New York, USA - A hot and humid late Summer evening on Labor Day weekend in New York was made even more so by the fiery musical performances laid down by ten steel orchestras, as they vied for the 2013 championship title in North America’s premier steelband music competition. When the proverbial dust had settled, it was CASYM Steel Orchestra playing in position eight which left its nine other challengers in the dust.
CASYM’s colors have been blue customarily, so they were automatically in step with that of Caribbean soca superstar “Super Blue” - the artist whose song they played at Panorama - when they sported long-sleeved blue shirts. These were inscribed in the tradition of the easily-recognizable “Superman” avatar, but with a red ‘C’ for CASYM (Caribbean American Sports and Cultural Youth Movement, Inc.) in place of the ‘S.’ Perched atop the band’s canopies were billboards blaring ‘De Bouncing Start’ (from the tagline of their panorama selection) and ‘Fantastic Friday’ as respective racks were pulled into formation.
CASYM on stage at the 2013 New York Panorama
This season CASYM went to Panorama without long-time arranger Arddin Herbert, and instead worked with Duvone Stewart whose arrangement of Super Blue’s ‘Fantastic Friday’ and the band’s execution of his vision, brought the music powerhouse Panorama glory in 2013. This is Stewart’s second journey in New York’s Panorama arena; his first experience was in 2009 assisting Anthony “Pra” Trebuse, then-arranger for Harmony Steel Orchestra.
The one-hundred-strong steel orchestra was captained by Travis Roberts, and their instruments were once again tuned by Andy Neils. CASYM last claimed the championship back in 2006. In fact, in the last decade (eleven competitions) of Panorama since 2003, the band was in the top three nine times. In that period CASYM participated on ten occasions; the band sat out the 2012 competition and did not compete. CASYM copped second place five times (2003, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2011), while settling into the third spot in 2009 and 2010. They were out of the top three only once when the orchestra placed fourth in 2005.
CASYM is celebrating its thirtieth year of existence as a cultural organization in Brooklyn, New York, and to top of this celebratory year, CASYM intended to go home with the title and the reported $20,000 first prize; this was made clear ahead of time. More than two months ago, in chatting with When Steel Talks (WST) band captain Roberts said “We’re planning to take the title this year as well [in addition to celebrating thirty years]. In fact, taking the year off, and coming back this year – that was the plan all along.”
CASYM practices two nights before the 2013 New York Panorama
As far as the band and its musicians were concerned, that they were going to win was a foregone conclusion – they were just putting in the work and counting the days to the competition to make it a reality. In the past, CASYM was sometimes still being ‘given music’ – the arrangement – up to the night before, and occasionally even on the early morning of the Panorama competition. And even under those conditions, the band still placed in the top three. This year was different; to say it was a new experience for CASYM is putting it mildly… As Roberts posted on social media on August 24, “One week before Panorama and our panorama tune is finish. we only started two week ago too. I must say I love my band and it players. We took a year off for this reason (regroup and come better) [sic].” That’s right. One week of only ‘practice’ - no adding to, or significant changing of the arrangement - just one week’s worth of nights (NYPD shutdowns notwithstanding) of pure ‘Drill, Baby, Drill!’ And the rest, as they say, is history.
Jahlani Roberts - #1 with CASYM’s celebration
Like Travis Roberts, the other band members were in the same mode. Stage side drummer and arranger Jahlani Roberts shared a few moments with WST at the venue Brooklyn Museum, before the band took the stage. Instead of catching the customary on-the-go pic, Jahlani said “Wait. I don’t want to take my picture now. I want to take it when we win and when I can say “#1”,” as he extended his finger showing what he intended to do when the band won. A couple hours later – it indeed came to pass. This time, on stage in the midst of jubilant dancing, prancing and bounding CASYMites, Jahlani caught up with WST, grabbed a couple of his friends, and demanded in a voice a bit hoarse with emotion “Tell them, tell them. Tell them what I said!” And WST dutifully obliged, word for word – after which Jahlani triumphantly gave the #1 sign, finally taking his picture.
In recent years, some New York steel orchestras have opted to go to the Panorama arena with ‘party songs’ or those not usually selected for Panorama by the major steel orchestras in Trinidad & Tobago. Tunes like ‘Baddist’ (played by New York 2012 champions ADLIB) ‘Action,’ ‘Bacchanalist,’ ‘Mr. Fete’ and ‘Trini’ have all found Panorama favor here up north. Several years back ‘Trini To The Bone’ and ‘Ben Lion’ were both championship songs for Pantonic Steel Orchestra. This year ‘Fantastic Friday’ the ultimate party song, and the 2013 Road March for Trinidad and Tobago carnival - was not only the song of champions CASYM, but of all four orchestras coming in at positions 1 through 4. Add the choices of three of the remaining seven contenders: ‘Wining Queen’ by Denise Belfon played by Despers USA, Machel Montano’s ‘The Fog’ by title defenders ADLIB, and ‘Leh Go’ another party anthem and choice of CrossFire Steel Orchestra – and the trend continues in 2013.
