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The Unending Travail of Trinidad & Tobago’s National Instrument - the Steelpan



Patrick Arnold, president, Pan Trinbago

There were recent reports in Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday and Trinidad Express emanating from a press conference called by Pan Trinbago to highlight the organization’s customary financial tussles with the Trinidad and Tobago government.  Tabled as major concerns to the governing body on behalf of the country’s pan community, were outstanding appearance fees due to bands for the long-concluded 2008 Panorama season, and no apparent plans in motion for the upcoming year 2009.  The latter malady stems from the disbanding of the board of the National Carnival Commission (NCC), through which Pan Trinbago interacts with the government.  According to Arnold, this was not always the case, as in the past, the governing body related directly to the Ministry of Culture.  Things have changed though, and with the NCC as the designated conduit and without a board, forward movement is not presently possible.

This is far from the first time that there has been public posturing on the part of Pan Trinbago as they chide the country’s government, on how apparently low on the totem pole are some issues relevant to the national instrument - but not always the case when spearheaded by the government as its own initiative.

In light of this ongoing travail of Pan Trinbago to obtain past due and future funding, for respective projects from the government of Trinidad and Tobago, not least of all the annual panorama competition - When Steel Talks followed up with the organization’s president Patrick Arnold.  A brief consideration of the situation, and the two protagonists, appeared timely.  Being mindful that the steelpan is touted by the country’s government as the national instrument, the almost ritualistic saga would seem to challenge this assertion.  Perhaps what the government actually thinks of Pan Trinbago was a fair lead off question?


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“Do you think that the government is trying to do away permanently with the institution of Pan Trinbago, if so, for what purpose, and if you don’t think like that, why are they not working with you [Pan Trinbago], with every year seeming to get progressively worse?”

“Well, ah, I don’t think that they really, um, very serious about culture...  Can’t see that, because, you know, we [Pan Trinbago] operate all year round - there’s no subvention for Pan Trinbago - we exist.”

“Don’t you find this odd in a country where, the national instrument is supposed to be pan?”

“Yes, it is.  They say it, but they don’t respect it.  They just repeat those words, but their [the government] action isn’t there.”


Without actually touching the question of the government’s regard, or none, for the governing body, Arnold preferred to address what might be the larger picture of their general apathy towards culture.  With no ‘subvention’ for Pan Trinbago from the government, related to the country’s national instrument, on behalf of the pan community, was it not time that perhaps Pan Trinbago should try a different tack?  Arnold proceeded to point out the measures being adopted by the organization to address these issues, at least outside of the panorama season:

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“We have - we have three companies that we have set up now to deal with it, things like that [funding of steelband projects/events outside of carnival time].  They would be managed by professional people, and I am sure in the future, we won’t have to be really be in this type of a situation.  That is why we moved really - we got - a company to come in and look at Pan Trinbago, and they have come up with the way that we should move, move forward. We already have Panvesco - which is our investment company.  And we are not going to sit around no more and wait on them [the government].”

Arnold also expanded on the company charged with advising Pan Trinbago on becoming a self-sufficient and perhaps even lucrative business entity.  That task now lies in the hands of an individual who has his set up his own company, but hails from the same local firm that functions as the governing body’s auditor.  But whatever good financial windfalls may result from the three companies, Pan Trinbago sees those as resources for projects/events outside of the carnival season.  With panorama being within the carnival framework, Arnold believes it is still the responsibility of the government to fulfill this financial role.


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“The government - they have their role to play, especially with carnival, but outside of carnival, we would be able to move on from now on.”

“Well it seems as though that you incur your largest costs when it comes around carnival time, because if you are looking at payment of prize monies and you’re looking at payment of band appearance fees, and of course for players, and other things throughout the season - ”

“Well that’s their [the government’s] role.  The country generates over six hundred million, [TT dollars] or more at carnival time.”

“You [Pan Trinbago] seem to be running around in circles and facing a lot of challenges on a yearly basis.  Apparently, apparently, the generation of the income of carnival time isn’t filtering down to pan.  It doesn’t make a difference to pan, if they [the government, with carnival] generate five billion - Pan Trinbago [and by default, the pan community] is having an issue.  So you can’t, I think, continue to look at what they are generating and that it’s their responsibility.  So we are back to the original case: that this is pan.”

With Pan Trinbago’s three business ventures in train, and also looking at the current climate and treatment being meted out to the steelpan community and the governing body, Arnold was not adverse to ‘thinking outside the box.’  He alluded that they were open to taking Panorama out of the carnival time frame, but acknowledged they would have to obtain funding outside of the government, and seek to identify private financing in such a scenario. 

On a related note, When Steel Talks delved into the reported return of the Panorama finals to the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain for 2009.  According to Arnold, they [respective government/Ministry focal points] promised the South [Skinner Park in San Fernando, the venue in 2007 and 2008] two years.   “By now we should have had the facilities in the Savannah, because when they broke down the Grand Stand and things like that, we were told that the [new] facilities would be ready in 2009, around there - it’s not even started.  But we are still going to come [back] to Port-of-Spain and make do with what we have.”  For the past two years, though the Panorama finals for the medium and large conventional steel orchestras have been staged in San Fernando, South Trinidad - the Semi finals - a much larger undertaking still called the Savannah ‘home,’ though with more limited seating capacity.

It remains to be seen how soon this latest tango between Pan Trinbago and the country’s government will be over.  But when it comes to the pan community, many of the bands and their people are out of pocket whenever there is a delay in payment of any monies due - be it appearance fees, stipends to panists, prizes, or subsidies and reimbursements of any kind.  While many bands have so-called sponsors, not all costs are met by them.  The slack is generally taken up by pan people - and this is true of any activity.  It is not restricted to the steelpan culture.

And with 2008 panorama-related funding still being a thorny issue, no one has even left the gate with reference to the 2009 panorama season.  This is a practical juncture to note that Patrick Arnold explained that the World Steelband Music Festival originally planned for Miami, then relocated to Trinidad, will not come off later this year after all.  Arnold said that the event needed ‘more planning.’  And probably money to...  “We’re not going to deal with the WSMF this year.  We’re going to give ourselves two or three years.”  He said further that when Pan Trinbago’s companies were formed and viable business entities, that they “would deal with the WSMF.”   For the immediate future, the organization looks forward Instead to Pan Is Beautiful XI, which, Arnold insists, is in the works for October or November 2008.  It goes without saying, that financial costs for this venture are going to be a talking point.

Without being privy to the innards as to why there is always a grievance when it comes to finances for the steelband movement and the national instrument as it exists, and which factors are in play, whether the fault lies in communication - or none at all, or whether or not the country’s government gives a damn - the implacable fact is that this is the twenty-first century, and the rest of the business world will move on, with or without Trinidad and Tobago’s steelband community, and Pan Trinbago. 

In an effort to obtain the government’s position on these steelpan issues as tabled by Pan Trinbago, When Steel Talks contacted the office of the Minister of Culture - Marlene McDonald - in Trinidad and Tobago, on the afternoon of July 3 but instead reached Ms. Webster who advised that Minister McDonald was in Parliament and unavailable for comment.

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