July 2, 2010 - Volume 1, No. 14
The Steelband Movement and the People's
Rising to a new Artistic Relationship
On May 24, 2010 the people of Trinbago elected the People’s Partnership (PP), a coalition of: three political parties (UNC, COP & TOP), one community/cultural group (NJAC) and MSJ (Labor) as the new government. This new government gives the steelband movement an opportunity to rebuild or continue its stagnation and demise. The new Prime Minister Ms. Kamla Persad-Bissessar appointed Mr. Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters as Minister of Arts & Multiculturalism. This appointment is a last call to Pantrinbago and the steelbands.
It demonstrates that our new prime minister intends to take art and culture seriously but in a different direction. The big question now is this. Are the steelbands and Pantrinbago ready for the changes that
the PP is bringing? It is not very often that an institution gets an opportunity to join a new idea and contribute its input to the development of that idea. This may be Pantrinbago and the steelbands’ last chance to be among the vanguard of a cultural revolution which started in 1970 and was stopped by
the PNM in 1976. After reading the PP’s manifesto, I believe that the cultural and social revolution will
be continued by this new government.
On June 22, 2010, Mr. Peters announced that he will be looking at a “national cultural policy to streamline State funding for culture and the arts.” Mr. Peters emphasized that such a policy is long overdue as
“this country continued to transform as a multi-ethnic society.” What does all this bode for Pantrinbago and the steelband movement? The answer is in the two words of the title of the new ministry “Arts & Multiculturalism”. The new Arts & Multicultural minister stressed that the new perspectives and policies
of his ministry were geared towards “ensuring greater equity and equality of treatment of all groups in
the spheres of culture, arts and ethnic development.” A tough order you might say. But, to a cosmopolitan nation like Trinbago, it may be an idea whose time has come.
It is this emphasis that may change the relationship between government and the steelbands.
Mr. Peters went on to say: “the policy would be used to identify all institutions dedicated to culture and art….” Furthermore, Mr. Peters continued: “It would also establish a clear legislative framework, formal and structural institution, checks and balances, and goals and visions ‘to ensure the visionary and productive cultural and artistic sector add value to our Gross Domestic Product and the protection of our artistic or creative capacity as a people.” I hear the naysayers laughing because they feel they heard this before. Not really. No other government has outlined such a hefty vision for local arts and culture. This new vision is a revolution continuing from the NJAC call in 1970 for creative approaches to local culture. Let us hope that this time it is successful.
From the beginning of the steelband movement, pan was viewed as a cultural wonder. This was due to the fact that the instrument was invented by a group of African teenagers in the poor working class areas of Port of Spain. The African elites and other members of the Trinbago elite questioned how poor Africans could produce art. And so, beginning in the late 1940s to the present, steelbands went through many changes and challenges but was always considered ‘we culture’. Today, the new government is providing an opportunity for the steelbands to take their rightful place as true Trinbago art. No other instrument or music is indigenous to Trinbago as the steelpan and calypso.
For too long, the African middle class refused to accept the music of steelbands and calypso as an art from. They only saw European classical music and the Opera as art. To them, the steelband was ‘we culture’ due to their class and color conflict which they inherited from the French and British colonials. Some say that that behavior is still around today. And so,
as the years went by, the steelbands adopted their cultural role. Steelbands struggled to find their space in the Trinbago callaloo as pan became the main ingredient in our carnival festival. Soon, Panorama competition which is held on carnival Saturday night in the Queen’s Park Savannah became Trinbago’s
main carnival brand. There, Trinbagonians gather to listen to their national instrument in all its splendor
and glory. But, let’s go down memory lane briefly to see how steelbands got there.
In 1952, steelbands were invited to participate in the bi-annual music festival in Trinbago where foreign adjudicators judged their performances. From that time, the steelband music festival became the premier competition for the steelbands. But, in spite of that attempt to make steelband an art form most of the society still saw it as a cultural expression and not art. The only time that the steelbands were considered an art form was when the steelbands played European classical music as their main pieces in the music festival.
