The New World Steel Orchestra was founded by Arthur France and Melvin Zakers in Leeds in February 1984, just a month after Arthur France had helped to set up the Roscoe Methodist Church Youth Steel Band. While not a pan player himself, Arthur’s love of the music had led him to found or co-found several steel bands in Leeds beginning with The United Caribbean Association’s Steel Band in 1965. Melvin Zakers had become involved in steel pans when he joined the Chapeltown Dance Theatre Steel Band in 1981. He later joined Metro Steel Band before joining Paradise Steel Band in 1982. Both men were members of the Leeds West Indian Carnival Committee when the band was founded.
The band was formed after it became clear that the Music Service, or indeed any other establishment were not willing to form an official School of Steel Pan. Arthur and Melvin worked together to come up with a name for the band and they designed the band’s logo together, which is full of symbolism. In the 2011 book ‘Pan! The Steel band Movement in Britain’ Arthur describes the logo as follows:
- The steel pan holds together in love and harmony, the divided world in which we live.
- The African Eagle transports the steel pan around the world.
- The sticks generate the music from within the steel pan.
- The olive branch signifies peace.
- The wreath declare that ‘pan is forever’.
The band needed an arranger and tutor and Arthur had Raymond Joseph in mind for the job. Raymond was from Huddersfield and was tutoring the Roscoe Church Steel Band at the time and wasn’t sure if he wanted to take on another band. Arthur travelled to Raymond’s home in Huddersfield and persuaded him to help the New World Steel Orchestra. Instruments for the band were also needed but funds were low. Arthur and Raymond travelled to London to meet with the leader of Ebony Steel Band, Pepe Francis and the band’s captain Earl Lewis, who sold them a set of second-hand pans. The band consisted of local young people aged 14-22, all who had been students of St Clair Morris. Among their first members was 14-year-old Gail Claxton who was later profiled in the Official 1988 Leeds West Indian Carnival magazine. Melvin Zakers was chosen as the band’s captain. With players, a tutor and instruments all in place rehearsals began in Gloria Frederick’s huge cellar in her home in Francis Street.
The New World Steel Orchestra began making public appearances in the summer of 1984 and made their carnival debut that August. Their official launch came in November 1984 at the West Indian Centre. Wanting to make a good first impression, Arthur France invited a number of important people to the concert including the head of music for Leeds Education Colin Brackley Jones, the deputy head of Leeds College of Music Roy Warmsley and various councillors from Leeds City Council. Raymond Joseph arranged popular and classical tunes in a calypso tempo including songs by The Beatles and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Their early repertoire includes ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, ‘We Are The World’, ‘Human Nature’, ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ and ‘I Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely’. They became the first ever steel band in the North of England to stage a concert of Classical, Pop, Soca, Reggae and Hymns.
Trinidadian pan player Dudley Nesbitt came to Britain in 1986 to arrange the Panorama tune for North Stars Steel Band from Huddersfield and shortly afterwards he began working closely with the New World Steel Orchestra. After seeing the second hand pans the band were using, Dudley promised he would bring a pan maker and tuner from Trinidad to Britain to make and tune pans for New World. Dudley kept his promise and thanks to the work of Kenrick Pernel, the New World Steel Orchestra got a new set of pans in 1986.
The band made public appearance in and around Leeds including annual involvement with the West Indian Carnival.The band practiced three times a week and they improved over time and increased in popularity. They soon became one of the most successful steel bands in the north of England. By the time they made an appearance in the 1987 documentary ‘Chapeltown One Year On’ they had new instruments, a uniform and a new tutor. Melvin Zakers had taken over Raymond Joseph and by 1987 he was tutoring several other steel bands in Leeds. The New World Steel Orchestra had become well-known outside of Leeds and in 1987 they performed at the Lancaster Hotel in London for the inauguration of the first black members of parliament. As well as one-off performances, the New World Steel Orchestra toured the UK in 1987 and later toured Ireland and Switzerland. They made appearances at carnivals nationwide and became the only steel band to win three championship competitions, in Liverpool, Leicester and Leeds, in one year.
