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September 29, 2009 - Volume 1, No. 15

Letter to Steelbands and Pan Trinbago

My beloved Steelbands and Pantrinbago, recently, there were some discussions about the effectiveness
of Pantrinbago and its executive board. This discussion took place without any references (except mine)
to Pantrinbago three important documents: Constitution, Bylaws and Strategic Plan for Pan. The instigator for that discussion was Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe. Boogsie called for the resignation of Patrick Arnold (president) and Pantrinbago’s executive board. He was certainly within his rights to make that call. But, while it may
be his right (Phase II is a member of Pantrinbago), the call was made in the wrong forum. Steelbands can make any changes to Pantrinbago as they see fit. They can vote, via their two representatives, in all decisions or changes in Pantrinbago. The organization has a process by which steelbands can express
their disagreements. At election time, they can vote for the candidates who will advance their agenda.

On September 27, 2009 Mr. Arnold did an interview with a local newspaper. His answer to Boogsie: ‘How could pan be dead when we have thousands of young people involved in playing pan these days, young men and women.’ Mr. Arnold explained Pantrinbago’s reason for changing from an arranger arranging for many steelbands to an arranger arranging for one steelband. He stated: “Once upon a time if you go to Panorama, you see three arrangers. Now you see so many young arrangers have got involved.”

In a capitalist economy monopolies must be avoided and competition encouraged. Mr. Arnold pointed out, ‘All the changes that were made were made for a reason and they were made with the consent of all the bands.’ Why would steelbands want one arranger for 8 or 10 steelbands? As a captain used to say, ‘You can’t have your General training other troops.’

On Sunday, October 25, 2009, Pantrinbago will be holding its elections for various posts on its executive board. Every steelband will have an opportunity to vote for the candidates of their choice. Steelbands will have an opportunity to show that they are serious about their art form and the organization that represents them with their vote. The steelbands will be able to implement any changes they see fit by voting for the candidates who will advance their interests because the outcome of the elections will determine the next four years of the steelband movement.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, the new executive board will be faced with the same major problem that the steelband movement has faced since its beginnings: “How to become financially independent from government control?” Since the beginning of Panorama in 1963, the government via taxpayers funds has subsidized Panorama and other steelband activities. When the prime minister declared that the steelpan is the national instrument of Trinbago the subsidies increased. While it makes sense for the government to subsidize the steelband movement (panorama is the country’s number one carnival brand and pan is the national instrument), total funding by government comes with political certain realities and limitations.

The three main documents that govern Pantrinbago are: Constitution, Bylaws and Strategic Plan for Pan.
I have read all three documents and based on the organization’s objectives, I found that the steelbands are getting exactly what Pantrinbago promised. Article 4 of its constitution, governs the organization’s objectives for the steelbands. It is a barometer for steelbands and panjumbies to measure whether Pantrinbago is fulfilling its mandate with the steelbands. The achievable objectives of Pantrinbago are:

Protection of the Steelbands Legacy.
Promotion the playing of steelpan and steelband music.
Initiate, stimulate and improve programmes for steelbands.
Promote, encourage, support and develop audiences for steelband musicians.

Steelbands agree that Pantrinbago fulfilled its objective of protecting the steelbands’ legacy.
The international community knows and accepts that the steelpan was invented by Trinbagonians in Trinbago. Every Panorama Pantrinbago grants awards to pioneers. The legacy is safe. Every month there are steelband events held around the country. The promotion is happening as radio stations now play steelband music regularly. There are discussions on WACK and radiotrinbago stations. There are even advertisements that use the sound of the steelpan.

Steelbands agree that Pantrinbago initiates, stimulates and improve programmes for steelbands with
events like: Pan down memory lane; Pan in the 21st century; Pan in the communities; Panjazz, Panyard Sensations, Steelband Music Festival and the national festival, Panorama. Steelbands agree that performance of steelpan and steelband music has been accomplished.

