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Summary of 3rd International Conference on Steelpan

‘Integrating The Three Elements of Carnival, Steelpan, Calypso and Mas’

Venue:  University of East London, Stratford Campus

Louise Shah - author
Author: Louise C. F. Shah, Nostalgia Steelband

London, ENGLAND - The 3rd International Conference on Steelpan witnessed a paradigm shift in intellectual debate on the carnival arts as compared to the first held in 2006. This year’s theme - ‘Integrating the three elements of Carnival: Steelpan, Calypso and Mas’ - revealed that practitioners in the field hold a unanimous position on the benefits of forging greater symbiosis among these three art forms.  Whereas calypsonians in Trinidad can expect their compositions to be played by steelbands on the road and contested at Panorama, the UK’s home-grown calypsonians are rarely honoured in this way, despite the high standards achieved yearly.

The use of Mas as a creative expression of culturally, politically or historically relevant themes, is - even if pursued by craftsmen - lost amongst UK audiences who are disengaged from the lyrical social prowess of calypso or indeed the historical roots of carnival. The potentiality for social evolution and creativity derived from these three art forms is highly under-utilised in the UK today with calypso, steelpan and mas never having been combined holistically on the road.

A major issue arising from the conference was the rapid decline of grant support, which is leading to the deterioration of standards across these art forms. This was vividly evident when Nostalgia Steelband, conference hosts, announced that their second application to the Arts Council of England was refused on the eve of the meeting which left the financial responsibility purely on the shoulders of the steelband.  These preliminary observations set the tone of this two-day conference.

The Politics and Potency of Carnival Arts:

Christopher Innes, who opened the meeting discussed the declining standards of Toronto’s Caribana. A shift to ‘tourist entertainment’ at the cost of cultural expression or ‘political emasculation’ as described by Peter Minshall was evident while the continued loss of steelbands to super-audible sound systems and static stations was encouraging a loss of “social bonding” that celebrates liberty and independence, and symbolizes emancipation” that is so relevant to all carnivals. The trend of deliberately replacing historical characters with frivolity (eg the so called ‘bikini mas’) invariably leads to dilution of political power of mas’. Innes cautioned that unless carnival regains its political meaning it will be impossible for it to survive with integrity.

Alexander D Great and Akima Paul built upon the notion of political integrity addressing specifically the evolution of calypso both in Trinidad and the UK, the former commenting on how humour foiled the British public who were unaware of calypso’s double meanings and the latter tracing calypso lyric evolution in Trinidad moving from double entendre and metaphorical socio-political commentary to more direct calls for social action post Eric Williams with calypsonians becoming agitators rather than relators. Alexander D Great also traced the route of various calypso forms, highlighting the misnomer ‘soka’ (a short form of ‘calypsoka’ where the ‘ka’ refers to a type of Indian drum) by a journalist, unwittingly led to popular belief that soca is a combination of ‘soul’ and ‘calypso’, thus obscuring the clear Indian infusion. Everard Phillips teased out the finer points of calypso as a form of social action dealing with the ‘inequality problematic’ through linguistic analysis and the application of conflict transformation methodologies. Similarly mas has lost much of its political clout with the towering exception of Peter Minshall whose commitment to political and ecological themes have been expressed most famously in epic deliveries such as ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘River’ and ‘Anti-Nuclear’ masquerades. Ray Funk’s attempts to coherently and carefully document carnival arts are thus invaluable in clarifying and preserving it’s rich history, and in providing a solid foundation for the advancement of the three art forms. Furthermore, work such as Yoko Kimura’s on Noting Hill Carnival and Adela Ruth Tompsett (presenting on the African elements of carnival) are vital to obtaining more in-depth analysis of the evolution of carnival within and from Trinidad to the UK. Such research, including records of interviews, photographic exhibitions with key carnival figures and the large number of newly published books that document its history are critical for its cultural archives and long term survival.

Pepe Francis and Frank Rollocks offered first hand experience of the triumphs and tribulations of leading steelbands in Britain over the years, both noting the importance of uniting the three art forms. The issue of funding was repeated theme of this meeting with Panorama only being saved at the last minute by changing its venue to offset a reduced budget. Considering that some £93 million is generated through Notting Hill carnival, such poor resourcing smacks of cultural marginalisation and exploitation. Self financing is fraught with difficulties and unachievable. Nostalgia’s failed applications for funding to support the conference highlighted the need to unite the three art forms to bolster future grant applications.

Carnival Arts in Education: Adding Value

The potential of these art forms on education in the UK provided what might be carnival’s most valuable legacy here. Celia Burgess-Macey spoke of carnival arts in early years’ of education, opening up worlds of imagination, creativity, self confidence and a stronger sense of identity. Through writing calypsos, designing/wearing mas and playing pan, children learn new ways of self expression. In essence, mas or pan jumbie, as was discussed by Adela Ruth Tompsett is happening in the UK with a deeply meaningful impact on youth and, as Diana Hancox stated, the major appeal of pan is in its inclusivity; all levels of ability can perform together. Recognising these virtues, the first conference in 2006 placed considerable emphasis on a steelpan graded examination system as a major objective and huge strides have been made since that time as announced by Jacqueline Roberts and Victoria Jacquiss. There was universal agreement with Rachel Hayward that steelpan is still often pigeon-holed into a ‘Yellow Bird’ repertoire or pan players stereotyped as “black men in straw hats and floral shirts playing on cruise ships or in hotel lobbies” which is entirely unrepresentative of the UK steelpan landscape today. Perhaps public perceptions of pan might shift if the instrument’s capacity and complexity were better understood. Rachel suggested a return to more rigorous competition and more challenging repertoires to remove the restrictive type-casting of pan. Anthony Joseph’s literary offerings documenting Lord Kitchener’s life in a quasi fictional novel format visibly moved the audience; one could almost feel the presence of the grand master while Ursula Troche’s carnival poems provided delightful relief. Soren Maloney demonstrated how steelpan may be utilised as a means through which engineering is taught since it involves several disciplines including material science, manufacturing technology, acoustics and vibrations.

Improving and Broadening the Reach of Carnival Activities in Britain:

A demonstration in Mas making at the conference

Trinidad’s Nestor Sullivan offered concrete suggestions for improving Mas judging standards and participation, based on his experience both in Trinidad and the UK. Presentations from Carl Gabriel and Colin Spalding provided further evidence of mas as a complex and unique art form. Keith Khan, focused on applying carnival skills and traditions to other areas to extend their reach and recognition and to create a new generation of artists qualified to take carnival forward into the future. He called for a more “exciting thematic” at carnival, “sharper language to describe what we do” to help counter negative public perceptions and for practitioners to “make alliances” for a more enabling environment. Chris Hocking’s presentation celebrating the feats of technology at the annual Guy Fawkes carnival in Bridgwater, Somerset provided much home grown inspiration which could infuse mas at Notting Hill carnival in future.

Summing up, it was clear that the carnival arts community is more united than ever and determined to push forward for a more integrated carnival celebrating its the three key components: steelpan, calypso and mas; that a conference forum offers an appropriate setting for real intellectual exploration of the carnival arts as well as a setting for open debate and ideas for brain-storming; that the virtues of the carnival arts are far reaching but the community needs to professionalise in order to impact more tangibly on public perceptions; that the essence of carnival and its history need to be preserved as a means to retaining its integrity – socio-political and artistic; and perhaps most critically, the lack of funding presents a major concern and is better addressed collectively.

Author: Louise C. F. Shah, Nostalgia Steelband

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