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September 9, 2009 - Volume 1, No. 14

The Death of Steelbands and Life of the Steelpan

Ever since calypsonian Merchant sang his popular calypso “Pan in danger” we have been hearing about the death of pan from every crook and cranny. Recently, Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe created quite a tempest in a tea cup with his critique of Patrick Arnold and Pantrinbago’s executive board. Boogsie called for Mr. Arnold and the executive board to resign. He believed that Mr. Arnold twelve years as president of Pantrinbago did not achieve any substantial gains for the steelbands. Boogsie also called for Pantrinbago to include businessmen to run the organization.

On September 4, 2009 Peter Ray Blood wrote a piece in the Guardian newspaper entitled “Pan is Dead!” Since Boogsie made his call and Mr. Blood published his article, the real stakeholders in the steelband movement have not uttered one word concerning the death of pan, removal of Patrick Arnold and Pantrinbago’s executive board or the need for Pantrinbago to be turned over to people with business acumen. While I agree that pan should be a business, I beg to differ with both Boogsie and Mr. Blood interpretation of Pantrinbago and its executive board. The business of pan is strictly a steelbands affair and not Pantrinbago. It is the steelbands’ responsibility to make pan a business.

The discussion about the death of the pan is another item. I see it as more about the death of society than about the death pan. All Trinbagonians know that something is truly wrong with their nation. While many may not be able to articulate it they know that something is intrinsically wrong when its government cannot provide its citizens security. Somehow, the masses know that a government first duty is to protect its citizens from violence. The masses see the death of pan as an indication that their nation is dead. They know that independence in 1962 did not bring them a new society. They know that their leaders did not give them a new beginning but, instead continued the paradigm that was set up by their former colonizers. There is no Trinbagoness in its laws, education and institutions. Most of all, they know that all Trinbago governments, since the death of its first prime minister and father of the nation (the late Dr. Eric Williams), have failed to make a Trinbago nation that responds to the needs of its people. They know that they should have better schools, police, hospitals, houses, roads, sewage, water and security.

Unlike some nations that fought for their independence and tried to introduce a new paradigm, former colonies in the Caribbean continued with business as usual by adopting either a former colony or European model for their independent nations. But, Trinbago had something special that united the nation, its steelband. No other nation has an instrument that its citizens claim to be their national instrument. The only activity that brings all Trinbagonians together is carnival. The three cultural forms of the carnival are steelband, calypso and mas. Of the trinity, the only one that remained a local cultural event is the steelband. It is the steelband that you can find citizens of all race and backgrounds interacting with the instrument. It is only the steelband that can claim a unique place in Trinbago’s musical history: instrument created by Trinbagonians in Trinidad without foreign input.

But, there is a major problem with this unifier of the nation. It was created by the African working classes. That fact cannot be reconciled by the African middle classes. Hence, the dysfunction of the steelband movement as it is represented in the larger society.

From 1962, the steelband received governmental financial support for its competitions and events. The PNM government, under Dr. Eric Williams made a pact with the steelband movement: Financial support and access for political support. As a result, the steelbands and their communities gave their undying support in every election except in 1986 when the PNM lost its first election to National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) party, under its political leader ANR Robinson. There was no pact with the new government. It was not until the resurgence of the PNM under Patrick Manning that the pact was renewed. Only this time, there were changes to the pact. Under the old PNM the steelbands had access to Dr. Williams and other ministers. Under the new PNM there was no access.

The new political leader was from the southland, San Fernando. He did not care for steelbands like Dr. Williams who saw culture as a way to entrench the PNM in the soul of the nation. He did not campaign with steelbands to win the election. He was never a part of the local culture. And, he was of a protestant religious persuasion, unlike the father of the nation, who was of the Catholic persuasion. One saw the steelband movement as the work of the devil, while the other saw the steelband movement as cultural to be tolerated. The new PNM’s relationship with the steelbands was very straight forward: Political support for financial support but no access. The steelband movement shall remain a cultural activity. Any attempt to make it an art form will not be tolerated or supported.

Pantrinbago is not a person but an organization made up of steelbands. Therefore, if the steelbands want Pantrinbago to follow Boogsie or Mr. Blood’s suggestion they are the ones that have to stand up and say so. I believe that what is needed may be a different organization to implement Boogsie and Mr. Blood’s call. To date, it is no surprise that neither the steelbands nor their representatives at Pantrinbago have entered this important debate.

