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The Saga Begins - The Road to the NY Panorama Championship

A WST special to the NY Daily News

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New York, USA - The grand event known as “Panorama” commences on its traditional date - the last Saturday before Labor Day. Part show, part theater and part musical competition - “panorama” is, and remains, a critical part of the cultural fabric of the Caribbean carnival experience of New York. There is nothing just like panorama - the enormity, the spectacle, the raw emotions and the sheer investment of human will and drive.

Back in the late 80’s, this writer invited a college colleague, Jessie N. from Columbia University to experience a New York panorama. “How is it possible that I’ve never heard about this - how could something of this magnitude be happening in this city without anyone knowing?” he would say after experiencing his first Panorama, where on that night no less than ten steel orchestras, each fielding sometimes over one hundred musicians, took the stage battling for musical supremacy. This Columbia math major and musician was totally blown away by his experience.

In the age of “reality” everything, few can rank with the annual New York panorama - demanding huge investments in talent, time, work and passion. This year, thousands will once again descend on the Brooklyn Museum grounds to experience this musical phenomenon.

Long before the intense musical rivals (some so for over 30 years and now, literally spanning generations) confront each other in musical warfare that night; there is a ton of critical details that must be put in place. Indeed, the preparation begins in earnest from Spring.

CASYM practices for 2009 Panorama
CASYM practices for 2009 Panorama

The acquisition of adequate practice space is paramount to the fortunes of any organization wishing to have a chance of triumphing in panorama. Unfortunately practice space remains one of the greatest challenges the steel orchestras must face in New York. The requirements of a large steel orchestra - upwards of 100 players, are at direct odds with the shrinking landscape of available land for panyards. Bands do not actually own their panyards. In fact it is not uncommon for bands to go late into July or early August still trying to secure a yard. CASYM Steel Orchestra (long-time affiliate of NY Daily News) was faced with this very dilemma this year.

Once the panyard is secured, it must be prepared as musicians will remain almost glued to the yard for hours at a time. The yard will become home away from home. And some of the fondest and most cherished memories of the pan players will take place there.

Beginning with the first week of July, New York steelbands begin a ‘round robin’ of sorts of “band launches.”  The launch - in addition to providing the musicians with performance opportunities, allows the community to see their bands perform next to the other bands. It is in some sense a ‘sizing up’ of the competition. For some of the excitable out-of-town visitors, like Mildred who has Panamanian and Jamaican roots, it is a springboard of rhythmic delight: “The rhythms are so great! I can’t wait to hear the steelbands in competition, and also for J’Ouvert!” exclaimed Mildred as she took in the music at a recent band launch - while dancing around.

Bringing out a steel orchestra for panorama is an extremely expensive feat - costs sometimes run far upwards of sixty thousand dollars - so in this regard the launches are critical to the orchestras’ raising financial support from the community.

The top prize has been around fifteen to twenty thousand dollars for the last couple of years.  But to bring a band about the size of this year’s defending champions Sonatas Steel Orchestra - one hundred musicians - to the panorama stage annually, costs more than twice the amount of last year’s first prize. Says Macauly Scott, president of Sonatas, about the first prize: “It is a waste of time, it is a big joke!” Scott continues, “You are putting out about twice that amount coming to panorama [sometimes more than fifty thousand], and that is only if you win, you get that first prize. 

Sonatas practices for 2009 Panorama
Sonatas practices for 2009 Panorama

So why compete for a prize that could be less than half what it cost to compete? “You cannot tell your young players that they are not going to Panorama!” Scott exclaims in resignation.  So every year, mainly because of the passion of his young players for Panorama, and also for the continuity of the steelpan culture and art form, Macauly Scott undergoes the seemingly illogical rite of “panorama competition” year after year. And so do several other band leaders and their orchestras. And what about if someone wants to enter the competition for the first time, start-up and present a band of one hundred players? Scott laughs cynically, saying “You’d better have a millionaire backing you!” After all, the initial outlay of about one hundred fifty thousand dollars for instruments alone can be a conservative estimate…

In recent years, there has been an influx in students and players from other countries, states and colleges joining NY bands to experience the panorama event. Sonatas Steel Orchestra has a growing contingent of music majors from Oberlin College making this yearly trek. Panorama provides them the opportunity to be part of the performing music experience outside of the classroom, and that - at its highest level - by steelpan’s originators and practitioners.

The Tune
The song picked to play is next in importance to delivering a command performance on the night. The song must not only be embraced by the band, but it must jell with the attitude and personality of the orchestra. There is a host of tunes written for this year’s panorama; “Pan Army” and “Battle Zone” are among this year’s favorites.

The Arranger
The single most important individual in a panorama venture is the arranger. It is him each band entrusts to put together a musical story that will woo the judges as they execute and fulfill the judging criteria to a point. A most sought-after position, that of arranger is one coveted and highly acclaimed. New York panorama has fielded some of the best in the world. The current champion arranger is Yohan Popwell of Sonatas.  Other greats include the late legendary Clive Bradley and bonafide superstar Len “Boogsie” Sharpe.

The Tuner
He, the tuner, is entrusted with preparing and tuning massive numbers of instruments (hundreds of drums) in readiness for panorama. He is the ‘sound’ of the orchestra. Many a time one only needs to listen, to know which tuner has touched the pans of an orchestra. Such is the case, for example, when people say they are listening to “Birch pans” referring to one of the world’s finest tuners, Bertram “Birch” Kelman, who not only tunes the instruments of current champions Sonatas, but also manufactures them. This is a momentous task, and can only be accomplished by a select few in the world; Roland Harrigin is also one such. The tuner holds an esteemed position within the steelpan fraternity.

New York has a rich and vibrant history with the steelpan instrument beginning with Rudy King, the man who brought the steelpan to America. The panorama experience is now cross-generational, encompassing full family units and all nationalities, speaking best to the “melting pot” mystique. Sonatas, Pantonic, CASYM and ADLIB have been the champions over the last five years, and are examples of best practitioners in the artform. Their management teams are led by Macauly Scott, Glenda Gamory, Williams Jones and Franklin Mayers, respectively.

NY Daily News Caribbeat cover 2010Look for the 2010 Panorama to be as engaging and spirited as ever in its almost forty-year history. The line-up is expected to include ADLIB, Boston Metro, CASYM, D’Radoes, Dem Stars, Despers USA, Harmony, Pan Sonatas, Pantonic and Sesame Flyers steel orchestras.  Complete info on the 2010 New York Panorama is available here.

Original NY Daily News article

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