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Date:  8.30.05

New York

Countdown to New York Steel Band Panorama 2005

This was my lucky day...

A Conference with
Clive Bradley, Pelham Goddard,
and Yohan Popwell

by Anton Estaniel,
Northern Illinois University

New York - This was my lucky day.  On Friday the 26th of August, I was one of two guests who sat in on an interview organized, hosted and moderated by When Steel Talks of three steel pan luminaries: Clive Bradley, Pelham Goddard, and Yohan Popwell. Pelham Goddard and Clive Bradley came representing the very experienced and established school of pan arranging while Yohan Popwell represented the younger and up and coming generation of pan arrangers.  The lack of pretense on the part of the arrangers was very refreshing, especially coming from men who have established themselves in terms of winning various Panorama competitions, a competition now held in different parts of the world.  Mr. Bradley, Mr. Goddard, and Mr. Popwell were willing participants and offered their insight and knowledge in a forthcoming way.  It was a treat to hear what these men had to say on anything and everything that had to do with the steel pan.  From what I can recall, I’m going to focus on the tidbits of information offered by these arrangers that I found useful, especially for anyone who is interested in playing pan and or running a steel pan ensemble.

Pelham Goddard, Yohan Popwell and Clive Bradley at Basement Recordings

As a non-Trinidadian I find it important to know as much about pan as possible.  Understanding the style conventions of steel band music is vital to performing the music in a thoughtful and dynamic manner.  Mr. Popwell spoke of studying the music of the prominent arrangers to fully understand the different styles that are produced during Panorama.  He spoke specifically of the different strum patterns that are trademarks, audible clues that help a listener discern a band’s arranger.  The strumming in a steel band, in my opinion, is the rhythmic thread that determines whether a band is really “grooving” for a lack of a better word.  Most often non-Trinidadians who begin playing the instrument do so through reading music.  Trinidadians who play pan do so by learning the music by rote, that is to say they learn by ear.  Since Trinidadians grow up hearing these rhythms they have an inherent advantage to playing them.  Often times newcomers who have no familiarity with the style of music for pan will have difficulty with the syncopated nature of the strumming patterns.  In fact newcomers who read music will sometimes have difficulty in reading the notated rhythms from the page.  This can lead to a very straight and non “grooving” interpretation of the strumming rhythms.  One of the first things I would teach a group of new players is how to play these strumming patterns for certain elongated periods of time.  I would first teach some of the core rhythms by rote.  Once the rhythms would be learned I would then move on to having the rhythms read from sheet music.  Hopefully the rote learning would initiate a more relaxed playing of the strumming rhythms when being read from the sheet music.  The comfort and familiarity of these rhythms determines how well a band is performing the music.  The grooving quality of the strumming section of a steel band was something I always acknowledged, I’m glad to see that my assumption was strengthened by listening to these arrangers speak of the importance of strumming, the “heartbeat” or “pulse” of the band.

Speaking of rhythm let’s discuss the engine room.  For anyone who has played in the engine room I’ll say this:  it can be one of the more perilous sections of any steel band.  It may seem that playing an assigned rhythm in a repeated fashion is easy, but playing in the rhythm section presents its own difficulties that differ from playing a pan.  First of all there are planned breaks within songs that are put in by pan arrangers.  Engine room players have a habit of playing through the breaks of a song by accident, their beats spilling into prepared moments of silence.  This occurs because an auxiliary player will focus on keeping in time with a steel band but will fail at times to listen to the structure of the tune they are playing.  The player will get lost in the groove, thereby allowing him or her to “fall into the hole.” Steel bands playing for Panorama offer a semi-inclusive environment for people to play percussion.  This allows the engine room to swell to large numbers.  With more people comes the problem of getting everyone in sync.  What is one to do with so many bodies in the engine room? Other than the arranger there are other people who usually know the music thoroughly, one of those people should be the drummer.  From what I can remember this sentiment was echoed by all three arrangers: Mr. Bradley, Mr. Goddard, and Mr. Popwell, and if it wasn’t verbalized by all three than it was most certainly agreed upon by a nod.  The drummer has the advantage of not playing any tonal melodic material.  Good drummers will focus completely on what’s going on within the form of the song they are playing while still concentrating on keeping time.  Good drummers are perceptive listeners.  If the drummer is knowledgeable of the music then he/she can cue the rest of the engine room to their appointed drum breaks and stops, making the act of keeping time less hazardous.

The last point I’d like to elaborate on is the importance of knowing how each steel pan functions in a steel drum band.  Clive Bradley and Yohan Popwell mentioned that arranging music for a steel band rests upon the abilities of its players and the strengths and weaknesses of each instrument.  For example an arranger and composer of steel band music has to be aware that certain instruments have limitations.  For example the middle voice pans, (guitars, cellos, four pan, quadrophonics) are difficult to use when carrying the melody.  They don’t lend themselves to playing a melody that tenors, double tenors, or even double seconds can play.  Middle range pans often times can get drowned out by the higher frequencies that the soprano pans have.  Middle range pans also have more barrels per instrument, numbering from three to four barrels per instrument.  Tenors are self contained to one barrel.  More barrels equate to more required movement.  The melody that a tenor player whips through may cause physical discomfort when played on a middle range drum.  So a melody that sounds playable on a tenor may not shine as brightly on a middle range pan.  This doesn’t mean the middle pans aren’t capable of playing melodic material; it’s just that the music needs to be arranged appropriately.  Speaking of arranging appropriately, a good rule of thumb is avoiding music that is far beyond their abilities.  As pointed out by the arrangers, sensitivity to a band’s abilities determines what will be written for the ensemble.  There is no point in playing music that is going to be impossible for a group.  All of the aforementioned information may seem obvious, but non-Trinidadians may begin the instrument in total ignorance.  The steel drum isn’t as well known as the traditional instruments found in school curriculums.  Old stereotypes of the Caribbean are still common, and there hasn’t been that much academic material written on the instrument.  So it’s quite possible for someone to go about playing the music of pan in a non Trinidadian way If you happen to be a person who wants to utilize this instrument by creating a band (especially for educational purposes) I say this: do your research.  Don’t treat the instrument as a novelty.  The steel drum has a rich and evolving history, it demands to be studied seriously.  Having the opportunity to speak to Clive Bradley, Pelham Goddard, and Yohan Popwell has afforded me knowledge that I hope to carry onto whatever endeavor I choose in the future.  I hope this article has articulated some basic information about pan that can help newcomers and experienced pan performers improve as pan players and as musicians.

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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