“Still Happy to Be Around”: Martin Albino’s Musical Life

Photo courtesy of Martin Albino

Martin Albino (left) with his mentor Neville Jules of Trinidad All Stars Steel Band.

Trinidadian expat Martin Albino’s career in music spans an impressive seven decades—and it’s by no means over yet. At 76 he keeps himself regularly busy with the steel pan: playing it, recording it and teaching it. For the last couple of years he has been teaching two groups of aspiring pannists at City Hall in Ville LaSalle in Montreal, his home town since 1970. Some of the players in the senior group, The Golden Stars, have been with him since pre-adolescence as members of the junior steel band, called The Savoys—a name that goes all the way back to Martin’s steel band days in Trinidad. When recording nowadays (he has three CDs out), he plays the pan himself and does the rest on the computer. But over the years he has handled all kinds of instruments: double bass, piano, vibraphone, drums, bongos. Realizing that Martin is one of the few remaining musicians from the golden age of Trinidadian big bands, I felt the need to have a good talk with him. So I called him up.

To begin, Martin, please tell me about your musical background.

Ad for Auntie Kay, featuring the “popular radio dogs” Butch and Paddy.

I’m from a musical family. My mom played the piano and sang, as did my brother Aldwin and my sister Merle. Being the youngest in the family, I emulated them. When I was about 10 years old I went on a program called Auntie Kay’s Show on Radio Trinidad. That station broadcast all throughout the West Indies in those days: Grenada, Tobago, St. Vincent, Barbados—it was very powerful. So Auntie Kay had a kind of talent show. Any young person who was able to sing, play or dance would come to the program. My dad wrote calypsos for me to perform there and for four consecutive years I won the Junior Calypso Monarch competition. That’s how I started getting my exposure. Every Sunday at 2 o’clock I sang and played bongos on the show. We were a trio: Auntie Kay’s husband played the banjo and Dawlet Ahye played the piano. My nickname at the time was ‘Chano’, because Chano Pozo was the number one percussionist in those days. Some of my relatives still call me Chano.

Do you remember any of the calypsos you sang?

No, unfortunately. But I go to Trinidad every year for carnival, and I have a friend there whose name is Selly and he is able to sing those songs. He says, “You remember this?” and he starts singing this song about the ration card. In those days you had to have a ration card to buy sugar, rice and stuff like that from the grocer. And he’d sing the whole song for me!

Photo courtesy of Martin Albino

A digitally restored promo picture of Johnny Gomez Orchestra. Because of the tattered state of the original, three musicians had to be cut out in the restoration process (pianist Cecil Reyes among them). Back row, from left: Reynold Millette (bass), Sonny Serrette (drums), Johnny Gomez (sax/clarinet). Front row, from left: Whaler (congas; real name possibly Elton Parris), Carlisle Eversley (guitar), Martin Albino (bongos).

Later on you began playing with Johnny Gomez Orchestra. How did that happen?

In fact, I was always playing with people older than me. I was 16 years old—still in high school—when I started with Johnny Gomez’ band. Johnny himself must have been at least 40, he was a big man already. Johnny lived within walking distance from our house in Laventille. He played tenor saxophone and clarinet. But he wasn’t very strong with chords. When he wanted to arrange a song, he didn’t know how to voice it, using C, E, G or whatever notes to give to the different instruments. Knowing that I had grown up in a musical home, he’d ask me to come by his house. So I’d go there and I’d give him the three notes to voice the songs, for the trumpet, the trombone and the saxophone. I didn’t get a penny for my work, of course!

Cook LP 919. One of the first records to feature Martin Albino (on bongos). Recorded at the Hotel Normandie in December 1959.

On Tuesdays and Fridays I played with Johnny Gomez Orchestra at The Normandie Hotel, an upper class venue in Saint Anne’s. We did two or three sets per night. In those days the bands played all kinds of music: castillians, waltzes, calypsos, ballads. They had a dance floor, and sometimes there were calypso shows. Brynner, Sparrow and Melody were among the performers, so we used to accompany them. Before they arrived we had rehearsed all the songs they would sing.

Some Saturdays, we went to play at the Chaguaramas Military Base. Later I’d go on tour with the band. We’d travel to Martinique, Grenada and all around the other Caribbean islands.

Listen to Johnny Gomez Orchestra’s take on the Venezuelan joropo “Alma llanera”:

How was Johnny as a bandleader?

Part of Johnny Gomez Orchestra. Johnny with the tenor sax to the left.

