Sterling Betancourt

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Sterling Betancourt
Profile of Betancourt in 2008
Betancourt in 2008
Background information
Born (1930-03-30) 30 March 1930 (age 86)
Origin Trinidad, Trinidad and Tobago
Occupation(s) Pioneer, inventor, musician
Instruments Steelpan

Sterling Betancourt MBE, FRSA (born 30 March 1930) is a Trinidad-born pioneer, inventor, arranger and musician on the steelpan, a major figure in pioneering the Pan in Europe and the UK (1951). In a career spanning over five decades he has received numerous awards including his involvement in the origins of the Notting Hill Carnival in the 1960s. Betancourt lives in London, England.

Early years[edit]

Betancourt (Trinidad pronunciation: Betancou) was born and raised in Laventille near Port of Spain, Trinidad. His father, Edwin, was a musician and a man of all trades to make ends meet, his mother Stella Bowen, a seamstress and a cleaner. At a very early age Betancourt was involved with music with the Tambo Bambo family band and grew up experiencing with the Steel pan, becoming a member of the Tripoli Steel band. He began his career in the 1930s and became a steelpan tuner and eventually leader of Crossfire, a steelband from the St James area. He also played a large part in the development of steelpan in Trinidad,[1]

Move to Europe[edit]

Selected as a member of TASPO (Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra) to go to the Festival of Britain in 1951, Betancourt toured England and Europe with the band that year.[2] He was the only musician of TASPO to remain on in England when the others returned to Trinidad on 12 December 1951. Betancourt's calypso "Taspo's Story" features on the RASPO Rhythms CD by the Reading All Steel Percussion Orchestra (RASPO).[3] It relates the tribulations encountered by the arrival of the first Steel Band in London: The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra.

Betancourt together with Russell Henderson and Mervyn Constantine, who later on was replaced by Max Cherrie, followed by his brother Ralph Cherrie, formed the first steelband in the UK and performed all over London as well as in radio shows, jazz clubs and the BBC. In 1953 Betancourt was taught by Tony Kinsey to play the traps drums in order to form The Henderson combo.

Notting Hill Carnival[edit]

Henderson, Betancourt and their group participated in the multicultural Notting Hill street festival organised in 1966 by Rhaune Laslett and, as noted in Ishmahil Blagrove Jr's Introduction to Carnival : A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival:

"In line with the Trinidad carnival tradition of 'making a rounds' (where steel-pan players march in the streets)... led a procession that wove up the Portobello Road towards Notting Hill Gate and back again, like the Pied Piper gathering new revellers and participants along the way. ... Henderson and his group had inadvertently put an indelible Caribbean hallmark on the festival and word quickly spread to the other West Indianb communities in England about what had taken place. News even reached as far as Trinidad, where relatives and friends were regaled with stories of the miniature Trinidadian-style carnival held on the streets of London.
The carnival became an annual event that grew with each year."[4]

Other activities[edit]

Betancourt has also taken steelpan to many other countries throughout Europe and Asia, including Switzerland, Hong Kong, Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Morocco, Indonesia, Germany, Spain, France, Oman, Italy, Sicily, Sweden and Norway.[5][6]

A 1976 performance he gave in a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, inspired some locals to form their own Swiss group, which they called Tropefieber ("Tropical Fever"), the first steel band in Zurich, followed then by many others.[7]

Nostalgia steel band[edit]

In 1985 Betancourt's steel band, "Nostalgia", was born and continued with him as the leader, player and arranger until 2005.[5]


Honours and awards that Betancourt has received include: in 1993 Trinidad and Tobago’s Scarlet Ibis award. A University of East London Honorary Fellowship in 1996, a membership of the FRSA for his commitment in promoting steelpan culture throughout the United Kingdom, and pioneering steelpan projects in English schools[8] and in the same year, the New York Sunshine Award.

He was appointed as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours 2002 "for services to the steel band movement".[9][10] In 2004 he received a Fellowship of the Royal Society, in 2006 a Pantrinbago Pioneer award, in 2010 Pan Jazz Life Time Achievement, 2011 Pan Trinbago Commemorative Plaque for Life Time Achievement.

In 2012, on the occasion of the Trinidad and Tobago Independence Jubilee celebrations, he was a recipient of one of the Arts awards recognising citizens who made a positive contribution to the promotion and development of Trinidad and Tobago in the United Kingdom during the past 50 years, given at a gala dinner in London hosted by High Commissioner Garvin Nicholas.[5][11][12]

Further reading[edit]

  • Felix I. R. Blake: The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan: History and Evolution, 1995. ISBN 0-9525528-0-9
  • Stephen Stuempfle, The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).
  • Dr. Lionel McCalman, Carnival Club History.
  • A biography by Bel Kais, London is the place for me, Artemis Publishers, 2014.


  1. ^ "From Bamboo Patch to Buckingham Palace with Sterling Betancourt - Vignettes of Pan History", When Steel Talks; republished from Pan, Fall 1985, Vol. 1, No. 1.
  2. ^ TASPO
  3. ^ "A second CD for RASPO - RASPO Rhythms", Culture Mix.
  4. ^ Ishmahil Blagrove and Margaret Busby, Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival, Rice N Peas, August 2014, p. 15.
  5. ^ a b c "Sterling Betancourt M.B.E., F.R.S.A." My Panyard.
  6. ^ George Alleyne, "Pan's Sterling Betancourt", Newsday, 1 April 2009.
  7. ^ Shannon Dudley, Music from behind the Bridge: Steelband Aesthetics and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 251.
  8. ^ Nostalgia Steelband History.
  9. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 56430. p. 14. 31 December 2001.
  10. ^ Terry Joseph, "MBE for pan pioneer Betancourt honoured by Queen", Pantrinbago, 31 December 2001.
  11. ^ "T&T nationals get awards in UK", Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, 7 October 2012.
  12. ^ Kais, Bel (2014). London Is the Place For Me. Artemis. ISBN 9781907785139. 

External links[edit]