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Bare Essentials of the Stealth Assault on Pan

by Les Slater
Chairman, T & T Folk Arts Institute

“... 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. ”

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

Trindad and Tobago map

Global - About two months ago Sunity Maharaj wrote with characteristic eloquence in the Trinidad Express about the retrogressive decision announced by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, to have the Pan in the Schools program subsumed by an entity purportedly more all-embracing and with a “multicultural” face. Maharaj said a mouthful when she wrote: “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.” A compelling need exists, I believe, to address that “worrying sub-text” in head-on fashion, which some, for what they probably think to be pragmatic reasons, have been loath to do.

Orphans of the St. John Bosco Orphanage Plaisance play steelpan
East Coast Guyana - Orphans of the St. John Bosco Orphanage Plaisance

We might begin with this obsession with the “multicultural” thing that the government seems to have had since assuming office two years ago. In a move that was at once illustrative of a misread of the multiculturalism concept while also hinting at some darker intent, “culture” was dispensed with as a ministerial portfolio in favor of “multicultural affairs.” Ministries or departments of culture abound the world over, always with the broad-spectrum responsibility for matters cultural that the name implies. Suddenly in Trinidad and Tobago came this new enlightenment to the shortcomings of “culture.” As subterfuge attempts go, this didn’t offer much in the way of bafflement. It wasn’t difficult to deduce that the hands of race-baiting puppet masters were all over this. As with the steelpan itself which, as Maharaj pointed out, certain folk have seen fit to pigeonhole as an African rather than Trinidadian creation and interest, a ministry of culture had apparently come to be perceived as likewise having Afrocentric parameters. What else to do, with the opportunity now presented, but make good and solid distinction from the pre-existing “African” variant?

Pan in Schools - Dominica
Pan In School in Dominica -
Dominica Grammar School

No political operative worth his salt would acknowledge being party to such calculation, even including, in this instance, a few practitioners known not to be shy about giving voice to unabashedly racist sentiments. On the pan, there has never been any attempt to mask a profound disdain. The recent brouhaha over no pan in Maha Sabha schools was only the latest reload and volley in the pan’s direction. When the steelpan was declared (even if just symbolically, in our view) the country’s national instrument, one of the premier stalwart defenders of God-only-knows what, steeped in xenophobic bile, dared to question why this honor had been given to the pan, why not the sitar. That anyone, of any stripe, in Trinidad and Tobago could display such callous indifference to what is undeniably the most powerful symbol of national pride and achievement the country can boast, only meant there could be no illusions, going forward, as to the level of denigration this provocateur and his ilk had reserved for the pan. Witness also the caustic putdown that found its way into the country’s political interplay, about black children “beating pan” while Indian children were “beating book.”

Calypso sounds from under the flyover
Wycombe, England, U.K. - Wycombe is fast becoming a ‘hub’ for calypso music thanks to the launch of a school dedicated to the steelpan drum.

If today, agents of not only unyielding division but disparagement of the other, enjoy puppet master status, we oughtn’t be surprised that pan in the schools would be a target, never mind the serpentine apparatus of a multicultural whatever, in which it comes disguised. Look, let’s cut the b.s. Apart from a rudimentary awareness of their existence, what across-the-board collection of youngsters in Trinidad and Tobago would be likely to develop an intense interest in musical instruments native to China or Syria? Throwing up this red herring as justification for nudging the pan from the position of special anointing it should always occupy in its birthplace is grossly insulting. It only compounds the disgrace that a black-skinned buffoon, supposedly in charge of this sphere of governmental endeavor, stands in silence and pitiful acquiescence as the orchestrated deviousness has its day.

The steel drum band at Seminole Springs Elementary performs at the 2012 Florida Music Educators Association Steel Drum Festival.
Florida, USA - Seminole Springs Elementary School and Eustis Middle School,

Even if this stealth assault on the pan holds, there should be no letup in the drumbeat of contempt leveled at perpetrators of the mischief. The political correctness game, too, should by now be no longer in play. Not speaking truth to the power of the moment should be rejected as an option. Fixated on considerations of race evidently to the exclusion of all else, the anti-pan insurgency, if that’s what it is, may think to keep its collective head buried in the sand as far as the steelpan’s impressive reach into the world of musical culture. Such attempts at denial of course alter nothing. Universal affirmation of the steelpan as Trinidad and Tobago’s singularly astounding artistic contribution to mankind has long since been the stuff of legend. It’s a bit late in the game for the stigmatizing on which some warped minds seem resolutely determined.

Sparrows Point High School steel drum band members
Baltimore, Maryland, USA - Dundalk area students will participate in a steel drum band extravaganza Friday night when Parkville High School hosts the 11th annual Panorama.

So what if the steelpan were indeed properly characterized as “African” stuff? Would it somehow have rationalized this offensive behavior toward those who love the pan, appreciate its beauty and stand in awe of its still untapped potential? Sunity Maharaj was absolutely correct, though. The pan owes its appearance amongst us to Afro-Trinidadian progenitors. But it would be an unfortunate distortion to put an “African” label on the pan story in Trinidad and Tobago. No self-respecting contributor to the country’s pan lore would disavow the heavy-duty role of the late Junior Pouchet, for instance. Or later, Jit Samaroo and any number of others. Despite spirited efforts over time to do some revisionist tinkering with its origins and development, the pan, to our undying honor, is abundantly Trinidadian, as Maharaj stoutly asserts.

Herkimer Elementary Steel Drum Band plays in Albany
USA State Senator James L. Seward (R/C/I-Oneonta) welcomed the Herkimer Elementary Steel Drum Band to Albany, USA

If a stultifying sectarianism prohibits an embrace of it by some in our midst, the shame is altogether theirs. But erecting barriers seemingly for the sect’s protection from pan’s perceived contaminating ways is one thing. Brazenly seeking to short-circuit pan’s forward movement elsewhere should be roundly condemned as these sad sacks’ bridge too far. For this infamy they should be brought to heel, with commensurate rage not only from acknowledged lovers of pan, but everyone of fair and open mind.

Pan in Schools New York - Meyer Levin
Tichard Chapmen directs one of the New York's Meyer Levin's public school steelbands



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