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January 18, 2008 - Volume 1, No. 8

Panorama: The National Festival of Trinbago

On Saturday, February 2, 2008 panjumbies will celebrate the 45th anniversary of Panorama in Trinbago. Although the stage has changed from Queens’ Park Savannah to Skinner Park in the southland, Panorama is now the national festival of Trinbago. As a result, I think it is only fitting to take some time to reflect and give a little background on Trinbago’s national festival. It was hard work to get there and still is a struggle each and every carnival year. Most of the steelbands and panists from the beginning in 1963 are not around any more. But, a few panjumbies, like yours truly who were there can reflect on those times. This was before the master Clive Bradley and Len Boogsie Sharpe, the two stalwarts of Panorama.

On August 31, 1962, Trinbago received its independence from Britain, its former colonial ruler. A new political party, PNM and its political leader Dr. Eric Williams would lead the new nation. The nationalism that started in the 1930s paid off in the 1960s. As a result of the total support that the PNM received in the 1956 general elections from the African masses and particularly the steelband movement behind the bridge, it was time to deliver to the working class and majority African arrears of Laventille, Morvant, Gonzales and Belmont where the steelband had strong roots. With people like George Goddard, Cannon Farquhar, Beryl McBurnie, Carlton Comma, Lennox Pierre and John Donaldson Snr. (all deceased) leading the charge for inclusion, Dr. Williams decided that it was time to bring the steelbands into the national culture. Some say that it was his way of showing the French Creoles that he had the support of the masses. Others say that he received prodding from Beryl McBurnie and the other middle-class Woodbrook residents who supported Invaders Steelband within their middle class enclaves. Whatever was the influencing force, he put the Carnival Development Committee in charge of the next carnival and a new steelband competition was to follow. Previously, the music festival, which featured European classical music, was the supreme steelband competition.  Bands who won the music festival felt that they could claim bragging rights on the bridge or the coffee.

And so, it was in 1963, on a carnival Friday night, (In 1976 it changed to carnival Saturday night) seven years after PNM won the first general elections, that a new steelband competition was born. It was called Panorama. This new event would be under the financial patronage of the PNM government (it still is today). After many years of different steelband associations being sub culture, Panorama was to become part of the national culture and determine the best playing steelband of the nation. As a result, Panorama would develop to become the national festival of Trinbago. It was the beginning of the African cultural ascent in the nation. Soon, there would be Better Village competitions and Classics and Carols in Woodford Square, all under the patronage of the new government. The class stratification of Trinbago put the steelbands and their members at the low end of the society. This new Panorama would instill a national pride in steelbands and their followers, especially those form the working class arrears. It placed the steelband at the top of the cultural landscape of Trinbago. Soon, Trinbago was telling the world that the steelpan is its national instrument.

Thus, from 1963 to 1979, Steelbands reigned supreme in the savannah and on the road for both carnival days. Most steelbands at that time belonged to a community from which they received most of their supporters and panists. Steelbands like Desperadoes, City Syncopators (defunct), Joyland (defunct), Casablanca (defunct), Silver Stars (revitalized in 2008), Starlift, Invaders, City Symphony (defunct), All Stars, Sputniks (defunct), Hilanders, Kintups (defunct), Renegades, Savoys (defunct), Sun Valley (defunct, Amboys (defunct), Sunland (defunct), Dixieland (defunct) and Dem Stars (defunct) came on the road with hundreds of masqueraders, mostly from their neighborhoods. Even steelbands from the Eastern and Southern parts of Trinbago came to Port of Spain to display their musical prowess with plenty masqueraders. Steelbands like San Juan All Stars (defunct), Ebonites (defunct), Harmonites, Cavaliers(defunct), Flamingoes (defunct) and Cordettes challenged the town bands for musical supremacy on the road. At that time, steelbands were still an integral part of carnival on the road. Panorama had not yet become the raison d’Ítre for steelbands. During the Panorama competitions, from 1963 till 1971 all steelbands played a calypso written or sung by a calypsonian as their Panorama tune of choice.

In 1972, Ray Holman changed the dynamics of the Panorama. That year Holman composed and arranged his own tune called “Pan on the move” for his band Starlift. For the first time, a steelband entered the Panorama competition with a tune composed and arranged by a panist. And Holman was their panist too. It was also the first time that any steelband entered the Panorama with a composition other than the regular calypso sung during the carnival season. During that time calypsonians like Sparrow and Kitchener ruled the road march and Panorama competitions as most steelbands played their tunes. Holman bucked the system and was quickly put under heavy manners. Calypsonians like Sparrow complained that Holman was moving away from tradition. Panjumbies complained that they did not know the tune so it was impossible to follow the band. At that time it was customary for radios to give daily air play to calypsos from after Christmas (when new calypsos were released) to Carnival. That allowed panjumbies to become acquainted with the calypso tunes for Panorama. Ray Holman, with his own composition, brought the steelband movement into a new era. Even some of the judges expressed dismay that a steelband could compose their own tune for Panorama. Panorama would never be the same again.