In 1989, sponsored by the Leeds City Council, the band travelled to Dortmund in Germany for an 8-day concert tour, representing their home city. Although Arthur France’s New World Steel Orchestra-inspired Carnival Queen costume failed to win the contest in 1989, the band won ‘Best Steel Band On The Road’ again that year. Dudley Nesbitt was now living in Leeds permanently and began tutoring the band on a regular basis. Dudley’s experience and expertise were crucial to the band’s success. He had been playing the instrument from an early age and had been arranging for steel bands in Trinidad since 1970. Geraldine Connor arrived in Leeds the following year and soon became involved with the band.
In 1990 Arthur France, Geraldine Connor and Dudley Nesbitt worked together towards enhancing the image of steel pan as a new art form. However, in 1992 Geraldine Connor decided to move on and took up a full-time lectureship at Bretton Hall where she remained until 2004. Dudley continued to work closely with the band as their musical arranger and lead tutor. The New World Steel Orchestra continued to make public appearances across the UK during the 1990s and early 2000s.
The New World Steel Orchestra was relaunched in 2004 and continued working closely with Dudley Nesbitt, Melvin Zakers, Arthur France and Geraldine Connor. A new steering committee was formed, a new vision and objective was set out and the band were renamed The New World Symphony Steel Orchestra.Some of the original committee members included Ian Charles, Rita Kingston, Arthur France, Stephanie Lewis, Paula Swanston, Zebe Straughn, Kevin Spencer and Yvette Smalle.
Extra members were added to the band for their performance of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in ‘Carnival Messiah’ when it was performed at Harewood House in 2007. New members included James Clark who was later profiled in the 2011 book ‘Pan! The Steelband Movement in Britain’. The band now included 30 players. Their performance at Harewood House was filmed and in 2017 it was released in the ‘Carnival Messiah’ film.
In 2011 Geraldine Connor published the book ‘ Pan! The Steelband Movement in Britain’ which included a brief history of the band and gave profiles on some of the players including Dudley Nesbitt, Melvin Zakers, James Clark, Anthony Gatewood, Gail Parmel (nee Claxton), Shanice Lewis, and Sheldon Evelyn. The book also lists the 2011 committee members.
New World Symphony Steel Orchestra Steering Committee Members, 2011:
Arthur France – Chairman
Magda Lezama – Deputy Chair
Derek Evelyn – Project Co-coordinator
Asha France – Fundraiser
Jasmine Richards – Marketing
Anthony Gatewood – Course Coordinator
Debra Jeffers – Registrar and General Administration
Ken Wenham – Treasurer
Jenny Huggins – Secretary
Sheldon Evelyn – Youth Captain
Melvin Zakers – Associate Tutor
Dudley Nesbitt – Musical Director, Arranger and Lead Tutor
Geraldine Conner – Musical Supervisor
Dudley Nesbitt retired from tutoring in 2012 and Melvin Zakers took over the roll. Their ability to play a virility of styles has led them to perform in a variety of places including town halls, concert halls, churches, community centres, theatres, carnivals, schools, outdoor festivals and even supermarkets. They have made several appearances across the country including York, Thorner, Gateshead and London. In 2008 they performed at York Minster for Princess Anne, in 2012 they performed at the Thorner Village Diamond Jubilee Party and in 2014 they performed as part of the Tour De France Grand Depart in Leeds City Centre. An Adult Group, made up almost entirely of female players, was founded in 2016. After 35 years, the New World Steel Orchestra continue to play at the Leeds West Indian Carnival, Pop-up carnivals and other carnival related events including the annual Prince and Princess and King and Queen shows. The band has also made appearances at other UK carnivals. In 2019 the band performed at the re-opening of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.