Steelband events receive their fair share of audiences (pan lovers). Since steelband is a generation P (panmen) product, most of its supporters stem from the over 50 group. They turn out in their large numbers for any steelband activity. It is the generation X and Y (young people) that does not pay any serious attention to steelbands. Pantrinbago continue to develop audiences for steelband events.

Steelbands agree that the development of the steelpan is in good hands. The modern steelpan is complete since the modern steelpan is the most developed of all steelpans. The tone and quality is almost perfect. Given the evidence that Pantrinbago has accomplished its objectives for the steelbands, steelbands are
not complaining.

Over the years I have argued for the removal of the canopies that steelbands use for the Panorama finals competition. I see the canopy as anachronistic and cumbersome to the display of the steel orchestras.
It is just bad taste in the 21st century. I listened to some steelbands that claim that the canopies enhance the sound of the band on stage. Other panjumbies claimed that the canopy protects the steelband from the elements. A few steelbands saw the canopy as tradition and the bands should keep it.

The only steelband that disagreed is Exodus Steel Orchestra. In the 90s, Renegades removed their canopies but only for one Panorama night. According to Jit Samarroo, ‘The panmen did not like it and they blame the removal for their loss that night.’ Exodus removed the canopies from the orchestra for Panorama 2008 and 2009. I spoke to Pelham Goddard who told me that the reason the band removed the canopy is that they found the canopies lacked aesthetics. ‘It just did not look pretty,’ he said. In this new era of the internet, appearance matters on TV, DVD and the Internet. While canopies may be part of the steelband tradition of the 60s it is time to remove them. It was Bertie Marshall who introduced canopies to cover the pans for his steelband Hilanders to protect the pans from the burning carnival sun. There is no sun on Panorama night.

It is time to reconsider the model steelbands use to present their orchestras on the Panorama stage, including the use of canopies for Panorama. I continue to believe that if Pantrinbago agreed that the canopies are the past and get together with steelbands, they can come up with a new Panorama model.

If steelbands agree that Panorama is their number one brand it would make sense that they should want
to improve their number one brand. For 2008 and 2009, a cow-shed was put up in the savannah to hold Panorama. It is a disgrace to steelbands. In his September 27, 2009 interview, Mr. Arnold said, ‘Since they broke down the Grand Stand, they have virtually no place to go. We were to get back the savannah for 2009. But it’s not even started.’ Where is the steelbands protest? Their silence may suggest that they agree that the cow-shed venue is temporary and they will soon be in the new carnival center. If that’s
the case, then steelbands should be looking for a new Panorama model for the new carnival center with these four main components in mind:

1. The Stage
2. The Orchestra
3. Acoustics
4. Marketing

The stage is the first battle of defense for the steelbands. Are steelbands asking these questions?
What type of stage would be built for the steelbands in the new carnival center? Would the stage be revolving to accommodate all the steelbands so that one band can exit the stage within a few minutes while the next steelband is entering the stage? We have seen in the past how long it takes each steelband to get on stage making the Panorama run till late in the morning. Will the stage be indoors or outdoors?
Will there be a North Stand to accommodate the traditional panjumbies? Why not build a dome in the new center to provide acoustics for all the steelbands?

The steelband is a percussion orchestra. Steelbands should take a look at the old model of arranging the pans on stage for the Panorama. Are the steelbands getting proper coverage on stage so that the world sees a modern steel orchestra performing at its national festival? Today, the international pan community views and listens to Panorama via the internet.

If the steelbands are to find a place in this new carnival center, then they must address the question of acoustics. Steelbands must ensure that the new carnival center have great acoustics. Once the acoustics are in place there may be no need to use canopies.

Finally, there is the question of marketing Panorama via DVDs and CDs and the internet. The color of the Panorama DVD is supreme. But, the production lacks the attraction to widen the audience. The cameras
fail to locate the orchestra and the panists so that the viewers can see both at all times. There is lack of proper lighting which makes the background of some orchestras too dark. The camera stays too focused
on the front of the orchestra while the instruments in the background are ignored. Surely, with today’s technology the camera can capture the whole orchestra as well as the panists.

