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March 18, 2009 - Volume 1, No. 12

Sketches of Steel

Every year, panjumbies expect to see improvements in the steelband movement led by Pantrinbago. And, every year there is much disappointment. Except for the increase in prize monies and the tonality of the instrument, there has been no serious improvement in the steelband movement. Many steelbands are still using the models of the past. Since the passing of Kitchener, music choices for panorama tunes have changed due to the young people singing ‘pan tunes’. Some arrangers complain that they are having trouble finding good panorama music material. Other arrangers question why some of the judges are the same people who have been judging Panorama for over a decade while a few arrangers believe that most of the judges are out of touch with panorama music. And yet, some arrangers call for foreign judges to judge Panorama. A thought I consider absurd. Panorama is a local cultural event. The music stems from our culture. What Panorama needs is local judges who can identify with our local culture and not try to judge Panorama with a European aesthetic. For some judges the steelband may be viewed from their class perspective. But, many try to be fair. I am yet to hear panists, steelbands, arrangers and Pantrinbago call for the removal of the canopies that cover the pans for the final night of Panorama. Steelbands can address the canopy issue without Pantrinbago. But, the issue of the judges can only be addressed with Pantrinbago since they organize the Panorama.

Even though Panorama is the most watched and attended event of the carnival, neither the steelbands nor Pantrinbago see the need for changes in the presentation of the Panorama. Thus, every year steelbands continue to cover their pans with their racks and cloister their instruments with canopies and other distractions. Surely, steelbands can come up with a new model for Panorama. They did it before when they invented the wheels for the pans, stands for the pans and yes, canopies to protect the pans from the burning carnival sun. An institution must reinvent its brand to suit the times and audiences. Otherwise, it remains stagnant. Pantrinbago’s brand is Panorama.

For Panorama 2009, it was a beautiful sight to see Exodus Steel Orchestra with their new model of NO CANOPIES. I could look at my DVD and see every Exodus panist and their pans. This is the band’s second appearance at Panorama without canopies or other distractions. I hope they have the courage to stick with it. The band looked so professional on stage on Panorama night. Other steelbands don’t seem to understand that performing without the canopies only enhances their look on DVD.

Today, Panorama is no longer restricted to Trinbago as millions of panjumbies view it on the internet. Viewers should be able to see the panists engaged in their craft without the unnecessary encumbrances of canopies of galvanize covering and strings/curtains hanging down over the pans. For the traditionalists, I urge them to look carefully at this year’s DVD production. Some of it is dark, repetitious and cumbersome. Most of the time cameras focus on the front line pans and panists. Every year there is a problem with photographers trying to take pictures of the panists.

Due to the canopies they cannot see the panists in the back so they try to go inside the band to take better pictures. One can hear announcers warning them not to enter the bands. The steelbands are stuck in a model that was created by Bertie Marshall to protect his Hilanders Steel Orchestra pans from the burning mid-day carnival sun. It is time for steelbands to think about the Exodus model. The old model has outlived its usefulness.

The Panorama competition has been around since 1963 which is 46 years to perfect the national festival. However, for Panorama 2009 the steelbands returned to the empty savannah. After 46 years, Panorama and Pantrinbago are still without a permanent home. Both the national festival and the steelbands’ world governing body depend on government subsidy for their existence. This year Pantrinbago received $20 million to produce the Panorama. After promising to build a state of the art Carnival Center, the government (PNM) instead built a cow shed, surrounded by tall steel beams and covered with galvanize to house the Panorama and other savannah activities. It was a sorrowful sight. What a Shame!

About four years ago, the government tore down the grand stand at the Queen’s Park Savannah and promised to build a new carnival center. Oil dollars were flowing and money was bursting at the seams in the treasury. But, to date, there is no carnival center. Now, the government says that there is no money to continue with that project. My grandfather used to say that you can always tell how much someone appreciates a thing by where they place it. If Pantrinbago was a serious organization they would suspend Panorama until the government builds the state of the art carnival center for the national instrument. More importantly, if the steelbands were serious about their art they would demand that Pantrinbago suspend Panorama until the government builds a carnival center deserving of their craft. It was done before in 1979.

