Known as “the gentle man with a big smile”, Cyril Khamai has been a quiet but ubiquitous presence at Notting Hill Carnival for as long as most of us can remember and he’s still going strong. At the launch of the Calypso Heritage Project on 27 October, there was Cyril once again. As ever, he kept out of the limelight, providing that essential rhythm and lighting up the Tabernacle with his smile.
Finally, though, the spotlight is being turned on the Nostalgia panman and scratcher maestro. At the 2017 London Calypso Tent, Cyril was namechecked in Alexander D Great’s timely calypso ‘Unsung Heroes’, and on Saturday 13 January 2018 we can all join in the celebrations for Cyril’s 86th birthday at the Tabernacle, naturally.
Andrew Martin and Ray Funk profiled Cyril for the Trinidad Guardian in 2013, in which they revealed that he started playing pan for Free French Steelband in San Fernando, led by former Taspo pannist Theo Stephens. He went on to play for other steelbands in the south before heading from Trinidad to the UK in 60 years ago. As you might expect, steelpans were in short supply in Britain in those days, so he built and tuned them himself.
In 1959 he joined Tropicana Steelband, which soon became popular at London parties and events, even appearing at the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall. Touring took Cyril and the band to Germany and Spain, and in 1968 Tropicana became the first steelband to tour the Soviet Union.
In more recent times he has become most closely associated with Nostalgia, but he has also been spotted at Panorama and on the road with Ebony, London All Stars, Metronomes and Panecktar, and seems to have played pan almost everywhere – from Goodwood Racecourse in Sussex to the Swiss Alps, Hong Hong and Dubai.
The January tribute – ‘Nice One Cyril’is being billed as an evening of steelpan, calypso and films and starts at 7pm. Tickets are a very modest £5, available from ticketsource.co.uk/cyril. Be sure to book early, as the event is bound to be popular – the quiet man on scratcher has a lot of friends!