Let me address Mr. Blood’s call first. He said that “Pantrinbago needs to realize that the business of pan and creating sustained lucrative and profitable revenues for the organization and its members must be turned over to “pan people” with business, management and finance acumen.” The pan as an instrument is separate from the steelbands. The inventors of the steelpan created one instrument, pan. Later, various tuners expanded the single pan to create derivative instruments from that one single pan. The pan is a percussion instrument and the steelband orchestra consists of steelpans. An example is an ensemble of violins. Violins are string instruments. You may tune each violin differently but the ensemble will remain a violin ensemble. It is the same with the steelpan. All the instruments of the steel orchestra are percussion instruments.

Before the steelpan, there was the steelband. Unlike Europe where their instruments consist of wind, string and percussion, the steelband is a collection of percussion instruments. The early pioneers used kettles, tins, iron, dustbins, bottles and spoons to create a percussive sound and called it a steelband long before they created the steelpan.

We all know the story of how the first steelband was Alexander Ragtime Band and how the steelpan was created. That was not the steelband as we know it today. It was plain rhythm being played. There were no cellos, double seconds, tenor (sopranos) or bass pans as we know them today. It took the inventors a few years to move from the single four note pan to expand to twelve or fourteen notes to create the tenor pan. The early pioneers were looking for an expansion of the rhythms of the tambo bamboo band.

While it is not my intention here to retell the story of the beginning of the steelband, it is important to keep in mind the evolution of the steelpan to understand why we are having this discussion about the death of pan 62 years after the invention of the steelpan.

The invention of the steelband orchestra took a long time as pan tuners tried to emulate the European orchestras. So, they substituted a steelpan for every European instrument to create a steelband orchestra. Meanwhile, there was no written music for the instruments they created. Why? The inventors did not know music. No one composed music for the new instrument. The inventors had no proper schooling. Some never finished primary school. It was pure talent and ingenuity that produced the steelpans.

If we can agree that the steelpan was invented sometime in 1947, then it took 33 years before panmen were called upon to learn (understand) music. Many believed that by learning music the panists could improve their craft. I agree. But, tuners were already learning music to give their instruments a voice. There was no music school to attend. If you attended one of the colleges where you had to take an elementary music course, then that exposure allowed you to understand some musical theory. But, for all intents and purposes, all early panmen did not know music. As a result, the steelpan and steelbands became cultural form and not art forms. The middle classes who studied music did not see it fit to call for panmen to learn music. The class distinctions made it almost impossible for panmen to learn music.

Pantrinbago is a steelband organization as it represents steelbands and not panists. As such, it focuses only on activities for the steelbands. Since the 1980s, Pantrinbago has given Trinbagonians steelband entertainment almost every weekend. From Panorama to Pan in the communities, Steelband activity is no longer restricted to the carnival season. Pantrinbago is an organization that is limited to organizing competitions and events for the steelbands. They present a budget to the government to cover all expenses for their activities, including salaries for their executives.

Let me answer Boogsie and Mr. Blood. While some may want to see Pantrinbago develop into a business, it is not legally mandated to run the organization as a business. Pantrinbago is a not for profit organization subsidized by government (taxpayers money) largesse. It is not supposed to make a profit from its ventures, just break even. Pantrinbago cannot engage in any business venture because it is not their money. Pantrinbago does not have an independent source of money to invest. That is why it does not have businesspersons on their board. If the steelbands want Pantrinbago to operate like a business, they would have to petition the government for that change. It would mean that Pantrinbago would have to solicit monies from other sources to engage in any business venture. It would have to deal with market forces like any other business. It would have to compete with other businesses that deal with steelbands. Remember, Pantrinbago was created by an Act of Parliament as a not for profit organization for steelbands. It is a government entity. It receives tax-payers money to run the organization. It was not created to make steelbands rich or financially secure.

The reason that it seems that Pantrinbago is “bereft of new and innovative business, management and operational ideas” is because of what I explained above. If the steelbands want to make pan a business they would have do that themselves. Here is what Pantrinbago can do. They can run workshops for music and business ideas. They can bring together business people and COTT to teach steelbands how to negotiate the music industry and the write contracts for their concert ventures. The can petition the government to finish their head quarters in Trincity. But, they will have to raise their own funds to engage in any business (Book stores, Music stores etc.) from the headquarters.

