Bertie Marshall’s tuning and innovation have been on the cutting edge of technological advances on steelpan for 48 years.
He was born in 1936 in Port of Spain, and as a child he roamed the streets of John John and Success Village, Laventille. At 14 he got an old ping pong from Tokyo Steelband and tried to retune it, using his harmonica. By 18 he began tuning pans, guided by other tuners such as Carl Greenidge. Mr. Marshall was dissatisfied with what he called ping pong's inferior tone.
By 1956 Bertie Marshall had accomplished the most significant development in today’s steelpan tone, revolutionizing the method of tuning, by changing the instrument from the inharmonic style. By tuning the notes by octaves and introducing complex tuning techniques he produced harmonics, giving the steelpan its complex sound. By discovering and establishing this harmonic tuning method he is singularly responsible for the sound of today's frontline steelband instruments, brightening the overall sound in the process.
Out of Success Village, Mr. Marshall led the Metronomics Steel Orchestra, then the Armed Forces Steel Orchestra, and ultimately the legendary Laventille Highlanders. While leading Highlanders he introduced several innovations, including the six bass on the road, the use of canopies to protect the fragile pans from the sun, the introduction of steelpan to the Church, and his masterfull arrangements of popular music, which made Highlanders a legend.
He continued to gain greater control over the sound of the orchestra. By stretching the belly of a tenor pan, he created the High Tenor or Soprano pan with a greater range. In order to compensate for the empty spaces in a steel orchestra between the limited range of the bass pans and the melodic tenor (Lead) pans, Marshall created the Double Tenor with a range of 31 notes, producing a new mellow sound which lead to a progressive extension downward by a family of lower pitch pans, making all the difference in the total steelband sonority.
His knowledge of electronics led him to experiment with amplification, culminating in 1971 with the Bertphone. The panist could sustain or dampen notes and adjust the tone and volume of each note individually through the hookup to amplifiers and equalizers connected to a mixing board.
In 1970 he became the resident tuner for the world renowned Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. He collaborated with the band’s leader, Rudolph Charles, on the chariot pan, quadraphonic, 12 bass, and the Marshall tone - a 6-pan one-man band. Bertie Marshall popularized the use of the strobe tuner for tuning steelpans and is lauded as being responsible for Desperadoes perfect tone.
Because the notes on both the original 4ths and 5ths Spider Web pan, invented by Anthony Williams, and the Double Second pans, invented by Ellie Mannette, were too crowded, Marshall modernized them by increasing the pans' depths, which allowed more space between the notes. These are the standard Lead and Double Second pans in the industry today.
Marshall travelled to Sweden with representatives of Trinidad's steelband
movement and CARIRI, Trinidad's Technological Consulting Institute,
where they successfully located a machine that could be adapted to sinking
Because of Marshall’s exceptional contributions to Trinidad & Tobago’s National Instrument, the T&T government awarded him their Chaconia Gold Medal, given for “Outstanding Service to the Country”. That was the first time the award was given in the field of music. Marshall received two awards at the World Steelband Festival 2000, one "For Innovation and Contribution in Respect of the Steel Drum" and the other being the largest award given at the Festival, "Pan Trinbago and Signature 2000 Salute Bertie Marshall Steelpan Innovator Extraordinaire".
Trinidad's National Carnival Commission created a new pan competition for Carnival 2003, The Bertie Marshal Jourvet Pan Contest in which the steelbands were required to play songs that he had made popular with Highlanders. The band had won the inaugral Carnival Bomb Competition using only one pan in its soprano section.
Marshall continues to experiment and improve tuning technique. His signature “brightness” gives Desperadoes their prize winning sound and volume which has taken them to 10 Trinidad Carnival Panorama championships, more than any other steelband.
After 5 years of experimentation, he perfected the tuning of the Bore lead pan which produces more resonance and volume without the use of a microphone. In 1999 a rule for the Carnival Panorama competition limited the steelbands to 100 players, down from the previously allowed 130. With the addition of 11 of Marshall’s bore pans, Desperadoes maintained the “130 man” impact, and was able to win in 1999 and 2000.
The Desperadoes have taken his incredible sound to such great concert halls as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Britain's Royal Albert Hall, and The Apollo and to performances with such noteable artists as Luciano Pavoratti, London's Royal Philharmonic, and the New York Pops with Skitch Henderson.
The sublime playing touch of Robert Greenidge has elevated the sound of Marshall’s pans to grace a multitude of recordings, from those of John Lenin to Grover Washington, and put the instantly identifiable stamp for 19 years on the sound of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band.
In 2005 The University of Trinidad & Tobago awarded Bertie Marshall a full professorial Fellowship and appointed him to head the Advanced Tuning program and teach classes in their School of Arts, Letters, Culture, and Public Affairs new Pan Lab.
Whether Bertie Marshall is hailed as a genius scientific researcher or the madman of steelpan, his contributions to the standardiaztion of the steel pan are unquestioned and invaluable. In the steelpan world he is known as the "tuner's tuner".
In Trinidad steelpan aficionados and players alike continually exclaim when Mr. Marshall completes his tuning, "Bertie, that note soundin' nice! That pan so sweet!".
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