“...Sometimes when I’m making a lot of
changes the players accuse me of experimenting on humans....How crazy is that? White guys showing Trinis how to tune Pan? Crazy should have put that one into ‘In Time to Come,’ along with ‘America will have a Black President...” -
Dalton - When was your last Panorama as an arranger?
Andy Narell as arranger for New York’s Women In Steel, Panorama 2002
Narell - “I did it in 1999 and 2000. I also arranged for the New York Panorama in 2001 and 2002.”
Dalton - Did you have a ‘jones’ about the competition, an itch to get back in the fray?
Narell - “I missed participating in Panorama, but being in a music competition is not what motivates me. I like the challenges of trying to write a good piece, getting the players interested in the story I’m telling, and getting a good performance from the band. Hearing the music played by 100 people is a high. I love the whole ambiance around Panorama, the rehearsals every night, playing the music coming down the track. But no, I didn’t have a ‘jones’ about competing, and I have very mixed feelings about the whole idea. While I recognize the role of competition in the development of the steel band, how it replaced the fighting and elevated the level of performance, I also think it’s become distorted, having an effect of dumbing down the music, encouraging everyone to do the same thing over and over, and winning has become more important than creating music that moves people.”
Dalton - When did you begin to feel the urge, and what was the trigger?
Narell - “I’ve wanted to be here all along. Nobody called me. The trigger for coming back was that Dennis Phillip and birdsong have been making a serious effort to advance the cause of music education in Trinidad, and with people like Raf Robertson teaching, they are changing the culture of the band. I’ve been close with Raf for a long time and when he asked me if I wanted to get involved I jumped at the opportunity. I was here in June for their concert at NAPA (National Academy for the Performing Arts), and I worked with birdsong and with their Academy steel band. We hit it off, and when they asked me if I wanted to work with them for Panorama 2013 I thought about it for a couple of seconds to make sure I was hearing correctly and told them yes.”
Dalton - What was it like at the meeting - regarding expectations, arranging fee, composition of the band, et al?
Narell - “They’re letting me do my own composition, whatever I want to write, and we’re expecting a big turnout of international players, which should make the band significantly larger and more diverse. These 12 years since I last arranged for Panorama I’ve been composing steel band music and teaching pretty much nonstop, so there are a lot of players out there who have had experience playing my music. Needless to say, our expectations are high in terms of the level of musical performance we’re after, and of the quality of the experience everyone is going to have. I don’t know what to expect from the judges, but of course our goal is to be there playing in the finals. Our conversation about my arranging fee lasted a minute or so. Money is not going to be an issue that gets in the way.”
Dalton - Was there much give and take?
Narell - “I was made to understand very quickly that we share many of the same goals about music and education. We’re having an ongoing conversation about what we want to accomplish and it’s been as smooth as I could hope for. After so many years of feeling like nobody wants to work with me, I was surprised to find such a good fit. I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.”
Dalton - What did you concede?
Narell - “No concessions so far. I’m just trying to compose the best music I can. The piece feels real good to me, like a story that’s revealing itself bit by bit, and I feel that I have their full support with nobody telling me to make sure it sounds like everybody else’s idea of what is or isn’t Panorama music. My criteria for success is that we all work hard, do our best, believe in the music, play it with passion, have fun, and hopefully earn a place in the finals.”
Dalton - How do you plan to market the song (or melody)?
Narell - “I’ll record a version that can be played on the radio, at the Savannah, etc. I don’t have much of a marketing plan. If you recall, in 1999 I recorded an instrumental version of Coffee Street that got hardly any radio play during the Carnival season. Ash Wednesday it started getting airplay, and it’s still getting played. A lot of people in Trinidad know and like the song, and the steel band version I recorded on ‘The Passage’ has been listened to a lot. The following year I wrote Appreciation, and Black Stalin wrote words and recorded it.”
Dalton - What will be your timetable?
Narell - “I have a bit of a scheduling problem because I need to be in France the first two weeks of January to do a project with my quintet and the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra - by the way, the conductor of the orchestra is Kwame Ryan, a Trini - so I’ll be in Trinidad in December to teach the music, then back in mid-January to finish the job. I plan to record it sometime in October/November.”
Dalton - What is your creative process?
Narell - “Don’t hold your breath waiting to hear any Panorama clichés. I mostly compose at the piano, but I do a lot of computer sequencing and work out some of my ideas by playing pan along with those sequences. Once I get into the piece I can become pretty obsessed with it, and it incubates over time. I keep tinkering and revising until it feels right, then take it to the pan yard and show it to the band and keep revising as I go. Calypsociation in Paris has been my laboratory for the past 10 years. Sometimes when I’m making a lot of changes the players accuse me of experimenting on humans.”
Dalton - Do you consider the rules of Panorama restrictive?
