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Clarke:  Pan in Trinidad is at a standstill

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Trinidad, W.I. - Atlanta-based panist Don Clarke believes that, sad to say,  pan in his native Trinidad and Tobago “is neither going nor coming.” Clarke was being interviewed by Pan Diaspora Visionary, Hollis Clifton.

Here is Hollis Clifton’s interview with Don Clarke.

Clifton:  Mr. Clarke, what was the pan scene like growing up in Trinidad in the 1940s?

Clarke:  My first encounter with the steelpan was at age 13.  In those days playing the pan was taboo for anyone coming from a so-called decent home.  I had to run away to play pan and when I returned home I would get a sound ‘lickin’ from my mom.

Clifton:  What were you up to when you found yourself in America?

Clarke:  I was teaching Mathematics and English at Craigwell Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia.  Prior to when I got out of the service I stayed in New York for about 3 years.  I went to Albany State where I finished my educational stint whilst I was in the military.

Clifton:  Mr. Clarke, before you got to Atlanta, were you involved in the formation of any steelband in Trinidad and Tobago?

Clarke:  Yes, at the tender age of about... I would say about eighteen/nineteen years, I was stationed in Tobago whilst in the employ of the Trinidad & Tobago Electricity Company (T&TEC); there I met Patrick Arnold – the former president of Pan Trinbago.  I happened to have had a tenor pan and double seconds, and we were was just fooling around … and that simple gesture led to the formation of the first steelband in the sister isle – Tobago – Our Boys.  That band is still functional today. So that was my first encounter with the instrument as far as arranging and playing are concerned.

Clifton:  While in the army, was there anything like pan that you may have been involved in?

Clarke:  The only thing I did with pan in the army was when I was sent to Germany after I got back from Vietnam; I had a tenor pan which in fact was a gift from Ellie Mannette and then I did a little playing in Germany but not on a great scale. It was just amazing for people to hear the pan.  In those days pan was not heard of. This was somewhere in 1965–1967.

Clifton:  When did you form your own band?

Clarke:  The formation of my band evolved somewhere between 1985 and 1987.  That was in Georgia, Atlanta.  I didn’t really have such an interest.  It so happened that I was in Trinidad when, for the first time in my life I encountered chrome pans.  I was so fascinated that I acquired a tenor, double seconds and double tenor, took them back home and started to fool around with them.  Then I had some friends who were interested in playing the pans so there were about six of us playing till the number increased to about twenty-two.  We used to take part in the Peach Carnival where we won many awards.  The band also participated in the 1996 Olympics where we were selected to perform in the village. This proved to be quite an experience.

Clifton:  Don - did you have a family outfit before graduating to the big band sound?

Clarke:  Yes I did. It was my son, my daughter and my brother- in-law.  We started fooling around.  It must have been four or five of us.

Clifton:  What caused the dissemination of the band?

Clarke:  It so happened that we started receiving invitations to play in the parks, churches and so we attracted lots of folks from Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean who expressed an interest in learning to play the instruments, and so before you know it, I had other members falling in.  The next thing you know I had a full-fledged band.  Then there was a vote to select a name for the outfit, and that’s how we arrived at the term “A Touch of Steel.”

Clifton:  What are some of the places you have travelled to as a band?

Clarke:  As a band we actually didn’t travel anywhere. All out engagements were within Metro Atlanta. We never left the city.

Clifton:  Don - what’s your personal status now as a panist?

Clarke:  Well my current status is that when the youngsters migrated from high school to college – including my own son and daughter, I had to slack up because education was more important to me than the pan.  Many of the youngsters were following a similar educational path.  That’s when the band dissolved and that’s when I took the option to go solo.

Clifton:  So you lost the Touch of Steel and took on the career of a pan soloist.  You were then free to traverse the world. Could you share with the listeners some of the places you have been to?

Clarke:  To date I’ve been to Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica the Virgin Isles.  These are the main places I’ve been to throughout the year.  A tour could be as much as three months, as in the case of playing at the Crown Plaza in Cancun, Mexico.  This was annually.  Then over the last seven years I’ve been doing three months stints in Costa Rica.  I’ve also been doing gigs at local venues in the Atlanta area.  One engagement which stands out remains the wedding of the grand daughter of the legendary actor Sidney Poitier.  To date, that must have been the highlight of my life - just meeting him in person.

Clifton:  Have you ever done the cruise ship?

