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Panorama’s Ill-Advised Drift Away From Carnival

Symposium tackles the Panorama question: Is there a need to revisit the Steel Band Panorama Format?

by Les Slater

Panorama 2011Brooklyn, New York - It was the Carnival celebration that gave rise to the steel band, so it was only fitting that George Goddard, George Yeats and others (including Desmond Chase) would have pressed authorities for the steel band to have a forum of its own in the organized Carnival festivities, beyond its then dominant role of providing music for street revelry. Panorama was thus intrinsically a Carnival animal from its inception. Whether by moves that were deliberate, or through the ineluctable demands of what some might call “progress”, or on account of whatever combination of factors, we have seen notable signs of fissuring in the once seamless pairing of Carnival and Panorama. This paper attempts to identify those areas where that Panorama/Carnival cleavage has manifested itself in a trend that is believed, here, to be not necessarily a positive one.

When the idea for a Carnival-time steel band extravaganza was publicly introduced, I personally recall the late Andrew Carr, somewhat of a culture czar for the then government, making the point that although Carnival’s decision makers appreciated the steel bands’ fondness for bomb tunes and the like, it was felt that the proposed new Carnival vehicle for pan should be a celebration of local music, i.e. calypso -- further evidencing Panorama’s rootedness in the DNA of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. We detail, under the following sub-headings, what aspects of Panorama’s disengagement from the larger festival that gave it birth we consider to have been steps taken with perhaps the best of intentions, that may not ultimately have been indicators of forward movement for pan and Panorama, as envisioned by those who championed them.


In a conversation some years ago with Junior Pouchet, one of the truly remarkable talents to have inhabited the Trinidad & Tobago pan culture, I mentioned my puzzlement and indeed unease over the kind of transfiguration Panorama’s opinion shapers had apparently sanctified as the new normal for Panorama music. I referred to the typical Panorama piece as a classical rendition of a calypso, and Junior told me he had never heard it described that way, but thought the description interesting. For the most part, the music played on the Panorama stage has been music that, for a number of years now, I have had no compunction to describe as concert stage music. I repeat: for the most part. In rare instances a band’s offering may attain a place of such singularity as to pass what might be called the revelry acid test, meaning the piece shows itself eminently compatible with the spirit of Carnival… at least what I presume lots of us still consider the spirit of Carnival to be.

Once upon a time when the judging guidelines for Panorama didn’t necessitate reams and reams of paper, as today, “spirit of Carnival” used to be one of the criteria stipulated. And I always thought it a bit odd that the rules makers found it necessary to do this, since to me, Panorama and the spirit of Carnival were inseparable. That we find in the design of the typical Panorama piece today a form that evinces no obligation whatsoever to revelry as a centerpiece of the Carnival experience, represents, for me, a major contradiction.

Of course, we dare not ignore that the steel bands’ place in Carnival revelry is a far cry from what it was a few decades ago. And researchers today and in years to come will probably grapple with this chicken-and-the-egg question relative to steel band music and Carnival revelry: Did a fixation with Panorama come to supplant the steel bands’ participation in street parading; or did street parading’s fancy new direction (high-decibel music, hordes of cavorting females and all the rest) summarily sideline steel bands as a factor? Whichever is correct, bottom line is that Panorama came to be a vehicle for rolling out music that cannot objectively be regarded as a proper fit with any other component of the Carnival cycle. The obvious conclusion to be drawn here, that steel bands have been content to make participation in Panorama the sum total of their Carnival involvement, has always struck me as one of the most unfortunate twists in our Carnival narrative. It’s quite a retreat from once boasting the one element in Carnival as a global phenomenon that made the Trinidadian model unique, namely pan music, to this sorry pass at which we find ourselves here in the 21st century.


Martin Daly, who writes a column in the Trinidad Express and who appears to be a genuine lover of pan music, recently begged to disagree with those who he said rail against the steel bands’ slimness of repertoire or total lack of one – something that seems to have drawn the public’s ire for years now. Daly cited chapter and verse to support his contention, and we know there are exceptions to the general rule. But I don’t think there can be any disputing that Carnival-time steel band repertoires have taken a major hit compared to days of yore when, again, music for revelry occupied a prominent place in every steel band’s Carnival preparations. On the Trinidad scene, kudos are in order for those well organized bands like All Stars, Starlift and Exodus which have managed to maintain a presence in the masquerade tradition, and with it, the ability to be musically road-ready.

For lesser endowed bands, the incentive to focus on music beyond the requirements of Panorama is understandably minimal. Since the instances of bands as strong community institutions have dwindled considerably, the built-in support base for road maneuvers is no longer part of the package. If the chance of learning and performing music for an ample supply of fee-paying costumed revelers is almost non-existent, there remains only the “diehard” option of investing time in non-Panorama music for the sheer love of it, which is perhaps not too practical a possibility for getting all or most of a band’s membership on board.

Desperadoes at Panorama

The cold truth is that with but few exceptions, Carnival, for most steel bands, transitioned to become an anti-climactic adjunct to Panorama. In those circumstances the idea that no high priority is given to creating repertoires for people’s Carnival-time enjoyment should be no mystery. Which again begs the question: In the country where the steel pan is supposedly the designated “national instrument”, are the powers that be comfortable with the idea of many steel bands having settled for that kind of diminished role in Carnival, by far the greatest national showcase for our music? There is perhaps no more dramatic representation of where Carnival rates for many steel bands than the intensity and plenitude that attend their appearance at Panorama and the token showing and paltry numbers that mark their road appearance…if there is a road appearance at all.


