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Pan In London

Coming into Sharper Focus in ’86


by Dalton Narine

Republished from - PAN - Fall 1985 - Vol.1 No.1 

London—And con artists, too. But mostly it’s jealousy, politics, false national pride, philosophical differences over promotion of the culture, inflated egos and a little racism—all hurdles the steelband movement here must overcome someday before it becomes the universal reference point of pan, Trinidad notwithstanding.

Fact is, such position may already be in place, despite the soap opera scenario. And Caribbean Focus ’86, a nine-month cultural festival currently being planned by the Commonwealth Institute located at the city’s heart, may well showcase London as the mecca of pan when it kicks off in March.


Geraldine Connor conducting London’s Ebony steel band during rehearsal in Greece

“Pan in the United Kingdom surprised me,” said Kimi Christopher, newly appointed Trinidad & Tobago Tourist Board manager for the U.K. and Europe. “The scope is bigger here than in the U.S. (where she formerly was manager of the Board’s New York office.” Trinidad, too, she could have added, without being facetious.

Perhaps it was inevitable that pan would enjoy such status in a place far removed from its origin. According to Glen Cunin, British West Indian Airways senior sales representative here, “the Caribbean community now dominates at least 20 percent of the 30-odd boroughs that comprise London.”

Cunin didn’t need to emphasize the key phrase “Caribbean community,” while drawing a parallel between ethnic votes and “a predominance of annual West Indian carnivals” to promote harmonious relationships between Britishers and West Indians, not to mention among the various Caribbean peoples themselves. For pan in the mother country has become a hot Caribbean property. Witness the young British-born black players in the larger steel bands, whose genealogy goes back to Jamaican and other island immigrants who, many years ago, traded an easy but meager existence for a cold but secure lifestyle in the land of their colonizers.

“I don’t consider the steel band as Trinidad culture,” said Scofield Pilgrim, a retired Trinidadian educator and renowned jazz bassist who was spending July in London to try and establish a foothold for Caribbean musicians in the international market. “Culture, to me, is a way of life. Musical expressions vary from place to place, and since music is a form of expression, the steel pan is just another instrument.”

When the instrument was first presented in 1951 London as a family of tuned oil drums under the TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra) label, not even Sterling Betancourt, a player who remained here to cultivate the art rather than return home with the band, could have gauged the instrument’s success or its proliferation among the British youth and even groups in Germany and Switzerland.

Aside from the eventual keen interest in the music by the school system, it was the Notting Hill Carnival that installed pan on the popular pedestal it adorns today.

‘We inaugurated the Carnival in 1965 and only one steel band (Betancourt’s quartet) provided music,” said Victor Crichlow, treasurer of the Notting Hill Carnival and Arts Committee. “But, in 1984, we saw 10 bands on the streets.”

Trinidad, pan’s birthplace, boasts some 50 steel bands organized under a single body, Pan Trinbago, which regulates the various steel band festivals and national championships as well as espouses a grandfatherly image to steel bands and pan artists all over the world. The pan scene in the U.K. isn’t as unified. It’s not necessary, according to Pepe Francis, who shelters “the six top bands” under an umbrella organization called the Brotherhood of Steel (BOS).


Francis, who is chairman and manager of Ebony steel band, formed 18 years ago, co-founded BOS in 1980 to promote the steel band, “not as three- to-four-man club playing gigsters.” He found it relevant to break away from the staid Steel Band Association of Great Britain (SBAGB), because “white people thought a steel band was three or four guys beating pan slung around the neck.”

“It was a bad image. We tried to reason with Terry Noel the SBAGB president, but we couldn’t garner any support,” Francis is saying in his office in a community center in Notting Hill. “He was getting work for ‘some bands, but not everybody was involved. So we (BOS) sat down and worked out a pay scale, and soon pan was in the limelight again. Bands began to tour in full force. Metronomes was in Switzerland two years ago. My band, Ebony, just completed a tour of Greece in June and offers for concert dates on the Continent are coming in.”

Noel could not be reached. Francis says there is no love lost. “His ‘Groovers’ band was entered in the steel band festival just last Sunday,” Francis said. “We told him he could control all the regions outside of London and we’d handle the big city. As far as I’m concerned, everything worked out fine.”

Francis points to the commercial success of Rudy “Twoleff” Smith, a Denmark–based tenor pan virtuoso, and London’s resident tenor soloist, Anise Hadeed of Trinidad’s Phase II and the U.K.’s Breakfast Band. Both appear as professional musicians whose instruments happen to be the steel pan.

“There is so much going on that we need a body like the BOS to make things flow. We have a group called the Carnival Industrial Project which manufactures pans and teaches students the art of tuning. There’s Gerald Forsythe, formerly of Invaders, who tunes just about all the school pans and is employed by the London Education Authority. Many whites move on to big bands like Lambeth Youth and Groovers when they leave school. But it isn’t always the case. Ebony has no whites because of potential friction from my players. And those whites could be an asset, but as I said it’s a problem. Remember Tokyo’s Zigilee, one of the old timers in pan? He drops by sometimes to give the youth history lessons on the steel band.”

