Montserrat native Charles ‘Jackie’ Dangler has led an incredible life, and the steel pan has been his soundtrack

Pan man, prisoner, preacher, practitioner, pioneer and more. The eventful journey of Charles "Jackie" Dangler has featured triumph, tragedy, regret and redemption.

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Photo courtesy Randy Greenaway
Charles "Jackie" Dangler, who grew up in George Street, has been playing the pan for more than 70 years.

In June of 1971, Charles “Jackie” Dangler sat in a cramped jail cell at Carrera Prison staring down a possible death sentence. Carrera – dubbed Trinidad and Tobago’s “Alcatraz” – has been home to the twin-island nation’s worst criminals for more than a century. Dangler would end up spending a year there for his role in the 1970 Army Mutiny – part of a Black Power uprising that attempted to overthrow the government.

Dangler and more than 80 fellow soldiers and officers were charged with mutiny and treason, actions punishable by execution. Thirty-one of them were remanded for one year at Royal Jail, the prison in downtown Port of Spain made famous in song by the Mighty Sparrow. Those convicted were then shipped to Carrera – located off the northwest coast of Trinidad, about three miles from the seaside village of Carenage.

Dangler was born on a small island – Montserrat – but the Emerald Isle was nothing like Carrera, a 20-acre compound surrounded by shark-infested waters. To dissuade prisoners from trying to escape, guards would toss chum into the sea to assure the presence of the deadly predator fish. There was no running water at the maximum-security facility, which relied on rain water that was stored in tanks. The 12-by-9-foot cells featured only an iron cot and basic blanket (no pillow). There was no faucet or toilet. Prisoners used a chamber pot that could only be emptied in the mornings.

The meals were mostly meat scraps, beans and dense bread that would induce constipation. Well, at least the bread was served with a tiny slab of butter. Asked if the conditions were unbearable, Dangler said: “When you’re facing death, nothing else matters.”

A STEP BACK

So how did a man from a tranquil British colony end up on a dreadful penal colony? It’s a long story that is a mere subplot of an even larger, eclectic narrative.

Dangler has been a prisoner, preacher, pan man, pioneer and parent. He was also a practitioner who became only the second male nurse in modern Montserrat history. And throughout his amazing life there has been one constant: the steel pan, an instrument he first heard as a child and was inspired to create and emulate. He has passed on his skill to countless others, including college students in the United States. Now 83, he still marvels at the breadth of his existence, a life in which he several times cheated death.

Charles Edward “Jackie” Dangler was born November 6, 1939 in Glendon Hospital to a Montserratian mother and Dominican father. He grew up on George Street, referred to in those days as Windward Road. Dangler never knew his father. Edison Dangler, who served with the British Merchant Navy during World War II, was among more than 200 killed when the Canadian steam passenger ship Lady Hawkins was torpedoed by the Germans in the Atlantic Ocean on January 19, 1942. Edison Dangler’s life ended at 29, but his son would carry on his military legacy less than two decades later.

During the Christmas season in 1948, Jackie heard the steel pan for the first time and was entranced. “Something overpowered me from heaven,” he says. The steel drum or steel pan was popularized in Trinidad starting in the 1930s. It arrived in Montserrat via the Excelsior Steel Band, led by Willie Brade, the one-legged owner of a popular bar in Ryner’s Village called Zanzibar. After hearing the Excelsior Band, Dangler – only 9 years old – procured some old cheese pans and milk tins and began experimenting. “I became possessed with it.” He also got rudimentary music lessons while a student at St. Mary’s, an Anglican school at the intersection of George and Harney streets in Plymouth.

“Rodway Mason was our headmaster. He taught us Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do,” says Dangler, referring to the “Tonic Sol-fa” method. “I also got some piano lessons from a lady named Miss Wade on Harney Street.” Dangler studied the different pans, gaining an understanding of how the notes were created by the density of each depression.

