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New York Pan has got it going on - Musically Speaking

The word on the ground from Panyard to Panyard was the common phrase -- “Yuh hear music!”


In spite of the hardships - the New York steelband music community once again distinguished itself, and displayed a body of musical works scored for the large steel orchestra and stage side that was on the cutting edge, progressive and moving - with global impact. Moreover they reaffirmed themselves as a musical force to be reckoned with on all levels with compositional creations and performances related to the steelpan instrument. In addition, other young distinguished New York steelband composers like Andy Akiho, Khuent Rose and Andre White continue to push the envelope and expectant norm with compositions and projects that encompass both the conventional and mixed ensemble, while simultaneously embracing traditional and experimental material.

In May of this year, the highly successful and critically-acclaimed Despers USA-production “The Arrangers” showcased the musicianship of Sonatas, Pantonic, CASYM, Sesame Flyers, CrossFire, Black Love and Despers USA - a line-up which included New York’s leading steel orchestras. Again the arranging talents of Kareem Thompson, Odie Franklin, Andre White, Kendall Williams, Sade Constantine, Brian Nicholas, Jahlani Roberts and Lance Maximin were in full flight. And of course there were the outstanding performances by Iman Pascall and Khuent Rose.

On the Panorama Front

(Bobby asks:) What you gonna play now?
(James Brown says:) Bobby, I don’t know but what’s it ever I play - Its got to be funky!
(Bobby says:) Yeah
And there lies rule #1, #2 and #3 when participating in the annual New York Steel Orchestra Panorama competition - or you are sure to get your feelings hurt.

Clearly, New York has its own ideas on where the Panorama music genre should be heading, and what can be musically achieved in this forum with the art form.  A quick look at the 2015 New York tunes of choice by the orchestras, is a strong indicator of the difference in mindset and attitude compared to other Panoramas worldwide. Current world-popular 2015 Soca hit Machel Montano’s “Like Ah Boss” was played by four orchestras. Music educator Eric Mc Allister describes Andre White’s arrangement of Farmer Nappy’s “My House” for Pantonic Steel Orchestra as “modern.”  Modern is indeed the operable word to accurately describe the approach and musical output by the New York steel orchestras. New York’s 2015 arrangers - Terrance “BJ” Marcelle, Duvone Stewart, Amrit Samaroo, Kendall Williams, Leon “Foster” Thomas, Odie Franklin, André White, Freddy Harris III and the legendary Len “Boogsie” Sharpe (the latter via Skype) represent a tremendous amount of “A” level Panorama talent. The Panorama musical offerings for 2015 from this group of orchestras were outstanding.

New York steel orchestras performing Panorama selections for panyard recordings - ADLIB, CrossFire, Despers USA, D’Radoes, Pantonic, Sonatas, Steel-X-Plosion USA

The Panyard Recordings

For 2015, Basement Recordings was able to capture seven orchestras’ presentations in various states of completion - with only a couple of weeks of practice. This year it really felt like we were playing dodge ball with NYPD (New York Police Department) to capture the orchestras. Recording the orchestras is becoming increasingly difficult with each passing year because of the shutting down of practice by NYPD at any point without warning, and the ongoing issues with practice spaces. CASYM, Metro and Harmony were casualties of this reality. In fact, Basement broke one its cardinal rules “no recording on the night before Panorama” in order to capture and document two orchestras. Their performances were captured with a scaled-down mobile unit.  The recordings still provide an insight into and feel for the joy, power and beauty of the New York Steel Orchestras. Each orchestra has its own attitude, personality and sound. Their sound is impacted by the:

  • arranger’s Panorama music composing and arranging ability
  • panyard size and physical makeup
  • orchestra’s size
  • quality and type of instruments in the orchestra
  • skillset/musicianship of the players
  • skills of the tuner

Rhythmically, melodically, harmonically - these arrangers produced compositions that were spiritually moving, thought-provoking, challenging, dramatic, and entertaining, without compromising a coherent story-telling presentation. The aimless meandering, boring and disjointed offerings covered-up by unnecessary musical gymnastics seen in many other Panorama competitions were thankfully absent. The arrangers embraced the Panorama tradition and format without being stale and predictable.

New ‘wrinkles’ were added to enhance and broaden the presentations. CASYM implemented a small drum corps as part of their showcase that worked real well, and stayed within the theme of their tune of choice “Like Ah Boss.” CrossFire brought out a bass drum at the ending of their piece which no doubt added intrigue and punctuation to their colorful presentation. D’Radoes’ engine room is no joke; top percussionist Dirk Harewood is a man possessed on the “big drums.” They sounded like thunder under his hands.

Dane Gulston - Junior "Mann" Samuel - Terrance "BJ" Marcelle
Drill master - Dane Gulston | Captain - Junior “Mann” Samuel | Arranger Terrance “BJ” Marcelle

No one would dispute the results. Terrance “BJ” Marcelle and D’Radoes Steel Orchestra did a masterful job. They took the stage as champions and with Marcelle’s champion arrangement delivered a champion performance.  D’Radoes, as the late great master arranger Clive Bradley would say “took the judging out of the judges hands.”  “BJ” - “Big Jumper” may not drain his jump shot like he used to when he was younger, but be very clear:  when it comes to New York Panorama music - “BJ” does it “Like Ah Boss”!

