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Liberace and the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson) with Emile Borde and Laura Folger. Mixed by Jim McKee.

  • Listen to the story as heard on NPR's All Things Considered.
  • Listen to calypso music fanatic Van Dyke Parks about his days traveling with Liberace and the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband.

    Hugh Borde, left, and Liberace
    Hugh Borde, leader of the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband, and Liberace, circa 1970
    Photo courtesy Emile Borde

    Trinidad Tripoli Steelband, 1965
    Trinidad Tripoli Steelband, winners of the 1965 Independence Steelband Festival, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
    Photo courtesy Michael Kernahan

    Trinidad Tripoli Steelband with John Wayne, 1971
    The band poses with John Wayne, 1971
    Photo courtesy Michael Kernahan

    Band opens for Liberace, 1972
    The Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband opens for Liberace, 1972
    Photo courtesy The Liberace Foundation, Las Vegas, NV

    The Tripoli Band as a family band with Hugh Borde and his five sons and two daughters . Photo courtesy of Emile Borde
    A family affair: the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband as a family band in the 1970s, with patriarch Hugh Borde, his five sons and two daughters.
    Photo courtesy of Emile Borde

    Hugh Borde, right, and his son Emile
    Hugh Borde's son Emile, a classically trained pianist and singer, has followed in his father's footsteps as arranger, steel drummer and singer in the latest incarnation of the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband.
    Photo courtesy Emile Borde

    March 4, 2003 -- Steel pan, born on the island of Trinidad in the late 1930s, began as an outlaw instrument, hammered from milk tins, biscuit boxes, paint cans, brake drums, garbage cans -- and later, the oil barrels scattered across the oil-rich island after World War II.

    Anything metal that could be scavenged was "tuned" and played to make a sound, a note. Pan began as the music of the island's poor, before Trinidad’s independence from Britain. For the native Trinidadians under British rule, the beating of drums and marching in Carnival was often forbidden.

    As the oil drums evolved, dozens of pan bands -- some more than 100 members strong -- sprang up in neighborhoods across the island. Casablanca, Destination Tokyo, Desperadoes, Tripoli... they named themselves after the American war movies and Westerns of the day. Come Carnival, the steelbands would battle one another for the championship, marching across Port-of-Spain waging musical war -- a tradition that continues today.

    When the island gained its independence in the 1960s, the foreign companies that controlled the oil resources of Trinidad worried about nationalization of their businesses. The island's prime minister declared steel pan music an important, vital expression of the Trinidadian people. British Petroleum, Esso and other oil companies looking to sway public opinion began sponsoring neighborhood oil drum orchestras, supplying instruments, uniforms and the money to tour outside Trinidad.

    In 1967, the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband (named after the World War II movie Shores of Tripoli) was sent by the government and the Esso oil company to represent Trinidad and the nation's musical heritage at the Montreal Expo World’s Fair. The band took Expo ’67 by storm. Their sound and the performance caught the ear of one of the most popular entertainers of the day: Liberace.

    The flamboyant pianist was so taken by this new, luminous sound that he took the renamed Trinidad Tripoli Steelband on tour with him for two years. Liberace, his rhinestone-crusted white piano and 28 black Trinidadian steel pan players, all touring America together -- including the 1960s segregated South...

    Special thanks to Hugh and Emile Borde, Tom Condit, Ray Arnett, Monty Carlos, David Giovannoni, Shannon Dudley, Molly June Gordon, Grace Kee Heifetz, Kendrick Lalsingh, Ronald Lammy, Ricky Fataar, Ray Funk, Ellie Mannette and Kaethe George, Van Dyke and Sally Parks, Maria Schell, John Schmidt, Rick Scott, Chris Strachwitz, Steve Stuempfle, Stephen Tolkin, Kate Volkman, Pauline Lachance and The Liberace Museum, UCLA Film and Television Archives, KNPR Las Vegas, KQED San Francisco, KUNR Reno, WLRN Miami, WUCF Orlando, and West Virginia Radio Corp.

    Special note from the Kitchen Sisters: "There is so much fantastic material about this story that we are in the midst of producing a special longer version. We don't know yet when it will air, but hopefully sometime early in the fall of 2003."

    Other Resources

    The Liberace Foundation

    The Music of Van Dyke Parks

    History of the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband

    Trinidad Tripoli Steelband discography

    Percussive Arts Society

    Emile Borde's personal Web site,

    Mannette Steel Drums

    Tout Puissant Konono No. 1, a "tradi-electric" band in Kinshasa, the Congo, with instruments very similar to Trinidad steel bands.

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    Copyright © 2003 The Kitchen Sisters