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“The birdsong Experience”

Dr. Kenyon Williams

Reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society, Inc., 110 W. Washington Street, Suite A, Indianapolis, IN 46204; E-mail:; Web:  Originally printed in “Percussive Notes,” Vol. 51, No 6, Nov. 2013.

When Steel Talks
photo by Arnold Pierre

Trinidad and Tobago - In January of 2013, Trinidad’s annual Panorama Steel Orchestra competition was the site of an exciting musical collaboration. Over 45 players from around the world joined forces with players from Trinidad’s own birdsong Steel Orchestra to rehearse in St. Augustine, Trinidad for several weeks in preparation for their appearance on the high stakes Savannah stage in Port of Spain. The amazing “birdsong experience” of Panorama 2013 was made possible through the vision and leadership of the birdsong Board of Directors working in close collaboration with their newly-hired arranger, American pan artist Andy Narell.

The birdsong Steel Orchestra was formed in 1973 on the campus of the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. (Note: birdsong prefers to use the lower-case spelling of their name. As Dennis Phillip, Director of birdsong, explains, “We are odd...and we do not mind being odd. To blend-in in the current environment would be to celebrate mediocrity and not to embrace the possibilities of pan.”) The fact that the ensemble was composed mostly of university students immediately made it stand out from the many other steel bands on the island, and their insistence upon sharing what they’d learned throughout the island, a phrase they coined as “Pan for the People,” also gave them a unique image.

“In 2002, we started to look at things different,” recalls birdsong board member Prof. Clement Imbert. “We created a company to deal with environmental clean-up, roadside clean-up, bridges, things like that. It was a government- sponsored program that we became a part of to help with unemployment within the band. Each person was paid directly from the government, while our management fee was used to develop the band. We’ve continued that to this day.

“Then, in 2004, we started a free five-week summer music and literacy camp. We do a half-day at the University, using their classrooms, their computers, that sort of thing, and then a half-day at the panyard, where they learn a steelband instrument and another instrument.” The summer camp has blossomed to include instruction in a variety of vocal, brass, woodwind, and string instruments, all of which come together in an orchestra setting complete with steel pans at the end of the day.

“Some students just had a good time, played, and left, but others were so excited that we started a weekend program during the school year,” recalls Clement. In response to these students, birdsong created the birdsong Academy. Today, the Academy program attracts students who each weekend learn music theory as well as performance on a wide range of instruments.

“All instruction is free!” says Dennis Phillip. “We beg, steal, and borrow to make it happen. We have some corporate donors and a couple programs funded by international foundations to help pay our tutors—not much, but something.”

Dennis, a founding member of birdsong and one of the driving forces behind its outreach program, notes that the impact of the Academy is greater than many in the steelpan community appreciate. “The goal of the Academy is to produce students who are ready for entry into tertiary music education. Music education in Trinidad is sporadic and poorly organized. We have 17,000 students who take exams each year, but only about 400 or so will take music exams, and the pass rate of those is only about 40 percent. [Music] is seen as something for the ‘not-brightest’ to participate in. We have students here who are very bright, good musicians, but they would not get good opportunities in school to use that.”

The closing concert of the summer camp has become one of the highlights of the annual Trinidadian arts calendar. In 2007, American steelpan artist Andy Narell attended the concert. “I saw steelband music, guitar ensembles, keyboard ensembles, vocals, horns, drumming, dance. I said, ‘Wow, music camp! There’s some people trying to do it here!’” recalls Andy. “I realized that they were the center of musical literacy [in Trinidadian steelbands]. They’re pushing all of their players to read and study music. That’s why I’m here. It starts with education.”

In the spring of 2012, Andy was invited by the band to come down and play in their June benefit concert at the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA), which raises funds for both the Academy and for music scholarships for Academy graduates. After working with the students and performing in the benefit, Dennis Phillip asked Andy if he would be interested in serving as the band’s arranger for Panorama 2013. “I jumped at it!” Narell recalls.

But the vision of the board was much more than just bringing a new arranger to the panyard. “One of the reasons we talked to Andy was because of his network [of pan players],” states Dennis. “That wasn’t an accident, it was a strategy.”

birdsong invited Andy to bring international pan players with him. “They told me to go ahead, tell everybody, and not just tell everybody, but try to bring the Paris band,” said Andy. For over ten years, Narell has been working with a band of 25 to 30 players, which are a part of the Calypsociation School of Steelpan in Paris. Using this core group as his test vehicle, Andy began to write the music for birdsong’s Panorama composition in August and then began to teach it to the members of the band. Almost everyone who learned the piece wanted to come, and 22 soon made the commitment to travel to Trinidad.

birdsong lesson board - photo by Kenyon Williams

Narell recalls, “I said to Dennis, ‘I got a lot of players from Paris coming. You know I put the word out, are you ready for 30 or 40 players?’ Dennis said, ‘I’ve got enough pans for 120 players, and I’m only sure of about 70 Trinidadian players, so go for it! Bring me a band, we’re going large!’”

