One More Play - New York Panorama 2008

Open letter to the Pan Fraternity and the National Community

In Pictures

Brooklyn, N.Y - What initially looked to be a grey Saturday just prior to Labor Day, co-operated beautifully for the annual New York Steelband panorama by the time the first three bands scheduled to compete, and the patrons, filed into the grounds behind the Brooklyn Museum for the 2008 Panorama. For the patrons, their point of entry was changed over from its usual Washington Avenue spot, to the Eastern Parkway driveway at the side of the museum. Only the performers, their steelband racks and instruments (pictured) were allowed in on Washington Avenue. With construction trailers occupying part of the museum grounds where the bands would normally line up one behind the other, only two to three orchestras at any one time were set up fully. Meanwhile, others awaited their turn to enter, encamped on Union and President Streets across from the museum.

With a line-up of nine orchestras in competition for the title of panorama champions, and a mandatory cut-off time before 2:00 a.m., organizers WIADCA (West Indian American Day Carnival Association) ensured the show got underway shortly after 8:00 p.m.

Many familiar faces were visible within the crowd present for the panorama – such as Carl Merez from Baltimore – of BECI Harbor View Festival fame. Other steelpan notables spotted during the course of the event included Roger Greenidge - one of Maryland-based Pan Masters Steel Orchestra’s arrangers, Pamberi’s resident arranger Brian Villafana, legendary steelpan instrument manufacturer and tuner Bertram “Birch” Kelman, and steelband co-director Clifford Alexis from NIU (Northern Illinois University) in the company of Marie Toby (pictured), the captain of Tobago powerhouse steel orchestra Redemption Soundsetters. As is customary the crowd would grow as the evening progressed into night. However there still was not the regular “crush” of people in the museum grounds as in previous years; but it was adequate enough to provide enthusiastic support and feedback to band performances, and also possible sources of revenue for the vendors who were positioned to the back of the seating area on the grounds.

D’Radoes played first, and fell prey to the dreaded malady of being the “sound check” band on which the sound system is regarded by many to be “tested out.” Interestingly they were the only band which was actually directed to play a few bars in an attempt at a sound check – but the performance results through the speakers were still quite distorted. Many present felt this unfortunate circumstance contributed in part to the eventual competition place meted out to the band. The crowd that awaited results gave loud gasps of disbelief when D’Radoes (pictured on stage) was announced eighth out of the nine orchestras competing. Anybody who was in the museum prior to the beginning of the competition and heard D’Radoes run their tune ‘Oil & Music’ before taking the stage, felt comfortable in their knowledge of what was in the orchestra’s proven musical arsenal for that evening, and in their recall of what the orchestra delivered when they took their performance to the stage shortly after.

But the orchestra could not do anything about being in the position of circumstantial “test band” for the sound system at the museum. C’est la vie. Play first – and even though an orchestra’s performance may merit otherwise - and it could almost be assured a place in history somewhere in the bottom rungs of the results.

ADLIB Steel Orchestra commanded the stage and delivered a memorable musical and visual performance, to a roar of approval from the crowd. They were a popular choice for the championship title. After their performance in fifth position, for the rest of the show, several people in the crowd could be heard voicing their opinion that they would win.

All bands dread pulling a playing position of number one in the panorama because of the bedeviling of the sound system at that point. A number of bands have had this misfortune befall them, including ADLIB who took the stage first in back-to-back years of 2005 and 2006. The same situation befell Pantonic steel orchestra after winning the title in 2003. They went on the following year of 2004 to play in position one out of thirteen bands competing, with horrible distortion emanating from the speakers, and were swiftly dealt a ‘second to last’ twelfth position in the “ears” of the judges.

This year, Pantonic (pictured on stage) played in the position most desired by orchestras – last.  But despite that position, and the crowd response after the five-time panorama champions’ performance, when points were tallied, and the highest and lowest scores eliminated, the band with arranger Keith Roberts was dropped into seventh place, just above D’Radoes Steel Orchestra.  And like the crowd response in regard to D’Radoes, the audience again was extremely vocal in their disapproval, prompting MC Jemma Jordan to remark half-teasingly that she knew “we all believed we could judge panorama.”  Like ADLIB and Sonatas before them, a walk through the crowd evidenced thoughts from many that Pantonic, too, were strong contenders for the panorama title.

Playing in second position were defending champions Sonatas (pictured on stage) who put on an extremely tight performance on beautifully blended ‘Birch’ pan instruments which most assuredly pleased not only their most ardent supporters, but the crowd in general.  They were also crowd favorites but merited only third place by the time the high and low scores were dropped from two of the five adjudicators. 

It is usually challenging for an orchestra somewhat smaller in size to follow on stage after a large and powerful band such as Sonatas, and this was the case for Sesame Flyers.  Additionally, Sesame chose to follow in the footsteps of Trinidad and Tobago’s Exodus steel orchestra and perform without canopies. There were two differences between Sesame and Exodus, however.  The latter probably took the stage with the full one hundred and twenty musicians allowed in the Trinidad and Tobago panorama competition, and additionally used cascading “risers” to showcase their players as they performed.  With neither of the aforementioned factors in play for Sesame Flyers at the New York panorama, their appearance did not have the impact that they might have hoped for.  Nonetheless, the band delivered a spirited and credible rendition of “Hooked” for their eventual position of sixth.

