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February 2, 2007 - Volume 1, No. 5

Race, Class & The Steelband Movement

On January 19, 2007, the Trinidad Express newspaper’s editorial (paragraph 4) proclaimed that “A moment’s objective reflection will show that all the elements contained in this assessment are true, leading us to call for a sustained enquiry into what prevents the steelband movement from playing a less seasonal and more central role in the social, civic and economic life of Trinidad and Tobago, particularly among those age groups and communities beset with dire and, indeed, destructive problems.”  It appears that this editorial was in response to what the newspaper referred to as ‘those who continue to carp at what they perceive to be a giveaway of State funds.’

What’s to be done about the Trinbago steelband movement? The steelband movement started in the 1940s among the African working classes but to date, it has never won the complete support and appreciation of the Trinbago African middle-classes and other Trinbago middle-classes.  Why? Today, the steelpan is an international instrument but still has not achieved ‘art’ status in Trinbago. Why? Pantrinbago (world governing body for the steelband movement) have organized local shows like ‘Pan down memory lane’, ‘Pan in the 21st century’, ‘Music Festival’, ‘Pan Jazz’ and the ‘Borough Day festival’. It is also responsible for the national Panorama at carnival time. But, with all that year round steelband activity, the nation still has not cultivated an artistic approach to the steelband. Why? Trinbago elites continue to see the steelpan as a cultural phenomenon and over the years, they never granted steelband the same status and respect as Classical or Jazz music which many of them consider true art. Why? The answer may lie in the racial and class divide of Trinbago.

Although Prime Minister Mr. Patrick Manning declared a few years ago that the steelpan is the national instrument, the steelband movement continues to be plagued by mismanagement, lack of independent finances (business and separate funding) and a direction for the 21st century. The participation of middle-class college ‘boys’, who played pan or had their own steelbands (Dixieland, Starlift, Starland and Silver Stars) has decreased, unlike the 1960s, because most of the panists today have no real steelband allegiance. They don’t belong to the band but play in a steelband for carnival and after carnival they resort to their foreign musical tastes. The party scene today is devoid of steelband music as steelbands no longer rule the parties as they used to in the 1960s. Today, some former large steelbands like City Syncopators, Tripoli, Angel Harps, Harmonites, Casablanca, Tokyo, Silver Stars, Blue Diamonds and North Stars, are either defunct or reduced to medium band status.

Every Panorama, panjumbies expect the winning Panorama band to be either, Phase 2, Desperadoes, Renegades, Exodus or All Stars. The other bands don’t stand a chance, except if they obtain a top arranger like the case of Nutones with arranger Master Clive Bradley when they won the Panorama in 1998. Many steelbands continue to run annual financial deficits as the costs of bringing a Panorama steelband continue to outgrow the prize monies they receive. Steelbands are paying thousands of dollars to get their bands ready for Panorama and the Panorama’s prize monies do not help. Only if you are the winning steelband and get the first prize can a band hope to break even. After carnival, steelbands are left with a narrow membership and return to the crime ridden areas of Trinbago.  Why have the Trinbago middle-classes abandon the steelband movement? Why has the local businesses not supported the national instrument by sponsoring each steelband? The answer may lie in the class structure of Trinbago.

Like other neo-colonial nations, Trinbago does not like to discuss its class divisions among the Africans and Indians. It wraps itself up in the ideal claiming to be a place where ‘every race can find an equal place’ but the reality is that many Africans and Indians do not share in that dream. Today, the steelpan finds itself in the dysfunctional position of being the nation’s supreme instrument but not having achieved ‘art’ status. So, in order to answer the above editorial one has to start with an historical understanding of the racial and class divisions that continues to plague Trinbago. Most of the steelbands ills and its stagnation of the development of the steelband movement start with Trinbago’s racial and class divisions.

Trinbago society is principally divided into two major groups: the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured Indians. The rest of Trinbago is made up of Chinese and European descendants. The steelband movement is made up primarily of Africans with few Indians among the panists. The leadership of Pantrinbago (the world governing body of the steelband movement) is primarily of African descent. The majority of the panists in the various steelbands are of African descent with a few Indians participating. This African presence in the leadership of the steelband movement does not sit well with the elite of Trinbago. And, while the nation enjoys the steelband during the carnival it is the African working-classes that mainly support the steelbands. Some Indian leaders never embraced steelband as their own Trinbagonian culture. The Hindu leadership has expressed its displeasure with the steelband movement and views the steelbands as an African (black) cultural expression and considers participation in it as a form of Africanization (creolisation).

The racial and class distinctions among the steelbands prevent any true development outside of Panorama which is the main financial provider for the steelbands. The absence of the middle-classes, especially the African middle-classes, in the leadership of the steelband movement hinders any proper planning to move the steelband movement to the next stage. Absent that leadership, many steelbands continue to focus on winning Panorama competitions as their raison d’etre.  All art forms are advanced by the middle classes. They are better educated, economically sufficient with disposable income and are better trained in managerial skills. The steelbands lack all those facilities. As a result, the call for reform in the steelband movement falls on deaf ears as Trinbagonians only see the cultural aspect of the steelband movement.

The birth of the steelband movement occurred when the low-class descendants of former enslaved Africans put their ingenuity together and created an instrument (steelpan) that is internationally claimed to be the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. And, it is that occurrence that has shaped the steelband movement since its inception. The African middle classes never fully accepted the steelband movement because they never saw it as art but a noisy nuisance created by the low-classes. They looked to Europe for their art. The Trinbago nationalist movement never tried to harness the genius of the steelbands because, strange as it may seem, they were trained to believe that European music, law, values and morality were the apex of civilization. Even the local labor movement never embraced the steelbband movement. To date, the steelband movement has still not found its rightful place in Trinbago, particularly among the middle-classes...

