I was just going to do a short post on Facebook. But I realised there was too much to say.
One of the things I cherish about the way I grew up is that all I saw was that steelbands could be and do anything; choirs could be and do anything; and women could be and do anything. By the time I was old enough to encounter anyone who didn’t see and believe that, the truth of it was too well-entrenched for any nay-sayer to make a dent.
One of the people who made it true for me was Gillian Nathaniel-Balintulo—a supremely accomplished musician, one of the most decorated and celebrated pianists the island has ever produced, a talented arranger for steelband (like fellow SJCPOS alum Jocelyn Pierre), and the first female Conductor and Musical Director of Trinidad All Stars. Expressive, intuitive, and a stickler for detail, music just flowed through her whole body.
In 1988, she was among a group of women whose roles in a handful of prominent bands marked a significant moment in steelband history. This has been recorded in Judith Laird’s documentary Prelude to finale: three women arrangers/conductors, and in texts like Stephen Stuempfle’s The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad & Tobago. Her groundbreaking appointment as Musical Director of All Stars came the year after she performed with them as a concert pianist in Classical Jewels VI, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. Here she is conducting Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien at the 1988 World Steelband Festival (also known as Pan is Beautiful).
As a kid, though, I didn’t fully understand the significance of all this. I started piano lessons with her that same year (1988). So all I really knew was Mum’s family stories about them growing up—like how Aunty Gillian was so short as a child that they used to call her “Midge” (the irony of this is clear if you know how tall she ended up—at pushing 5’10”). I remembered too that one evening, as I was unpacking my music books for a piano lesson, she asked me how Mum was and I just off-handedly said, “She ketchin’ her nenen” … repeating what I always heard Mum playfully telling her friends. It was only when Aunty Gillian shrieked with laughter and suggested maybe that’s not how Mum might want me to answer that I suddenly realised this wasn’t how all children answered this question. (Today, Mum’s standard answer has been revised to she “ole, frowzy and decrepit”).
The following year, 1989, Aunty Gillian was conducting All Stars in Classical Jewels VII. I have no recollection of how St. Monica’s got involved—perhaps through the Bartholomew connection, as Aunty Marina was directing the St. Monica’s choir, and I believe her son Barry (of Panazz fame too) was playing in All Stars at the time. But there we were preparing a suite of songs to perform with All Stars at Queen’s Hall. It remains a cherished memory because this was my first time performing at the Hall in a massed choir (St. Monica’s, Bishop’s Junior, and Rosary Boys)—with the legendary All Stars, no less, and under Aunty Gillian’s baton. I remember being shocked at her transformation—the dress, the hair, the make-up. She, like my mum, became like a rock star to me when she took the stage to conduct. And as excited as I was (I remember practising at home like nobody’s business, and can still sing all the words and my choral under-part by heart), I had no real sense of how remarkable all this was.
I continued piano lessons with her through my late teens when she migrated to South Africa in the late 90s. Despite how chronically awful my sight-reading remained, she thankfully coached me to great success with my prepared pieces and viva voce. I’ll never forget being invited to demonstrate one of the set pieces for the teachers and students who took the Grade 5 exams that year.
I didn’t see her much after she left—only on the odd occasion that we’d catch her when she was visiting. The last time I saw her was on my parents’ porch when she came for dinner with her sister, Aunty June (another local music legend).
I was gutted today to hear that she’d just passed. And there’s an extra sting because I feel like she—along with many in her trailblazing generation that came of age in a newly independent Trinidad & Tobago—has passed without her story being told. It’s been insufficiently recorded, insufficiently recognised. This post barely scratches the surface. I’m Googling her and there is so little about her and people like her. I’m doing an image search and there’s only a video still. She should be in the St. Joseph’s Convent (Port of Spain) Hall of Excellence, known and celebrated by more than just musicians, pan lovers, and pan historians above a certain age. It leaves a lot for me to reflect on, because I don’t want to just identify a problem—that’s easy. I want to consistently be part of the solution.
I remain grateful for all Aunty Gillian was, all she gave, all she represented. All the people she taught and nurtured, all the music she made, all the doors she opened. And I send my love, blessings, and deepest condolences to her children, her family, her community, and all who loved her. Thank you for the music and the magic, Aunty. Rest in peace and power. 😔❤️🙏