In 2007 and 2008 Pantrinbago kept the Panorama finals in San Fernando at Skinner’s Park. Many steelbands complained that it was too far and costing them money that they did not have. True, many steelbands do not have a lot of money. But, in reality, many steelbands who come from the North do not like to travel out of Port of Spain. So, for Panorama 2009 Pantrinbago decided to return the Panorama to the empty savannah. The Crème de la Crème (formerly Champs in Concert) was also kept in the savannah. For some reason the winning Panorama steelband and the King and Queen of carnival did not appear. What champs in concert?

It is a shame that the government cannot build a permanent home to house its national festival. So far, I have not heard any complaints from steelbands or Pantrinbago. It seems that the steelbands are not concerned with the state of the place where the competition is held. If they are, there silence is deafening. This year, Pantrinbago published the Bomb competition results without the names of the Bomb tunes played. How could panjumbies tell years from today which bomb tunes the steelbands played and who were the arrangers? But, my compliments go out to Pantrinbago for their updated web site. Finally, they are providing more information and all the names of the Panorama arrangers 1963-2009. Now panjumbies have documented information for their discussions. I like it. But, Pantrinbago needs to publish all the names of arrangers for all the steelband finalists.

I missed the semi-finals because there was no pre-schedule (months ahead) from Pantrinbago for semi finals. As a result, by the time they published the date I already booked my flight. There has to be a way for panjumbies to go to Pantrinbago’s web site and find a Panorama schedule months ahead so that they can plan their carnival trip. We have to wait until the very last moment, when the local newspapers publish the days and time for preliminaries and semi-finals. All this is done a few weeks before Panorama. As a result, I missed the semi finals. It is easy to track the Panorama finals because it is held every year on carnival Saturday night. But, the preliminaries or semi finals can be changed at will by Pantrinbago. I hope that Pantrinbago rectifies this problem next year.

Panorama music for 2009 was a mixture of fresh air and old smells. There was fresh air coming from Silver Stars Steel Orchestra who won the 2009 Panorama, Phase II who came second and Deltones who came seventh. Old smells came from the steelbands who continue to play the old mode of music forgetting that Panorama is energy. Silver Stars beat Phase II Steel Orchestra by one point. It was their first competition win since the band was founded over 60 years ago. Silver Stars is one of the remaining ‘college boys’ steelbands still competing in the large steelbands category. *The band started in Newtown by the extended family of Chans, Youngs and Kwong Sings (Junior Pouchet came later) and consisted mainly members of the Chinese community who attended the elite colleges in the early days of the steelband movement. The other was Dixieland Steel Orchestra whose early members were Portuguese and Chinese, captained by Ernest Ferreira (Curtis Pierre came later). Silver Stars current panyard was once known as the Big Yard where Alexander’s Ragtime band launched the steelband movement in 1939. Today, Silver Stars is made up mostly of Africans, Indians, female and young panists. Today, Silver Stars is made up mostly of Africans, Indians, female and young panists.

I want to specially commend Mr. Donnell Thomas, the conductor of Silver Stars steelband. Mr. Thomas is only 25 years old. I spoke to him on jouvert morning. He explained to me that he is first a panist. Edwin Pouchet asked him to drill the band and saw the influence that Donnell’s conducting had on the young panists. Immediately, Edwin decided that Donnell should continue to drill and conduct the band right to the final night of Panorama. A wise choice! There is a reason that orchestras have conductors. Donnell was a force to be reckoned with on Panorama night. The young panists from Silver Stars beat a worthy adult steelband. They played to win while Phase II played as if they already won. Congratulations to Donnell and the young people of Silver Stars Steel Orchestra for their well deserved win.

I attended some of the panyards and observed some interesting things. First, I noticed that the young panists do not lime in the panyards. While in All Stars panyard I saw a few of the young panists walk into the panyard. They were very respectful to the Elders who were liming in the front of the panyard. In some panyards they don’t even speak to the Elders. They said hello but walked straight to their instruments. They stood behind their pans and limed there. None of them ventured out into the panyard among the Elders. If you walked into the Renegades panyard you would observe that there are two bars where drinks are sold, one run by the Elders and the others by the band. The Elders lime at their bar and the young panists gather on the other side of the panyard. There seems to be a separation among the young panists and the Elders in some steelbands. I told some of the Elders that they must share a great part of the blame for this separation which may lead to changes in the steelbands. Some day the Elders will pass along to their ancestors. What are they leaving for the young panists to follow?