Eventually, 45 players from France, the United States, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, Taiwan, England, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and La Réunion would all make the journey to Trinidad to join birdsong for the 2013 Panorama season. Jason Barteck, a pan player from Denver, Colorado, heard about it through an email in September and from word-of-mouth via friends in the pan community. “I’ve always wanted to play in Panorama since the first time I saw a video of Panorama performances,” Barteck said. “It’s always been a goal of mine, but the most interesting thing for me was how diverse the group would be and how groundbreaking this experience of so many international players in the band would be than the typical Panorama experience.”

birdsong Academy student orchestra - photo by Vibert Medford

Étienne Bloch from Paris, France added, “It’s the best thing you can do, if you play pan, to be able to play pan in Trinidad for the Panorama. I thought, ‘I can do it!’ I had time to learn the song, I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to find the time and go there and play in Trinidad.’ Now I work in a bank, which is slightly different from playing in a steelband, but I knew people who had been here before who said the people were very, very nice, which was what I found to be true. We were made very welcome!”

International players began to arrive in early January for rehearsals each night in the panyard after having received .pdf copies of the music via email in November. Almost immediately, each player was made to feel a part of the birdsong family. “The passion that the international players bring to the instrument, we seem to have lost that here,” says Dennis Phillip, reminiscing upon his desire to include more international players in birdsong. “We have been distracted by money, by hustling. People who come in internationally are not focused on the money, they’re focused on the music, and we have to get back to that. Our young musicians here in birdsong also need to get the ‘lay of the land’ from them—talk to them about making a living as a musician, the possibilities of scholarships outside Trinidad, those types of things. They’ve come from a wide range of music schools we would not normally even be aware of, so it has a wonderful potential to open their eyes to other possibilities.”

Tenor pan players - photo by Anita Bonan

birdsong has always had a historical connection to the University of the West Indies, and they drew upon that connection to reserve nearby university-owned apartments to rent to the international players. “There are always a few available,” says Imbert. “The reason we were able to keep rent for the month so low was that we charged international players just cost—just what we were charged from the university.”

For safety, birdsong also provided airport pick-up and drop-off, shuttle service from the panyard at the end of each evening’s rehearsal, and even occasional fêtes featuring bake and shark and corn soup after rehearsals. Many core members of the band joined the international players as they began to schedule day trips around the island to locations such as Maracas Bay beach, and they served as guides for rain forest hikes and afternoon picnics.

“Meeting all the new people and the locals has been amazing,” said Morgantown, West Virginia pan artist Dave Longfellow. “The core members of birdsong have been incredibly inviting and friendly. It’s been fantastic.”

The feeling was mutual. “We don’t usually have many international players,” stated 15-year-old Trinidadian Kathryn De Freitas, “so it’s fun to meet so many people from all over the place.”

The international players enjoyed meeting both locals and one another. “It’s been great,” said Texas steelpan artist CJ Menge. “It’s really fun getting to see other players from around the world, to understand that music is universal, to get with people from other cultures and obviously talk a lot about music but get to see somebody who’s got a little different perspective on their day-to-day lifestyle. I really like the sense of togetherness with this band. Across the board, collectively, it feels like we’ve really bought into something here, and there’s a lot of mutual respect amongst people.”

A few of birdsong’s players - photo by Arnold Pierre

The cultural interaction between players had an effect upon the music as well. “There are a lot of international players at Panorama,” stated Andy Narell. “Pretty much all of the big bands will have some. But 45 players, playing a significant role in the band, people up on the front racks, this is a unique project.”

Shaquille Headley, a seven-year birdsong player from Trinidad, noted the difference. “It’s working because you get to feed off the international vibe. It’s a magical experience in many ways. There is also a little counter-reaction sometimes. We [Trinidadians] play more energetic, more of a driving force like a workout, whereas the international players are more smooth and laid back. We’ve brought our energy down a notch, and they’ve brought theirs up. We’ve met halfway.”

