Martin Douglas, Who Set Tone for Steel-Pan Brooklyn, Dies at 71

A deft musician and beloved mentor, he helped keep steel-pan music — his bridge to the Caribbean — a vibrant part of New York life. He had the coronavirus.

Martin Douglas, Who Set Tone for Steel-Pan Brooklyn, Dies at 71

Martin Douglas in an undated photo. He was a leading light of Brooklyn’s steel-pan band scene. Credit: C. Phillips/When Steel Talks

By Sam Dolnick, NY Times

On summer nights in central Brooklyn, the roar of traffic gives way to the twinkle of steel-pan drums as musicians of all ages rehearse, improvise and compete in sidewalk lots.

Chances were good that if a steel-pan band was hitting its stride, Martin Douglas was close by.

For over two decades Mr. Douglas was a leader in Brooklyn’s steel band scene, playing his music everywhere, mentoring generations of young players and keeping steel-pan music a vibrant part of New York’s cultural life. He was the founder of Crossfire, a steel-pan band admired across the city and beyond, and president of the United States Steelband Association.

He died on March 31 in a hospital in Brooklyn, less than a week after he was admitted there with complications of the new coronavirus, his family said. He was 71.

Mr. Douglas was born on May 3, 1948, in Trinidad, where he spent much of his childhood roaming local pan yards and listening to steel-pan bands. He went to New York in 1986 and worked, among other jobs, as a subway car inspector for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

He was active in his union, Local 100 of the Transit Workers, and respected in his professional circles, but he really came alive around steel-pan music. He loved the instrument’s jangly sound, and he loved its versatility, and he could play any song, just name it — “Penny Lane” was a particular favorite.

Mr. Douglas saw the music as a bridge back to the Caribbean. He returned to Trinidad annually for the famed Panorama steel band competition — he seemed to know everyone at every concert — and he was prominent in New York’s version of the contest.

Mr. Douglas, known to many as Dougie, worked tirelessly to carve out a space for steel pan music in New York, forming alliances with local community groups, convening public meetings, scraping for funding, searching for rehearsal space. In recent years he spent much of his energy fending off noise complaints from new neighbors in gentrifying Brooklyn.

He is survived by his wife, Jannette, and their three children.

The Douglas home is quiet these days without the plinking of the steel-pan drums in the living room.

“He would start playing any time — it could be midnight, middle of the day, middle of the night,” said Jevon, his youngest son. “Sometimes you would get mad: ‘Don’t you see what time it is?’ He would do it his way.”

In fact, that was something of a motto: “My Way,” a song Frank Sinatra made famous, was one of his favorites. The steel-pan version, of course.

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