The introduction of steelbands using their own compositions at Panorama was the third innovation in the Panorama competition. The first innovation was the classical style arranging of Panorama tunes. That was introduced by Anthony Williams of North Stars in 1963 with “Dan is the Man” and repeated in1964 with “Mama dis is Mas”. At the inception of Panorama, North Stars was the supreme music festival steelband. The second innovation to be introduced was the fast tempo style playing and large bass sections. That was introduced in 1964 by Cavaliers from the South land. Cavaliers, led by Bobby Mohammed won the 1964 Panorama. Most South bands continue to this day to emulate Cavaliers tempo with emphasis on the large bass sections at the Panorama. But, a side effect of the Cavaliers win was the decision of North Stars leader Anthony Williams, who was displeased that Cavaliers won, never to enter Panorama again. The third innovation was the introduction by Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe of jazz in his compositions. The last innovation was the total involvement of women panists in the Panorama orchestra. Today, in the Panorama competition most of the panists in some of the major steelbands are women.

In 1970, the Black Power movement demanded that local culture get its rightful place in the society. As a result, the PNM government took the decision to financially support the steelbands and to encourage various businesses to sponsor the steelbands. It was hoped that sponsorship would deter the steelbands from fighting on the road for carnival. It worked, because steelbands believed that fighting would lead to the loss of their sponsorships. But, as the fights disappeared a new generation of panists came on the scene without the allegiances of the former generation to the steelbands. No longer were steelbands getting most of their panists from the community. Also, panjumbies from other communities gave their support to the popular steelbands, especially those that belonged to the top winning four steelbands: Renegades, All Stars, Phase II and Desperadoes. The end of steelband wars permitted panists to hire out their skills to any steelband of their choice. No longer did younger panists feel obligated to any steelband. Some even hire their skills to more than one steelband until Pantrinbago put a stop to that variety. Before, panists belonged to a steelband and stayed with that steelband through thick and thin, win or loss at Panorama. Most panists did not even visit other panyards to hear another steelband that was participating in the Panorama. At that time, steelbands were very exclusive and community oriented. From 1976 till 2000 Desperadoes, All Stars and Renegades, steelbands with roots behind the bridge, won the most Panorama competitions for that period.

In the 1980s, other arrangers started composing their own tunes for Panorama, notably Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe from Phase II, Ken ‘Professor’ Philmore from Fonclaire and Godwin Bowen from Pamberi. To this day, Ray Holman and Boogsie continue going to Panorama with their own compositions. Other arrangers sometimes choose a regular calypso. Panorama became the most important competition in the steelband movement. The music festival that stressed European classical music took a back seat to the Panorama as the main steelband competition in Trinbago. Often, many panjumbies complain that the Panorama (one tune) has watered down the steelbands’ repertoire. Steelbands concentrate and focus on one tune to prepare for the Panorama competition. Panjumbies still believe that the Panorama is killing the steelband movement because steelbands pull together all their energies for three or four months before carnival learning one tune for Panorama.

I would like to put forward four reasons, in spite of the old talk, that I believe why Panorama became the supreme competition for the steelbands. First, most of the panists in the major steelbands are unemployed or poor. Panorama offers a steelband opportunity to make more money than the other steelband competitions. If a steelband is able to pass the preliminaries, make it to the semi-finals and get in the finals it receives cash payment for each appearance: preliminaries, semi-finals and finals. In 2007, All Stars won the Panorama finals and received TT$1million dollars plus fees for preliminaries, semi-finals and the finals. A tidy sum for one steelband. Plus, panists today are paid for playing in the Panorama. That was unheard of during the 1960s and 1970s. The status of the music festivals has diminished over the years, especially after the Black Power revolt in 1970. Steelbands joined the new nationalism in the land by focusing on the Panorama which is a local musical affair. All steelbands at the music festival play foreign classical music. Boogsie and Jit Samaroo and a few panists have composed their version of a classical piece for the competition.

