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Conspiring To Pigeonhole Pan, And That’s Cool?

by Les Slater - Chairman of the T&T Folk Arts Institute

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 Phase II Pan Groove
Legendary Len “Boogsie” Sharpe & Phase II Pan Groove at Panorama - “Is this all there is?”

 ...if the steelpan was invented in Jamaica...

Global - I don’t know if he remembers making the comment or still is of that view, perhaps more than twenty years later, but no less a Pan-world figure than “Boogsie” Sharpe once said to me that if Pan had been invented in Jamaica, it would have made greater progress. The particular reference to Jamaica (or anyplace else, for that matter) in that context might precipitate some spirited give-and-take. But be that as it may, there’s no doubt lots of us have had occasion, over time, to ponder the path Pan has traveled, and whether we Trinidadians, as its creators and gatekeepers of record, have come anywhere close to affording ample opportunity for Pan to realize its full potential.

It’s impossible for any serious discussion about what calypsonian Cro Cro articulated in, “Wey Pan Reach” to take place absent such inquiry. Indigenous folk culture has been our focus in the Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute from its inception in the early ‘90s, and pan-related matters have necessarily commanded much of our attention during that time. This spring, two of the three forums we presented at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, as part of an ongoing collaboration with that institution, centered on the steel band. Inevitably, our examination in these recent sessions of the Panorama phenomenon had to touch on how much imaginative application have we brought to bear on this steel pan bonanza that we’ve bestowed on the music world.

Panorama, whether in its present form or some retrofitted incarnation, has obviously become firmly etched in the psyche of the international pan community, and figures to be around for quite a while yet, despite legitimate concerns that have been raised about certain aspects of it. One of those frequently voiced protestations, relative to Trinidad’s Carnival (as well as satellite reproductions elsewhere), is the extent to which Panorama has come to supplant the street revelry component of Carnival as the steel bands’ major area of concentration. The assertion was correctly made by Garvin Blake, a panelist at the Folk Arts Institute’s Panorama-themed forum in April, that Carnival revelry has evolved to a form that has literally dispatched the sound of Pan music to the sidelines, what with the profusion of booming deejay sound systems dominating the spectacle. Blake also noted, again correctly, in response to concern about Pan music missing in action on the Carnival roadways, that in fact many steel bands do make an appearance on the road. Ah, but on the road, how? That’s the question. A token presence featuring a small player contingent, with a relatively small following of diehards and with the music hardly projecting beyond the space the unit occupies, is tantamount to no appearance at all.

Les Slater - Chairman of the T & T Folk Arts Institute
Les Slater - Chairman of the T&T Folk Arts Institute addresses forum

Sometime early in the decade of the ‘90s when, presumably responding to some sort of lobbying effort, the state [Trinidad & Tobago] came out with a declaration of the steel pan as the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, this was welcomed by many as a ground-breaking development for Pan in its birthplace. My own response was rather muted, typically opting to be cautious about all the hoopla since, based on the narrative to that point, there was every likelihood the fanfare surrounding this “national instrument” proclamation would be as far as the designated stakeholders would get, with respect to any serious, informed approach to examining where Pan was and where it ought to be – something that had all along been conspicuously lacking. Those stakeholders, sad to say, proceeded exactly as one feared.

It is incomprehensible that almost 70 years after the Steel Pan made its first steps toward recognition as a credible addition to the family of instruments, and despite so many outstanding examples of its music-making possibilities on a global scale, Pan at its core continues to be seen in very confining terms. So that, to return to the Trinidad Carnival setting, once the unwieldy caravan of racks being pushed along the streets as an “orchestra” became the dinosaur it should have been early recognized to be, the movers and shakers of steel pan were content to defer to whatever else got ushered into that position of street parade dominance. Movement leaders, to their discredit, failed to see in the disappearing pan-pushing routine, a cue to get creative about ensuring that this powerful invention of ours retained a place in the country’s grandest music showcase. Believing the Panorama competition, in the circumstances, to be the only option for a Carnival presence for Pan was, again, indicative of the blinders that have bedeviled this art form’s forward movement, more so on its home turf.