Finding the balance between the two different approaches was one of the largest obstacles Andy faced when he started working with the band. “The biggest challenge, musically, was how to get this big a band to understand the music, to understand where I’m coming from with this music, so that we can go out there and play a performance that is not only technically precise, but that has emotion. To look at crescendos that last for two minutes, like in jazz, where a solo builds. To get a hundred plus people to feel that together, it’s powerful! When I first came down [to St. Augustine], I worked with the core group, the best players, and they were just bangin’ on the pans. They were not listening to each other. I’d give them the notes, and they’d start hitting the pans. There was no sense of, ‘How do I get a good sound out of my instrument? How do I balance within my section? How does my section balance within the whole band?’ Day after day I’d come in and just stop them, 20 seconds into the music and say, ‘No, we don’t play like that anymore.’ New players came in and I’d have to say, ‘We don’t do that anymore. Here, we go easy on the pans; we get a beautiful sound.’ That was a major challenge for me, to just change the way that they play.”

Rehearsals were also managed in a very different way than is typical in Trinidadian panyards. From the beginning, Andy directed rehearsals from behind the drumset and placed a great deal of emphasis upon the engine room. “The most important thing with an engine room is the groove,” he explained. “The pan players can only groove as hard as the engine room is grooving! Here, I came into a situation where the engine room was very loose. I was told in advance that there were a lot of people who felt they could knock back a few beers and come to rehearsal late and start jamming and just play. I insisted from day one that people in the engine room come in and learn the music thoroughly. I had a meeting with the engine room. I told them, first of all, they had to be here, to learn the music. I told them, ‘My goal for you is that you guys groove together, play the dynamics and all the phrases of the music, and a lot of things I’m going to ask you to play very precisely. As a benchmark, I want to be able to have you guys play the entire tune perfectly without the pans.’

“It’s amazing! You look around at this motley group of guys we have, and these guys know that music! They can play it! I’ve had some nice surprises: one kid walked in from Japan. He came and listened to us one night and he said, ‘I want to play congas with this band. I want to play this piece.’ So I said, ‘Let me hear you play while I play drumset,’ and he passed his audition in 30 seconds. The standard of conga playing here is with sticks, and we have a guy who can really play congas. He’s playing with his hands and you can hear him across the whole band!”

To ensure that the engine room was as strong as possible, Andy brought in a young drumset artist, KJ Marcelle, from Brooklyn, New York, when it became obvious that most of the regular drumset players for birdsong would not be able to commit to regular evening rehearsals during the height of Carnival gigging season. “KJ grew up in the Trinidadian community in New York, he’s here every night, knows every note perfectly,” stated Andy.

Andy Narell makes a point in rehearsal - photo by Arnold Pierre

A great deal of emphasis was placed upon discipline within the band. “The steelbands here in Trinidad taught me about discipline,” recalls Andy, “the old steel bands. I walked into the Pan Am North Stars panyard as a kid in 1966, and Tony Williams lightly tapped on a pan and there was silence in the yard. He spoke softly, and they rehearsed. I still remember that today. I tried to bring that here. We have a whole new level of discipline in this band, which I think is beneficial to everyone and to the music.”

Longtime members of the band, such as Kathryn De Freitas, appreciated the difference. “I look forward to coming to practice! It’s fun! It’s not tedious. I like the music. I like the discipline!”

American players such as CJ Menge and Dave Longfellow, who have played in Panorama before with different bands, were also impressed by the differences they encountered with Andy at the helm of birdsong. “Rehearsals are very efficient and punctual here, which is very different than my previous experience with Invaders,” stated CJ. “Rehearsals start at 8 p.m., we get a solid three hours, that’s the expectation. One other big difference is that Invaders spent a lot of time in sectional practice, drilling. The band was run a lot by the captain and vice-captain, who were the drillmasters. They spent a lot of time drilling the band. So Andy is very different than what I saw with Invaders; he’s on top of everything all the time, whereas arranger Arddin Herbert [with Invaders] mostly taught the music to the section leaders, who would teach the other players the parts while the captain drilled the band.”

The idea of “drilling” a band in Trinidad is a time-honored rehearsal technique, to which Andy added a whole new spin. “In Renegades, they used the idea of ‘drilling’ in the sense of taking a small chunk—8 or 16 bars—and running it at a slow tempo 15, 20 times, speed it up a few clicks, run it another 15–20 times, to work on muscle memory and patterns,” stated Dave Longfellow. “We’d spend the first two hours just drilling small sections and not run the entire composition until the end of the night. Andy’s approach is to take the sections as a whole, to get the concept of what a section is supposed to do and how it is supposed to build. Just the concept of ‘building’ alone is completely foreign to any band I’ve played with in Trinidad. Most are very execution-based. Dynamics only come from the full ensemble’s perspective. There’s no concept of balance in different sections, where the leads play softer here while the background plans play louder here. That’s achieved through the setup of the band [putting some pans closer to the audience than others]. The whole song is played at ‘eleven,’ full steam-on the whole time, and if you want a dynamic contrast, it’ll only happen when the whole band is doing it. We’re working a lot on that here, balancing different sections, which is foreign. In my section, I can tell it’s new to them.”

