such a long time,” said Belasco, who has participated in every Caribana celebration since 1967, the year Caribana was launched as the Caribbean community’s gift to Canada’s centennial year festivities.

Belasco’s brother, Alpha King, invited him to help out with the first parade.

“We were the focal point of the Centennial parade on July 1 (1967) and a month later we took part in the first Caribana parade on Yonge St. which was a hit at the time with Canadians experiencing a West Indian carnival for the first time,” said the veteran band leader who collaborated with Davis in 1985 to produce “Flight Into Fantasy” that won the Band of the Year award.

“I have enjoyed producing costumes over the years even though there have been times when I was very frustrated and I have spent months after the event paying expenses.

“Seeing your production on stage is what keeps me going.”

Perez is a four-time national calypso monarch and the only calypsonian to have won a Juno award – for the calypso, Soldiers We Are All, in 1990. He was also nominated for a Juno four years earlier for the hit single, Free South Africa.

A pan player in T & T, Perez came to Canada in 1969 and formed a string band, The Legends, in Hamilton where he lived. The band lasted for 13 years until 1983 when he started his calypso career.

“I used to write for Loving Larry (Lawrence Caresquero who took part in the first two calypso competitions),” said Perez. “Larry was however extremely shy and we could not get him to do media interviews or make public appearances. A friend of mine (the late producer and record store owner, Ulric Hewitt) encouraged me to start singing my own songs and I took him up on it.”

Perez won the title in 1984 and three straight years from 1986 to 1988. He has also written and composed songs for calypso winners.

The retired calypsonian and Dick Lochan co-founded the Pass the Torch School of Calypso Music five years ago to teach all aspects of soca and calypso, including songwriting, rhyming and performing. He also co-hosts “My Data Bag” on CHRY 105.5 FM.

The first Kathy Searles Memorial award for volunteerism was presented to Judith Thompson who came to Canada from T & T in 1972 and has been an active Caribana volunteer for the past 15 years.

Searles, who died last December, made an extensive and continuous contribution to Caribana from its inception in 1967 when she served on the Caribbean Centennial Committee board up until last year when she attended the parade.

“My mother loved Caribana and it was one of her last wishes that we take her from her hospital bed to the 2008 parade by any means possible to satisfy her needs to enjoy and feel the exhilaration of all the Caribana revelry around her,” said Searles’ eldest daughter, Kathleen Bailey, who was the MC at the first Caribana Fashion Show at Toronto Islands.

“In retrospect, we are glad we did because Caribana was so close to her heart. Even though this year’s celebration is a bitter sweet one for us, I know that our mother and father (former Toronto lawyer, Edsworth Searles, who died last May) are feeling very proud of this moment.”

Toronto Mayor David Miller, who was joined at the gala by councillors Michael Thompson and Joe Mihevc, said Searles was an extraordinary woman who made remarkable contributions to this city.

“She fought against racism and discrimination and she worked in her neighbourhood and community to ensure that young people truly had opportunities in times when people did not even realize the impact of racism and discrimination,” said Miller.

Part of the proceeds from last Friday’s gala will go to the Caribana Festival Arts Foundation to perpetuate the festival’s legacy by providing annual scholarships and grants.

“The foundation is beginning to lend its weight to some of the challenges evident in our community, especially the high needs communities in this city,” said FMC chair and chief executive officer, Joe Halstead.

He also said the FMC has a number of aspirations, including growing the festival in the same realm as the Toronto International Film festival.

“You will agree that we are within grasp of that achievement,” he added.

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