Narell - “When I first arranged for Panorama in 1999 I asked to see the rules, which I read carefully. It said that you had to wait for the green light to start, and that we would be penalized for playing longer than 10 minutes. That was it. There weren’t any rules about the music itself. Throughout the Panorama season I got an earful about the ‘unwritten rules.’ I felt it was my responsibility to break as many of those as possible, as long as it served the music. To whatever degree Panorama has become rigid and formulaic, I feel that those of us who are capable of composing original sounding music have to do our part to challenge the ‘system.’ This might be a good time to mention Ray Holman, who year after year has steadfastly refused to compromise his beautiful music to those so-called rules.”
Dalton - What’s your ideal complement of players?
Narell - “Size matters. Big bands have an advantage in the sound production department. My ideal complement is to be big enough to play before or after the really big bands and not sound like a small band. I’m hoping that with birdsong’s players and a big international contingent that we’ll be there.”
Dalton - Your ideal layout of instruments?
Narell - “Normally, I lean towards a balanced stereo sound, but there’s a lot of room for experimentation in terms of where you put the different voices of the band in the left/right spectrum. Then there’s the whole question of depth. If you take a line of tenors, for instance, and move them forward or backward by one row, it totally changes the sound of the band. I’ll have a better idea when the piece is finished and arranged, and I can listen to what we actually sound like. Then I’ll start thinking about the setup.”
Dalton - Years ago, you intimated to me your predilection for the quads. How do you use the four pans?
Lord Relator with Andy Narell
Narell - “I hadn’t used quads at all until I came to play with Phase II in the mid-80s. And I was impressed with what “Boogsie” [Sharpe] was doing with them. I got a couple of sets and used them on my records. For practical reasons I stopped. I do a lot of overdubbing. Apart from ‘The Passage,’ which was performed by the players at Calypsociation, I play all the pans on my records, including ‘Tatoom,’ which is an entire record of an overdubbed 25-piece steel band. I did that whole album with tenors, double seconds, triple guitars, tenor bass, and six-bass. You’ll notice the absence of double tenors, quads, and four-cellos. There’s enough redundancy in a steel band that you don’t really need to use all the different voices that are available. birdsong has significant numbers of double guitars, triple guitars, and four-cellos, so I’ll be arranging the music with that in mind. They have about four sets of quads. I’ll probably add them to one of those other three sections. I like having a lot of low end - bass and guitar/cello. You can get a powerful sound without all those high frequencies that wear out your hearing. Powerful sounding music is also about dynamics and emotional range. If you play loud all the time you don’t really have any power to draw on for the moments in the piece that need it.”
Dalton - What have you been up to since your last Panorama? What has been your experience with Relator?
Andy Narell (left) and “Relator” with the WDR Big Band
Narell - “I’ve kept working on composing steel band music the whole time, and feel that I keep learning and developing my craft. I also spend a lot of time on the road teaching and directing that music at universities, and I had a great experience rehearsing and performing it with Trinidad All Stars at the jazz festival here in Trinidad.
“Working with Relator has been one of the most enjoyable and educational experiences of my life. He is a walking encyclopedia of classic calypso music, a great composer and musician. We started with the idea of me putting together a small jazz group to play with him, and we recorded an album and played some concerts. When the WDR Big Band in Köln [Germany] asked me to do a concert of my music for steel band plus their horn section (14 horns), I played Lucas Schmid (the band’s director) a recording of Relator singing, and proposed that we do part of the concert with him, backed by the super big band (25-piece steel band and 14 horns), and that we feature Lord Kitchener’s music. He listened for a couple of minutes and was sold.”
Calypsociation, Andy Narell and “Relator” on stage with the WDR Big Band
Dalton - How will your success over the years come to bear on your approach to the Panorama?
Narell - “That’s a loaded question. I don’t think about my ‘success’ when I’m working on a project, but I do have confidence in my musical ideas that comes from working hard and having gained the respect of my fellow musicians, the listening public, and people like yourself who write about it. I would say that my success at getting to the finals both times I wrote music for Panorama has encouraged me to stick with what I feel is right musically, and continue to ignore all the people who tell me the music is cool but this is Panorama so you have to do this and that, put all those things into the piece that supposedly will impress the judges.”
Dalton - If you were involved in a reconstruction of Panorama - from an artistic and marketing mindset, what would be your direction?
of When Steel Talks
Narell - “I think it’s pretty clear that people are getting bored with the music at Panorama. And once the show is over and the winners are announced, hardly anyone is listening to the vast majority of the music being played there. And it isn’t just Panorama that’s suffering. Steel bands go out on tour and play the same repertoire they were playing 40 or 50 years ago, when they were trying to demonstrate the versatility of the pan to an audience full of squares. There’s a lack of vision and a lack of respect for the listening public.
“I can think of countless times I’ve been liming with my Trini friends and everybody’s railing against the monotony of Panorama, inevitably pointing fingers and blaming somebody - the judges, Pan Trinbago, the government. Change comes from within, and we need to change the way we think about the music. Music is not a sport. It’s art. It’s our culture. Along with art and literature - and I would include calypso in that category - it defines who we are.