The way rehearsals were run within birdsong can be attributed to the presence of the international players. “One of the big challenges has been what’s happening here in Trinidad,” states Andy. “Everybody’s playing in a lot of bands now. Used to be you’d come to the panyard and see the same people every day. They were dedicated to the band. I started seeing back in the 1980s that some of the good players would go off to play in multiple bands. The situation we have today is extremely distorted, where a majority of the good players are in multiple bands for the money. They get paid for each band they play in. Pan Trinbago [the governing organization of pan and Panorama in Trinidad] actually encourages this. So we all have this tremendous absentee rate. The good players, the ones you’re counting on to help teach the music, they’re not there every night. So one of the big challenges is having to deal with empty spaces. One of the things that has gotten me through this is my foreign contingent. I have 45 players I can count on to be there early, hanging around the panyard, helping teach parts, and being there every night. All of a sudden, instead of waiting around for rehearsal to start, I kick things off at 8 p.m. on the dot. That changes everything. It’s been real interesting!”

All of these concerns were secondary, however, to the issue that would cause the greatest amount of discussion among the players and the people of Trinidad: the music itself. Andy’s composition “The Last Word” was written expressly for birdsong to perform at Panorama, and it broke with all expectations.

“What’s very ‘Panorama’ about Panorama is tempo, speed, and the ‘show’ of it,” noted Dave Longfellow. “I think Andy wants to embrace that, but keep the music’s integrity, and that’s what we’ve struggled with.”

“I’m a bit hesitant, knowing the culture of Trinidad and Tobago,” remarked longtime band member Shaquille Headley. “They are somewhat hesitant to accept change. We’re going into Panorama with something very different, and you either love it or hate it. It doesn’t fall in between. Hopefully the judges will love it.”

“The style of music is much more musical, which is such a change since everyone’s accustomed to chromatics and runs and really fast music,” stated fellow band member Kathryn De Freitas. “It’s very nice, because it isn’t that; it’s really nice that we’re exposing that. I think the general opinion is that most people like the music. It’s not stereotypical Panorama music, and some people don’t want to adapt to that change, but they’re accepting change. They know Mr. Narell knows what he wants and how he wants it to be played, and they’re fine with that.”

The leadership of birdsong saw this issue as perhaps the ultimate reason behind electing to hire Andy as this year’s Panorama arranger. “Panorama has become very static and uninteresting,” observed Dennis Phillip. “Nothing exciting has come from Panorama in the past 10 years. I can hum note-for-note arrangements from 20 years ago, but now nobody’s saying ‘I want to hear that again’ anymore.”

International players such as Jason Barteck quickly internalized the message coming from the leadership of birdsong. “We’re here to do what we were intended to do. We’re coming down here and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t what Panorama has to be; it doesn’t always have to be the same fast and loud arrangements every year.”

“It’s a beautiful Andy Narell composition,” noted CJ Menge. “It has elements of Panorama arranging in it, but it’s in a format that’s very different from everything else. More than the composition, I appreciate Andy’s steadfastness and his approach to wanting the music to be played the way he feels it should be played. It takes a lot of passion and determination to keep that kind of focus in a format that’s not set up to encourage that.”

Andy reflected on all of these concerns as he worked on the composition. “My whole approach to music kind of divides people down the middle—between people who love the music and are grateful to hear something that’s not about formulas and clichés, chromatic runs and technical licks that everybody’s heard a hundred times already, and those who are trying to please what they think the judges will give more points for. I don’t buy it! I don’t believe in playing down to anybody. I believe in us all going out there and making the finest music we know how to make—the most honest and best music we know how to do.

“The people I idolized, who made me want to be a musician, that’s what they did. They were completely uncompromising. You can listen to them and in a few seconds know who they are because they’re so unique and different. Of course I’m talking about people like Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. You can’t mistake them for anybody. They never put something in a piece to please a judge! So that’s completely foreign to me. I come here to do the music, to do music that is honest. This is my contribution to steelband music. I want to be part of the conversation, I want to say my thing and add something that wasn’t there before. That divides people, because a lot of people don’t believe that’s what Panorama is about. Panorama is about coming in to perform and to win. The judges want to hear this and this and that, and that’s what you give them. The comment that comes up over and over and over is, ‘I love that music, but not for Panorama.’ But I disagree! I think that Panorama has become very boring because of that attitude. There’s a lot of bad writing and bad pan playing that is getting rewarded. Take who you want to win. I’m not going to get involved in that. I’m just going to come down here, do the music that I feel in my heart is the best music I know how to write, and get the best possible performance I can out of the band.”

