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Canberra Today 14°/21° | Friday, February 23, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Farewell to the star of the steel pan

Courtney Leiba. Photo: Steelpan Community of Australia

Music writer TONY MAGEE remembers a special musician who died last week. 

Courtney Leiba, one of Canberra’s most engaging and prominent musicians has died. He was 87. 

Born in Trinidad, West Indies, Courtney Leiba joined the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band in 1964 as a percussionist, later switching to steel pans.

The ensemble toured regularly, being included in the Queen Elizabeth II Royal Command Performance in 1965, Montreal Expo 67, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and a three year engagement with Liberace from 1968 to 1971.

“Liberace was a very generous man”, Leiba said in a 1994 interview. “Not only were we his main guest act in the Vegas shows, he engaged us to tour with him throughout the US and Canada. At the end of each tour, he would take us all to an expensive jewellery store and say: ‘Choose something nice for your wives or girlfriends’.”

The band was nominated for a Grammy in 1972 under the category Ethnic and Traditional Recordings.

It was in Trinidad and Tobago he met the love of his life and future wife Marion, who at the time was a vulcanologist and seismologist at the University of West Indies.

Courtney and Marion arrived in Australia in 1977, settling in Taroona, Tasmania, where he established a teaching practice for aspiring conga, ukulele and steel pan students, something that was relatively new in Australia at the time.

Leiba specialised in the Invader style of steel drum, developed in the 1940s. It is a tenor pan, and although pitched in C, is often referred to as an F sharp pan, the note being prominently placed in the centre of the instrument.

Playing various venues around Tasmania, his first steel ensemble was named Calypso Trio, then Calypso Trio Mas Uno and finally Calypso Pan-Tas-Tic, a name he used for all his ensembles from then on.

Meanwhile, Marion had secured a job in Canberra with the Bureau of Mineral Resources and later the Australian Geological Survey Organisation and the pair arrived here in 1981, settling in Kambah.

I first met Courtney in 1989, when he had established a Canberra version of Calypso Pan-Tas-Tic, which featured some of the best players available. Colin Hoorweg on drums, Tony Hayes and later Ian McDonald on bass, Wal Cooper or myself on piano with Courtney on pans and congas.

Rehearsing at the Leiba household made me realise that Courtney and Marion’s relationship was definitely founded on the old adage “opposites attract”. Marion was by now with Geoscience Australia and had seismographs operating in practically every room. She once told me they were so sensitive, they could pick up not just tremor and quake movements in our local region, but Australia-wide and also in some other parts of the world.

Courtney would be grooving and panning his way around the house – congas and steel drums set up everywhere – so completely was he absorbed in his music.

He secured performing engagements throughout Canberra on so many levels – from a simple music duo entertaining passers by at the Wanniassa shops, a gig I frequently did with him on keyboards during the ’90s and 2000s, to larger ensembles at Hyatt Hotel Canberra, the National Convention Centre and other venues.

A social campaigner, Leiba was made a life member of the Labor Party.

Posting on social media, the Steelpan Community of Australia, PANZ Inc said: “Courtney was a true legend within the international pan community, and his humble nature touched the lives of many. RIP our ‘Scratcher Man’”

He is survived by wife Marion, children Nadine and Kenrick and four grandchildren.



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