I am all for encouraging creative output among folk in the steel band community, including composing music for Panorama or for whatever Panorama may or may not become, or for any other forum for musical expression in which the steel band is involved. The steel band has a proud history of having brought to light amazing talents whose contributions to the wonderment of the art form have stopped world-class musical minds in their tracks.

But here’s the thing. The latter-day practice of Panorama being a dueling field for a plethora of original compositions coming from the steel band ranks is on the one hand laudable and yet somewhat a point of concern. And it is the appearance of “apartness” by the steel band community in opting for this self-generated music that I find troubling. There are indications in this of a desire to not be integrated into the whole Carnival experience which, in light of other unsettling developments, are worrisome.

Veterans from the days of pan first finding its place in Carnival, back in the 1940s and early 50s, would tell you there were instances of bands not finding the output from calypsonians satisfactory and consequently resorting to music from other sources, such as Latin and pop, to fit the bill. The most renowned historical example of this perhaps being the German folk song “Happy Wanderer” emerging as the 1955 road march. The significant distinction between the situation back then and today’s so-called ‘pan tune’ explosion is that back in those formative years the bands perused the available calypso music stock before concluding that alternatives were needed. Making a predetermination that regardless of what flows out from the calypso community, “We going wid we own tune” is not, I believe, a healthy or constructive position for steel bands to assume. I must confess that if there is some circumstance in the interaction of the two communities – pan and calypso – that has occasioned rancor or mistrust or something else negative on the part of pan folk, I plead ignorance of it. But to be sure, there can be the makings here of an adversarial relationship which both camps should find quite concerning.

Carnival essentially is a shared experience. An arbitrary diss of one of the core contributors to what gives Carnival its mojo, namely the calypso/soca community, goes against the grain of what Carnival should embody. One cannot but think of Lord Kitchener, and his enduring commitment to write music for the pan medium, and how would he have reacted to being capriciously ignored by a fraternity to which he obviously had a special connection.

The late lamented Maestro, another bard for whom pan music was very special, had a 1976 composition, “Champion of the Road,” in which he chastised Carnival’s music providers (then very much including steel bands) for the undemocratic manner of selecting music to be played on the road. After suggesting that the musicians should sample the offerings of all and sundry of his calypso brethren, Maestro concluded: “And then when various tunes are heard the one that carry the load/Should be the champion, champion of the road.” If there is a reason why various tunes shouldn’t be heard before bands decide today what they will play in Panorama, I fail to see it. Which brings to mind another aspect of Panorama music and its function to entertain.


Clive Bradley - photo by C. Phillips

I wonder if we ever again will see the likes of Clive Bradley in the Panorama picture. Bradley was not only a musical whiz, he brought a level of understanding of the social dynamic instructing this annual outpouring of pan music that I don’t think I saw replicated elsewhere. Bradley was forever mindful of how much Panorama was popular culture – a people event. And so it would have been interesting to see how Brados would have responded to this new vogue promulgated by the pan culture’s movers and shakers, of presenting a piece for Panorama that‘s not exactly “out there”. His selection of pieces like “Horn” by Shadow or “High Mass” by Rudder underscored the premium he placed on relating to the people in the course of this exercise.

So guess what! Maybe it was the ghost of Bradley hovering over his beloved Despers this year in the band’s choice of Benjai’s popular “Trini” with which to do battle. Bradley would love that. I’m not one for having a favorite in this Panorama thing. But just because the spirit of Bradley seems alive and well in his old stomping ground this year, “Go, Despers!”


I believe all pan people should feel offended by the $2million offered as prize money in this year’s T & T Panorama or the $1 million offered last year or whatever was offered in the years just prior. And that’s not because I think it should instead be $5 million or $10 million because I don’t. Rather, I think this gimmick of feigning extravagance on this particular pan activity is simply a bogus display that camouflages what’s not being done for pan. It is meant to convince the gullible that interest in pan is genuine. And it disturbs me that participants in the Panorama wind up as unsuspecting pawns in this charade by those who have at their disposal the resources to make it all look real.

An alleged show of goodwill and concern toward the steel band community by way of what seems an attractive compensation offer to Panorama participants hardly translates to serious examination of where the pan movement has been and where should it be headed.

I believe pan people ought be very particular as to what extent they unwittingly encourage a dependency syndrome that so far, in the case of pan’s birthplace, doesn’t have a whole lot to show for all the years of this noxious practice. Panorama being the grand stage, Panorama has been the setting in which the dependency syndrome is most magnified. Even as they raise the stakes on the other side, teasingly looking to add a further sense of realism to the farce, it would truly be a bummer if those who make the Panorama happen were snookered by these antics from those calling the shots. Sincere believers in this art form cannot afford to have an obsession with Panorama eclipse the larger matter of a sound vision for pan music especially in Trinidad and Tobago, since there seems to be no shortage of inspired applications and a welcome curiosity in worlds far away from where pan was incubated. Panorama, at all costs, must not be allowed to get those of us who care off our game of being unfailingly committed to vigilance. If it looks to be doing that, then coupled with the steel bands’ unfortunate disengagement from Carnival in its totality, a pretty strong case could be presented, in my opinion, for the Panorama format to indeed be revisited.

by Les Slater

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