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Toward putting Panorama in perspective

by Les Slater

 editor's note: this article was originally appeared in the West Indian American Day Carnival Association journal for 2015 Labor Day weekend festivities

Pantonic preparing for 2015 New York Panorama

It ought to have received priority focus by gate keepers well before now and, who knows, the horse may already have been too long bolted from the stable. But there’s a good case to be made that Panorama, having arrived in 1963 in Trinidad and Tobago as a fine addition to the Carnival tapestry, has come to be a dominating presence on the steelpan scene that for years has had a suffocating effect on other avenues of growth potential for the art form. Pigeonholing steelpan music as musical novelty good only for a designated setting or settings does a disservice to a stunning artistic invention. A myopic take on pan’s possibilities gaining credence elsewhere than in Trinidad and Tobago is unfortunate. But any trend toward stifling the pan’s potential in its birthplace betrays mind-boggling misdirection. Sadly, such a turn has indeed been taken; a disproportionate emphasis on Panorama has been a major contributing factor.

Let’s, however be very clear that Panorama remains, overall, one of the positive things to have happened to the pan culture. There are those who believe, not without merit, that as an entertainment feature, Panorama has been ill-advisedly allowed to evolve along lines that have diminished the punch it once packed. Certainly, an earlier period when “spirit of Carnival” rather than concert-stage performance (calypso rhythm notwithstanding) informed the nature of the fare presented, made for audiences’ greater enjoyment of the event. But the basic idea of a competitive forum for bands to strut their stuff is as solid a release valve as any for the energy build-up among participants.

Any true pan-loving T&T national sensitized to the unique and honored place the steelpan can rightly claim in the music world should be troubled by Panorama competitions being the zenith of pan’s aspirations. It likely pivots back to an under-valuing of the instrument in the national psyche, perhaps fostered by its origins, having precluded the instrument’s full embrace even by the “conventional” music community. Even formal declaration of the pan as Trinidad and Tobago’s “national instrument” evidently failed to convey to many, including the music community, that the pan was entitled to a “big-up” in the culture well beyond Panorama as be-all and end-all of its raison d’etre. And that, for example, in the music community, Machel, Roots, Cape, Joey…needed to revisit the level of respect accorded the instrument, up to and including incorporating it into their own organizations.

In the spirit of all that, one would have preferred a more inspired choice by Pan Trinbago than was recently staged in Port of Spain. The idea of a major event involving pan sides from across the world presents such unlimited possibilities, why reach reflexively for the Panorama blueprint as the only game in town? Inviting foreign bands to “compete” where they obviously wouldn’t be matching up well with locals was inane and a wasted opportunity. As it was, T&T Panorama overkill for 2015 is what essentially was served up.  

Again, this is no advocacy of Panorama’s exit from the pan universe. There is much about its presentation that could be tweaked, to be sure. Space doesn’t permit detailed consideration here of those pros and cons. But there is need, we believe, for critical appraisal of a mindset in the movement in which Panorama, as anointed gold standard of pan enterprise, so overwhelms the space, even to the extent of inhibiting diligent exploration of alternative upward-mobility vehicles for the pan. Caretakers should assume that the Panorama model as pan music’s “magic bullet” cannot endure indefinitely.

Meaningful preemptive planning is required. And tinkering with Panorama’s format in ways guaranteed to reduce, rather than enhance its attractiveness, isn’t it.

Let’s enjoy Panorama. But let’s also be mindful that we’ll be selling woefully short the marvelous instrument we gifted to the music world, if we misguidedly perceive Panorama as “the whole deal” for pan.

Les Slater
Les Slater

Les Slater, many years a columnist for Caribbean Life, is chairman/founder of the Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute.

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