The supreme age of the steelbands is over in Trinbago. The steelbands reached their plateau in the 20th century in Trinbago, the home of the national instrument. There is nothing more for steelbands to achieve in Trinbago. The 21st century has not yet produced anything new in the steelband movement. There may be more steelband events throughout Trinbago outside the carnival season. Still, the various steelbands in Trinbago are stagnated and refuse to be innovative. The golden age of the steelband movement was completed in the late 20th century, especially the 1960s.

But, there is one thing that Pantrinbago and steelbands can do. They can modernize Panorama. Panorama holds the key for steelbands in the 21st century. Pantrinbago should hire a stage producer for Panorama. The end of the 20th century saw the disappearance of pan from the road for carnival, the displacement
of the Grand Stand and North Stand forums for the Panorama and no proper headquarters for Pantrinbago. Pantrinbago and steelbands must bring back pan on the road for carnival.

Pantrinbago’s Strategy for Pan is a laudable and ambitious document. I applaud it for its vision. The only problem with the Strategy is that it takes millions of dollars to implement. The facts show that Trinbago businessmen do not see steelbands as a profitable venture and will not invest in pan. Then there are the issues of race and class. Most of the rich businessmen are not of African descent. Many don’t see steelbands as part of their cultural landscape. The few African businessmen don’t take pan seriously.
They invest in soca music shows where the returns are guaranteed. Watch the paying crowd. Next,
there are over 300 steelbands in Trinbago. That is too many steelbands (over supply) to make it profitable in the land of its birth. Plus, steelbands only pay $25.00 fee to Pantrinbago for an annual membership.
Do the math.

Where then will the money come from to implement any changes? It will come from the taxpayers. Pantrinbago is totally dependent on government funding (taxpayers money). The local businesses do not see fit to put any dollars in Pantrinbago’s schemes. Sure, they will sponsor (tax deductable) a steelband or buy some jerseys for a band. But, putting millions of dollars in any of the projects mentioned in the Plan won’t happen. Trinbago lacks a culture of philanthropy, especially when it comes to the steelbands. Philanthropy to the steelbands is done through the government. The political relationship between the steelbands and PNM government saved the steelband movement. But, that relationship produced a dysfunctional movement and steelbands know this. If the steelband movement is dead it was killed by the steelbands.

The future of the steelband movement lies with the steelpan instrument. It is the soprano pan that will make the break through that panjumbies yearn for. Panorama and other local steelband events are cultural activities. They will continue to dominate the Trinbago landscape. The soprano pan is art on the move. Soon, classical orchestras engage the soprano pan as a part of their orchestra. We shall see orchestras like New York Philharmonic, Boston Pops, Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras inviting panists to join their orchestras. And, it might not be a Trinbagonian (if local panists continue to refuse to study music) because the panist would have to know musical theory to join the orchestra in order to play the scores. For the record, Mia Gormandy (Trinbago soprano panist and graduate in music) is a member of Northern Illinois University Orchestra. I saw her play and she is good. Her musical training paid off.

As non-Trinbagonians master the soprano pan, their knowledge of music will give them an edge on the locals who refuse to learn the language of their art, music. Of course, steelbands will remain a local legacy. Trinbago will always control Panorama and other local steelband events. The international community is not interested in Panorama, except in countries with Trinbagonians. The international community has already welcomed the soprano pan as its own like it has welcomed every instrument. It is not unusual for countries to adopt instruments. Today, the soprano pan is the most advanced since the instrument was created in the late 1940s. We have to give thanks to Ellie Mannette, the father of the modern steelpan. Mr. Mannette gave the steelpan its voice with his master tuning. The 21st century is the century of the steelpan.

The challenge for steelbands and Pantrinbago, now that the steelpan has become an international instrument, is for steelbands to develop a repertoire for their instrument and Pantrinbago to make Panorama an international showpiece for steelbands at THE GEORGE GODDARD STEELBAND PERFORMING ARTS CENTER.

Stay blogged,


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