On Sunday, January 27, 2013, the birdsong Steel Orchestra took the stage in the Queen’s Park Savannah at 11:00 p.m. for their semi-final performance. After performing the music while holding to a relaxed tempo despite the glare of the lights and the jump-up excitement of the Panorama stage, the players were disappointed to discover that they had tied for 14th place and would not be advancing to the final rounds. As one Panorama judge commented upon the performance, “An expressive performance, played with finesse, evidence of thorough preparation. Articulation was crisp and positive and phrases were played with good musical communication. However, the performance lacked that frenzied energy that is so much a part of Panorama—what some pundits of yesteryear defined as the spirit of Carnival. Besides that, the piece was well played and thoroughly enjoyed.”

Scores from this particular judge were 10 out of 10 for tone, 10 out of 10 for rhythm, and 25 out of 40 for general performance. Dr. Pat Bishop, one of the most celebrated exponents of Trinidadian music and culture in the 20th century and the Honorary President of birdsong prior to her death in 2011, would have laughed at the outcome. “The judges don’t want to hear things that they haven’t heard before,” she stated in a 2002 interview. “You need to do [something] two or three years before they hear and are sufficiently confident to validate…. They’re saying you mustn’t forget the ‘Spirit of Carnival’! Now the ‘Spirit of Carnival’ simply cannot be defined in that sort of way. To me, the ‘Spirit of Carnival’ is a man dead drunk in the gutter, and nothing could be more silent than that!”

Regardless of the outcome, the birdsong experience broke new ground for both the audience and the performers. ““It seems pretty clear to me that Andy and the leadership of the band were on the same page philosophically, trying to achieve something different,” stated CJ Menge. “I really respect the leadership of this band.”

In return, members of the birdsong board expressed their gratitude. “We feel that we have been really blessed. It is something that we owe to the pan community. The passion that the international players bring to this thing, it’s refreshing. We’ve become too blasé about this thing. We hope you’ll come again and come in even greater numbers.”

Amanda Joseph added, “We have our summer camp in July and August. We would like to see more guest teachers from abroad who would like to build a relationship with us and come and teach. If you want to play in Panorama, come! Make us your home band, so that you know if you’re going to come, you’ll come and play with us! We would like to see our Academy students, those who are truly interested, find out more about what opportunities there are abroad. Cultural exchanges, including young people from abroad coming here, we’d like to do more of that!”

“It’s important to us that we continue building on bridges that have already been established,” concluded Dennis Phillip. Hopefully, these bridges will provide new pathways for the future of pan both in Trinidad and beyond.

Score and parts for Andy Narell’s “The Last Word” are available for purchase from Ramajay productions at


  • Anonymous (Panorama judge comments and scoring). Received via email from Andy Narell. March 20, 2013.

  • Barteck, Jason. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad. Jan. 24, 2013.

  • Bishop, Pat. Personal interview. Woodbrook, Port of Spain: Jan. 22, 2002.

  • Bloch, Étienne. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad. Jan. 25, 2013.

  • De Freitas, Kathryn. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad. Jan. 26, 2013.

  • Headley, Shaquille. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad. Jan. 26, 2013.

  • Imbert, Clement, and Amanda Joseph. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad: Jan. 25, 2013.

  • Longfellow, Dave and CJ Menge. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad. Jan. 25, 2013.

  • Narell, Andy. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad. Jan. 27, 2013.

  • Phillip, Dennis. Personal interview. St. Augustine, Trinidad. Jan. 26, 2013.

Dr. Kenyon Williams
Dr. Kenyon Williams

Dr. Kenyon Williams serves as Chair of the PAS World Percussion Committee and is Professor of Percussion at Minnesota State University Moorhead where he directs the MSUM Percussion Ensemble and the World Percussion Ensemble, Fuego Tropical, while also serving as Principal Percussionist of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony. He has studied non-Western percussion in Indonesia, Ghana, Brazil, Cuba, and Trinidad, where he has performed twice in the annual Panorama steelpan competition.

Click for full recap of the 2013 Trinidad and Tobago National Panorama

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