Clarke:  Hollis, I just don’t like travelling on ships.  My first experience was a turn off.  I took the boat from Trinidad to the sister isle, Tobago and I can’t stop telling you the sea sickness which befell me.  I have since developed a phobia for travelling by sea.  I just don’t see myself playing on ships or boats.  I’ve had requests to play on the “Carnival” and I simply turned it down because I just don’t like to be on the ocean or any boat.

Clifton:  So you are scared of the high seas!

Clarke:  Mind you Hollis, I’m a good swimmer but I just don’t like the high waves on the boat.

Clifton:  You are not a seaman … a musician - and you want to stick to that …

Clarke:  Yeah!

Clifton:  Don, I believe you’ve delved into the business of composing?  Would you like to share this with our listeners on WACK?

Clarke:  Well, I used to compose for the band “A Touch of Steel.”  Each carnival I used to have my own piece which won awards including the band of the year in Atlanta carnival.  In 2004 I did a tune called “The Bomb” and a friend of mind, Kenny King, a former tenor pan player with Despers, heard the piece and said “Man, dis is a tune for panorama.”  I told him that I was not really interested in that.  “I’m no composer.”  He urged me on. 

The next thing you know he got in touch with Robbie Greenidge who already had a tune called “Ramona.”  When he heard the tune he liked it.  At the time Robbie was arranging for Solo Pan Knights; nonetheless he switched pieces and did a very good job of it.  That was my first taste in actually arranging for music in Trinidad.  It took off from there, and the number of years I’ve been arranging pan music.

Clifton:  Have any of your compositions won any awards in ‘pandom?’

Clarke:  Well to my great surprise I-  think it was in 2007 - I did a tune called “Cant Get Enough.”  Eunice Peters did the vocals while Alvin Daniel did the lyrics, and to my great honour I heard that the tune was nominated and won tune of the year.  So that was quite an accomplishment, going up against the likes of The Original De Fosto and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe.  That was quite an honour.

Clifton:  Don, do you come to Trinidad every year, or are you locked on to WACK via the worldwide web?

Clarke:  I do come to Trinidad often, however, last year and the previous year I had to honour a commitment in Mexico – so I just couldn’t break that.  I was also committed to be in Costa Rica.  This year I say I had to come home.  I didn’t do a tune this year because I thought I really wanted to come and enjoy myself and get a little break for the carnival flavor itself.

Clifton:  Mr. Clarke - permit me to ask you a pertinent question.  As a panist who has been through it all, do you think the steelband movement in Trinidad and Tobago, in particular, is progressing?

Clarke:  Well, I prefer to say it’s at a ‘standstill,’ standstill - you know - because this is a very controversial issue and no matter who voice an opinion, there’s going to be somebody out there saying ‘foul play.’  As far as my opinion, it’s this… first of all I think unless the T&T government itself and the Culture Department put Pan as one of the main agendas as far as the art form is concerned, it’s going to always have this stigma to it.  In other words it’s not just the money, but the involvement as a national instrument.  This is one of the best musical instruments in the entire world.  I mean people are dying to learn to play the Pan.

Other countries are making more progress than Trinidad and Tobago. Japan is one of them. Africa now is doing very good with Pan.  So is something wrong?  Why? … Everything is Pan Trinbago and a standstill.  And in my opinion they are not going forward and they not going backwards.  They are just in one spot and I would say, for the past fifteen years they are on that same spot.

Clifton:  That’s interesting because sometime ago “Boogsie” made certain allegations about what he felt as to whether Pan is alive or dead and it cost the big man his job.  Do you feel Len was justified with such an allegation?

Clarke:  Not in my opinion.  I think Boogsie, as a panist, world-renowned at that - is controversial in many areas.  However, throwing all the blame on Patrick Arnold, in my view, was not a fair statement.  Patrick, like anybody, else and any government - any job could always do better; and remember even as the president of a country or organization, it takes the people below you to implement your ideas or give you some good information to move forward.  So my problem with that allegation was where was Boogsie when all that was going on?  Did he have conversations with Mr. Arnold?  Did Mr. Arnold blank him out?  Did Mr. Arnold want to hear any ideas that he may have had?

When one makes a blanket statement on an individual without offering some sort of alternative on how to do it better, then to me you don’t have a valid statement.  That’s just my opinion; and mind you, Boogsie is my very good friend.

Clifton:  Don - do you think that it may have anything to do with the fact that it was during Patrick Arnold’s reign that the rules were amended to prevent any one pan arranger from arranging for as much as four to five bands during a panorama season?