Johnny was a nice person, generally, but once after a gig I noticed him paying the other musicians double to what I got. Since I was the youngest in the band and playing the bongos, he probably thought that was okay. When I confronted him, saying that I played just as much as the other guys, he just said, “Well, you better behave yourself before I go and talk to your parents!”

He could be a bit testy at times, especially if he thought the musicians weren’t cooperating sufficiently. I remember distinctly one time when we were playing one of his compositions. He was playing the clarinet. There was a certain part where he wanted the band to sing along with him. And he got so mad because he wasn’t getting sufficient support from the band. So he just took the clarinet and slammed it to the ground. I’ll never forget that one!

There’s a great instrumental called “Caribbean Hurricane” on which you play [listen to Ramases Harnett’s finely remastered version here.] Do you remember recording it?

That was a long time ago! I believe the recording was done sometime around 1957-59 at Radio Trinidad, in the heart of downtown Port of Spain. The title fit the song well, because it had a fast movement. As you know, hurricanes are very frequent in the Caribbean.

Did you know the other popular bandleaders, like Cyril Diaz?

I was fortunate to be close to all these old guys who were very popular at the time. Cyril Diaz also lived in Laventille, like me. On Sunday afternoons, about 2-3 o’clock, we’d go to a place called The Barn Yard in Barataria where you could rehearse and have functions [social events]. That’s where I started playing the double bass. First, I made my own bass out of a box of wood. A neighbour who actually made basses explained to me how the strings were named: G-D-A-E. Later, while touring with Johnny Gomez in Martinique, the bass player wanted to get rid of his bass, to get something new, so I took the chance and bought it from him. That’s how I started my career as a bass player.

Cyril Diaz has a couple of sons around Ontario or Toronto somewhere. They have a band and about five or ten years ago they were going to New York to play at Fort George. They called me up because they didn’t have a drummer. And when Cyril heard I was coming, he said, “I am definitely going on this gig!” So I took the drum set in my car and I drove over there with my wife. I played drums and Cyril played the tenor sax. He was a nice guy. I think he’s passed now.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, you seem to have been playing with different bands around the same time. Weren’t there any loyalty issues to consider?

No, the very same week musicians could have gigs with different bands. Bands were constantly changing. When going to the studio to do recordings, a bandleader would recruit whomever he thought fit for a certain position, just like studio musicians.

Which other bands did you play with?

Joe ‘Chet’ Sampson’s Orchestra in the early 1960s, possibly taken at the Himalaya Club. Martin in the back with the upright bass.

When I had learned to play the bass I joined Joe ‘Chet’ Sampson’s orchestra. He got that name for the way he emulated Chet Atkins’s guitar sound. We did “Chi Chi Merengue” and “The Magnificent Seven”. I remember the whole band rehearsing that song at my home in Laventille. At one point I was hearing a chord change which the older guys didn’t hear. If the song was, say, in the key of F, it went: F, B-flat, F and then E-flat. But the guys told me “No, that’s a C.” But they were wrong, I could tell. My young ears were very keen at the time!

I also played with a guy called ‘Wattap’ [Bently Jack], who played the alto sax in Choy Aming’s orchestra. Roy Cape was also there. Aming’s was a very popular wedding band. Every weekend he would have two or three wedding gigs. Actually, “Choy Aming’s Orchestra” was just a name—there would be different musicians on every gig. Sometimes Choy wasn’t there himself. If he was, he’d be playing drums. But he wasn’t a strong player, he was more of a businessman. He was the owner of The Penthouse, a very popular venue, which would have people like Sparrow performing.

You also played the steeldrum. Steeldrum players were not always appreciated, from what I’ve heard.

That’s right. There was a general notion that many of them were street people, that they gambled, went around with cutlasses and ironbolts, going to prison, and so on. When I started with the steeldrums, my parents didn’t even want me to go close to the pan yards where the steeldrums were. It had such a bad reputation. There were terrible fights and riots in those days, one band fighting against another. Sometimes people got killed. There was a guy, ‘Father’ something, who tried to get bands that were rioting all the time to meet and talk. And it eventually stopped.

What did they exactly fight about?

Power. It was foolishness. Even today, this is happening in some areas in Laventille, were I was born. There are two parts of Laventille. One you have to stay away from, because of guys fighting for what they call their “turf”. It’s all about drugs now. There are even young people, still in school, who get involved in this, sadly. When I was planning my trip to go down for carnival this year, I received some advisory from somewhere saying, “Be careful when going to Trinidad, don’t go here, don’t go there”, and so on. The situation is really terrible. I’m sure it was bad when I was a kid. We had a shop and parlour and we had to have wrought-iron bars to prevent break-ins. But it’s definitely worse today: the murder rate, the rampant corruption.