The European myth that Africa did not produce any civilization created a dysfunctional state of consciousness among the African middle-classes. Hence, they never sought to include themselves in the development of the steelband movement except as arbitrators seeking to calm the steelbands from their internecine rivalry and street fighting. But, during the 1950s a few of the African middle-classes like Beryl McBurnie (socialite), Lennox Pierre (attorney), Carlton Comma (librarian), Canon Farquhar (priest), Albert Gomez (politician) sought to give a form of respectability to the steelband movement by assisting them to stage music festivals. They brought foreign adjudicators to judge the competition. But, the lot of the steelband membership remained poor and unemployed. Most of the steelbands were (still is) concentrated in the urban areas populated by the African working classes. Today, the high concentrations of crime, unemployment, drugs and murders in those areas have made the steelbands a distant relative in the nation’s main stream. Thus, the steelband remains a cultural expression as it struggles to become an art form.

In the 1960s, the steelband movement started receiving State subsidy from the PNM government for their programs like Panorama and the music festivals. That subsidy continues to this date. This year the first prize for the Panorama finals is $1 Million Dollars with additional monies for appearance fees at the preliminaries and semi-finals. But, such subsidies only strengthen the government’s control of the steelband movement. This has led to the steelband movement’s total dependency on government funding to host its many steelband festivities, including the national festival, Panorama. I don’t know of any business dollars offered to the steelband movement. Since Pantrinbago became totally dependent on government funding the end result led to the creation of an unexpected achievable agenda (narrow as it may be), namely collecting more prize monies for the steelbands for the different steelband competitions. 

As a result of government’s patronage, the steelband movement became a captive and political tool of the government leading to the stagnation in the development of the steelband movement. While many complain (myself included) about that stagnation of the steelband movement and wish to see the steelband movement become independent with its own source of funding to be able to lead the movement to greater heights, it is a sad fact that the steelband movement has reached its peak in Trinbago. It may be up to other countries who have adopted the steelpan to carry the movement into the 21st century. Since those countries have accepted the steelpan as an artistic instrument (it is still a cultural instrument in Trinbago) and have a more sophisticated method of funding the arts through government, business and philanthropic organizations, the prospects of developing the steelband movement may yet come to pass.

Since 1963, the home of Panorama was at the savannah. The savannah provided the steelbands a modicum of respectability because the spot represented the symbolism of the past English elite. During the colonial era it was at the savannah that the Easter parade was held with horse racing crowning the event. The British elite built the grand stand with its box seats to house the upper classes for the Easter parade. When the Panorama became a fixture at the savannah in 1963 a new arena called the North stand became the box seats for the working classes. Thus, the removal of the Panorama from the savannah brought an end to an era where the North stand reigned supreme and there is no guaranty that the new ‘carnival cultural center’ will have a North stand.

The steelband movement was born out of the bowels of African descendants on the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago (Trinbago). Today, it is facing tough challenges as the instrument takes its rightful place among the international community of nations in the 21st century while it still struggles for middle-class acceptance in its home land. From the 1940s to the present, the steelband movement has faced uphill battles for acceptance in its own society, Trinbago. It is not uncommon for any cultural expression to face challenges in its own society. But, what is unique about the steelband movement is its fifty (50) year sojourn to gain respectability and artistic acceptance in its birth place. There have been many changes in the steelband movement but the final change is the manner in which it was dislodged from the savannah in the 2007 carnival festival. In 2006, with no national discussion with the citizenry and steelbands and an abrupt warning the government decided to tear down the grand stand with a promise to build a cultural carnival center in its place. The decision by the government to remove the national festival, Panorama from the Queen’s Park Savannah (The Savannah) sent shock waves throughout the steelband movement. To date, Pantrinbago has not responded to this action by the government.

Every year there are complaints that the radio stations seldom play any steelband music. The government has not provided a radio station for local music. The private radio stations play mostly foreign music as they cater to their listeners who demand foreign things. The advertisers are reluctant to sponsor steelband music on the radio because people turn off and go to other radio stations. Advertisers demand attention. That is a business decision. Therefore, if the steelband movement is to make the next transition then the government has to subsidize a national radio station that will feature local music. This will give steelbands an opportunity to air their music.

Pantrinbao must address the absence of a Steelband library. Pantrinbago must become a depository for steelband information on its web site. Trinbago businesses must see the need to get involved in the steelband movement as there are profits to be made from this indigenous art industry. Steelbands have to enter the computer age and create their own web sites. Some bands like All Stars, Desperadoes and Renegades have already started in this direction. The steelbands must return to the model of Pan Theatres instead of panyards where steelbands can put on shows. If the steelband movement is to play a more central role in the social, civic and economic life of Trinbago then the middle-classes (professionals, college graduates, doctors, lawyers and teachers) must get involved in the management of steelbands.

Lastly, the government or any government must translate the steelband movement as a jobs program where economic opportunities and training are given to steelband members, tuners, arrangers and composers. The government must institute an after-school steelband program in all the schools to provide a civic role for students. Peter Minshall put it best when he said: “Expand Panorama and impress the world with your knowledge of yourself.” “I cannot believe the universe has blessed us with this instrument and it is still in a yard.” “I do not think it is beyond the imagination of a great architect to build a house of steel to house instruments of steel, a fine concert hall….” Mr. Minshall’s final call is “I need a concert hall for pan!” A new form of thinking is absolutely necessary if any changes are to come to the steelband movement for the 21st century. The nation’s schools must begin to teach the history of the steelband movement as a part of their curriculum. The students of Trinbago should be taught about the history and struggles of the people who fought to give the world its most recent acoustic instrument, the steelpan. Hopefully, this will prepare the next generation of panists with the knowledge and appreciation of the steelband movement to see the steelpan as art.

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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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