“There are a lot of things we could be doing structurally that could point Panorama in a different direction, but I doubt that any of them will happen as long as it’s being run by an executive committee composed of representatives from the big bands. They are so entrenched, defending their position and advantage, everybody jockeying for a piece of the financial pie. You know it, I know it, and they know it. It’s the elephant in the room. And I have a fundamental disagreement with the notion that giving more and more prize money to the winner will raise the level of the music.
“Rather than give you a top down solution, as if I were in charge, I’ll give you some what if’s. What if we took all that prize money and spread it out, giving multiple prizes for performance, originality, composition, innovation? What if we distributed money to steel bands to start music schools in their pan yards, create music libraries where young people can listen to music from all over the world, watch live and instructional videos, have access to computers, basic recording equipment, theory books, be taught by musicians who can teach young players reading, harmony, scale theory, rhythms, musical styles from all over the world, arranging, how to use recording and publishing software like Protools, Finale, and Sibelius? What if we got a whole new set of judges and gave them a different set of criteria, told them to deduct points for repeating tired Panorama clichés, for banging on the pans, for making a mockery of conducting? What if we put some energy into promoting Panorama as a world-class music festival? Try ‘googling’ “Trinidad Panorama” - there’s no website. There isn’t even a Facebook page. That’s ridiculous.”
Dalton - Can you envision a global competition? If not, why not?
Narell - “I don’t think that the rest of the world necessarily shares Trinidad’s enthusiasm for music competition. Rather than trying to promote competition all over the world, maybe we can gain more by continuing to try to attract players to come to Trinidad and play with the bands, learn about steel band music. Keep building relationships with steel bands all over the world, and with universities where students from abroad could get college credit for playing in a Trinidad steel band while kids from T&T could get better access to scholarships to study abroad. That’s one of the things Dennis Phillip is working towards at birdsong.”
Dalton - Does it bother you, the claim by many a Trinidadian that “Pan is we ting,” despite the works of yours and others with the instrument’s global outreach?
Andy Narell with Mrs. Jacqueline Mannette, wife of Ellie Mannette
Narell - “First of all, it’s not all about me and what I’m doing for Pan, OK? But thanks for the recognition. I think it’s a good thing that Trinis consider Pan ‘we ting’ and show it some love and appreciation. I suppose what you mean here is that there are people here who feel that something is being taken away from them when people from other parts of the world embrace it too, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s short-sighted. I think the internationalization of Pan is an opportunity, not a loss. I’m arranging for the 2013 Panorama, but I think it would be a pretty big stretch to say that foreigners are coming down and taking away work from Trinis. On the other hand, quite a few Trinidadian arrangers have done well teaching pan in other parts of the world - Liam Teague, Ray Holman, Rudy Smith, “Boogsie” Sharpe, Robert Greenidge, for example.
“Here’s a twist for you, if you really want to create some controversy with this interview. Ellie Mannette emigrated to the USA in 1967 and his work is largely unknown in Trinidad, except by people who remember what he accomplished before he left. But there is an incomparable wealth of knowledge about tuning Pan in his head, hands, and heart. He’s been doing it nonstop for 70 years, since the beginning of Pan as a melodic instrument, and in my view he is in a class by himself. Now he has given us the greatest gift possible - he has passed on that knowledge to a new generation of tuners. Now, your ‘we ting’ protectionists will say that he gave away something that belongs to ‘we’ but I for one am grateful, and I work with those younger guys. What’s more, some of them are coming to Trinidad and they’re training young Trini tuners at Gill’s Pan Shop, bringing Ellie’s knowledge back to Trinidad and passing it on, raising the standard of pans being produced right here in the home of pan. And you know what’s even more galling to the protectionists - these guys are white. How crazy is that? White guys showing Trinis how to tune Pan? “Crazy” should have put that one into ‘In Time to Come,’ along with ‘America will have a Black President.’”
Dalton - What are your favourite foods and hangouts in Trinidad and Tobago?
Narell - “I love Trini cuisine in general, and by way of flashing my credentials this would be a good time to say thank you to Miss Merle in Belmont for all those delicious dinners she’s fed me when David Rudder calls her and tells her ‘Ah comin’ one time and ah bringin’ Andy too.’ St. James roti across the street from Smokey and Bunty’s, corn soup anywhere, but the one by Mas Camp is special ’cause it was still going AFTER I finished rehearsing with All Stars for the jazz festival project. Doubles by the Savannah, bake and shark at Maracas Bay, though that’s more like a ritual of coming back home. Too greasy to eat all the time. I really like the restaurants like Veni Mangé, Solimar, The Verandah. Hope that doesn’t make me sound like a snob.
“This conversation is making me hungry...”
Dalton - Well, then, much appreciation and good luck.?
click for more on Andy Narell
Listen to The Last Wordwritten by Narell as birdsong steel orchestra’s 2013 Tune of Choice
Dalton Narine is a Miami writer and filmmaker, whose worldwide award-winning film Mas Man - The Complete Work, about Peter Minshall, the Trinidad Carnival artist and Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies legend, is available on home video as a three-disc set at masmanthemovie.com
Contact Dalton Narine: firstname.lastname@example.org
click for more on Dalton Narine
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