It’s that special time of the year when the drums of Summer in New York come out in full force and radiate in all their magnificence for the highly competitive and prestigious annual steelband music panorama competition. After all...“Panorama” is the ultimate in high performing arts and culture as practiced by community-based institutions for their own edification, entertainment, education with affirmation and historical context, and showcasing and reinforcement of their traditions and customs.
It’s that time of the year when jerseys with names of Yankees and Knicks are replaced with T-Shirts proclaiming names like Sonatas, Despers USA, Pantonic, ADLIB, CASYM, CrossFire, D’Radoes, Harmony and the like. Of course - the ‘New York’ baseball caps remain!
In New York, the Yankees and Mets may be the boys of Summer who own October. Like the great Reggie Jackson was once called “Mr. October” because of his championship feats - the late Clive Bradley was “Mr. September” because of his winning ways with the one-hundred musician strong New York Steel Orchestras. The Knicks, Rangers and Nets may own June when they are on their game. And the Giants and Jets may own the town if they are on point in December and January. But September belongs to New York Steel Orchestra franchises. These community-based institutions rule with unbridled passion, pride, dedication and love for their community and the steelpan music art form. Some of the names of these cherished and world-respected institutions are Sonatas (est. 1972), Moods Pan Groove (est. 1976) and Metro Steel Orchestra.
The New York steel orchestras are made up of people from all walks of life with varied backgrounds. They are a true representation of the New York communities. As many as three generations from one family can be found in a single New York steel orchestra. The great managers of some these phenomenal franchises are Williams Jones - CASYM, Glenda Gamory - Pantonic, Mack Scott - Sonatas, Clyde Durant - Moods, and Tony Joseph - Metro.
Panorama is the accumulation, final piece and pinnacle to a Summer of hard work and long hours of music practice put in by many young people who sacrificed much of their Summer vacation - before they head back to high school and college.
There are music students and musicologists from such places as Princeton, Columbia, NYU, MIT, Yale, Juilliard, Berklee College of Music and Baruch (to name a few institutions of higher learning), who can be found practicing in the New York pan yards. They are always alongside the New Yorkers - participating in and/or studying this annual ritual. It is the forum where people from every corner of the globe make it their business to be in New York specifically to ingest this event and art form in its enormity.
One such is Andrew Broadwater a young man who has just graduated from NYU’s programs - MM (Master of Music) in Music Theory and Composition - with a focus in scoring for film and multimedia. While at NYU, he met Kendall Williams, the current drummer for Despers USA (six-time NY Panorama champs) and found out about the band through him. Since then, Andrew has been practicing and playing with Despers USA even earlier than normal in the Pan season.
A first-time experience for him in New York, Andrew joined what’s known as ‘the stage side’ representation of the orchestra, saying it “has been an awesome experience. We are kept busy learning new tunes for approaching gigs and polishing old tunes…” The stage side orchestra is the smaller representation with numbers averaging fifteen through thirty-five or more musicians and active year-round; the full-size orchestra comes together for Panorama and can be upwards of one hundred and twenty musicians.
And Andrew is fulfilling his ‘ultimate’ this Summer, as he is in final preparation with Despers USA as they have a go at their seventh Panorama championship title. “Panorama practices have been intense, lasting 6 or more hours each day. The band, now approaching 100 players, is kept in-line by our knowledgeable drill master, Kern Simon. This will be my first panorama and I’m excited to take part, playing with one of the top bands in the country!” The steelpan is not Andrew’s first instrument; he is already well versed on piano, violin, viola, recorder, and bass guitar. He played with NYU Steel – New York University’s steel orchestra while completing his master’s program there.
Indeed the New York panorama season centers around the Panorama competition; but it also incorporates the unique, unparalleled, and exclusively steelband music-backed celebration known as “J’Ouvert.” J’Ouvert in New York is something everyone must experience. Mud, oil, powder, paint - and the music of the steelbands - are the consummate components which complement the wonderful ‘devils’, ‘jab jabs’, and traditional ‘ole mas’ players who make this event so special early every Labor Day morning.
Joining the ‘road side’ contingents of the large steel orchestras which would have competed in the just-concluded Panorama competition, are the small New York ‘pan sides’ featuring sometimes upwards of twenty players which do not compete in the Panorama, but focus exclusively on preparing for the joie de vivre that is J’Ouvert every year. With just as much intent, those such as East Side Symphony, Pan Royal, Hearts of Steel and Legend Stars meet and practice several nights a week before Labor Day in preparation. It’s not as hectic a schedule as the full-scale, Panorama-bound steel orchestras adhere to, though. Several of these mainly veteran players have been through those rigors of Panorama prep years before.
Says Pan Royal manager Anselm Fritz with a laugh, “We’ve been through that madness ourselves [that is Panorama] for many years. We’re enjoying ourselves now simply through J’Ouvert!” And indeed it is a more measured, but just as dedicated pace for his single pan steelband, running through their selections under the musical direction of top arranger Brian “Bean” Griffith on East 51st Street just off Church Avenue. They are not only taking around thirty-odd players to the J’Ouvert festivities come Labor Day morning, but are also bringing out a J’Ouvert mas band “Sailors of Africa.” Naturally, Pan Royal is providing the music on the road for the band.
Lennox Leverock - one of the founding members of Invaders Steel Orchestra (New York), and now with Legend Stars which came together after Invaders broke up - echoes the same sentiments. “It’s for the enjoyment. J’Ouvert morning, we come out to enjoy ourselves - and that’s it.” From their Avenue D & East 49th Street, Brooklyn panyard, they will play for their J’Ouvert revelers taking the road costumed as “Hawaiian Dancers.”
It has been 62 years since Rudy King introduced the steelpan instrument to America. In fact he did it right here in New York. And since then, there have been four decades of New York Panorama competitions. This September 3, eleven steel orchestras are scheduled to take the stage, each with the aim of capturing the 2011 Panorama championship title. The fever and passion never subside; it is a New York tradition.