In 1956, the PNM government came into power with large support from the African middle and working classes. Immediately, the PNM sought to establish aspects of local culture to represent Trinbago by seeking elements of Trinbago culture that could be identified as Trinbagonian. It found it in the calypso and steelband, the two art forms created and invented by African descendants. Trinbago was to have its own national culture carved out by the descendants of enslaved Africans. Although this did not sit well with the county’s elite, nevertheless, they kept their sentiments to themselves. No one was going to challenge
Dr. Williams, the party’s charismatic and popular leader. Remember his sentiments when he said:
“If you don’t like it get to hell out of here”.
In 1963, the steelband movement together with the PNM introduced the Panorama competitions.
Mr. Ronnie Williams (a government minister) was the one who gave it the name ‘panorama’. At that time, the steelband music festival was still the premier competition for steelbands. In their quest to gain social status, steelbands saw the music festival as a test of their innovations and skills. They believed that if they could play the intricate classical pieces on their instruments, society could not deny them a place in the social milieu. Panmen, as they were called then, saw the music festival as the golden opportunity for their craft to be recognized by the middle class. On the night of the music festival every panman held his head high with pride as he journeyed to Roxy Theatre, Globe Theatre or Queen’s Hall to compete in the
bi-annual music festival. The champion steelband could claim to be the best playing steelband in the land. That claim would soon change.
In 1970, the Black Power movement almost brought down the Eric Williams PNM’s government. And,
the steelband movement underwent its first significant change since 1963. During the Black Power demonstrations, the president of the Steelband Association Mr. George Goddard challenged the status quo and called for local culture to be the main ingredient at national festivals. Soon after, the steelbands called for an increase in prize monies and threatened to stage a Panorama boycott if the government failed to respond. The PNM government refused to budge. The result: No Panorama for 1976. It was through those turn of events that Panorama became the national festival within the carnival. The rise of the Panorama as the nation’s main carnival attraction gave the steelbands a new status in the society, while not social but certainly cultural. But, the local culture was still seen as African derived with the PNM totally subsidizing it.
Today, the steelbands’ identity may change again. The PP is calling for a broader national identity to represent Trinbago by embracing the arts to strengthen our national identity and to foster the spirit of unity in diversity. From 1956 till 2010, the culture of African descendants, namely steelband and calypso, was seen as Trinbago’s premier national culture. The Indian community, which is the other majority culture in Trinbago, had little or no space in this national festival. The election of 2010 may change that arrangement. I don’t want the obstructionists to use this as means of name calling. Some may think that this is a call for Indian culture to replace African culture as the nation’s first culture. The racists will be tempted to start seeing an Indian prime minister trying to disrupt Pantrinbago and the steelbands status rather than a Trinbago PM trying to be inclusive to all groups.
The politicization of the steelband movement that the PNM introduced, where they distribute the nation’s funds to calypso, the steelband movement and other African derived cultural groups, may be at an end. The arrangement allowed for total control of those group members in the political sphere. The PP intends
to change that arrangement by ensuring ‘equity and equality of treatment to all groups in the spheres of culture, arts and ethnic development’. There will be changes regarding the distribution of government subsidies to various cultural and artistic groups, including the steelband movement.
In its 2010 political manifesto, on pages 46-47, the PP spells out its vision for embracing the arts, among which are: Create a clear policy for the arts; establish an independent body for the endowment of the arts to give financial and other support to individual artists, artistic organizations, productions and festivals. Strengthen the enforcement of the copyright laws. Revise the schools’ curricula to recognize and include exposure to the ….performing arts, the history, development and practices of our local traditions. Encourage the financial sector to introduce a window for the development of the arts. The PP’s manifesto states on page 47, that it will, “….in collaboration with Pantrinbago, Inc. and the steelpan fraternity complete the construction of the national headquarters for Pantrinbago at the Trincity site and develop
the site in collaboration with Pantrinbago.”
