Ray Holman has an assured place among the all-time greats of Steelband arrangers and composers. He has enjoyed extraordinary longevity at the top of his game and holds the distinction of being the only arranger among the current crop to have participated in the very first Panorama competition in 1963.
The pannist was a mere 17 years old in 1961 when Ellie Mannette’s Invaders Steel Orchestra recorded “Ray’s Saga,” a tune that the teenager had composed for the pan. Under the watchful eyes of his mentor, Holman would go on to capture the Solo Ping Pong title in the 1964 Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival at age 20, a feat unmatched for three full decades.
Having come into pan with the band at age 13, Holman eventually became the arranger for Invaders, specialising in classical pieces but treating as well with the calypso arrangements necessary for participation in the annual Panorama competition. In 2013, he took San Fernando’s Skiffle to victory in the South competition, placing fifth in the national finals. But conformity must have sat uncomfortably on the shoulders of this pioneering spirit. In 1972, the Starlift Steelband, which Holman had founded nine years earlier and had guided to a handful of top three Panorama finishes, entered the competition with a calypso tune composed by him. Despite predictable opposition from the conservatives who argued for the monopoly of the traditional calypsonians, “Pan on the Move” earned Starlift third place and Holman a coveted place in steelband history.
Starting with that daring sortie down a road until then not travelled, Holman, who holds a UWI Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and History, continues to compose “own tunes” and has brought his compositional talents to a number of lesser known bands. The experience has allowed him to develop, in the words of one commentator, “a clearly identifiable, even unique musical voice and style (which) transcends the boundaries of the steelpan and the steel orchestra.” Thanks to Holman, steelbands now have a growing number of composers who have embarked on the “own tune” trail blazed by him, one of them having enjoyed multiple Panorama success.
Holman gradually attained “a level of harmonic sophistication reached by few other calypso composers” and leveraged his command of the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic content of pan music into a successful career as an international artiste. He has arranged for, performed and recorded with bands and individual musicians on several continents, and has been a featured performer in film and television and at venues such as Madison Square Garden, the Super Bowl and the St Lucia Jazz Festival. He has also regularly conducted workshops at American universities and at the end of the 1990s had a three-year stint as Distinguished Visiting Artist in the University of Washington’s Ethnomusicology programme.
In 1991, he composed the highly acclaimed score for the Crossroads Theatre Company’s performance of Black Orpheus in New Jersey. In 1988, Trinidad and Tobago honoured him with the Hummingbird Medal (Silver).