Amrit Samaroo with ADLIB Steel Orchestra
Arranger Amrit Samaroo working with ADLIB Steel Orchestra for New York Panorama 2015 during the panyard recording session

The arrangements of Duvone Stewart and Amrit Samaroo were both masterful. You have to “Just Listen” to their work this year. It speaks for itself. We were particularly impressed with the New York freeness and urban flavor they continue to bring to their arrangements when working with New York steel orchestras. Their musical energies and inspirations when in the New York environment are not inhibited by Panorama norms and guidelines.

Amrit maximized the use of the full range of voices afforded him by ADLIB’s integrating the complete family of steelpan instruments in their orchestra. From the opening count to final ‘crash’ Amrit never takes his foot of the pedal. He presents a cohesive, well-thought-out, theme-related musical production. His music breathes. Amrit has mastered the art of silence and full stops as a means of highlighting softer passages. He compels the listener to do just that - “listen.”  There is reason behind everything he does. Amrit’s musical layers are rhythmic, harmonic and melodic in nature, making his arrangement of the piece dynamic. Amrit does not overuse the percussive nature of the steelpan instruments. His adaptation of the piece could easily be played by a conventional orchestra with awesome results.

Unfortunately, Basement was unable to record CASYM this year due to practice challenges which cropped up for the band. But what we heard from the online stream was very nice - but not clear enough to make a credible analysis of Duvone Stewart’s work and CASYM’s performance.

Andre White - arranger for Panotnic Steel Orchestra
Arranger Andre White working with Pantonic Steel Orchestra for New York Panorama 2015 during the panyard recording session

It was Andre White with Pantonic that created a real buzz. His multi-musical layering approach with killer transitions were off the hook. His transitions are as effective and pore-raising as a Kyrie Irving-crossover - “wicked.”  Daring to rewrite the script with bold orchestrations, and simple, thoughtful mood changes. As one facebook poster Kelvin Gill asked -- “...Are the Judges really ready for Andre?” -- or as Everis Gonzales wrote in his facebook post -- “this is beautiful, I am sure Farmer Nappy will be pleased with this arrangement, felt like if I had died and gone to heaven, just bliss !” -- Nothing more needs to be said.

Leon "Foster" Thomas
Arranger Leon "Foster" Thomas directs Sonatas Steel Orchestra

Leon “Foster” Thomas (Sonatas) and Odie Franklin (Despers USA) continue to be the spiritually-connected and deep-thinkers of this group of arrangers. They bring a high level of sensitivity to their work and the Panorama stage not normally experienced in this setting, without losing the festive nature and spirit of Carnival in their arrangements; as witnessed as Despers USA tore it up on the road for New York J’Ouvert 2015 with Odie’s arrangement of Destra Garcia’s “Lucy.” Odie Franklin, similar to Clive Bradley, can have a musical conversation with an individual within a crowd of tens of thousands - and make him/her feel he is speaking (musically) specifically to them.  Leon “Foster” Thomas has been on our radar ever since we heard his arrangement of Super Jigga TC’s  “Action” in 2012. We still think that specific Panorama arrangement is one of the best so far for the decade.  Leon has mastered a method of dropping a serious ecclesiastical backdrop to his orchestration that would make the Pope get up and dance and sing in the middle of the break-away pounding with the ancient rhythms in his arrangements.  Leon and Odie have an epic mindset.

Kendall Williams and Marc Brooks
Arrangers Kendall Williams and Marc Brooks

Kendall Williams of CrossFire is another arranger who is clearly charting his own direction for the Panorama-sized or large steel orchestra. His voicings, counter-melody approach, and call-and-response usage is both unique, daring and effective. The Kendall Williams/CrossFire combination also generated much buzz on the Panorama scene. Kendall has arrived in full effect.

Freddy Harris III
Arranger Freddy Harris, III working with Steel-X-Plosion USA for New York Panorama 2015 during the panyard recording session

Freddy Harris, III (Steel-X-Plosion USA) and Michael Joseph (Harmony) are to be commended - charting a Panorama experience for their young people. Look out for great things from these players in the near future.

The New York Panorama arrangers have become quite adept at putting together without professional compromise - music that is translatable from the Panorama stage, to on-the-road, to critical listening within the domain of the Beats headphones. Indeed it was a revelation as a stern Freddy Harris III, arranger for Steel-X-Plosion USA reminded his young players that it was critical that they get every note correct for the recordings, as those sessions would define how they will be remembered - regardless of what happened on the Panorama stage.  Dane Gulston, drill master for the eventual 2015 champion D’Radoes Steel Orchestra, took on a similarly very serious tone as he implored (threatened nicely) his players to execute every phrase, dynamics and note perfectly before the recording began.

