New York, NY
The steel orchestras did not disappoint at the June 19 show at The Theater, Madison Square Garden. The World Steelband Music Festival (WSMF) featured seven credible performances, including two from past steelband music festival winners. In the house were near four thousand music lovers with a preference for Pan. And the steel orchestras, in all their finery, their glory, put down their best performances after what would have been for most, months of arduous preparation.
Just before 10:00 PM, it was made known to the world that past festival winners Exodus Steel Orchestra had once again triumphed. Running a close second and only three points behind was Skiffle Bunch, who have also been festival champions.
But even as the steel orchestras basked in the adulation of adoring music fans, there was much that led up to their moment of stardom on stage, and followed even when they finished their respective performances with triumphant and euphoric signature flourishes.
The sheer guts and gumption continually displayed by the musicians in the steelpan fraternity are legendary. During the historic birth pangs of the instrument and movement, its decades of continued growing pains, and ongoing but determined struggle for acceptance - even now - steelband people have stood stoically, living for that moment when they hit the stage, large or small. When the lights go on, all the trauma that the bands generally endured to reach that moment, erupts - to the delight of the crowd - in a glorious musical release as they shine - for that moment in time.
There was little difference in this routine for the bands participating in the New York leg of the world steelband music festival. Many situations arose, some public knowledge, some will remain unknown.
But this is 2005. And it is still incredible to mull over the situations which arise and stress steel orchestras' musicians and management. A few come to mind for the New York festival.
Four competing bands traveled from Trinidad and Tobago, one from Grenada, and one from Canada. The seventh steelband, CASYM, is based in New York. They all fielded close to, if not the full compliment of fifty musicians. Band practice areas were not near the hotel. One of the six visiting bands told When Steel Talks that transportation was a challenge. Management said that one time they had to organize through "family and friends" to get members to their rehearsal site. For their next practice session they remained stranded at their hotel for some hours because the "family and friends" option petered out.
These are musicians arriving from out of country, and should not have had to resort to this measure, let alone any of their own. Before the orchestras arrived in New York, Pan Trinbago said that local transportation was the world governing body's responsibility. The above-referenced orchestra in particular had a different experience. It is uncertain what transportation dilemmas if any, the other visiting steelbands faced. What the public may have seen, though, were large, comfortable and air-conditioned tour buses pulling up to the Garden with the bands, and leaving with them taking after the event. Maybe these were unavailable for pre-event rehearsals.
On the topic of rehearsals, even that was not clear. At least two bands appeared to be waiting on Pan Trinbago to let them know where and when they were supposed to be practicing. Without being able to check out the rehearsal venues beforehand, a couple visiting bands found their allocated practice spaces unacceptable. This in part apparently resulted in a clustering of practices at one venue. Couple this with transportation problems from the hotel, and other issues, and the result was a clash in scheduled practice times. Lack of clarity, communication and agreement will always result in mayhem.
At the festival itself, another repeated occurrence reared its head. This will prove costly to the bands, but could also cost the Madison Square Garden administration, if proper contractual arrangements were in place before the event.
Steelpans are musical instruments. Period. Each steelpan (or set of pans) is to its player, what a Stradivarius is to the violin player (or trumpet if you happen to own a Stradivarius silver-plated beauty). No less, no more. Like any other instrument, steelpans can be expensive. Merely tuning them can set you back a pretty penny. The outright purchase of a lead (tenor) pan from Panyard and Mannette Drums can cost as much as US$5,000.00. Double seconds - US$8,000.00. Set of six-basses - US$9,300.00. Guitar - US$3,800.00, and so on.
That being said, it was alarming to observe how the less-than-caring "unionized" workers moved pans on and off the stage. On stage, basses and guitars were dropped. The steelpan-savvy audience let out extremely loud 'oohs' each time this happened.
A brief word about the dais which conductors stood on in front of the orchestras. "Tacky" just about describes it. So there were musicians, dressed to the "T" dishing out classy performances, and then there were the instruments highlighted by gleaming chrome tenor and second pans, but being dismally underscored by a tacky but unfortunately prominent dais in full view of all. Actually it was merely a well-used riser. It is of concern that whosoever purview this fell under, did not see fit to address and remedy this beforehand.
For the Dem Boys Single Pan Steel Orchestra who used a conductor toward the end of the evening, the arrangement was even more makeshift. What appeared to the lid of an equipment box about five inches high had been placed at his disposal from the start of the show, in anticipation of the eventual discharge of his duties.
This is the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Click here to see other affairs of distinction which have been staged in this identical space. Somewhere, someone dropped the ball on some basic arrangements for the World Steelband Music Festival. Our pan musicians deserve no less than the best, because that is what they deliver at all times - their best. As they say, it's the "little things that count."
But it was what was happening off-stage that was more horrifying. The workers dropped instruments on the way to and from the stage. When Steel Talks observed one of the union workers unceremoniously "dragging" a six-bass steelpan belonging to Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra across the ground, as the instruments were being prepared for loading. We must say this was an incredible sight, and one we hope never to see again.
What took the cake was the behavior and utterances of one union worker in particular. This guy dropped yet another instrument. A frustrated pan player said that they had been dropping instruments back stage all night, and shouted at the worker. After an additional admonition from the player, the worker shouted back at him that he would "shove this drum up his fu----- a--hole" and continued on his way.
The callous disregard in the overall handling of musical instruments at the world steelband music festival by the Madison Square Garden unionized employees, and the blatant contempt and outright hostility of this particular Madison Square Garden employee (picture taken), when being justifiably pulled up for dropping an instrument, is totally unacceptable. Pan Trinbago should demand an investigation into the entire affair and request at the very least, an official apology from the Garden, and additionally look into issues of compensation if needed.
Musicians and artists on the whole will always have issues that they are expected to rise to and overcome. That is the nature of show business. But this is 2005 and some experiences and practices are not only unnecessary, but downright unacceptable. Needless to say, there are more "stories" about experiences of various participants in the New York leg of the world steelband music festival. But as has always been the case, everything paled temporarily, and nothing much mattered for that brief time that the steel orchestras hit the stage. All their guts and gumption in surmounting obstacles behind the scenes again brought them to this point.
At The Theater at Madison Square Garden on June 19, 2005, it was no different. It was their time to shine, their time for glory. Congratulations to all the participating steel orchestras in the 2005 World Steelband Music Festival for their superb performances at the finals.
Pictures by Basement Photography