Robert Greenidge at Lincoln Center
Robert Greenidge performing at Lincoln Center 

Had there been some semblance of an understanding in strategic places, of what a “national instrument” designation should entail, that big noise from the state almost twenty years ago would have made for a new level of respect for the Pan, for the kind of popular culture identity it clearly warrants. A change, if you will, that would have made obsolete the comment back in the 1980s of one pretty well credentialed observer: “Pan is Pan, real music is real music, and never the twain shall meet.” It was a cogent reaction to the partitioning, imposed by others and insouciantly accommodated by the Pan community, that has confirmed the steel pan in a secondary role, never to be aligned or integrated with first-tier music making. The “national instrument” holding down a slot in Machel’s band, or Kes or Roy Cape? Not a chance. In essence the instrument’s birthplace has said: “This isn’t Jimmy Buffett’s band, where Robert Greenidge does his thing; or Andy Narell’s well documented exploits; or Rudy Smith leading a jazz quartet in Europe.” In its birthplace, the “national instrument” has been assigned, and regrettably has tacitly accepted, diminished status on that order.

Pan visionary Bertie Marshall 
Pan visionary Bertie Marshall

So, yes, Carnival’s street revelry has evolved in form, as has its accompanying music. And maybe the sound of Pan was destined to be left behind by such evolution. But with pan people never having considered being players in the mix, we’ll never know, will we, if there was no way the Pan could make a valid contribution.  Look, there’s been so much room for exploration between these two extremes: old fogies still rhapsodizing about pushing Pan as seventh heaven and the ear-splitting noise latterly presented as the new normal of Carnival revelry. Visionary that he was and is, Bertie Marshall saw the need for the pan to make a seismic shift way back in the ‘60s, when he introduced the concept of amplification with the Highlanders band. Again, whether bands going the route of electronic enhancement offered the most viable way forward, we’ll never know, Marshall’s ingenious early moves toward a fix having been summarily dissed by the brethren.  (click to watch film on Bertie Marshall by Dalton Narine)

This nirvana that the brethren seemingly found in Panorama simply underscores what Brooklyn College Professor of Performance Studies Dale Byam has called the absence of a “national imagination” in Trinidad and Tobago to encourage inspired engagement of certain constituent elements of the cultural mosaic. Foremost of these, I would venture, is the steel pan. Panorama is fine, as far as it goes. To be sure, it has become a magnet for a cadre of young people, local and foreign, who evidently have taken a fancy to its strut-your-stuff appeal. And it has provided scope for a younger generation of Pan arrangers to show off their skills. And there can be no argument with any of that. But it seems the horizons are quite a bit more limited than they need to be, when the only game in town is the niche of a niche market that is Panorama.

Andy Narell at Lincoln Center
Andy Narell  performing at Lincoln Center 

I mean, could we really be comfortable with a pigeonholing of the “national instrument” in which a single billboard event for the year is accepted without murmur as the limit of folks’ expectations? Is there such indifference that a sweetened pot of Panorama prize money makes everything right that’s wrong with that picture? Does no one care about a widespread understanding that a steel pan’s “proper” (and only) assigned place is in a steel band? Do the experiences of Greenidge, Narell, et al have no impact on the country’s musicians, who continue to regard the steel pan as a totally separate and different animal, apparently undeserving of sharing their space? And is this not bothersome to the wider society, more so those positioned to act and advocate for an attitudinal overhaul? Has it never occurred to anyone, for instance, that the “national instrument” ought be showcased alongside Trinidadian musicians wherever around the world they perform?

The unenlightened view that the status quo, as it relates to pan, is fine has been sufficient to dim any points of light that have attempted to shine through over the years. Bertie Marshall certainly has been one of them. Honorable mention should be made also of a little known experiment by the noted Trinidadian musician Cyril Diaz who, in the Pan-round-the-neck days in 1957, had a section of Pan players from Bertie Marshall’s Elite Steel Band join the Diaz orchestra on the road to supply music for a group of Port of Spain masqueraders. Here we are, more than 50 years later, and the record remains abysmal, as far as doing right by Pan. What’s frustrating is that we did the difficult part with awe-inspiring ingenuity: against incredible odds, we fashioned this fantastic new instrument. The rest should have more easily fallen into place. There could be no excuse for coming up short on according the Steel Pan the respect it has earned.

Les Slater is the chairman of the T&T Folk Arts Institute and former Highlanders Steel Orchestra arranger.

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