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August 15, 2005 - Volume 1, No. 3

Beloved panjumbies, I want to offer my few comments about some of the elements and characteristics of the steelband movement. I believe that certain structural and social problems are limiting the steelband’s growth and marketability to the international community. One limitation is that over the years there has been no definitive book (s) to explain the essential characters, traditions, trajectory and innovations of the steelband movement. Of course, there have been a few articles, dissertations and books written but, the definitive history book of the steelband movement is still to come. The main organization responsible for the promotion of pan, PanTrinbago, is yet to commission the writing of such a book. Another impediment is the fact that the steelband movement has not contributed a permanent and pervasive presence on the music scene. Even though the steelpan is used in some radio and television commercials, nevertheless its presence in the schools, colleges, jazz clubs and concert halls are totally absent. Even after 45 years some of the same problems are still plaguing the steelbands. This year in Brooklyn, a few of the steelbands are searching for panyards. Imagine, in the 21st century some steelbands do not have permanent homes for their orchestra where they can combine in-house rehearsals throughout the year.

“Your wealth and your pride
Even you image, they take from you
But, you survive all Civilizations old and new.
Great Man, Black Man
Pride of your father and your son
Africa ! Remember that you are the same one
From Egypt to Ethiopia across the oceans to America
To the Russian Steppes of Europe, West Indies and India
But with every beat of the drum your image unfolds
Black Woman remember your children of Africa
Displaced and scattered without a trace of their culture
The color of their skin is their heritage
So no matter where you go or where you live
The Black Man with the drum remains your true heritage.”

Ras Shorty I

On August 13, 1992 the Prime Minister of Trinbago Mr. Patrick Manning declared the steelpan to be the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. To date, that declaration is yet to be an Act of Parliament in the land of its birth and creation. There is no legal protection for the national instrument. The steelpan is the true original heritage of Trinbagonians like its sister art form, calypso.  And yet, even today there is still no clear unified working strategy from Trinbago’s leadership to promote the steelpan. The main focus in Trinbago is still the Panorama, the bi-annual Music Steelband Festival and the mini panoramas held almost monthly. There is no financial investment from the business community to the steelband movement. And yet, the steelpan is the only acoustic instrument created in the 20th century. As the instrument continues to improve there is much demand for it throughout the Caribbean and the world. Today, there are steelbands throughout the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, Asia, Israel, Latin America and North America. But, it is still led by the working class who, though well intended, lack the business, financial and public relations skills to promote the instrument.

As a percussion instrument, the steelpan comprises the body of the steelband orchestra similarly to the conventional European orchestra. Today, the steel orchestra copies the various string, wind and percussion instruments of the European orchestra. Steelbands can play European classical music, American Jazz and Latin music while being comfortable in its local medium, the calypso. The modern steelpan was created in the 1940s. Early pioneers were Neville Jules, Ellie Mannette, Winston Spree Simon, Anthony Williams and Bertie Marshall. Of course, there were countless other people who contributed and may remain nameless. But, it is a fact that the steelpan was created by the young descendants of Africans in the twin island of Trinidad and Tobago. Shamefully, in spite of all Trinbago’s wealth from oil and natural gas, there is no concert hall or performing arts center to house the national instrument.

The early years of the instrument’s birth were turbulent and at times violent as the English enslavers tried to wipe out the instrument. At the time of the creation of the steelpan, England was the colonial occupier of Trinbago and established a brutal, violent, oppressive and racist social system of governing the twin islands. In the late 1940s, the Americans occupied Trinidad. They had a base of operations and brought in oil to service their ships as World War II raged on. The discarded oil drums proved to be an asset to the development of the steelband as inventors took the empty oil drums and molded them into shape to form an instrument that is played all over the world today. The African teenagers who made up this inventive class appropriated the musical traditions of Europe and empowered themselves with instrumentation, melody and harmony. Soon they added chromatic scales to the instrument which brought it to its present stage today.

Beginning in the 1980s there were many changes in the steelband community as a new generation of panists entered the steelband movement. Some of the changes like the development of the tonal quality of the instrument are good. Others like the relationship between the young panists and the steelband and the disappearance of the steelbands from the streets are negative changes. No longer is the panist a community member actively involved in the band throughout the year. Today he/she is a one time pan lover for the carnival. After carnival you may not see her/him until the next year. The days of seeing large steelbands on the streets for carnival are over as most steelbands take to trucks to transport their instruments. The era of the pan pusher is over. Also, some of the top five steelbands (Renegades, All Stars, Desperadoes, Phase 11 and Exodus) still command a larger number of the available panists because they are seen as very competitive and able to win the Panorama championship (each of these bands have won the panorama over the last 25 years). Most of the other steelbands struggle to get players every year in their attempt to reach the 100 player requirement to qualify as a large steelband. Some of the top arrangers are usually the same each year (Ray Holman, Robbie Greenidge, Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe, Pelham Goddard, Jit Samaroo and Clive Bradley) who are contracted each year to arrange the panorama tune. Among them, only Boogise and Pelham belong to their respective bands. Even Jit Samaroo has his own steelband, the Samaroo Jets.

