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 New York 2005 Panorama

From the Inside

Anton Estaniel
Northern Illinois University

This August I spent some time observing some of the different steel bands of Brooklyn for the New York Panorama. I was struck at how much dedication the members had towards perfecting their respective music. Dedication is the maxim of Panorama. To me it is the most distinguishing characteristic for steel bands that compete in Panorama. Rehearsals occur an average of five days a week and often go into the wee hours of the night and early morning. The music is learned by ear so initial rehearsals are dedicated to committing the composition to memory. Once the music is learned the composition is drilled in a seemingly interminable manner. The process of memorizing music and rehearsing can seem lengthy and arduous, yet players come night after night to work. Why is there such a strong commitment to play for this competition? I suspect the reasons go beyond the thrills of performance and competition.

The steel bands of Brooklyn are comprised mostly of children and young adults; many of these children and young adults come from some type of Trinidadian or Caribbean background.  People of West Indian descent are a well-established group in Brooklyn; this population acts as a feeder for the bands in the area. Parents may have been pan players in the past or they may be still active with the instrument in some way or form.  But playing pan goes beyond family inclination.  The steel bands act as a link to Caribbean culture.  It maintains a connection for the multi-generational West Indian population to their home cultures.  It is a great tool for the purpose of cultural faculty because it is one that requires avocation. Imagine that a child is removed from his/her native Trinidadian culture, this person feels a lack or no affinity to his/her parentís or grandparentís culture, this despite living in the Caribbean neighborhood of Brooklyn.  He/she enlists in a steel band to learn pan and is put into an environment where a representation of the culture is actively practiced and not just treated casually.  This creates potential for the child to further explore Caribbean culture and cements a bond to a culture that may have seemed foreign.  In other words playing pan keeps Caribbean culture active, resonant, and dynamic.

Young people drive panorama, so as a result the Brooklyn bands have all the customary energy that young people provide.  Case in point: Sesame Flyers.  I spent some time with Sesame Flyers this August and had the opportunity to play percussion with them for Panorama. Like any ensemble they were encountering some difficulties.  The arrangement wasnít being produced to its full capabilities for a number of reasons: the tune that co-arrangers Andy Akiho and Freddie Harris III [arranged] was challenging and some of the members had not yet learned their parts with only days [to go] before Panorama.  It also seemed that the grind of rehearsing was beginning to weigh on the ensemble.  Perhaps I was witnessing a lull but some of the playing seemed flat and the mistakes were noticeable. I returned to the yard the night before the competition to rehearse and the band had been turned around.  Iím sure there were mistakes during the run-throughs but they werenít noticeable.  Some of the musical details that Andy and Freddie had been working on with the band were finally becoming audible.  Most importantly the energy that was lacking in earlier rehearsals was fully present that evening.  The yard was buzzing and the players were giving all they could in the late hours of the evening.  Granted it was the night before Panorama so it was natural for excitement to be in the air, but it seemed evident to me that the very young majority of the band was manifesting the high energy.  People were dancing as they played from run-through to run-through, for hours on end. This type of wild enthusiasm doesnít occur often with people who have been playing music for years upon years.  How often do you see an older musician get up on top of their bass pans and dance during a jam section of an arrangement?  Youth play pan (and have a lot of fun doing it) and connect to it despite sometimes being generations removed from Trinidad & Tobago.  This is why people dedicate themselves to the instrument and to Panorama.

About the author...
California-native Anton Estaniel currently attends Northern Illinois University, Illinois, USA and is finishing his Masters in Music.   The visit to When Steel Talks studios, and his observation of the arrangers' conference, feeds directly into his thesis.  Generally speaking, the thesis subject focuses on the roles played by various cultural activities and organizations, including the steelbands - within the fabric of the community in Brooklyn, New York, USA.

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