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Above all, The Steelpan

by Sunity Maharaj

Re-published with the expressed permission of the author

“... Why do we need to plan our lives and educational strategies around a divisive concept like multiculturalism which, contrary to its benign ‘many cultures’ facade, is intended to emphasise differences rather than celebrate commonalities?”

—Henri Muttoo, Guyanese stage designer/director

Trindad and Tobago map

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - It is good that school doors are being opened up to the great variety of musical instruments available to our children. For too long they have been locked out by a curriculum that still refuses to recognise the validity of so much that is of such importance to us as a people.

But as we make way for the Indian dholak, the African djembe, the Chinese chaozhou dagu, the Syrian darbuka, in addition to the European violin and piano and the American trap set and whatever else, let us remember the special gift of the steelpan that is truly and completely ours to embrace, to understand, to develop, to promote and to represent to the world.

There is a worrying sub-text to the government's argument for elbowing aside the Pan-in-the-Classroom Unit in making room for the new and expanded Multicultural Music Programme Unit. Underlying the case is a view that the steelpan is merely one of the broad range of ethnic instruments of our multi-cultural society. The view is based on the false notion that the steelpan is an African instrument, as the dholak is an Indian instrument and so on. It is not. The steelpan is a Trinidad and Tobago instrument, both by origin and by culture. One might even insist that it could never have been invented anywhere else but in the Caribbean and, quite possibly, only in this country. In what other place in the world could the precise set of circumstances have existed to have given birth to the steelpan?

Steelpan on Trinidad and Tobago flag
Pan on the Flag
by Desmond Chase

Despite the NAR government's designation of the steelpan as the official national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, pan remains a subject of great ambivalence in the land of its birth—and not only among Trinidadians of East Indian extract.

Like Bob Marley on whom Jamaicans were so divided during his lifetime, we are yet to come to terms with pan. Indeed, we had an Afro-Trinidadian prime minister who was so uncomfortable with this invention by the sufferers from up Laventille Hill that he was willing to spend big money to re-invent it, adorn it in the cloak of professorial science, and re-christen it. For him, the steelpan had to be stripped of its history and re-formulated as a university-sanctioned, modern scientific instrument for it to be accepted as valid, legitimate and worthy of representing his warped idea of T&T as a sophisticated modern society. The problem, of course, was not the pan but the man.

Pan needs no embellishments, nor does it have to prove itself. All it requires is for us to look at it and see it for what it truly is: a symbol of our creative possibilities and a catalyst for liberating us from the prison of self-contempt into the freedom of self-confidence.

Today, when successive governments and tertiary institutions are throwing millions of dollars and other resources to promote innovation and to stimulate the capacity for critical thinking and problem-solving, the steelpan stands as testimony to our capacity to innovate, to think critically and to solve one problem after another, and to do so with nothing but the power of our minds and the commitment of our passion.

The entire fleet of the national airline of Trinidad & Tobago was once enveloped by the image of the Steelpan prominently displayed as its official insgnia
The entire fleet of the national airline of Trinidad & Tobago was once enveloped by the image of the Steelpan prominently displayed as its official insgnia

Old-timers tell the story of a people abuzz with invention on every corner back in the late 1930s-early 1940s. The one to outperform the rest was the group with Spree Simon and men like Patcheye, pounding pan under the Bay Leaf and Samaan trees in the track leading to the "Pound School" in John John, Laventille. These men had the confidence to size up a biscuit tin or an oil drum and believe that they had it within their mind and their muscle to transform it into a thing of music, with the power to ripple through the soul and startle the world.

There, in that single image, is the story of all of us. Wherever we have come from, and whatever the terms on which we were either brought or sent here, we survived to this day because of our imagination, our capacity for invention and our ability to transcend the horror of our material circumstances.

In Laventille, this is what they were doing; but elsewhere in the land, to one degree or another, others, of every race and place, were doing the same thing: making something out of nothing, something to feed the human spirit and send the soul soaring above the pain of the place. Not everything that was created survived, and many that did, exist now only in the shadows. But pan stands up for all of them as the symbol of our power when we are at our finest, needing no external props and no conferment of validity.

child on steelpan Steelpan captures the imagination of young child

Until we understand the meaning of the steelpan and recognise what it says about us and how truly it represents our sleeping potential, we will continue to make the mistake of seeing it as a sectoral, ethnic invention, limited by time, place and circumstances. We will humour it but we won't believe in it.

If we understood the steelpan as the truest symbol of the best that we are, we will understand why it is an outrage for pan to be jostling up for space within something called a Multicultural Music Programme and why, in our schools, a special dispensation is required for the teaching of pan, not only as instrument but as science, art, culture and self.

No government has yet proved to be a worthy guardian of the steelpan. From Eric Williams down, it has been recruited as little more than a platform for mamaguy and manipulation of the voting masses. This will change only when we bring to the politics what we have already brought to creating the steelpan: imagination, dedication, the capacity for problem-solving and a relentless insistence on excellence.

If we could find the key to transferring these values into the wider society as well, we might also succeed in creating the conditions for the innovative, knowledge-based economy that we are spending tons on, trying to import from elsewhere.


Sunity Maharaj is the editor of the T&T Review and Director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies

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