This is addressed to Boogsie who belongs to a steelband. Boogsie composes and arranges and also is a soloist. Those skills will always bring financial rewards to Boogsie. The only people who make money from pan are: Tuners, Composers, Arrangers and Soloists. The greatest failure in the steelband movement is the steelbands. They have failed to educate their young membership to take over the steelband movement. They have failed to take advantage of the new technology in computers. They have failed to use the internet to promote their steelbands. They have failed to provide steelband education to their young panists. Mostly, they have failed to improve their brand, which is Panorama.

The steelband movement has nowhere else to go in Trinbago. The steelpan is destined to be the instrument of the future. Soon, we shall see it in European classical orchestra accompanying as other instruments. The advancement of the steelpan is what the early pioneers had in mind. They were not concerned with the steelbands. They created an instrument for the world. They gave the world a gift that will be shared by the international community. Steelbands will remain a Trinbago affair as it engages in panorama and all the other steelband events that Pantrinbago will organize. The world now has the steelpan as its instrument. Everyone knows that the steelpan was invented in Trinidad like Panorama and the other local pan events. The world may not copy our steelband events but they will embrace the steelpan as their own. And they should.

Now I come to Pantrinbago. This is how I would like to see Pantrinbago reorganize itself in keeping with the 21st century and its mandate from parliament. Pantrinbago should have as their goals the following:

1. Lobby to have the government build a performing arts center for steelbands to be named after Beryl McBurnie or George Goddard. All steelband events on a stage (Panorama, Panjazz & Music festival) would be held at the Beryl McBurnie/George Goddard Steelband Performing Arts Center.

2. Lobby to have the government complete Pantrinbago’s headquarters.

3. Include on Pantrinbago’s executive board: One professor (UWI University), Lawyer, Business person and the Mayor of Port of Spain. The president of Pantrinbago should always be a panist.

4. Create and organize workshops in business, contracts, management and music.

If Pantrinbago could do these four things the steelband world in Trinbago would improve immensely. Now, here is how I would like to see steelbands reorganize their bands. Steelbands should do the following:

1. Organize music classes for its panists.

2. Elections for Pantrinbago’s executive board should be held in the panyard of each steelband. Each steelband should then send their choice to Pantrinbago. The person with the most votes from the steelbands should be elected. It is important that every panist in a steelband feel that Pantrinbago is their organization.

3. Steelband representatives should present written reports to their steelband which will be put on their computers and kept in a file. Everyone will know what their representatives did at Pantrinbago.

4. Each steelband should have a web site (to be updated regularly) where its history and accomplishments would be recorded. It should have all information about the steelband. Example is if someone wants to know what Renegades placed in a panorama or music festival ,the first tune they played at panorama or music festival and the arranger, then that information should be accessible on their web site.

5. Introduce scholarships for their young panists.

6. Lobby the government for permanent panyards with a deed of ownership.

7. Hold monthly classes about the steelband’s history so that young panists would have a sense of attachment to the band.

8. Organize extra classes in school work for the student panists in the band.

9. All steelbands should display their pioneers’ pictures (with a brief biographical sketch) in the panyard.

10. The young panists should study the musical skills of former pan soloists.

11. All panists should be paid for Panorama, concerts, festivals and shows.

12. Every steelband should have a bank account where all monies should be accountable to its members.

13. Steelbands should seek out business ventures to raise funds for their bands.

The steelband movement is at a crossroads. The young panists have a different relationship with their bands unlike the panmen of the 60s and 70s. No longer does a panists feel attached to a steelband. Many young panists do not belong to the community of the steelband. That came about when steelbands stopped fighting among themselves. And that is a good thing. Today, any panists can join any steelband without fear. Most of the panists today are young people who have other interests besides pan. After Panorama, many do not go the panyards. Steelbands have trouble getting young panists to play on the road for carnival. Steelbands must find a way to bring back pan on the road for carnival. They should get together with Pantrinbago to come up with a plan to bring back pan on the road. One final note. Steelbands should petitioned their government to make schools and panyards drug free zones. If someone is caught selling or using drugs near a school or a panyard his/her jail sentence should be increased.

I write this because I want to have a record for the next time that Boogsie or anyone else demand the resignation of Pantrinbago’s executive board. While I hold no brief for Patrick Arnold or Pantrinbago, I do hold a brief for pan.

Stay blogged,


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