Guest artist NYU (New York University) Steel led by Josh Quillen opened up the event with a short, punchy session, obviously surprising (and pleasantly so) several of the early Panorama-goers; some had not known of the group before this appearance. Rest assured that New York steelpan lovers in general will be following NYU Steel much more closely from this point onward.
NYU Steel performs at the 2013 New York Panorama
As at the beginning of Panorama competitions, the attendance was somewhat sparse when the first couple steel orchestras, CrossFire and Pantonic, respectively, performed. For several years, CrossFire’s uniforms have been eye-catching and funky, reflecting the youthful component of the band, while thoughtfully including variations catering to the more mature band members. They kept this trend going in 2013, opting for striking and sassy black and white attire. It was Kendall Williams’s maiden voyage in the Panorama arena, coming on board as arranger for the first time, with Leon “Foster” Thomas moving on after three years with the music organization. CrossFire was one of the bands going with a popular ‘party’ selection at the Panorama; they chose ‘Leh Go’ sung by “Blaxx.”
CrossFire Steel Orchestra at New York Panorama 2013
A transformative year for several New York steel orchestras, there was a ‘changing of the guard’ for Pantonic as well, with arranger Seion Gomez replacing Keith Roberts who had worked with the band since the 2005 passing of their initial arranger, legendary master musician Clive Bradley. With a noticeably smaller complement since their days as a Panorama powerhouse, Pantonic’s players (in red, white and black) gave the title their best shot on stage with Gomez’s arrangement of ‘Live Yuh Life (Like Yuh Playin’ Mas).’
Pantonic Steel Orchestra at New York Panorama 2013
A few bands reported that they were adversely affected by the inability to practice earlier ‘on the track’ as was the norm. Steel orchestras have generally lined up along President Street just across from the gates to the museum grounds venue, and run through their songs. But this year Union Street was added to the mix and some bands redirected there, but vehicles were still parked and not cleared by order of the NYPD (New York Police Department). For the New York Panorama, practice outside along President Street, and inside the museum grounds has constituted ‘the Drag’ of ‘track’ – a far cry from Trinidad’s reality of a much larger practice area in the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain. And this year at the museum there were issues with even these ‘regular arrangements’ for final panorama prep. For some, it was not at all a good start for the psyche of performing artists in a competitive format.
Dejean Cain out front with D’Radoes Steel Orchestra
By the time D’Radoes Steel Orchestra playing third was on stage, many more people were present. One of the favorites in the competition, the band’s performance of – yes – ‘Fantastic Friday’ wowed music lovers, eliciting loud cheers and the first semblance of a standing ovation. It was a series of ‘threes’ in play here. The orchestra was the third on stage for the evening, arranger Terrance “BJ” Marcelle returned for the third year running, and again D’Radoes placed third in the final outcome, for three years straight! The “BJ” arrangement raised pores especially in the final segment, evoking strident rhythms and drumology reminiscent of vibes from ‘The Hill [Laventille].’ It was also a special time for 10-year-old Dejean Cain visiting from Trinidad, who with twin sister Deja recently won ‘Trinbago Kids got Talent.’ Both were in New York, and Dejean was out front as he played his heart out with D’Radoes, while mom Patrice Charles was on six bass.
D’Radoes Steel Orchestra banner for 2013 New York Panorama
Moko Jumbie with ADLIB at New York Panorama 2013
In a shocker for many pan lovers - not least of all the orchestra itself, defending champions ADLIB from Long Island would instead place sixth overall in their quest for a three-peat. Fourth on stage at the panorama, resident arranger André White’s work on Machel Montano’s ‘The Fog’ brought to life yet another band on the steelpan music scene whose make-up is that ‘hip’ generation. ADLIB’s music choices have unhesitatingly reflected just that in the last two years, going with ‘Baddist’ in 2012. Dazed by the results, score sheets when/if given out, will no doubt be scrutinized very closely for judges’ comments in an effort to make sense of their placing. But before this unfolded, the band had dazzled in white as they fired on all musical cylinders; their music and powder did indeed ‘fog up the place.’
ADLIB Steel Orchestra at New York Panorama 2013
Dynamic Moko Jumbies make their way to the stage for Despers USA’s 2013 performance
The next band up Despers USA, had a similar experience to D’Radoes just before them on this night – placing just as they performed – fifth. This is Despers USA’s fourth consecutive year coming in fifth position. As one of the players had said, and it turned out justifiably so: “I’m tired of this fifth place.” The only band in New York to win six consecutive Panorama titles (1993–1998) it is also the third year since the reins of arranging have been passed to the very competent Odie Franklin. And each year he has conceived arrangements which fanned the fervor of band supporters and his fellow musicians, the latter in turn delivering spirited performances on stage; they simply look forward to gaining ultimate favor with the judges… After weeks of dedicated practice, Despers’ impassioned throw-down of Franklin’s vision of another saucy party ditty, Denise Belfon’s ‘Wining Queen’ worked well with the spirit of this younger generation Despers USA. Complete with moko jumbies, the orchestra had several audience members doing just as the song said – even in their seats.