I don’t know why Steelbands have not introduced history classes of the band to the young panists who are ignorant of the steelbands’ history and the role that Elders played in maintaining steelbands. Many of the young panists do not know the contributions of the Elders, some of whom went to jail, suffered indignities from the society and/or were injured protecting their steelband. I recommend that steelbands display pictures in their panyards of Elders and pioneers who gave their blood, sweat, tears, time and money to the steelbands. The young panists of Renegades Steel Orchestra should know about Stephen ‘Goldteeth’ Nicholas, Brokofoot Raymond, Tampico, Papito, Little Axe, Mr. Lee, Bold face, Utah Blaine and all the others who preserved Renegades for them. After all, it is through the struggles of the Elders that the young panists have a steelband today. Similarly, All Stars, Desperadoes and other steelbands should educate their young panists about the contributions of the bands’ Elders and pioneers.

On carnival Monday I played Mas in All Stars and was disappointed with All Stars music on the road. Luckily, they hired Renegades steelband to play in the band. Unlike All Stars, who played slow and boring music and stopped every few blocks, Renegades presented a vibrant calypso repertoire of old and new calypsos. They had the masqueraders jumping from the savannah to Ariapita Avenue. I did not play Mas on Tuesday but observed that it was the same thing with All Stars on the road. Every 10 or so minutes the panists rested. I am sure that a few of the Mas players may not be back next year. As usual the road was filled to capacity with Mas. On both days, a few steelbands dared to come on the road. The Desperadoes steelband was small but the old supporters were there. I jumped with them for old times’ sake. It is sad that the murders and crime on the Hill forced Desperadoes to come down to Belmont for carnival where they practice on Cadiz Road. It is now the custom that after the preliminaries the band stays and practices on Cadiz Road in a car park until after the carnival. I was told that the temporary move is due to the fact that very few people go up the Hill to hear the band during carnival. Someone said that that could not happen if Rudolph Charles was alive. Maybe!

The Nelson Street scene is still the same. A friend of mine was mugged down Nelson Street on jouvert morning around 9 AM. However, upper Nelson Street was calm. I visited and limed with Grissom. The guys from Grissom: Charlie Roach, Tinboy, Smally, Sharko, Byer, Andrew, Emory, Zolup, Matt, Earl, Joey, Smalls, Hollis, McCollin, Zamba and yours truly limed together every day. It is amazing how the street changes while we visiting Nelsonians are there. Grissom cleaned up the block every day. People were respectful and happy. They smiled as everyone remembered a story about the old days when Nelson Street was peaceful and old people and children were safe and secure. Some mentioned the love that flowed from the community which sustained us in those bad moments. Sure, we had steelband and gang riots among gangs like Sun Valley, Desperadoes, Renegades, Tokyo, Invaders, Applejackers, Thunderbirds, Lawbreakers and Silkhats. But, there were some rules. Old people were not harmed. Children were protected. At times, an Elder could intervene and stop the bloodshed or fighting.

The Saturday after carnival, City Sun Valley formerly from Nelson Street, kept a party at their current panyard on Borde Street. It was well attended by visiting and local Nelsonians. Sun Valley provided most of the music followed by a DJ who played soca music. A move is being made to bring back Sun Valley to Nelson Street where some believe the band belongs. The band moved to Borde Street after it experienced some trouble with the bandits. Some Nelsonians mentioned that the band may play a Monday Mas for carnival 2010. I can’t wait for that. There are many small things that Grissom could do for their block if only they had security and leadership, two ingredients that every community needs to survive. I saw a willingness to maintain their block in spite of the dire situation they face. There are still decent people living on Nelson Street.

My next journey took me up the Hill to see some old and dear friends. Most people were locked down. There were few people walking on Duke Street. I saw no one walking on Mariquite Street. Belgrade Street from Duke Street to Quarry Street was empty of dogs and people. No one limed. The corners were empty. Many of the old houses were broken down. In their place were tall blades of grass on empty lots of land with bush everywhere. At night the Hill is dark and scary. No one walks the streets up the Hill at night. Yet, there are a few people trying to live their lives with some kind of dysfunctional normalcy. I visited a friend who took about fifteen minutes to open her door. When she came to the door I asked her why she took so long. She opened her hands and showed me over 10 keys that she carried around because she has so many locks on her doors. We talked about how the neighborhood had changed. She expressed how she is so afraid of young males in her neighborhood and that she never ventures back into the streets after she arrives at home. She is a former teacher and one of the remaining middle classes in the neighborhood.