Did you get close to fights yourself back then?

Fortunately, I had a way of keeping a distance when I saw something that was gonna go wrong. But when I started playing steeldrums in 1958 with the Savoy Chase Manhattans, the captain of that band was a guy they called ‘Thirteen’. He lived two houses from me. And he got that name because he had beat thirteen guys with a coconut bat. After a couple of years with the Savoys, I became the captain of the band, when ‘Thirteen’ left for New York. We made it to the finals in the T&T Steel Band Music Festival of 1966, one of the biggest festivals. I arranged the Venezuelan waltz “Dama Antañona”.

Have a listen to it here:

What kind of day job did you have at the time?

I was a teacher at elementary school until I left Trinidad in 1970. For 3-4 years I taught math, arithmetic, writing, reading, religious knowledge and so on. In those days, when you left high school you could start teaching at elementary school right away. While you were teaching, you could go to teacher’s college. But I never did that. I finished my education in Montreal. I went to Concordia University and I did psychology and music. And then I worked as a behaviour therapist for 28 years. I retired in 2001. All I do now is music.

What made you leave for Canada?

Lord Melody

My elder brother went first. Upon his arrival in Montreal in 1969, he began playing at the Queen’s Hotel. Then Lord Melody came up here and asked him to go with him on a tour in Nova Scotia. Having suddenly two gigs at the same time, my brother called me saying, “Martin, jump on a plane and come up here!” The same day I reached Montreal, I went straight and played with Melody in a place called The Lobster Trap in Nova Scotia.

Did you already know Melody from playing in Trinidad?

I had never dealt with him one-on-one. When he came to Montreal, he wanted me to play the piano and he would sing. He was good at improvising.

Melody also had a reputation for being quite…

…nasty? Well, he wasn’t the nicest guy to work with. He had a rough attitude. When we met for the job, he told me I had to come up with some money because we were going to stay in some place where we had to buy pots and pans and stuff like that. And he never gave me back my money. He said, “Oh you’re a little fellow, just come from Trinidad, so I could do what I want with you.” I never forgot that. He wasn’t nice.

How could he get by with such an attitude?

I guess people were scared of him.

Did you meet any other calypsonian in Canada?

Lord Brynner live at the Constellation Hotel (Erin LP-1943).

Lord Brynner also came to Montreal at one point, I believe it was in 1971-72. He saw that I had a band—at the time I had a big band—and asked me to help him with the arrangements. So I arranged the music for an album which was launched at the Constellation Hotel in Montreal. Unfortunately, I didn’t get paid. He gave me a bounced check. In those days, I was in the music union, so I went and asked them what could be done. And they said all they could do was to put him on the black list. They didn’t even try to get the money to pay my musicians.

I also remember Lord Brynner trying to sue the C.B.C. Radio for running a series called Rich Man, Poor Man, which he claimed was his title. But it never materialized. He couldn’t sue them for that, of course.

Was it a tough decision to move to Canada?

Not really. People in Trinidad would grasp at the first opportunity they got to go live in America. “The grass is always greener,” as they say. So the minute I got the offer, that was it. I had a girlfriend back in Trinidad. But we kept in touch by writing to each other, snail mail, you know. Two years later, she came up here. And we are still married after 42 years.

Well, as this blog is mainly about calypso, I have to ask if there’s any calypsonian that you particularly like?

David Rudder is very good. And Lord Shorty—he was quite unique. He wrote beautiful lyrics and he really had a personable style and voice. Unfortunately, after some years he wanted to get more in touch with nature, so he went with his family to live in the woods.

As far as lyrics are concerned, the best lyrics that came out of Trinidad were “Portrait of Trinidad”. It is second in a list called The Top 100 Songs of Trinidad, but I really think it should be first. Those lyrics are incredible! It was written by a guy called Penman [Len Ward]. I didn’t know him but they say he was a vagrant, living in the streets. But he was one wicked lyricist. I perform it all the time. I have it on my third CD.

Mighty Bomber claims that it was actually he who wrote “Portrait of Trinidad”.

Well, I don’t know about that. But you know, those things happen. Blakie said that Sparrow stole the lyrics of “Jean and Dinah” from him when they were in prison together.

Okay Martin. Thank you so much for taking the time. Have a good Sunday!

My pleasure!

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