Second, most of the panists are of African descent. The steelband movement is one of three social activities that Africans control in the society, other than calypso and Mas. They are the best tuners, arrangers, panists and leaders of the top steelbands like Desperadoes, All Stars, Renegades and Phase II. The majority of the audiences for Panorama are from the African communities.

Third, under a political party controlled by an African leadership, Africans dominate the steelband movement. Hence, Panorama being the supreme competition, Africans feel in control. Africans have achieved social status in Trinbago through their steelband prowess. While others may control other aspects of Trinbago society, the steelbands are totally controlled by Africans.

Lastly, some people in Trinbago see some African areas (East-West Corridor) as the root cause of most of the criminal problems in the nation, especially the recent increase in murders, kidnappings and gang warfare. But, on Panorama night the nation comes together to support the steelband movement, in what has become the national festival. Hence, Africans attain their societal status through the Panorama. The Panorama gives every finalist steelband and arranger an opportunity to showcase their musical abilities. Bands from behind the bridge and the East-West corridor like Renegades, Desperadoes, All Stars and Panknights can feel a sense of pride as they seek supremacy in the national festival.

Today, steelbands no longer have a space in the carnival fetes. Fetes now are show places for singers and DJs. They are larger and are held at large venues that can hold a thousand or more people. The steelbands are no match for singers and DJs with their amplified sounds. As the steelbands were left out of fetes and parties, Panorama became more and more the country’s national festival. Most of the young steelband players, who join the bands to play for Panorama, have no interest in pan after the Panorama competition is over. A glance at the carnival fetes would offer young panists partying as if Panorama never happened. As a result, steelbands are left with few panists to play on the road for carnival days. On carnival Monday and Tuesday, few steelbands come on the road with what could be considered a combo side with very few mas players in the band.

Up until 1979, steelbands reigned supreme on the road on carnival Monday and Tuesday. It was the steelbands that determined the road march for carnival in those times. Today, the road march is now determined by soca singers like Machel Montano and others. A curious panjumbie could count the amount of steelbands that appear on the road on one hand. Carnival on the road is now for mas bands as their membership swell to thousands of young people. Many steelbands like Desperadoes, Renegades and Invaders, except for Phase II, All Stars and Starlift, can barely get a hundred mas players in their bands on carnival days. Phase II, All Stars and Starlift are lucky to have a large foreign membership following who lend financial and physical support to those bands. For Starlift and All Stars, their members who live abroad, especially in Brooklyn, raise money and provide the mas for the carnival days. On carnival Monday and Tuesday you can see thousands of Trinbago panjumbies who reside in London, Toronto, Montreal, Brooklyn, Boston and other parts of the United States reveling in those bands on the road to the savannah. All are looking for that nostalgic moment when pan ruled town.

It is important that panjumbies pay attention to the class ramifications of the steelband movement. To do so, helps one understand the stature of Panorama for the steelbands. The lower classes who invented the steelpan have never received any monetary gains in Trinbago society. Pioneers like Ellie Mannette, Neville Jules had to leave Trinbago and settle in America, the Bonaparte brothers migrated to another Caribbean island, Anthony Williams is still alive but struggling and Philmore ‘Boots’ Davidson left for England where he died. Most of the panists today are still unschooled in musical theory. The majority of panists playing in steelbands on Panorama night are young African men and especially young African women. Other groups do participate but most of the faces you see are from the African communities. The elevation of Panorama to national status gave the steelbands their only entrance in the social strata of Trinbago society. It is for that reason that the steelbands recognize Panorama as their only true way of showing Trinbagonians that they master an instrument which is today an international instrument played by non-Trinbagonians throughout the world. Desperadoes, Renegades and All Stars (bands from behind the bridge) have become known for their prowess in the Panorama. And, African-Trinbagonians will always believe that they hold the leadership when it comes to the steelband movement and Panorama, the national festival of Trinbago.

In recent years, there were calls from some leaders of the Indian community demanding that the instruments brought to Trinbago by East Indians during their indenture, be considered national instruments. And, some even accused the government of being racist for calling the steelpan the national instrument. While I can understand concerns from other groups for their space in the national culture, I believe that they misunderstand what is a national instrument. The steelpan has legitimate claims to be called the national instrument of Trinbago because it was created in Trinbago. All other instruments (sitar, guitar and violin) were brought to Trinbago from other homelands. The steelpan is indigenous to Trinbago because Trinbagonians created it in Trinbago. The Panorama, being derived from the national instrument is indeed the national festival of Trinbago.

Stay Blogged

P.S. For any carnival, steelband or local terms used here, please go to the Port of Pan ABC,
or you may contact this writer. Thanks for reading.

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