‘Girl Pat’ a trailblazer for pan

THE Girl Pat Steel Orchestra remains to this day the only all-women steelband to have been formed in this country. It was started in 1951 by Hazel Henley, a teacher at St Crispin’s Anglican School.
Two former members, Ellie Robertson and Pat Maurice, both of whom now live in New York, were on a visit at Carnival time and spoke of the “great fun” they had as members of “Girl Pat.” Hazel was always very “avant garde”, and not only an academic but a talented musician, as well, who had always been fascinated by the pan.
Henley lived at No 79 Picton Street, Newtown, very near to the Woodbrook community which was always about pan. Bruce Procope got her pans from Esso and Ellie Mannette of Invaders tuned them.
“We started practising and it was memorable for us founding members in a band of about ten since Girl Pat started just for fun,” said Pat. “Quite a number of people would come to listen to us practise. On the other hand a lot of people were very annoyed.” So annoyed said Ellie that “my school principal went to my mother and asked ‘how could you have your daughter beating pan’.”
But that was the time when the word “steelband” was a bad word. We lived four houses away and my grandmother never allowed me to listen from the gate, this you did from the porch.
“But it was a different level Hazel wanted us to bridge,” reminisced Pat. “Hazel was the musician who played piano, gave lessons, and was an accompanist for recitals on a regular basis, that was her background.” So that Girl Pat was not just a bunch of young women trying their hands at pan. They practised regularly and seriously and when preparing for something special it would be everyday, but not like the Panorama of nowadays where you learn one tune.
“It was still the colonial era and when we played at cocktail parties, where the expats really appreciated us, people wanted to hear different tunes so it was imperative we had a repertoire,” explained Pat, who incidentally plans to develop a concept to start a band when she returns to Trinidad.
The two women who played the tenor pan, remembered with nostalgia: “The Christmas time we played ‘Silent Night’, that broke the ice for us. Everybody wanted us to play for them. Then we had a Girl Pat Concert at the Roxy. There was no sponsor and the band simply wore black skirts and white blouses. We made two recordings with Emery Cooke ‘The Breeze and I’ and a ‘Castillian.”
And the band did tour, first in 1952 Girl Pat played at the Promenade Gardens in Guyana and also for the Red Cross Charity Ball at Government House. Then it was on to Jamaica with the Little Carib Theatre with which Pat was also a dancer and would wait in the wings to change from pan to dance costume.
But above all, Girl Pat was a hit in Newtown and its environs, and groups would appear outside Henley’s house when they were rehearsing for parties, without all the repetitions to get things right like is the case with Panorama.
“Some of us were schoolgirls and people would ask Hazel’s mother ‘how she could allow that in her house.’ “But,” said Pat, “she straightened them out replying ‘it’s my house and these children come from good families’.” And after practice the boyfriends made sure everyone got home safely.
There was no teacher. Henley, who celebrated her 88th birthday on December 14, 2005, did like pannists still do, read the notes on the pan and her charges just followed. After the Jamaica tour in 1955 the band drifted apart, several key players got married and moved away. “It was a progression of people going in different directions” said the two longtime friends. “We missed the camaraderie as we used to have a lot of fun, but we still try to stay together, those who are around and those of us who live abroad.”
There is only one regret for these women who were fascinated with the concept of playing Jouvert, but their mentors said “no way, you will reach the corner of Picton and Marli (about 100 yards from Hazel’s home) and no further. So we never went on the street. If it were like now with racks and wheels, we would have made it out on the street.” There has never been any other all-women steel orchestra besides Girl Pat, which incidentally got its name from Hazel, who having driven down to small boats, saw a German boat in the water called “Girl Pat”, and being all girls the members agreed to that name.


"‘Girl Pat’ a trailblazer for pan"

More in this section