But, it is almost impossible for people behind the bridge to change things without the assistance of government and the protection of the security forces. The sense of normalcy is gone. The addition of security is a daily aspect of everyone’s lives. People adjusted by being inside their homes before dark. Or, they stay inside all day looking at their cable television. If they dare to go outside it is to downtown. Few entertain friends in their homes as they did in the old days. It must be painful to live on an island with sunlight all year and cannot enjoy the breezy afternoons with a walk around the corner or walk outside. Is must be hurtful to look around your neighborhood and see the decay that overtook the community, knowing that you are powerless to change it or that your family cannot escape except through the possibility of death. That makes it very depressing and stressful for most people on the Hill. Security is now a public health issue behind the bridge.

As I walked up Laventille Road I saw a few familiar faces peeking out of their windows. Those who recognized me called out. Others kept their distance and thought: “This guy mad.”   There are no communities anymore up the Hill. There was a time when everyone knew their neighbors and shared an unwritten love and respect for life. Now, most houses are boarded up and rotting. Streets are deserted in the day and especially at night time when no one travels outside. There are a few people still maintaining their homes. In spite of the dangers, people from others areas move in for the free space. Since there are no rules, people are suspicious and silent. No one answers a question from a stranger. There was a time when people would direct you to the person or place for which you were looking. Not anymore.

The kind and free-style spirit that existed behind the bridge and up the Hill in the 60s have been sucked from the lives of its residents, young and old. Today, it is survival. New skills are learned to deal with the murders among young gang members. New weapons of protection are gathered as the young terrorize the Elderly and other vulnerable persons. People refuse to sit in their galleries. Some have thick and heavy curtains to block outsiders from viewing inside their homes. Others paint their windows dark. And yet, people will tell you that they know that is not the normal way to live. What can they do? Who is to save them from the scourge that has visited their communities?

Many see biblical notations for their plight as they refer to prayers as a solution.  Others see benign neglect from a government that they support 100% and received 0% but will not speak out for fear of being labeled anti-PNM. There is no security from the daily terror. From all evidences shown and known, the government does not have a clue about solving it and/or are unwilling to finding a solution for the murders and crime behind the bridge. They answer to different calls.  One of the consequences of the benign neglect is that the people of Nelson Street and behind the bridge (East/West corridor) are left out of mainstream society. They are no longer connected to the body politic. The people who report on their plight do not venture to their neighborhoods. They have lost complete control of their safety. The days when they could complain to someone in authority and expect, at least a hearing, are long gone. They know that they are disconnected. The PNM government has neglected, forgotten and failed its children in the East/West corridor.

I visited other areas in the West beyond Woodbrook and the East beyond San Juan. There things are different. Even though no area is safe, yet those areas have a normalcy that is not found behind the bridge. People walk the streets. They visit their malls to shop. Their children feel safe and play outside. You will find many cars in their large homes. Some even kept inclusive parties for carnival. I attended an inclusive party in Petit Valley and did not think about my safety. People laughed, talked and danced the night away. Their doors had the normal locks for a large home. The class lines of distinction were clear. And, while they were not immune from the dangers of the new Trinbago, this was the middle class who enjoyed the best that Trinbago had to offer. Most of them were retirees or returnees who moved back after living abroad for many years. They have access to most of the good things of the nation. If their health is threatened they can travel overseas to a good hospital. If they get bored they can travel to Canada or New York for the summer holidays. As a result, a few of my friends are moving back home.

Some of the old buildings around Port of Spain are no longer around.  The barracks houses on Duke Street where Pembrokers used to lime are gone. Now, it is the Halls of Justice building. So too are the barracks houses on Charlotte Street where the famous Johnny Lee & Hurricanes Combo and legendary panman “Fisheye” resided. It is now a flea market. Strand cinema is now a night club called Alchemy. The only cinema from the 60s that still stands supreme is Globe theatre on St. Vincent Street. Maybe it is a tax write off that keeps it open. There are cinemas in the new malls in Woodbrook, Long Circular, Trincity and San Fernando while others were torn down. Royal cinema is now a car park. Pyramid, Olympic and Odeon cinemas are gone. I noticed that Queen’s Park Café is being rebuilt. It has a new coat of white paint and stands like a giant at the corner of Belmont Circular Road and Queen’s Park Savannah North. But, it remains closed soon to be opened. That spot is prime real estate with connections to Belmont, Cascade and St. Ann’s. It would make a fine restaurant or café.

