Fimber Bravo is a national treasure, and probably the most important steel pan player of our time. In a career that spans five decades and countless collaborations, Bravo has wrenched his instrument away from the stereotypes of cruise ships and rum, and into uncharted territory. We caught up with the man, shared a sandwich and chatted about his favourite songs. As well as plotting Bravo’s musical influences, from the tamboo bamboo bands of Trinidad to experimental Japanese stuff, these selections touch on old friendships and memories of a childhood in the Caribbean. We’re very proud to present this mix. Enjoy!
Unknown steel band procession, Trinidad, 1956 – Jean and Dinah
This was in the late ’50s, and carnival was very acoustic in those days. We used to play with the steel pan round the neck, for two days you’d be playing on the road. This reminds me so much of that time, and how carnival has changed. It was completely acoustic and the pace was a bit more slow. It takes me back to when I was a little boy in the Caribbean, hearing those guys playing pan in the street. You could get all the live vibes from the people shouting and enjoying the rhythm. It’s simple, it’s acoustic and it’s easy going.
The Funkees – Dancing Time
The Funkees and my friend Sonny Akpan were going around the same time as my steel pan group 20th Century Steel Band. This track reminds me of Sonny and those days – it’s a lovely song.
Sonny Akpan and Fimber Bravo – Voodoo Groove
This was me and Sonny again, on an album called Beat. We just went to the studio and played what came naturally to our heads, instead of sitting there and studying it. We just played, and that’s what came out. Again, this is one of my favourite tracks with Sonny.
Ricoh and the Special – Jungle Music
Ricoh was a guy that I knew in the ’70s, when we used to go to the African Aroco club in West Hampstead. Everybody used to take their instruments on a weekend, and jam with each other, whether you were from Osibisa or from where. We used to take our steel drums and Ricoh used to come in with his trombone. To me he was one of the best trombone players we ever had. I think “Jungle Music” is Ricoh paying reference to Caribbean music, calypso and reggae.
E.T. Mensah And His Tempo’s Band – Laura
This track is from the first professional album recorded in Ghana, by E.T. Mensah. Again, it takes me back to that link with the Caribbean and Africa. You can hear it in “Laura”. I’m lucky to have this album with me.
20th Century Steel Band – Heaven and Hell
This stands out because we had started to compose our own stuff for the first time. Grandmaster Flash and J-Lo have sampled it, and it’s become an anthem for black rap groups. We were changing the steel pan and taking it to a different level.
Lord Melody – Booboo Man
The great, great entertainer – lots of fun, lots of humour. This takes me back to when calypso was real fun, you could hear on the radio that the audience was going for it. He was singing about himself and making fun of himself – the audience loved that. This was recorded in a calypso tent in 1956. Carnival season lasted for around six weeks in Trinidad then, and this reminds me of those days a hell of a lot.
Joy Division – Transmission (Hot Chip cover)
Playing pan on this track I met Alexis Taylor for the first time, and we became friends. It’s a wonderful version of this track, and Alexis is an amazing singer. He doesn’t have to try to hit any big notes, everything comes out naturally. He’s got a lot of soul in him, and it’s a special gift. He’s a lovely guy, too.
Mighty Jamma – Pan Dan (With The Harlem Syncopators Steel Band)
Jamma is a friend of mine, who plays steel pan. He wrote this song in Laventille, which was a pretty rough area of Trinidad. This reminds me of how steel pan was played on the street, where you could hear the iron from the hubcaps of cars. The rhythm from that natural iron carried everything.
Fimber Bravo – Life After Doomsday
This is me and the great Susumu Mukai, aka Zongamin. It’s probably the first song released as a single by a steel pan player. It has a lot of character, it’s a bit crazy, but that makes it what it is.
Sunshine Love Steel Orchestra – Sunrise
This is a great track. I like how the Japanese take the steel pan and do something totally different with it. Creative artists are always looking to do something different. It’s just a three piece band, but there’s such clarity to it, and a lot of fun too. It’s a different style, and I love that.
