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Thoughts on the Panorama

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

by Andy Narell (as read at NY Symposium by Patrick Raymond)

Andy Narell
Andy Narell

Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn, New York - Let me make something clear right from the start - I love Panorama. It is one of the truly unique and exciting musical and cultural events in the world. Letís not forget that. Like the pan itself, we should appreciate what we have. For a country of 1.3 million (not counting Brooklyn and the rest of the Trini diaspora) to mount a festival of this magnitude - several thousand players, 70 or 80 huge bands, pan round de neck - everybody somehow making it to the savannah for the big musical fete, the atmosphere on the track, the north stand, the motivation of the players, the tension and the debates about Ďwho go winí - itís one of the great spectacles of world music. It brings communities together in a personal and tangible way - more so even than sports - and it invites participation. You can play in the band, push the pans, be a supporter, listen to the music, or wine with your sweetheart. And nowadays with pan players coming from all over the world to participate, Panorama maintains its essentially Trini character. So why do we spend so much time debating whatís wrong with Panorama, how Panorama killiní pan? Why this symposium? Why do I take the time to write a letter to throw in my two cents? My answer is that it all starts and ends with the music, but let me digress for a few minutes and speak about a few of my own experiences.

Ray Holman
Ray Hollman at When Steel Talks studio

A few years back I was asked to give a talk on Panorama at Ellie Mannetteís summer workshop in Morgantown, West Virginia. I agreed to do it as long as Ray Holman would agree to participate, since I knew heíd be there teaching as well, and I couldnít think of anybody in the world who has had more experience and impact on Panorama and steelband music in general than Ray. I mentioned a few possible topics to Ray before we started and he said ok, nothing more. I had the feeling that I might have to drag him into the discussion, but he was there. I decided to start the discussion off with a little surprise to see where it would lead. Instead of talking I played a recording of Desperadoes playing their winning version of Obeah Wedding (Melda) at the 1966 Panorama. Beverly Griffith was the arranger, and I had loved that recording since I first heard it back in 66. I was 12 years old and I remember the shock we all had when we heard what sounded like a jazz solo in the middle of the song. Ray listened and I saw his face light up with pleasure and when it was over he started talking and he didnít stop for an hour and a half. I donít think I said a word. What I remember about it was that he spoke about the music, the developments in the tuning of the pans and the creation of new voices in the orchestra, and how the arrangers were coming up with new ideas every year that were literally transforming the concept of steelband music. The competitions werenít just about execution - they were about shocking the audience and the judges with new ideas and innovations.

When I was arranging Coffee Street for Skiffle Bunch to play at the 1999 Panorama, I was offered advice several times a day by all different kinds of people - arrangers, players, supporters of the band, madmen - everybody had something to tell me. The jist of it was mostly the same message - ĎAndy - de music sounding sweet man, but this is Panorama. The music is beautiful, but you need to fix the beginning, the middle, and the ending.í Everybody seemed to know something about the rules of Panorama music, what the crowd and the judges expected to hear, and what you need to do to win. Actually I had a copy of the rules, which I had asked for, because I wanted to be sure that I didnít break any of them. The only rule I had found that applied to the music was that it had to be finished within 10 minutes. Ten minutes of music - those were the rules for Panorama - and yet everybody was worried that what I was doing wouldnít be considered ĎPanorama Musicí and that we wouldnít win. I had to agree that we werenít going to win, but I didnít think my changing musical direction would affect that outcome anyway. So I listened to everybody but I just stayed with what I had intended to do all along, which was to write something from my heart that I hoped people would enjoy, that would make them question their assumptions about music for Panorama and steelband in general, and I worked hard with the band to give a good enough performance so that they could play their way into the finals in spite of whatever misgivings the judges and all the other experts might have about the composition. To this day, people in Trinidad tell me how much they enjoyed the song, but how it wasnít really Panorama music, was it?

Skiffle Bunch
Skiffle Bunch at Panorama

Usually I hung around the panyard before and after rehearsals, but one day on a break I took a walk over to the bar down the street to drink a carib and lime with some of the old timers. We got to talking about steelband music from the old days, and I told them that I had been to the Music Festival in 1966 and had played at Queens Hall as on opening act to the competing bands. That festival had a huge impact on me, and I had spent a fair amount of time listening to the record afterwards. Those guys at the bar - none of them were musicians - but they remembered the music from that festival, and we sat there together singing through the highlights. As most of you know I think, this is not uncommon. That generation of pan fanatics were listening with a profound interest in the music, and they could sing the melodies, the bass lines, the counterpoint, just like they knew the melodies and words of the great calypsos.

Ellie Manette at When Steel Talks
Ellie Mannette at WST studio - photo by C. Phillips

Iím guessing that you know where Iím going with this, so Iíll cut to the chase. Let me ask you a few questions. How much of the music thatís happening at Panorama these days will be remembered the year after, or 20 years down the road? Is the public interested in the music, or are they only interested in seeing who wins? Why do the judges refuse to reward arrangers for composing beautiful new music, and for having real compositional ideas, instead, handing out the same points to arrangements that are nothing but a string of clichťs that weíve all heard a thousand times already? Shall we talk about money? Politics? Nowadays itís not just prestige at stake. Itís a million dollars. Ostensibly the big prize money is there to encourage the bands to work harder, and itís supposed to raise the quality of the presentation by all the bands. Does it? Can you really say that when one band after another comes out beating the hell out of the pans, playing at a tempo that would ruin any composition? And not only do the judges reward mediocrity and repetition - arrangers are punished for having new compositional ideas. Donít take my word for it - ask Boogsie and Ray. And the steelbands, the players, and the public go along with the system, agreeing that you have to do this and you have to do that if you want to win Panorama. Or ARE they going along? Has anyone noticed a lack of interest from the public these days? My impression is that people who love steelband music are getting less and less interested in whatís happening at Panorama. If you want to change the culture of Panorama, how do you do it? The easy answer that we hear all the time is to change the judges, give them new direction about what to reward and what to discourage, but nobody seems to have any ideas about who should judge or what we should tell them to do. Or change the government. Trinis love to blame the government - itís their fault for not supporting the steelband movement, for not paying the money to the players that was promised, etc etc.... Are any of those really answers? Will change come from institutionally based solutions or will it come from somewhere else within the steelband movement? Should we change Panorama or just leave it alone and seek other avenues for presenting steelband music that are more open to innovation? Hereís a fundamental question for you - Do competitions raise or lower the quality of music? I believe that competition played an enormous part in steelband musicís development, but perhaps we should revisit the whole subject from a 21st century perspective.

Panorama 2011Anyway, if youíre starting to worry that now Iím going to lay out my plan for how to fix Panorama, you can stop worrying. I donít have a proposal. I appreciate your invitation to participate in this symposium and I hope that Iíve added something constructive to the conversation. Iíve heard it said that in order to effect change, you have to start by asking the right questions. I hope that some of the questions Iíve raised will contribute positively to the discussion held here tonight, and I look forward to seeing you all soon.

all de best
Andy Narell

Contact the author at wst profile - http://whensteeltalks.ning.com/profile/andynarell

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