In 1949, Dangler was accepted into the Rainbow Steel Band, led by Edward Browne of Windward Road. He played the Tumba, which was simply called the “side drum” in those days. The following year, Dangler joined the Excelsior Steel Band (also playing the Tumba) and was thrilled in 1951 when the group was invited to perform in St. Kitts and Nevis. As the youngest band member at age 11, he stood out. “Tourists were stuffing money in my pockets – U.S. dollars!” Dangler says. “But when we got back to the boarding house, the band manager took all of it and didn’t give me a dime!”

Around this time, Dangler acquired the nickname “Jackie” because two of his uncles – Jackie and Martin Ryan – were musicians. Relatives were impressed by the young boy’s musical potential and started calling him “Jackie Martin” in hopes the legacy would rub off. Dangler decided to keep just the first part of the name as his alias.

Dangler earned his seventh-standard certificate from St. Mary’s, but his formal education would end there. “I was a brilliant student,” he says. “But my mother couldn’t afford to send me to the Montserrat Secondary School.”

At 17, Dangler joined the working class. He had stints at the Agriculture Department milking cows and as a stock clerk at Bata Shoe Store. Dangler then got a job with the Health Department and was part of a group tasked with eradicating the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads diseases such as dengue and yellow fever. Dangler and his squad went into dense rural areas around Long Ground and Roaches and exterminated the mosquitoes and their eggs using the now-banned pesticide DDT.

Photo courtesy Charles Dangler
Jackie Dangler in Jamaica, 1961.

MILITARY MOVE

In 1958, the newly formed West Indies Federation began recruiting soldiers from the 13 member islands in order to form an army. Dangler was not particularly enamored with the military but he saw an opportunity to assist his family, so he applied. The recruits were required to pass a written exam and also undergo health screenings, including X-rays that were conducted in St. Kitts (Montserrat didn’t have an X-ray machine). They were also tested for “flat feet” – once a military disqualifier because it can inhibit activities such as marching. Dangler actually had flat feet, so during the exam he discreetly walked on the sides of his feet and successfully hid his “disability”.

Dangler and four other young men were among the first crop of Montserratians selected for the West Indies Regiment. In February of 1959, they were scheduled to travel to Jamaica for training. On the day they were set to leave, one of the men was locked in a trunk by his mother, who declared: “Me nar send me son a Jamaica fu go dead.” So the four others went on to Jamaica. It was Dangler, Richard Allen, Charles Shoy and a “Tuitt” from Long Ground. They went through basic training at Newcastle – a settlement in the Blue Mountains (“It’s as cold as New York up there,” Dangler says) – then advanced training at Moneague in St. Ann Parish.

During his time in Jamaica, Dangler became certified as an Army medic. He also met a local young lady named Zona, and they married on Wednesday, May 24, 1961. Dangler was also reintroduced to his first love when a set of steel pans were shipped from Trinidad as gifts to the Regiment. Dangler and other soldiers (mostly Trinidadians) formed the Regiment Steel Band, with Dangler playing the triple cello. They played at hotels, dances, and at the home of the Governor General. The band even played at Dangler’s wedding.

In 1962, the Federation dissolved when Jamaica objected to the capital being located in Trinidad and Sir Grantley Adams of Barbados serving as Prime Minister. In the aftermath, Jamaica and Trinidad both gained independence that August. In May of 1962, Dangler returned to Montserrat, but shortly after he was asked to travel to Trinidad to assist the country in building its now-autonomous armed forces in preparation for independence.

Photo courtesy Charles Dangler
Jackie Dangler and wife Zona on their wedding day in Jamaica, May 24, 1961.

AN EVENTFUL DECADE

Upon arrival in Trinidad, Dangler was assigned to the St. James Barracks, then later to the Teteron Barracks in the north. Dangler was ecstatic to be in the land of steel pan, and he eventually joined three bands: Valley Harps in Petit Valley, Westside Symphony (later BWIA Sunjets) in St. James and Western Philharmonics in Diego Martin. “The pans sounded like organs from heaven,” he says of hearing the Philharmonics for the first time.

