Wither the Steelband Panorama?

By Andre Moses - former Steelband Administrator and Educator

A When Steel Talks Special

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...Gradually and seemingly ‘unnoticed’ the crowds and national enthusiasm generated by the Steelband Panorama have begun to dissipate, and like West Indies cricket the symptoms of this ‘loss of energy’ are quite evident to those who are perceptive enough to ‘see’.

The North Stand that represented the next generation of steelband lovers has not recovered from the self-inflicted wound of the ‘Panorama Greens’ and a new generation of youth is growing up without any organic connection to the steelband, save for a fleeting engagement in a school steelband.

At the same time the average age of the Grand Stand faithful has been moving steadily northwards from fifty to sixty to seventy years...

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. -  The steelband Panorama competition began in 1963, one year after Trinidad and Tobago achieved independent nation status. The backdrop was that the then private and public sectors had predicated the ‘sanitization’ of the Trinidad Carnival as a precondition for its social acceptance. The transition from the road to the stage was one mechanism for this acceptance and another was the enticement of sponsorship, competition and prizes.

Anthony Williams
Anthony Williams

Tony Williams’ and Pan Am North Stars’ revolutionary approach to the musical challenge of the Panorama ‘sealed the deal’ in that their linear, sonata format of - exposition, development, and recapitulation - set the musical template for the Panorama, supplanting the more circular verse–chorus–jam format that was more aligned to pan-on-the road where the focus was more participatory and organic.

While the Sonata format was of European derivation, the content that was encapsulated within that structure was decidedly local. Calypso music had evolved as a distinct voice from the urban barrack yards that had served as a refuge for the ex-slaves after the abolition of slavery. The steelband’s orchestral structure of a lead section, a middle section and a bass section approximated that of African drums with its cutter, the rhythm and bass drums. Call-and-answer was another African tradition that had survived the Middle Passage and also became an integral part of the Panorama music tradition.  

Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed  - Steelpan Arranger
Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed

When Bobby Mohammed and Guinness Cavaliers became the second winner of the Steelband Panorama it was an instance in which the organic, rhythmic intensity of the road seemed to overshadow the smooth sophistication of the sonata’s subtle key changes and suave arpeggio embellishments. Additionally in an era in which the Rediffusion and two A.M. Radio stations were the only available audio channels and Latin music was a dominant component, it was inevitable that Latin influences would also become a part of the Panorama musical content - as Earl Rodney and Solo Harmonites would establish with their four Panorama victories.

Len "Boogsie" Sharpe - Champion Steelpan ArrangerLen “Boogsie” Sharpe

As the ‘music school’ of the Steelband Panorama evolved, a cadre of victorious Panorama arrangers created ‘new curriculum’ by their innovative approaches to the music of the Panorama. With Ray Holman and Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe it was a recognition of the universality of jazz music and our common musical heritage in their crossover approaches; Jit Samaroo extended the boundaries of pan playing technique and emphasized the engine room and distinctive rhythmic changes; Clive Bradley developed the orchestral tone and texture of Panorama Music in his experiments with harmony and voicing within a more lyrical, less frenzied framework; Leon ‘Smooth’ Edwards also zeroed in on the percussive roots of the steelband, marrying it with the techniques and sophistication of the Panorama’s evolving musical sensibilities.

But 1963 to 2017 is a long time, fifty-four years to be exact, or over five decades - to put it another way: time enough for things to change in fundamental ways. As the steelpan instrument transitioned from a product of cultural creativity to an economic good, subject to the market forces of supply and demand, prices have risen from just below a hundred dollars to thousands of dollars per instrument. Division of labour and specialization together with the dynamics of competition has also resulted in an exponential increase in the cost of steelband tuning and arranging services. Meanwhile the ‘sound of music’ has also transitioned from the more subdued acoustic sounds of pan to amplified electronic sound systems more in keeping with the sonic sensibilities of a younger generation.