Rumors abounded during the last days, and even up to competition time that Crossfire Steel Orchestra (pictured) would not put in an appearance for the 2008 panorama event.  After all they were hunting for a panyard with just a little more than two weeks to go before the big day.  This contributed in large measure to their very small representation on stage – a mere shadow of the 2007 band.  But with new arranger Khuent Rose who determinedly and competently took the very small band through their practice paces, and veteran leader Martin “Dougie” Douglas who is no stranger to hard times, Crossfire still made it to the museum grounds.  While eventually placing last out of the field of nine competitors can be daunting, it was commendable that the band possessed musicians resilient enough to prove naysayers wrong for 2008.

There were several now-familiar names among the adjudicators (pictured), some of whom have been regulars over recent years, including returnees from last year: Judith de Four-Howard, Ezra Joseph and Franklyn Grant who now joined Tommy Crichlow and Jeff Smits to round out the five-person panel. Another face well-known on the New York panorama adjudication circuit - that of Wade Robinson (adjudicated last year) - was present as well, but this time in the capacity of ‘time keeper.’  Maryland-based Keith Preddie was tasked with the tallying of the scores. Each orchestra had the opportunity to amass a total of one hundred points, with forty going toward arrangement, another forty to general performance, ten focused on the quality of sound, and the last ten points dedicated to the area of rhythm.

Almost every competitive event has its controversies, and over the years of competing at the WIADCA panorama competition, several New York orchestras have, on many occasions, been openly disgruntled over results and 2008 was no different. In 2007, disconcerting discrepancies even caused the normally reticent Despers USA to go on record last year as to what they believed were unprofessional and inconsistent judicial practices which they felt were reflected both by the lack of comments on two out of the five judges’ score sheets, and what appeared to be an invalid score sheet – one which was not signed , or therefore not validated by one judge.  Last year all five judges’ scores counted toward the final result – none were dropped. While that method in itself fermented discord, bands which compete every year at this competition at least deserve the respect of a transparent and proven system that would fairly assess their performances. But Despers USA, though, had to be fairly pleased with its achievements this year – fourth place – their best showing in six years.

The selection of judges is mainly from the same familiar pool every year, resulting sometimes in several personnel returning on an annual basis - these adjudicators who, most, if not all of the bands’ management have not a clue as to their certain identities, until their names are announced at the event. The management of the competing orchestras generally voice despair over this situation, and some even question the competence and/or objectivity of said judges. This situation is capped off with the recurrent complaints about the sound system which many feel colors the eventual output of the steel orchestras, and subsequently impacts on the fair adjudication process.  So one would wonder why New York steel orchestras keep returning to the competition year after year without guaranteed change.  Simple – with no other apparent avenue to channel their competitive juices in an attempt to show off their musical prowess, they resignedly put out financially, over the season and eventually for their panorama run – much more money than is at stake even for the championship itself.

So if the afore-mentioned grievances are taken into consideration, and play out year after year for the steel orchestras at panorama time, it would appear that the orchestras are simply hoping for the best each panorama season – and not solely based on the work they put in, and their musical aptitude – which should be case. The bands take a chance when they draw for playing positions, most desperately hoping they never draw the almost doomed position of numero uno. Next – if they dodge that bullet, they still pray that the sound system does not horribly distort their musical presentation being judged. And finally, they hope that their adjudicators will be honest. Russian roulette, anyone?

Back to the panorama stage and the band which competed after Despers USA – CASYM Steel Orchestra, who snatched the second prize. CASYM keeps a relatively low profile during the panorama season; their panyard does not usually see crowds on the magnitude of that of other New York panyards; but when this band appears at the museum – they turn up the heat, with attire and presentation to match. And as far as the judges were concerned this year – that was good enough for second place.

Now - while history shows that there is only one point that separated winners ADLIB (276) from CASYM (275), it must be kept in mind again that this was the result of the elimination of the highest and lowest scores of the five judges, and therefore the result of three judges’ figures.  Many believed that the separation between those two bands was more than a mere point.  So: one wonders what the scores looked like from the five judges in total. There should be some consistency from year to year as to what rule of thumb is applied for the adjudication system at this competition; as noted before all five scores were used last year.

A one hundred-player strong Harmony Steel Orchestra (pictured on stage) followed CASYM as the penultimate band in the competition. Fielding excited, confident and mainly young people in its ranks, many of Harmony’s members felt that they should have won last year.  They were sure that in 2008 the panorama title would be theirs, and the band’s players took on all comers playing “Hooked,” co-composed by their arranger Ken “Professor” Philmore. As every other orchestra that evening, Harmony’s final result was determined by the judges.  For their efforts, the group went on to share fourth place honors with Despers USA.  Imitating the latter, it also turned out to be Harmony’s highest placing in the last six years.

Other than the bit-longer-than-usual period that elapsed between the first and second bands, all went along in a respectable time for the evening.  Because of the 2:00 a.m. “lights-out” policy, the panorama results were delivered more quickly than has been the norm.


At the end of it all, another New York panorama has come, and gone, with the exhilarated champions ADLIB Steel Orchestra (pictured on stage) obviously being the happiest of all. They shed the most tears that night – tears of sheer joy, for the road they travelled to that moment in time. Eighteen year-old Andre White who arranged the band’s winning selection “Heat” has been a member of ADLIB since the age of five, and proudly shared in the wondrous sensations of the band’s accomplishments. It was also an apt plateau to launch the youngster into his Fall 2008 freshman year at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

Like other bands, ADLIB endured their share of disappointment in previous years while competing in the panorama - but this year – it was their turn to shine. Like other bands, they will most probably be back at the museum grounds next year, as they defend their title. And because of the all-consuming passion for the pan art form that courses fervently through the veins as soon as the season begins - one can be sure that the steel orchestras – against all odds – will find a way to put on a helluva show - one more time.

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