Clarke:  Well again, when one brings that argument to bear - then it becomes personal, because Boogsie was not the only arranger who was arranging for several bands before Patrick Arnold decided to change the rules.  He not only decided to change the rules to discredit whatever Boogsie was doing but all other arrangers, and I will mention Jit Samaroo, among others who arranged for many bands.  So in that area it will appear to be a conflict of interest or personal problems between Boogsie and Mr. Arnold.

Now on the other hand, the change of the rules - which I would say as a panman that I didn’t too much appreciate was the fact that bands are now given the opportunity to play what I call old-time music, and the reason for that is you are not giving the new composers a chance to explore.  I mean - Kitchener, everyone knows, is one of the best when it comes to pan music, but you got to move on.  You know to advance you can’t be going back to the past and living in it.  I mean, here we are in 2010 and I hear someone playing “Dingolay.”  That tune has been played to its end.  Give me something new, no matter how bad it is.  This is where the motivation comes in for the youngsters to have a l’il grip on their own idea in producing music for pan.  If you keep going back and having bands say, well ‘look - just play this’ … nah nah nah!

You go to some of the smaller islands, they don’t really resort to playing old-time music.  They encourage their artistes to come up with something new and so on that level I would say there’s a future for new music every year that pan people could play.

Clifton:  Don, it is common knowledge that T&T sets the pace so that where we lead others follow.  So if they decide to change the format which permits arrangers to use musical scores from previous years I am almost certain the islands will follow suit.  Nonetheless, there’s another side to it.  What of people like Shadow who have virtually gone off the competitive scene? Won’t he feel elated to know that they still remember him if thirty years later they are still playing his music at such a paramount show piece?

I know that your case is for new arrangers and we need to explore them before going ‘back in times’ but one man’s food is another’s poison.  Isn’t it?

Clarke:  Well you have a point and don’t have a point.  Hear my opinion.  I’m talking about Panorama is known as the time when all bands come out to compete for the best tune of the day, of the year.  That’s how I grew up.  When I used to play pan for panorama they had two types of music inclusive of “the Bomb Tune.”  When you finish panorama music, all the panists would go back to the pan yard and they come up with a ‘bomb tune’ that no one ever heard.  That was exciting.  Now that’s gone down the drain.  You don’t even have Pan on the road.  Pan is like a waste of time on the road.  So all I’m saying is that it’s always good to play somebody’s music. 

That’s why I admire the way Edwin Pouchet is leading Silver Stars.  We are in an era where the music now is benefiting to the young ear.  This is where when you get this fast ‘jump up’ type of music, the masses are falling into that.  You have a band like Despers that play real good music but it’s not gravitating to the masses because it’s not the jump up and fast pace and excitement, that what I call the “youth people” is experiencing right now - and we‘ve got to give the youth people their chance.

The days when you hear All Stars going down the road with a classic tune as a bomb you have thousands enjoying the music. Now you are not getting that.  Listen after panorama - no one wants to listen to more pan music.  Even with me - when I play overseas nobody wants to hear me playing any kind of panorama music at all.  They just want me to play the old time classics. But I’m talking about for competition.  In order for the young panist to be able to compose for the young panists to be able to arrange - give the old time hits that made it already a break. That’s all I’m saying.

Clifton:  Okay Don, maybe the listeners will have their say.  If you were to send a message to the listeners what would you say?
(To this end many a caller agreed with the position taken by Mr. Clarke, guest).

Clarke:  In closing, I would say think of the advancement of Pan - not just for Trinidad and Tobago, but rather for the world audience because whether we like it or not, the birth of the steelpan movement started in this country.  But other countries are taking a different outlook in presenting the pan, and it’s catching on just like those new pan tuners.  They don’t care about having their instruments made in Trinidad because they could make pans elsewhere themselves at even a higher price than you can buy a pan for in Trinbago.

I’m talking about a tenor pan to the tune of $4,000 USD…unheard of.  You are not going to buy a pan for that kind of money in Trinidad and Tobago.  So my advice would be to let the senior panists encourage the youngsters into an avenue and a direction that Pan will be respected and it will be promoted in a wise way.  That will be my advice.

Clifton:  Thank you ever so much, Don, for sharing your life story with our listeners.  You sure have been a wealth of information and indeed an inspiration to me and by extension the listeners on the worldwide web.


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by Hollis Clifton
Pan Diaspora Visionary

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