Most of the old buildings on Henry, Charlotte and St. Vincent Streets are gone. In their places are new buildings with stores and restaurants. Frederick Street is a mess. It is overcrowded with vendors everywhere. The People’s Mall at Queen Street is still to be rebuilt since it burned down about five years ago.  Up to my departure, Pantrinbago only produced a DVD of the large steelbands with a misplacing of the names of two steelbands. They did not produce a CD. The parade of the bands DVD was about 45 minutes and selling for $150.00. There is no order for those recordings. You take your chances to get them.

The year’s Panorama left much to be desired. Deltones Steel Orchestra got into the finals with a new arranger, Carlton Alexander. Although they placed 7th their arranger shows promise for the future. His tune of choice this year was not a good one. The tune “I’m not drunk” was too little so most of the tune was made up of arrangements. It was plenty arrangements and little tune. Great arrangement too! I wish Mr. Alexander well for next year. He is an arranger to watch if he has a good tune. Renegades steelband is stuck in an old time funk. No new music but the same structures of old.  No matter what they play it all sounds like yesteryears music when Jit Samaroo ruled Panorama. Only a new arranger (away from the Jit mould) will solve their problems.

I applaud Exodus for their removal of the ridiculous canopies. I like their new look. It is the future look for steelbands on final night at the Panorama. Desperadoes have lost the killer instinct for Panorama. Yes, their tune was sweet and memorable but not Panorama material. It lacked the spirit of carnival. I hope Robbie Greenidge pays attention to what is happening with Silver Stars and Renegades who represent the future and the past. I still like Phase II music. For my money, Boogsie is still the best Panorama arranger today. But, for some reason he could not close the deal this year. Those young panists from Silver Stars had the hunger and zest to win this year. Their conductor Donnell Thomas deserves a music scholarship. He understands the instrument.

I saw many changes in the carnival due to a new generation of masqueraders and panists. The steelband movement is changing and yet it is standstill. The panists are younger and more female panists are playing the national instrument. Some steelbands consist of mainly female panists. Panists are no longer connected to a steelband by tradition but by ability to win a Panorama. If a steelband continues to lose then they face the threat of losing their crack shot panists to another steelband. The traditional allegiances that held steelbands together are disappearing. Some steelbands can’t get enough panists to make up a large band. Ask Skifflebunch, Panknights, Casablanca and Harmonites. I know many old panists who never joined or played for another steelband after they left their band or their band became defunct. While some young panists remain with their bands win or lose, for others their loyalty has been transformed into a loyalty for winning.

The young panists have great skills but they lack an historical perspective of the steelband movement. It may not be entirely their fault because the schools are not teaching the history of the steelband movement. Where does a young panist go to understand the history of his instrument? Who teaches her about the pioneers of her steelband? Where does she go to see pictures of the pioneers of her steelband? Pantrinbago should be setting up steelband history workshops for young panists of the pioneering steelbands.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Panorama, Pantrinbago should be planning a Sketches of Steel commemorative ceremony in honor of the steelband movement. I urge Pantrinbago to start gathering pictures of the early steelband and pioneers and place them permanently in their Hall of Fame. A Hall of Fame should provide information about the inductees and their contributions to pan. I often wonder why Beryl McBurnie, Lennox Pierre, Canon Farquar, Albert Gomes were not inducted into Pantrinbago’s Hall of Fame. Their love and protection of the steelbands in a time when it was not popular or socially acceptable to do so should be enough for their place in Pantrinbago’s Hall of Fame.

The government lost a great opportunity to use the steelbands to encourage young people to harness their time and skills for good. No, the steelband will not save the nation form its murder spree. But, it could encourage more young people to use their time wisely by playing the national instrument. Sports and music are two equalizers for social mobility. Most young people are serving their nation well. As I walked the streets and visited communities I met many decent and ambitious young people with good values. But, a nation is not assessed by the many that are making it but by the few that gets lost in the shuffle. A country with a small population and so much money must do better for its most vulnerable citizens. The problem lies mainly with the East/West corridor urban youth who are lost in a sea of senseless crime, poverty, family breakdown and murders over URP and drug turf wars. The challenge for Trinbago and its decent citizens is to get those young people back into main stream or face the oncoming turmoil that will visit the nation in the next wave.

*This information was provided to me by Dr. Kim Johnson

Portfolio of Pantrinbago:
Pan Jazz
Pan Down Memory Lane
Pan in the 21st Century
Bi-annual Music Festival

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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 for reading.

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