An Opportunity Missed

The Fifth Summit of the Americas and the Steelband

by Nestor Sullivan -  Independent Commentary

President Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Patrick Manning and wife Hazel Manning
President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Patrick Manning and wife Hazel Manning

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - Trinidad and Tobago missed a golden opportunity to ‘sell’ steelband to the visiting heads of states who came for the 5th Summit of the Americas. Try to imagine the level of publicity that could have been generated if we had given a tenor pan, a stand, a case and a pair of sticks to each visiting head of state.

Look at the sudden rise in popularity of a book given by Mr. Chavez to Mr. Obama, it became an instant bestseller. All the front pages of our dailies carried a photo of the US president playing a batting stroke with his gift from Brian Lara.

These two incidents indicated to me that we are still a bit shy when it comes to our national instrument. It would have cost us a miniscule part of the summit budget to have our finest Tuners prepare thirty-three tenors for the visitors - each engraved with the head of state’s name to personalize the gift.

The purpose of this gesture is to sensitize the leaders of a product we make here that can be of use to their country. The USA, Canada and the other Caribbean territories already have established steelbands for many years now. The emphasis would have been on South and Central America.

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Patrick Manning
President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Patrick Manning

There are more than six hundred million people living in countries between Mexico and Chile. If we can succeed in selling steelbands and the related products to this market then we can earn foreign currency, generate employment and make a meaningful contribution to the development of our economy.

Although we are close geographically, we seem to be far away from Central and South America. Our trade and migration patterns that have evolved turn our heads towards the north rather than south. In countries to our north steelbands have been flourishing for years…Canada, USA and Western Europe have hundreds of bands. They have it on the curriculum at schools and universities, they even have factories producing instruments and accessories.

One web-site shows that there are very few steelbands in South and Central America. Brazil, with the largest population, has one band with a steelband instrument. Steelband was introduced in Chile by a Frenchman who went to live there some years ago. There are some bands in Central America….Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.

Steelband instruments can fetch as much as $3,500 US per unit; accessories like stands, sticks and cases can also generate profits. Then there is the software, the music, the arrangements, the teaching methods for tutoring students, all of which can create income and employment. There are the Trinidad and Tobago steelbands that can tour to give live performances to promote these products.

Many steelbands can benefit from the opening up of this new market. In the 1980s a steelband from China made a successful tour of Central America. There are many festivals and opportunities for steelband performances in this part of the world; for this to happen, Trinidad and Tobago must make the first move.

This is nothing new to us in Trinidad and Tobago, we have been doing it for years in the countries of the north. The question that poses itself is…”Why are we not attempting to do the same in South and Central America?”

For me, the responsibility for this effort lies with the steelband organization, Pan Trinbago. They were supposed to have this idea placed on the agenda for the summit, they should have ensured that the matter be discussed and debated. If the Trinidad and Tobago government refused then find some other approach.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, third from right, President Barack Obama, right, and other officials
St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, third from right, President Barack Obama, right, and other dignitaries

The leader of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and the leader of Antigua and Barbuda, Mr. Baldwin Spencer, are both panmen. We could have asked them to act for us. They might have felt honoured to make the case on behalf of the steelband fraternity.

Everyday in the newspaper there are reports of the economy in trouble, big companies are going under, workers are losing their jobs and governments are cutting back on expenditure. The news on the economic front is gloomy to say the least.

Here is an opportunity to create markets for our steelband in a densely populated part of the world with countries that are our neighbours. With them - we share similarities in history and traditions - much more so than with the countries of the north with which we are familiar. In fact Latin American music dominated the repertoires of TASPO, Southern Symphony and Merrymakers when they were presenting steelband music to audiences all over the world in the 50s and 60s. Today many bands play music by composers of South and Central America.

By giving a tenor, a case, a stand and a pair of sticks to each leader, we would have been symbolically giving the instrument to their respective country. Some may have become curious immediately while others may have needed more convincing. We could have given a “How to Play” book and a list of prices for the various instruments of the orchestra. Throw in a few steelband CDs and we have a complete package. While costing little, there are huge commercial benefits that could have been derived from this simple gesture.

President Barack Obama, right, engages with dignitaries
President Barack Obama, right, engages with dignitaries

It is not as if Trinidad and Tobago does not need the business. There are millions of dollars to be made right here in the Americas (South and Central) by introducing steelband to those territories. Think about the amount of schools in Latin America, start with a few then we can think about expanding. We can control that market with our steelband products.

There is a problem of language, most of those countries speak Spanish while 200 million Brazilians speak Portuguese. We somehow were able to overcome that problem in Japan, France, Switzerland and Germany, where there are hundreds of steelbands with players who speak little or no English.

In some of the countries there may be more favourable conditions for the promotion of steelbands. The Minister of Culture of Brazil is the world renowned musician, Gilberto Gil, a Grammy Award winner on several occasions; he may be open to discussions of the possibilities for steelband in his country.

President Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit of The Americas
President Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit of The Americas

Ruben Blades is the Minister of Culture of Panama, he is an internationally renowned singer who sold millions of records. He has performed in all parts of the world with his band. In 1991 we met at the Paleo Festival in Nyon, Switzerland where Pamberi Steel Orchestra opened for his band. We chatted a while and he admitted his fascination at the instrument.

It is my view that we lost a golden opportunity to promote the steelband at the last summit. When the economies of these states continue to shrink more people will be out of jobs. There may be more time for leisure and the development of artistic creativity, steelbands can definitely play a role in these societies that are affected.

If only we could see ourselves as leaders and not followers then we may be able to grasp the moment in time to promote our instrument, our music and our country. We may be small in size and numbers, but we are large on creativity and influence on the world of music.

The truth is that if Trinidad fails to act now then in a few years the pan factories of the north will become the suppliers of steelband instruments, accessories and personnel to the markets of South and Central America. Millions of dollars to be made will be lost, opportunities for our people will be denied and another country will benefit.

This is what has happened in the last twenty years, the global expansion of pan has benefited foreign economies more than that of Trinidad and Tobago. Are we going to allow this to happen in the potentially lucrative markets of South and Central America??

Over to you Pan Trinbago…. the world governing body for steelband!

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