Pan in London offers much more.

The Acklam Community Center in Lad-Brook Grove where the BOS is quartered, serves as a meeting place, too, for West Indians in general and Trinidadians in particular. At dusk, it is not indistinguishable, from, say, the Invaders panyard in Woodbrook, Trinidad. Panists gather in Bay 57, a crude shed-like structure shunted off to the side of the main building. The shelter houses Ebony’s chrome-plated pans, which vibrate during rehearsals to the heavy metal sounds of passing trains on the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground. Hadeed, 27, is conducting practice on this cool July evening, mere days after copping the best soloist title in all of England.

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“These players surprised even me when I first heard them a few years ago,” he’s shouting now above the din of an elevated train in high gear. “To me, although most are British-born, they’re just like the panists back home. A few can read music but that’s it.”

Geraldine Connor, who arranged the band’s championship material for the 1983 Notting Hill Carnival as well as conducted the classical pieces on the Greece tour, concurs, “the standard of pan music is high here.”

“While the small units play a role in the movement, I believe that big bands like Ebony offer the real taste of steel band music. It’s one of the reasons we’ll be performing in Sweden in August, and possibly Hong Kong in February,” she said.

But not one British steel band has toured Trinidad to date, although Masquerade, a brass and pan side with a big band boom, showed native Trinidadians how to mix it up during this year’s Carnival celebrations.

“We’d noticed that nobody listened to pan music for long periods at a time,” said manager Frank David, “so we decided to mix the sound by fusing two double tenors together with instruments of a regular brass band. It worked, and when we were voted the best music band in Notting Hill in 1984, we approached BWIA for sponsorship and we’ve been riding higher ever since then.”

What’s more, Masquerade has produced two records of note but the group has received scant air play on London radio. “That has always been a problem with black music in this country,” said Alex Pascall, who in 1974 initiated “Black Londoners,” a radio forum created for the expression of the black voice, and who is the brain behind Caribbean Focus 1986. (His critics maintain that Pascall’s only goal is self-aggrandizement).

“Pan is here but they don’t really know it,” he said, referring to British radio audiences. “The British are still looking at pan as a piece of tin. But panmen have themselves to blame. Too much squabbling among themselves has hindered growth. They brought to England the same petty rivalries that they engaged in back home. It seems that Trinidadians don’t want to let go of tradition. ‘Tuners and pan contest judges must be Trinidadians. Some panmen despise me because I was born in Grenada. Look, two years ago I was the one who started playing soca and pan music on the radio. I received much abuse from Jamaicans who think reggae is the only Caribbean sound playable on radio.

“But I’ve learned to ignore the threats and continue what I think is right for the Caribbean people. The older people are thanking me but the younger generation is out for my guts. There’s a depth of ignorance here that is unfathomable. But nothing will deter me from putting our music where it should be—equal to any form of music in the world. Yet it’s like one step forward and two backward. I see the Caribbean artist getting nowhere until he respects himself and realizes the value of his craft.”

“Too many panists are seeking ready money, a short term thing, rather than put a value on who they are and on their art. It’s an island mentality that they really sell themselves short. We may have come from separate islands but we must deal with the problems as Caribbean people. It hasn’t been easy for pan to be recognized even as little as it is today. Why, I actually saw TV cameras filming a school steel band in action, but panning the white kids only.

“Hopefully, all that will change with the advent of Caribbean Focus 1986. We’re planning a festival that will showcase pan to the fullest. For starters (Trinidad’s) Casablanca will be touring the U.K. in March and I’m trying to schedule them alongside the London Philharmonic in a Westminster Abbey concert on April 27. Also, we plan to feature pan in every major city in the U.K., including in the program, symposiums and workshops. Jazz is another area we’re looking into, with the assistance of Scofield Pilgrim. We believe that pan will take its rightful place in world music right here come next year.”

For his part, Pilgrim is busy tinkering with a schedule that could bring Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and Clive Zanda, Andy Narell and his band, Rudy Smith’s group, Robert Greenidge, Ralph MacDonald, Othello Molineaux, Anise Hadeed and Sonny Rollins together next summer in London.

“Caribbean musicians, apart from Bob Marley, have not really established themselves internationally,” Pilgrim said. “You only have to be on the scene in Europe to hear what people think of Rudy Smith, who is regarded as a musician with the steel pan as his instrument. With a festival as immense as Focus, a part of the program would possibly be taken to Paris and become exposed there. If pan is featured as it should be, playing a repertoire of calypso jazz rhythms, success could be a boon to the instrument at the international level.”

And, long overdue, he might add.

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Republished from -  PAN -  Fall 1985 - Vol.1  No.1  


Editor-in-Chief: Leslie Slater at - slater.pro40@gmail.com
Senior Associate Editor:
Dalton Narine at -  narain67@gmail.com

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