During the 1960s, Dangler’s family grew (he and Zona would have four children). The ’60s were also a time of protest. From Africa to America, social unrest was palpable. Groups such as the Black Panthers in the United States empowered a Black Power movement that would trickle down to the Caribbean. One particular incident served as a catalyst.

In early 1969, dozens of students at Sir George Williams University in Montreal took over the school’s computer lab after complaints about biased and racist grading policies were not addressed. They caused an estimated $2 million in damages. Some of the students were from Trinidad and Tobago, and once arrested, were savagely beaten by police. Trinidad already had a burgeoning group of “black power” youths on island, many of them students at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine. When news of the Montreal incident got back home, many were incensed. A protest was held at Royal Bank of Canada, disrupting business, and also at the Canadian High Commission.

That set the stage for a domino-effect of protests over the next year. Many locals were upset about the racial dynamics of the island, such as the fact only whites worked in the banks. Racial practices began to be highlighted, such as exclusive golf courses and night clubs using under-aged black girls to perform striptease for white tourists. Some even complained that mannequins in store windows were all white. There were marches, labor strikes and vandalism. On April 6, 1970, a protestor named Basil Davis was fatally shot by police. That ramped up the tension exponentially.

On April 21, 1970, Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams declared a state of emergency. The Army was summoned to Port of Spain to quell the disturbance, but some of the soldiers had social grievances of their own. They went rogue and took over the barracks. On what he calls the worst day of his life, Dangler – then a 30-year-old Corporal – was caught in the middle. With a bevy of weapons, the rebel soldiers set off along the coast toward Port of Spain to “negotiate” with the government, according to one of the leaders. However, the Coast Guard fired at the convoy and foiled the attempted coup. One soldier from the barracks was killed after getting hit with shrapnel. The barracks were later raided, and some soldiers fled into hiding. Dangler and others stayed and were arrested. “I couldn’t just run off like a coward,” Dangler says. “The men looked up to me.”

Dangler says he was charged “with something I didn’t do” but admits he sympathized with his “brothers” in the Black Power movement. He says he even prevented a soldier from committing suicide before the camp was raided. From October 1970 to March 1971, the soldiers faced a court-martial by a Commonwealth tribunal that included officials from Nigeria, Ghana and Singapore. Dangler and others were found guilty of mutiny, and Dangler received a seven-year sentence. A trial for the more serious charge of treason was delayed due to legal wrangling. If found guilty of treason, Dangler would have been executed as soon as he finished his mutiny sentence.

LIFE BEHIND BARS

Dangler says the conditions at Royal Jail while he was remanded were rough, with three men sometimes confined to one cell. But it was a picnic compared to Carrera, where Dangler witnessed the horrors of prison life. He saw men being maimed for refusing sexual advances, and he heard the night screams of the ones who couldn’t fight off their assailants. In the daytime, the inmates were allowed to venture onto the “landing” – an open space where they could take a stroll or even fish from the banks. Dangler says inmates would sometimes smack others with a rock – knocking them unconscious – then tell guards they did it to prevent that prisoner from escaping. That would sometimes get time knocked off their sentence.

Dangler was able to insulate himself from much of the trauma because he and fellow soldiers protected each other and were respected by the guards. Even the most hardened criminals did not want to tangle with a highly trained soldier. During his time at Carrera, Dangler requested and was granted a pan shed. He created pans by refurbishing old drums and formed a 19-man band. He taught them to play, mostly Christmas carols.

Photo credit: Maya Doyle
A close-up look at Carrera Island, with the main prison at the top of the hill.

Dangler says a vital component of his survival in prison was his faith. He has always considered himself a righteous man. In fact his early endeavor was to become a priest. While in the Army, he was addressed as “Preacher” by some colleagues because he always had a Bible in hand.

