The Musical World of Gene Lawrence

Philip Nanton – February 2023 –

Gene Lawrence is a gifted and dedicated musician of the Eastern Caribbean. Best known as a composer and guitarist, he acknowledges the special significance of the steel pan as an influence. Asked once what was unique about his musical style, he replied: ‘I hear that rhythm and that bass line which is always so palpable in steel band music’. Born in St. Vincent in 1939, as a young boy he was influenced by his father’s informal guitar playing. Moving to Grenada  as a young teenager in 1951, where he learned to make and tune pans, enhanced his early musical development. He recollects: ‘We used to cut our steel drums with a cutlass and a sledge-hammer; and then we heated the drum and bent it ourselves.’

In 1955 he moved to Trinidad, finding work as a clerical assistant. Here he soon joined the music scene, playing guitar-pan with Troubadours and later Silver Stars Steel Orchestra. The experience of playing with a full steel pan orchestra, where the bass was prominent, had a lasting effect on his guitar playing, encouraging him to explore combining both bass and melody. Another early but lasting influence on his musical education in Trinidad came from playing lead guitar and singing with the popular Olive Walks’s La Petite Musicale. Walke collected regional folk songs and her choir brought Trinidad folk music to the concert stage as well as international recognition. He was also guitarist with the popular Silver Strings five piece combo, one of the first in Trinidad, formed by the Pinero brothers. With new means of electrical amplification in the late 1950s the guitar was becoming a solo instrument in its own right and this development was to his advantage.

In 1960 he travelled to England to study Structural Engineering (then called Building Construction). In  London in 1961 he formed and led the quintet Triniana (named for Trinidad and Guyana).  During this decade, which was the London phrase of his career, he broadened his repertoire of instruments to include saxophone. The band grew in popularity and became known as the Gene Lawrence Combo. They played a range of venues. These included university student gigs, the St Mary’s Hospital “May Ball”, predominantly West Indian crowds in London Town Halls, the West Indies touring cricket team and at prestigious venues in the city including The Waldoff and The Savoy hotels. One high point was the band’s appearance on the popular ITV programme This Is Your Life to honour the life of Sir Leary Constantine. Gene composed a special song for this show.

In 1965, on completing his studies and with this range of musical experience, Gene returned to Trinidad and was soon performing solo and making guest appearances at public and private venues, all the while continuing to work in the construction industry.  In the following years his musical career in Trinidad took off.  By 1974, on the recording Kaiso 1, he can be heard playing old-time lavwe calypsos. Here accompanied established  musicians Syl Dopson, John Henderson, Willie West and John ‘Buddy’ Williams. He went on to work with many of Trinidad’s leading artists, including Aubrey Adams, Beryl McBurnie, Ellen O’Malley Camps and Peter Minshall. He performed also with calypsonians Relator, Terror, Sparrow and Gypsy. He also teamed up with band leader Robert Bailey to produce several shows at Port-of-Spain’s Queens Hall.  The the recording studio he produced five solo long-playing records, many of the tracks written and scored by himself: Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1976), Special Delivery (1978), Sunset to Sunrise (1980), Together (1983), and Spirit of the Caribbean (1991).  Besides studio recording, in the 1970s and 1980s he toured regularly, accompanied by session musicians to Barbados, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Grenada, St Lucia, St Croix and Martinique. The popular Trinidad TV series Portraits released a programme that focused exclusively on Gene and his music, indicating that he was by now an accepted and established artist in Trinidad. The sixty – five songs in this collection are a testament to Gene’s skills in composition and arrangement during a lifetime of musical practice. His early records as well as the more recent Tropical Seasons (2002) and Melemelanj (2014) have all been remastered as compact discs.

In 1989, when better opportunities arose in the construction industry in St Lucia, he relocated there. By this time he was married to Kathleen (Ne Buxo) and they had established a family.  The move to St Lucia was opportune, it exposed him to musical theatre, further widening his musical experience.  In this genre Gene returns to the Caribbean folk sensibility time and again, not only in his use of the acoustic guitar and cuatro but also in the compositional style of many of his songs.

Combining storytelling with music is a natural part of the theatrical and folk elements of his music.  As early as 1985 he became the first ‘singing MC’ on ‘Talk Tent’, Trinidadian storyteller Paul Keens-Douglas’s long-running show. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of ‘Talk Tent’ in 2008, Gene composed ‘The History of Pan’ his own tribute told through guitar and voice. This folk element also pervades his album Spirit of the Caribbean and it informs his style as musical director and song writer for his many collaborations. In productions with Teyat Toutafe in St. Lucia, under the direction of Ellen O’Malley Camps, Gene is credited as musical director and with compositions for a number of productions. These productions included Troumassay  (2000), Hewanorra Story (1997), Mary Could Dance (1997) and La Chunga (1986). For the musical Steel (1991), Derek Walcott’s version of the story of steel pan, Gene, as musical director applied Caribbean rhythms and phrasing to create a feeling of locality. In  Walcott’s The Odyssey (1993), which toured Italy and Spain in 2005, eight of the play’s eleven scores were composed by Gene. In 2013 he composed and directed the music for Walcott’s O Starry, Starry Night’ (2014) that played in Trinidad and St Lucia to full houses.

Gene’s music developed a hybrid form increasingly, combining individuality, experimentation and other jazz elements. For example, he describes how his work has ‘moved away from a reliance on rounded chords like C major’ as found in traditional folk music and towards enhanced chord harmonies for greater emotion. Many of his modern folk songs are characterised by optimism about the Caribbean as a cohesive community. While recognising the region’s many problems, his music suggests there is also a special quality to be enjoyed. ‘Island People’, he sings on Spirit of the Caribbean, ‘lead sweet sugar-apple lives and their hearts are full of pride’. In his griot-like praise songs he celebrates a collective folk experience. His ‘Nancy Story Time’ begins: ‘The night sweet with sounds of voices young and old’, while the message of the cocoyea bird ‘comes to us loud and clear so that all mankind can share and praise his word’.

In 1992 he moved into administration and was one of the founders of the St Lucia Jazz Festival, now the St. Lucia Arts Festival. He has also been concerned about copyright issues and fair recompense for the work of local musicians. For nine years he was Chair of the St. Lucian and later the Eastern Caribbean Copyright Organization (ECCO) for music rights, advocating for fair recompense for the work of local musicians.

All this amounts to a lifetime dedication to music – performing, composing, recording, organising, promoting and fundamentally expressing what he feels to be the special nature and legacy of the Caribbean’s diverse cultures. In particular, the songs collected here call down a folk based benediction, one similar in spirit to David Rudder’s soca incantations.

Philip Nanton is a Barbados based scholar and writer.