Click for New York Panorama results

On the Educational Front

Big up to Andy Akiho and Kendall Williams who are both currently PhD candidates at Princeton University, and who have also been educators within the New York community.

On the periphery of D’Radoes’ panyard it is normal to see on flag poles billowing in the wind, representations of several countries - similar to the visual at the United Nations headquarters. This is quite analogous to that of what goes on in a panyard - only with much better results. The New York Panorama steel orchestra experience, remains one of the few legitimate outstanding music, performing arts and arts education programs, that is truly reflective of Brooklyn’s diverse communities (e.g. Haiti, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, St Vincent, Japan, Puerto Rico, Guyana, Nigeria, Antigua, UK, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Virgin Islands, to name a few) at an “affordable” price - For Free!

Pan Sonatas Steel OrchestraYoung players of Sonatas Steel Orchestra execute their lines flawlessly during panyard recording session of their ten-minute Panorama competition piece

In addition, the New York steel orchestra experience really introduces young people to the performing arts, truly enhances their creativity, and exposes them to new cultures, concepts and ideas. An appreciation for music and its performance is developed. And of course there is the discipline required to play in a New York steel orchestra at an elite level that is second to none. The New York steel orchestras continue to be the authentic philharmonic of people and community - music created by us - for us.

NYU PipersUnder the guidance of Professor Jonathan Haas (check interview) and musical director Josh Quillen, NYU (New York University) Steel continues to progress with significant musical milestones.  At the NYU Steel 2015 Spring concert the steelband combined its musical talents with those of the NYU Pipers to produce a unique combination of bag pipes and steelpan. A few NYU Steel students joined BSO (Brooklyn Steel Orchestra) in the International Panorama. And graduating NYU student Yael Litwin composed an original composition “Am Yisrael Chai” which was performed for the first time at the Spring concert.

The International Panorama

Brooklyn Steel Orchestra (BSO)The musicianship of the New York panists were on full display at the International Panorama in Trinidad and Tobago. Representing Brooklyn BSO held it down at the International Panorama. The arrangement for BSO was seamlessly stitched by the exceptional musical talents of three of Brooklyn’s finest arrangers - (Kendall Williams, Marc Brooks and Odie Franklin). BSO came in fourth overall in the competition (tying for 4th out of 24 competitors) - making them the highest-placing foreign orchestra. Read more

CD Projects

Parallel Overtones Liberation Music

Earlier this year veteran New York panist and arranger Garvin Blake, released 'Parallel Overtones' - the long awaited follow-up to critically acclaimed Belle Eau Road Blues. It is simply required listening. And Andre White recently released his CD project 'Liberation Music' that looks to be the talk of the town. Both are available at CDbaby.

New York J'Ouvert

Despers USA - Jouvert 2015 New York
Despers USA on the road for J'Ouvert 2015

It was not too long ago that the late Terry Joseph, entertainment editor for the Trinidad Express Newspapers, expressed his joy that there was still a place in the world where one could experience authentic J'Ouvert celebrations like that which so thrilled him as a child and into adulthood. That place being Brooklyn, New York. In this regard the York J'Ouvert remains the same. Oil, paint, mud, Ole Mas, with a heavy dose of Pan Music and plenty powder were the order of the day for Brooklyn J'Ouvert 2015.  Much fun. Much joy!! -- (no big trucks! no amplification allowed) Watch J'Ouvert Video || J'Ouvert 2015 Results

New York Pan Leadership

New York Steel Orchestra franchises leadership get the blame almost all the time for what they didn’t do and what they have not achieved. And they most certainly deserve it and earned it. However the year 2015 presented huge, unusual and at times, cruel challenges. And in this regard, management, band captains and their supporters should be commended for steadfastness, resourcefulness, sacrifices and unquestionable love of the art form to somehow get their respective orchestras across the Panorama stage this year. Yea we know - much blood, sweat and tears mixed with steel and iron. Big-Up to The Captains - Junior “Mann” Samuel, Travis Roberts, Franklin Mayers, Arielle Chase, Sadé Constantine, Wayne Bernard, Darrel Gamory, Anthony Joseph, Elizabeth McPherson. And Big Up to Management - Glenda & Gwen Gamory (Pantonic), Mack Scott (Sonatas), Martin Douglas (CrossFire), Jean Mayers (ADLIB), Junior “Man” Samuels (D’Radoes), Tony Joseph (Metro), Michelle Williams (CASYM), Darrel Gamory (Despers USA), Tameeka Garcia (Steel-X-Plosion USA), Michael Joseph (Harmony) - and all the people whose names you never hear, but do all the real heavy lifting and dirty work. Producing a Panorama steel orchestra in New York is an impossible task that only a select few can, or have ever, accomplished - so you have indeed done/archived the impossible.

For more than half a century the steelband and steel orchestras have been a part of the New York cultural landscape and genuine real-life performing arts. Now:  can you get Jay-Z and his management to negotiate a contract that is worth more than a ‘reverse-selfie,’ on behalf of the New York steel orchestras, from New York State and help separate the steelpan music community from the scoundrels currently producing the Panorama annually?

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