Patrick Arnold, former president of Pan Trinbago (in black cap), and His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richards, President of Trinidad and Tobago (with drink in hand), in the North Stands for the semi-final rounds of the 2006 National Panorama

Gradually and seemingly ‘unnoticed’ the crowds and national enthusiasm generated by the Steelband Panorama have begun to dissipate and like West Indies cricket the symptoms of this ‘loss of energy’ are quite evident to those who are perceptive enough to ‘see’. The North Stand that represented the next generation of steelband lovers has not recovered from the self-inflicted wound of the ‘Panorama Greens’ - and a new generation of youth is growing up without any organic connection to the steelband, save for a fleeting engagement in a school steelband. At the same time the average age of the Grand Stand faithful has been moving steadily northwards from fifty to sixty to seventy years.

Yes, we still have the traditional big band rivalries to remind ourselves of how much we like ‘our’ pan, but even that rivalry is becoming more predictable and routine. Phase II or All Stars… All Stars or Phase II, no disrespect to Boogsie and Smooth - Thanks for the music! - but it was nice to change the pattern with the Desperadoes triumph last year. The truth is while things have been all hunky-dory at the top, at the other end of the spectrum, at the small band level, things have been increasingly tough, and many of the iconic bands of yesteryear have gone the way of all flesh.

Which brings me to the current Panorama impasse. The fundamental issues at heart are issues of governance and accountability. If we focus on personalities in the main, then we can change or exchange the personalities and still end up in the same ‘khaki pants.’ Pan Trinbago is a public institution and as such it is accountable to its membership and by extension - to the wider national community. If questions are asked then answers should be given. Asking a question is not necessarily making an accusation and even if an accusation is implied, a clear answer can dispel any unsubstantiated suspicion. It is when public officials lack accountability that suspicion and lack of trust find fertile ground, sometimes with good cause. No one has a right to question how private individuals spend their own monies but with public expenditure, the general public has every right to question how funds are allocated.

Governance is even wider than accountability. It encompasses the processes by which decisions are made and it presumes a vision for the future that can propel the organisation and its membership from one level to the next. In the context of the Steelband Panorama, governance has to address the issues of economic sustainability, the active involvement of a younger cadre of membership, the integrity and survival of its participating bands, and the redesigning, recalibrating and re-branding the Panorama to survive and thrive in a 21st Century context, amongst other imperatives.

These are by no means simple or trivial governance challenges. Of course as Trinbagonians, especially with a beer in hand, we can put forward a whole heap of solutions. Solutions that other people ‘should’ implement. But if we take pattern from a food chain in nature, we will learn that there are both producers and consumers and in addition that the producer level has to be the broadest and most extensive because it was to support all the other levels. At the most fundamental level we have to generate the material and human capital to make the Panorama sustainable. Sure the Government and the NCC (National Carnival Commission) have critical roles to play but any organisation that has to wait on a third party input, to sustain itself, can fall at any time once that lifeline is cut or diminished.

Old Grand Stand, Queen’s Park Savannah
The old Grand Stand, Queen’s Park Savannah

All organisations have a life cycle, a time to be born, a time to grow to maturity and a time to die. To stave off death, organisations have to reinvent and revitalize themselves: with new ideas, new people and new challenges. In my humble opinion Pan Trinbago is nearing the end of its life cycle in its present form. Also the Steelband Panorama is nearing the end of its life cycle in its present form. I am not saying that the Panorama will die next year or ten years from now. My question is when the present senior generation of Grand Stand patrons move on -  where will our Panorama audiences come from? If small community steelbands become unsustainable, from which source will the big mega steelbands recruit their players? If a stipend becomes the principal motivation for playing for the Panorama what will happen if the source of that motivation dries up?

From the community steelband, to the school steelband, to our steelband governance institutions we need to come up with a modern model for sustainable development. Panorama can still be relevant in this modern era but not with its 1963 template; too many things have changed in too many fundamental ways.

History does not start and stop, there will always be a role for experience and knowledge but we must give the upcoming generation the opportunity to refashion their reality in their own image and likeness. Educate them about the glorious history of the steelpan instrument and its music, guide and nurture them but be prepared to step aside and make way for the young folks. Ellie Mannette and company were mere teenagers when they accepted the responsibility to fight against the odds to establish the miracle we all so candidly claim today as our national instrument - and look what a splendid job they did. It will indeed be a travesty of the highest order if we sweep everything under the carpet and revert to business as usual. Let the present Panorama impasse be the catalyst for a new beginning - for the future of the Steelband Panorama hangs in the balance.

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Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra, Panorama finals 2006

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