The following article originally appeared in the 24 August 2001 issue of Hot Tickets magazine and is reproduced here, with minor edits, as a special tribute to Frank Sylvester Rollock, 13 Oct 1937‑20 Apr 2020.
“The steel drum has something in it so that when you get into it, or it gets into you, you don’t want to play any other instrument.”
Frank Rollock is a courteous, quietly spoken man whose voice still has the characteristic lilt of his native Trinidad. He is surrounded by his six grown-up children and numerous grandchildren, who listen quietly and attentively as he speaks at his home in Brixton. A ring of steel unites all three generations, because the entire family plays in London All Stars, one of the UK’s premier steel orchestras.
Born in Tunapuna, eastern Trinidad, around the same time as steelpan itself, Frank Rollock originally set off in a rather different musical direction. When he was a young boy, his mother, Violet, enrolled him for piano lessons. As luck would have it, the panyard of Sullivan’s Steel Orchestra was just around the corner. Soon, the lure of Trinidad’s national instrument proved irresistible.
Frank recalls: “I used to leave home, go to the piano lesson, but end up at the panyard playing the steel drums. After a time my mum went to pay the piano tutor her fees. ‘What are you giving me this money for?’ she said, ‘I haven’t seen Frank once.’” He had to admit that it was pan, not piano, he had been learning. At this point, many parents might have issued a stern rebuke, because steelbands still had a rumbustious reputation in Trinidad at that time. Luckily, Violet Rollock was understanding and not only allowed Frank to stay on at Sullivan’s, but positively encouraged him.
With his brother Roy, the 17-year-old Frank set up his first band, called the Modernaires. Soon his life changed direction again, as he followed Roy to England in October 1959, bringing with him some precious steelpans and settling in south London. Before long, the two brothers had formed a new band, playing with two of the founding fathers of British steelband music, Russell Henderson and Sterling Betancourt.
It took Frank and Roy only a few months to bring their steelpans on to the British streets. In February 1960, Trinidad Carnival was in full swing and the brothers thought it was time to give Brixton a taste of the great Caribbean festival.
“We took to the street with our Caribbean friends, some of them with bottle and spoon, my brother and I each with a pan, and we all going along and serenading on the streets. People were amazed! Who are all these black people; what are they up to? We’d go to one house, have a few drinks there, then play along to the next house. So you can say that was the first Brixton Carnival.” Several years later a steelband worked the same kind of magic at the first Notting Hill Carnival.
In Theresa Thomas, Frank Rollock found the ideal partner, as she too was steeped in steelband culture. Her brother had a steelband and her aunt is reputed to have been the first woman to play the instrument. She joined Frank in England in 1960, married in 1962 and founded a veritable steelband dynasty.
Frank runs through the family tree: “My first daughter, I named her Princess. Next came Duchess. Then Frank – he’s the Duke, named after me. Then Countess, King, Elizabeth and Philip.” So what’s with the royal connection? “I used to call my wife ‘my princess’ when we were courting,” Frank explains. He looks across to her fondly: “She is the backbone of the band, the iron woman. Nobody can play iron like she.”
The children picked up their parents’ love of music, and before long Frank had formed another band, called, naturally enough, The Royaltys. With Frank Junior on the trumpet, Princess on the saxophone, Duchess on alto sax, Countess in charge of the tenor pan and vocals, and Elizabeth on maracas, the band became a great success in the early 1970s, performing widely and winning the Caribbean Talent Competition at the Commonwealth Institute.
Family history was about to repeat itself, however. The children caught the steelpan infection just as their father had, and they all abandoned the other instruments. That was not in the plan, Frank Junior remembers: “I used to play trumpet from the age of six. I was banned from playing steel drums, I don’t know why. I never started to play until I was about 11. But when I did start I put the trumpet to the side.” His father admits: Although they all have the instruments, I don’t know if they pick them up. I alone don’t even touch mine – I went right back into the steel drums myself.”