In 1972, he and the other imprisoned soldiers received great news: their charges were overturned on appeal by the Privy Council based on “condonation” by one of their commanding officers during the rebellion. It was a technicality, but Dangler and his friends gladly welcomed it. On July 29, 1972, Dangler officially earned his freedom. It came at a personal cost however. During his two-year exile – with his fate hanging in the balance – his wife had started a new relationship. Jackie and Zona eventually divorced.

‘TIME TO GO HOME’

Upon release, Dangler returned to Montserrat. He says he was not deported – as some believed – and that he visited Trinidad later on without any problem. Many back home were aware of what transpired in Trinidad. They were really stunned when they saw Dangler’s new style of dress. “While I was in jail, I made a promise to the Lord that if he saved my life I would [honor] him,” Dangler explained. “So I wore a cassock. Everywhere I went, people thought I was a madman. Instead of asking me why I was dressed like that they just assumed I was crazy.”

With more than a decade of medical experience, Dangler sought a job at Glendon Hospital but was told by the Matron that he needed to be recertified. “For three years I was in a classroom at Glendon,” he says. He eventually met the criteria and became a nurse. In 1974, he was on duty when several police officers were rushed to Glendon with life-threatening wounds sustained during an altercation in St. John’s with a cutlass-wielding man. Dangler and Dr. Pranlal Kothari treated the officers, and thankfully, all survived.

Dangler continued his pan odyssey in Montserrat by creating his latest band, Heavenly Organ. The members included Dr. George Irish, a renowned professor, politician, author and playwright who founded the Emerald Community Singers in 1971.

In 1983, Dangler acquired a U.S. visa and relocated to New York City. There, he linked up with Irish, who later became Director of the Caribbean Research Center at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Dangler eventually taught the pan at Medgar Evers. In 1985, he became ordained by the Ethiopia Orthodox Church. He also continued in the medical field, working in various hospitals and nursing homes for more than two decades.

Like the shape of his favorite instrument, Dangler’s life has come full circle. After living in Jamaica, Trinidad, New York and Virginia Beach, he returned to Montserrat for good in 2019. “The cold was getting to me,” he says. “It was time to go home.”

Now retired, Dangler has ample time to contemplate his journey. Religion and introspection are now at the core of his life. Raised in the Anglican church, Dangler became a Seventh Day Adventist in 2000. He has been married three times and fathered seven children. His youngest daughter Ursela assumed the family’s military mantle and is now a Major in the U.S. Army. Once in high demand for his skills as a pan maker and pan tuner, Dangler now performs sporadically, with his most recent gig at the Golden Years Home for the elderly in Brades, Montserrat.

On Sunday, November 13, 2022 – 50 years after he was released from prison and his military career was vanquished – Dangler participated in the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in Montserrat, laying a Poppy wreath at the War Memorial in Little Bay. He saw it as a tribute to his father and symbolic redemption from the dishonor once saddled to his military legacy.

“I waited 50 years to lay a wreath,” Dangler says. “I feel like an entire building has been lifted off of me. I feel vindicated.”

Photo courtesy Discover Montserrat
Charles “Jackie” Dangler lays a wreath at the Montserrat War Memorial in Little Bay during Remembrance Day ceremonies on Sunday, November 13, 2022.


Jackie’s Bands

A look at some of the steel bands Jackie Dangler has played with over the years:

Rainbow (Montserrat)Valley Harps (Trinidad)
Excelsior (Montserrat)BWIA Sunjets (Trinidad)
Boys Power (Montserrat)Western Philharmonics (Trinidad)
Regiment Steel Band (Jamaica)Heavenly Organ (Montserrat)
Aspinall (Jamaica)Golden Stars (Brooklyn)
Esso Steel Orchestra (Montserrat)JuJu (Brooklyn)

1 COMMENT

  1. Edwin I really enjoyed this article on Dangler. I had the privilege to play with him at the fire station in Garney Street. I played the bass. Definitely a great teacher and a man who really loves his steelpan.

    Played at several events but can’t remember why I dropped out in the end.
    Extend my best wishes to Jackie. You were good at what you did for us as young people growing up in little Montserrat.

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