Sun Ra – Friendly Galaxy #2
I played with Sun Ra in 2012 at Cafe Oto. They never cease trying new ideas – I choose this one to honour that. It’s fascinating.
The Invisible – Lifeline
This is a lovely track with a nice dance energy to it. The drummer Leo Taylor is a friend of mine, and we’re going to play at Cafe Oto together (on Feb 6th).
Musica Da Cucina – Arigna
I was in Paris, working at the Silencoi club, and this guy, Fabio Bonelli, came there and played kitchen utensils like spoons and plates and cups. It was amazing how professional and effective and creative it sounded. It reminded me of where the steel pan came from – tamboo bamboo, bottles and spoons and so on. This was how steel pan was created. Fabio formed his group, People From The Mountains, in the Italian Alps. He’s is the brother-in-law of Alex Giomo, who made the wonderful “Life After Doomsday” video.
Morcheeba – A Well Deserved Break
We did this track together, it’s a wonderful song – some good work on the steel pan, well mixed. This was released in 2005, which says a lot about the steel pan’s integration into different music scenes over time.
Baly Othmani & Steve Shenan – Eï Gan Ehan Ed Yan Izlaf
I love how Othmani uses gaps and space in the song – it has such relaxing, spiritual connotations to it. A great, different piece of music.
Fimber Bravo – Grey Clouds
This track goes well with the Othmani, they are linked and blend together. Writing “Grey Clouds” had a lot to do with my upbringing playing classical music, and it’s one of my favourite tracks from Con-Fusion. “Grey Clouds” was mixed by the Optimo crew, with Jonnie Wilkes and James Savage.
20th Century Steel Band – Shaft
We were trying to break new ground in music, and won New Faces in ’74 with this song. It brought steel pan to a wider audience and took the instrument in a different direction too.
Bravo Bravo – Dance
A lovely tune with a lot of dance energy. When we played this live it just went down a bomb. Great song.
Atongo Zimba – No Beer in Heaven
This is a song I really, really love – the lyric is so simple and catchy. If a proper record company finds this song, they’re gonna make a lot of money from it. The way it’s been mixed, in Africa, is really well done. They tried to do it over here but it wasn’t quite the same.
Fimber Bravo – Old Kaiso
Kadialy Kouyate and I played this in minor chords, like the blues and old kaiso music which was brought over to Trinidad by slaves from West Africa. This song makes that connection and talks about that story.
Sorie Koroma – Cry Baby
Koroma is a blind guy from Sierra Leone. I don’t understand the lyrics quite clearly, but I understand the great energy of the song, and that’s why we choose it.
Little Tempo – Gagarin Goes to Jamaica
I love the creative energy in this one – Little Tempo are trying to do something different and I like that.
Fimber Bravo – The Way We Live Today
Steel pan and voice, we never hear stuff like this. It’s a groundbreaking idea. Again, beautifully sung by Alexis Taylor.
Bobby Benson and his Combo – Taxi Driver
This is from the first album ever recorded in Nigeria, Catchy Rhythms From Nigeria. The street recordings at the beginning were very innovative back then. I like linking from that time to now. This song is so laid back, and again it takes us back to old kaiso ideas, and that link to Trinidad.
Nina Simone – Everyone’s Gone to the Moon
You never hear anyone sing like this – she was way above everyone else. She just let herself go and went with it. I like that madness.
Fimber Bravo – Sinnerman
Lots of nice dance energy, and different in its own way. Con-Fusion was about breaking ground with the steel pan, and this does it. Again, I wrote this song with Susumu Mukai.
Alice Coltrane – The Sun
Here Alice Coltrane is joined by her husband John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Great improvisations, great musicians, great song. Simple as that.
Bravo’s excellent album Con-Fusion is out now on Moshi Moshi. Also be sure to catch Bravo performing at Cafe Oto on February 6, with Alexis Taylor, Zongamin, Leo Taylor and Kadialy Kouyate. It promises to be a very special gig.