The children’s love of steelpan music led to the creation of a new band in 1974. As Roy Rollock used to play with Trinidad All Stars, Frank christened the group London All Stars. Today, Frank Junior leads the band, which fields 35 players at Notting Hill, including all six surviving children and six grandchildren. His father not only still plays pan in All Stars, but also arranges the music and tunes the instruments – a skill he hopes to pass on to grandson Frankie.
Frank gestures to the cabinet crammed with trophies: “We have won every possible prize you could mention in steelband.” Chief among those are the three Panorama victories, in 1980, 1985 and 1989, and the British National Steelband Festival title. Frank Rollock was honoured for his contribution to steelpan in the UK at the Soca Music Awards in 2000.
The Rollocks performed at the BBC Proms in 1990, the World Steelband Festival in Trinidad, the House of Commons and, in a meeting of royal families, in front of the Queen in 1980. The band has taken the sound of steel round most of Europe and as far afield as Canada, New Zealand and Bahrain, where fascinated locals looked under the pans trying to puzzle out where the music was coming from.
The confusion is understandable, because it is hard to believe that hammered steel alone can create such an astonishing range of sounds, able to mimic almost every instrument in a conventional orchestra. Yet it is also unlike any other instrument, the Rollocks point out. “It’s a different kind of music, using different qualities,” says Princess’s son, Ramone.
Frank Junior tries to account for the instrument’s hold over them all: “The difference with steelband is that it’s more a spiritual feeling… you have to feel each note.” Duchess reveals that they all read music, but not while playing. Her sister Princess explains: “OK, you could put emphasis on certain notes because the score says you have to reach a crescendo, but it just loses that feeling.”
Electronic music gets short shrift in the Rollock household. “Steelband is not a computer where you hit two notes and that’s all you’re playing,” says Ramone. “Computer hasn’t got that soul,” agrees his grandfather. Frank Junior considers the electronic alternative with distaste: “It’s like dead people music,” he pronounces.
Sadly, the instrument does not always receive the treatment it deserves. “People have no respect for the steelpan as an instrument,” says Duchess. “People come up and bang the pan, but it’s a very delicate instrument which can easily get out of tune. They wouldn’t treat a piano that way.” Frank Junior points out: “The pans are very expensive. You have to remember they are all handmade. A tenor pan could be a month’s work for someone.”
This lack of respect is part of a wider ignorance about the culture, the Rollocks believe. “For Carnival itself, they never show the good parts, and the radio just plays jungle and all that,” her father says. “At Notting Hill we are the die-hards. When we move on I don’t know whether the young generation will carry it on.”
They probably will, because the Rollocks have spread the gospel according to pan in schools throughout south London, to hugely positive effect. Frank Junior often works with special needs children. “Autistic children respond very well to music therapy; it seems to bring them out of their world.” His father says: “It was the children that were not performing well in classes that they would push into the steelband. After a few months of steelband classes the teachers wanted to know how suddenly they had changed. That’s because everything you learn in steelband has to be retained. It’s a skill; it opens your brain.”
For the music to survive it needs people with financial clout to open their minds too. All Stars’ biggest challenge has been to find an affordable, permanent home, a panyard, where the band can practise and pass on the skills to a fourth generation of Rollocks and other aspiring steelpan players. Just weeks before Notting Hill Carnival and the all-important Panorama competition, All Stars found itself homeless. Steel drums are bulky, Frank Senior points out, and currently they are taking up every available space in the house, the garage and even the backyard. For a family and a band that have brought so much pleasure to people around the world and given so many youngsters the chance to learn the instrument, the loss of their panyard is a cruel blow.
It’s not the end of the story, of course. Just as every pan has to go through fire to make it sound so sweet, steelbands seem destined to be tempered in adversity. All Stars will surely survive. In the words of Frank Rollock’s favourite calypsonian, Lord Kitchener, “My prediction is as usual, Pan will be back for this Carnival.”