How will Pantrinbago and the steelband movement respond to the PP’s request for collaboration? Ah hear you saying they will do what they always do. Blow it! But, I say give them a chance. I would strongly suggest that Pantrinbago dust of their “Strategic Planning for Steelbands” document and submit it to the PP. Next, they should take up the PP’s promise to complete their headquarters. And, this time don’t ask for more floors to the building. Two floors are enough. Some panjumbies may not remember, but it was the UNC government that gave Pantrinbago the land to build their headquarters and it was the PNM that refused to build it after some disagreement about the number of floors. Next, Pantrinbago must meet with Mr. Peters and secure the completion of the carnival center which the PNM refused to build after breaking down the grand stand at the Queen’s Park savannah. The PP is willing to listen to new ideas from important stakeholders in the nation. As one of those stake holder Pantrinbago should submit their plans to include their presence at the new carnival center.
The advent of the PP government spells a new beginning for Pantrinbago and the steelband movement.
But, Pantrinbago and the steelbands must step up to the plate and engage the new ministry. In the PP’s manifesto it stated that it intends to work with Pantrinbago to ensure that the national instrument is strongly protected. I hear you saying that I am beating a dead horse. But, if I don’t who will? It’s all for
the history books.
Mr. Peters is a calypsonian but is familiar with Pantrinbago and a few steelbands. After all, he is a Trinbagonian. But, Mr. Peters had a bad experience with the African gatekeepers of calypso and the PNM
in the last government. Mr. Peters dared to challenge the PNM and join the UNC political party. It was not the first time that a popular calypsonian had left the PNM to join another political party, Sparrow did it in 1984 when he became a spokesperson for the NAR party who went on to win the 1986 elections. Sparrow got away with it but not Gypsy as Mr. Peters is known in the calypso world. Why? Who could challenge the ‘calypso king of the world’? Remember ‘Steel Beam’.
As a result of Gypsy joining the UNC, a few PNM calypsonians, notably Sugar Aloes and Cro Cro, became annoyed with Gypsy, while others sang about his betrayal. Their behavior toward Gypsy was despicable.
It is rumored that the then lady minister of culture (as the office was known then) demanded that the calypso tents ban Gypsy from singing in their tents. Of course she denied any complicity. Some say that it was Mr. Manning who gave the order. How could she or Mr. Manning do that, you may ask? Well, that was the time when PNM subsidized many calypso tents or PNM would withhold the funds. Who pays the piper calls the tune or something like that. Notice that Gypsy intents to change that structure. Ah Ha, ah see you smiling. As history records, there is not too many second chances in life.
Now comes the hard part. Many of the steelbands are PNM supporters and probably voted for the. But,
the election is over and it’s time for all Trinbagonians to put their shoulders to the wheel and assist the new government to rebuild our country. This will not be an easy task due to the mess that the former government left. Therefore, I recommend that Pantrinbago and all the steelbands hold a national convention to determine their role with the new government. What are their demands for improving the steelband movement? How do they see themselves in this new arrangement that is about to unfold? What does the PP’s “Draft National Cultural Policy” hold for the steelband movement? How does the steelbands
fit into the PP’s “Foundation for Arts?
As a cultural and artistic heritage, the steelband movement deserves its own space among the other cultural and artistic groups. Many Trinbagonians must stop seeing steelbands as belonging to people of Africans heritage. The new government canvassed on a new beginning for Trinbago. While we have never had an Indian as president of Pantrinbago or TUCO, it is time for these organizations to reach out to other sectors of our society and bring them into the leadership so as to create an inclusive environment. The role of the steelband in the community must change as times have changed. The Panyard thread that held our communities together has been broken. It is time to mend it.
The last time I saw Khalick he was liming with Ozzie McSween and Ringo in front of NAPA.