Despers USA Steel Orchestra on stage at New York Panorama 2013; arranger Odie Franklin is at right
Ten-time New York Panorama champs Sonatas Steel Orchestra competed in position six for the night, and was one of the four bands which played ‘Fantastic Friday.’ Blue it was, the predominant color of band attire as the musicians delivered a tight and scintillating session. They put to rest any rumors that a changeover in arranger this year to Leon “Foster” Thomas (Yohan Popwell had been with the band since 2004), combined with a noticeable exodus of a significant number of familiar faces - would be to the band’s detriment, rendering them incapable of bettering last year’s fourth place. Instead, they popped right back into the top three, coming second in the 2013 Panorama – and with one hundred members. That tried-and-tested Sonatas resilience remained.
Sonatas Steel Orchestra on stage at New York Panorama 2013
Harmony Music Makers returned with arranger Marc Brooks, this year playing as their tune of choice, ‘Gold.’ And they looked the part; gold tinsel adorned racks, black mesh banners were emblazoned with gold lettering, and musicians simply attired in black slacks and white T-Shirts, had the latter beautifully and boldly printed with ‘Gold’ and enhanced with a gold pan. Panists up front topped it off sporting striking black and gold face masks. Marc had an enthusiastic crew with him, executing and showing off to the audience and judges, his interpretation on pan of the hit soca song.
Harmony Music Makers on stage at New York Panorama 2013
After a hiatus of several years, Metro Steel Orchestra re-entered the Panorama arena in 2012. This year band leader Anthony Joseph included, along with the adults - a few fresh very young faces on stage, a few just topping their guitar pans, who put on an enthusiastic performance of an oldie goldie, Baron’s ‘Somebody’ a Panorama favorite from the year 1989. As far as WST is aware, this is the only time a ‘back-in-times’ selection has been used as a tune of choice at the New York Panorama, unlike Trinidad & Tobago where Pan Trinbago introduced the practice back in 2005. Arranger Eddie Quarless was given the task of developing the musical storyline for Metro. The visual and open excitement of those youngsters on stage elicited wolf whistles, cheers and applause as the band—one of the smaller representations in the competition—ended its performance.
Metro Steel Orchestra on stage at New York Panorama 2013
Support for Canadian steel orchestra Pan Fantasy at the New York Panorama
Another eye-opener for the night was the band which placed fourth, hailing from Canada, and closing off competition. Pan Fantasy was also an ‘ear-opener’ - as people could not stop talking about the beautiful tonal quality of the steelpan instruments, more than ninety percent manufactured and tuned by veteran tuner Roland Harrigin. Playing in position ten in the New York Panorama, Pan Fantasy Steel Orchestra is the reigning Panorama champ from the recent 2013 ‘Pan Alive’ competition. Their at-times choreographed performance blew away the audience, some of who believed—having caught the band practicing the evening before—that they would have the chops to be serious title contenders. And naturally, the Canada flags came out from staunch supporters. ‘Fantastic Friday’ as arranged by Al “Allos” Foster and honed by drill master Ben Jackson had the crowd in awe as Pan Fantasy brought the curtains down on the 2013 steelband music competition. The ninety-strong steel orchestra took back to Canada fourth place honors.
Pan Fantasy performs at the 2013 New York Panorama
Liam Teague and Clifford Alexis of NIU (Northern Illinois University) take in the New York Panorama
The Panorama is always a great opportunity to catch sight of steelpan notables who are not always in town. People like Liam Teague with Clifford Alexis, and chairman of BAS (British Association of Steelbands) Pepe Francis were just three such. Comments were expressed by event attendees and band members alike as to the overall high level of competitive performances. The name of Canada’s ‘Pan Fantasy’ was on the lips of many who caught their ‘wow’ appearance in position ten. The ‘significantly-sized’ (large) steel orchestras were quite unhappy about the small size of the stage, which they say hampered the placement of their racks and instruments properly on the stage to compete. And some of the audience (especially those farthest from the stage) wondered why there were no large screens in place so they too could enjoy the bands’ performances…
Nonetheless it was another great night for the steelband community and art form, and music lovers, as the next largest steel band music competition outside of Trinidad and Tobago’s annual Panorama, went into the New York history books for yet another year. Already, the musical knives are being sharpened in anticipation for one heck of a competition in 2014.
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