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Sunday, January 24, 2021
Cyril Khamai Tribute at the Tabernacle, W11. Photograph: Stephen Spark

Cyril Khamai – golden moments from the star in silver


Cyril Khamai? What a sellout! And of course we mean that in the best possible way. For his 86th birthday celebrations, the self-effacing Scratcherman, who so often sits quietly in the shadows, was resplendent in a silver suit and took centre stage at the Tabernacle. He was surrounded by family – including his amazing 90-year-old sister Theo, who had cooked the food for the event – friends, fellow pannists and a host of well-wishers. Indeed, by the time Soca News arrived at 7.30pm on Saturday 13 January, it was standing room only.

Despite the chill and damp of a dismal winter’s day in London, the atmosphere in the hall was radiant with warmth for one of the artform’s best-loved practitioners. Looking smart in a red waistcoat, event organiser Haroun Shah acted as MC. Through film clips we were reminded of Cyril’s remarkable journey across decades and continents – picking up girlfriends along the way, Theo confided to us, though somehow always managing to avoid lifetime commitment to anything but his music!

That commitment was evident from the start, when the young Cyril became bored with the limitations of his first pan, which could produce just three notes. Instead of taking up a more promising instrument, he made his first attempt at pan tuning by adding to its range. Let’s not forget, this was in the pioneering days of the steelpan and the technology was evolving literally hammer beat by hammer beat to create the national instrument of Trinidad and the only acoustic instrument to have been invented in the 20th century.

Cyril Khamai Tribute Cake, Tabernacle W11. Photograph: Stephen Spark

The evening combined informality with some touching personal moments. Cyril dancing with his sister after cutting the fabulous cake with its 86 tealight candles spelling out his name reduced at least one guest to tears. We also enjoyed some marvellous performances by Nostalgia, Ebony (soaring renditions of David Rudder hits) and St Michael & All Angels steelbands, solo pannist and composer Debra Romain and by calypsonians De Alberto, Alexander D Great and Lord Cloak.

The whole event came about after Haroun heard Alexander’s 2017 Calypso Monarch competition entry, Unsung Heroes, which name-checks Cyril (and, indeed, Haroun himself). The song’s message is that we should celebrate our community’s heroes while they’re still here – and the evening did precisely that. For this reviewer, the highlight was a special performance, by Alexander, Debra and St Michael’s of ‘Unsung Heroes’. As Alex noted, it is a great honour for a calypsonian to have their song arranged for pan, and this was a collaboration that worked wonderfully well – it’s a tune the band definitely needs to keep in its repertoire.

Alex had another birthday present for Cyril in the form of a specially written calypso, ‘Nice One, Cyril’ referencing the event’s title, which itself was taken from Cockerel Chorus’s 1973 tribute to Spurs left-back Cyril Knowles. The original tune concluded the show – with ‘our’ Cyril centre stage on pan. Naturally, it brought the house down… in the best possible way, of course.