In the 1960s, most of the steelbands had resident arrangers who belonged to the various bands. Today, most of the arrangers are absentee arrangers who sell their expertise to the highest bidder.  Even Brooklyn steelbands have started to hire some of those top arrangers (Pelham Goddard, Jit Samaroo and Robbie Greenidge) for the Brooklyn Panorama. They are not really members of the band but come to Brooklyn each year to do a job. Also, they command larger sums of financial gain that the arrangers of yesteryear could not dream of. Today, an arranger in Trinbago can make $20, 000.00 - $35, 000.00 to arrange one tune for the Panorama competition. Many of the steelbands, especially those without sponsors, have to struggle to scrape up the money to pay those arrangers. This raises the question about band members who might want to arrange for their respective steelbands. Where are they going to get the necessary practice to develop their arranging skills? Do they have to wait until those top arrangers retire or die? The same holds true for the pan-tuners. Years ago, Brooklyn’s top pan-tuner was Mikey.  After he died the bands had to struggle to get pan-tuners. Mikey was always available in Brooklyn so the bands had a pan-tuner on hand whenever they needed him.  The next pan-tuner to take over after Mikey passed away was Austin Wallace, who is a great pan-tuner and now resides in Trinidad but is currently in Brooklyn tuning pans for some of the steelbands. Another pan-tuner, Roland Harrigin, comes to Brooklyn two or three weeks before labor-day and tunes the Marsican Steel Orchestra. But, the steelband movement in Brooklyn seems to be stuck and is not really developing new ideas or nurturing new pan-tuners or arrangers. They are following the model set down in Trinbago where new pan-tuners and arrangers remain the same over the years.

The opportunity for residential pan-tuners and arrangers must be opened up if the Brooklyn steelbands are serious about modernizing the steelband and producing more local pan-tuners and arrangers. Since 1974, the Brooklyn steelbands have participated in the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA) Panorama Celebrations held behind the Brooklyn Museum. Yet, there has been no growth in the Brooklyn steelband fraternity. After the panorama WIADCA severs its ties with the steelband leaving them on their own. There is no permanent steelband presence in the community throughout the rest of the year after labor-day. There is a large reservoir of future panists from the neighborhood schools waiting to be tapped. Why isn’t there pan in every school in Brooklyn where there are Caribbean students? The young men and women who play in the steelbands during the labor-day carnival all disappear after labor-day. It is time for all the stakeholders to meet and plan for the future of the steelband in Brooklyn.

The city of Brooklyn is developing and growing in leaps and bounds but the steelband is not path of that growth. Everywhere you can see new buildings and neighborhoods being revived. But, there is no space for the steelband. Why? The Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn where over 70% of its students come from the Caribbean, should house a permanent chair for the promotion of the steelband. There are many successful Caribbean businessmen and women who can contribute since they will be spending money on a venture that can be useful in keeping our youth from the streets. There is no shortage of future panists in the city of Brooklyn. Each high school in the Brooklyn Caribbean community should have a steelband. There should be Pan Championships organized each year among the various high schools with large Caribbean student populations. It is time for a Brooklyn Steelband Program to be implemented in all the high schools so that the steelband will become a part of the Brooklyn school landscape.

From its creation/invention in the late 1930s, the steelpan embodied the heritage of an enslaved African people who were stolen and brought from their homeland. And though enslaved, they brought their many traditions, religion and culture to this new world. In this strange environment called the new world, they forged an instrument derived from their original drum that was outlawed and replaced it with the only instrument created in the 20th century, the steelpan. This was to be their gift to the new world. But, not all saw this new instrument as a gift. From the beginning of the steelband movement, the African middle class did not accept its presence. They were steeped in European culture and found the steelband to be a nuisance coming from the poor. Some say that even today they still do not accept it, except during the carnival celebrations. As a matter of fact, they are not part of the steelband movement. They do not sit on the various steelband committees nor are they members of the various steelbands. But, they lend their musical expertise to the various competitions like the Panorama and the bi-annual steelband music festival.

Every art form needs the middle class for its growth and development. The middle class provides the social cover for every art form. The art form of jazz was stared by the working class and had a bad reputation as brothel music. When the African American middle class entered the jazz world it became acceptable as it entered the concert halls and performing arts centers. The input of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington and Miles Davis led to jazz becoming respectable. Today, it is accepted as America’s classical music. On January 6, 1987, the American Congress passed a resolution recognizing jazz as ‘a rare and valuable national American treasure.’  The Trinidad Government is yet to do the same.

The future of the steelpan lies in the North of the Americas. Since Brooklyn is the home of most of the Trinbago-born first generation panists, the Brooklyn panists must come together to plan the future of the instrument. If they fail to do so and continue to settle for the panorama on labor-day weekend as their be-it-all then they will have no one to blame but themselves for its stagnation and they will continue to face the annual problems and complications of looking for a panyard or begging for more prize monies. No longer can the steelbands hope that others will seek their interests. They must become professional musicians by educating themselves and join the American musician’s union and treat their craft with the respect it deserves. There is a vast well of opportunity for concerts and shows at the performing arts centers, museums, libraries, high schools, colleges and jazz clubs. The panists must begin to see their craft as an art form. The New York City Board of education needs extra-curricula programs for their students. It is time for the steelbands to enter the education system and put together a tutorial program to teach students to play the pan. Most important they can seek funding from the City to promote cultural programs in the summer and the rest of the year.

Stay Blooged

P.S. If readers don’t understand any of the carnival or steelband terms used here, please go to the Port of Pan ABC at pan-jumbie-com. Otherwise you may contact this writer. Thanks.

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