National honour for Hell’s Gate Steel Orchestra

Reigning Panorama champions Hell’s Gate Steel Orchestra will become the first steelband in Antigua and Barbuda to receive a national honour, after the government decided to confer the accolade on the 75-year-old band during the 2020 Independence celebration.
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By Carlena Knight

The reigning Panorama champions will make history by becoming the first steelband in Antigua and Barbuda to receive a national honour.

The Cabinet, during its meeting on Thursday, decided that the Caribbean Union Bank Hell’s Gate Steel Orchestra, the oldest steelband in the world, will be honoured during this year’s Independence celebrations in November.

The band, which hails from the Point community, was founded in 1945, and is celebrating its 75th year of existence. It “is deserving” of a national honour, the post-Cabinet notes read.

In addition to the national honour, Cabinet has decided to grant the non-profit steelband a long-term lease or ownership of the parcel of land at Dredge Bay where its instruments are stored and where the band practices.

Veron Henry, son of one of the founding members, Eustace “Manning” Henry, shared his elation on hearing the good news.

“I am very honoured and proud that the government would have seen it fit to bestow such an award on the Hell’s Gate Steel for being not only the oldest band in the region, but the ‘winningest’ in Antigua as well, in the world even, because I don’t think any other band would have the amount of championships that Hell’s Gate has; so I am very honoured,” Henry said.

“I know if my father Eustace ‘Manning’ Henry was alive, he would have been very happy to have heard this news.”

Henry, who is also a world class pan player, tuner and builder also spoke of the impact an achievement like this would have on the community and the younger players.

“It would mean a great deal. With steelband in Antigua, we have been working very hard over the years, not only teaching music but teaching pan and keeping the youth off the streets. I would have heard a lot of stories from persons over the years about what pan would have done for them and so I know that the younger generation would have been very happy to know that a steelband — I am sure this is the first time that a steelband will be getting an award of such — and I know it will speak volumes to them and even those outside of the pan fraternity can now look forward to being a part of the steelband community. This is just something for everybody to look forward to. I mean this is just paving the way for other bands to look forward to in the future,” he added.

The orchestra began as the Housecoat Band in 1945 and, in 1946, the residents of Point renamed it Hell’s Gate.

The name was chosen mainly because of the loud noise and variety of rhythmic beats the instruments produced. The official naming of the Band was done in 1947. Hell’s Gate’s first captain was Eugene Weston and the first manager was Ivan Edwards.

Hells Gate won the first ever competition held among nine bands in 1949, and has won first place in more competitions since that time than any other steelband in country’s history, having won in 1949, 1953, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1967, 1976, 1990, 1991, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

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