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Where We Stand

birdsong’s Response to last Saturday’s Trinidad Guardian Editorial

birdsong steel orchestraTrinidad & Tobago, W.I. - birdsong acknowledges with the deepest gratitude the widespread outpourings of support for our cause that have been aired in both the conventional and social media in response to our recent eviction from the premises that we have occupied for the last 28 years. We are particularly thankful to the editors in the conventional media houses who have seen it fit to give prominence to the underlying issues of the absence of a viable public policy framework to support the efforts of the cultural community and in particular the long standing problems of security of tenure for the steelband.

Even in recording our gratitude and appreciation, we must take strenuous exception to the inaccuracies vented in the Guardian editorial of Saturday September 03, 2016. Of particular concern is the position taken by the newspaper’s editor that, “in the face of ultimately being displaced or possibly having to purchase the existing panyard or some other property, the leadership of the band is said to have raised $120,000” – a sum which, the editor dismissively describes as being “quite insignificant”. Apart from being grossly inaccurate, these assertions convey the clear impression that the birdsong organization has been deliberately lazy and incompetent in its efforts to deal with the land tenure challenge which has been responsible for the demise of several steelbands in our country’s history. In order to correct this inaccuracy, we present the following 10 facts about the situation in which birdsong now finds itself.

The facts are as follows:

  1.  Contrary to the assertions of the Guardian’s editor, birdsong’s major challenge is not the availability of resources to acquire a new site but the many externally imposed delays that have affected each stage of the land acquisition. The result is that today, after making a $120,000 down-payment 6 years ago on January 12, 2010 and securing approval for loan financing, we are unable to conclude the transaction and take possession of the property due to the failure of the relevant state agencies to appoint Registrar of Friendly Societies who, according to the law, is the only office holder empowered to dispose of the assets of a defunct friendly society.
  2. In the meantime, we have completed conceptual designs, obtained outline permission from the Town & Country Planning Division to develop the property, secured mortgage financing and prepaid more than one year’s installments even though the approved mortgage has not yet been able to be executed.
  3. birdsong is a socially responsible, self-sustaining, community-based, not-for-profit organization. Self-sufficiency is at the core of our value system and, as such, it is not a feature of our DNA to seek, negotiate or beg for handouts, special favours or sponsorship arrangements from fairy godparents in the political or commercial arenas. It is on the basis of this philosophy, that we have dutifully avoided the adoption of the sponsorship model that has become a standard feature of the resource mobilization strategy of the steelband movement. Instead, as a deliberate policy choice, we have been developing and testing a business model that is both relevant to the needs of our community and supportive of our mission of continuously challenging the boundaries of steelpan innovation in music, music education and self- sustainability. We are essentially a self-sponsored cultural entity.
  4. The “birdsong model” involves 2 incorporated commercial entities operating as a social enterprise and an incorporated music education and performing arm. So far, this model has served both our organization and our community well – we employ 60 persons on a full time basis and 15 experienced music teachers on a part time basis. Our trained corp of workers allows us to be the only steelband to successfully bid for service contracts in the Carnival space. Our business ventures finance our core activities and our special projects have received support from a range of local and international agencies including the UNDP, the IDB, the JB Fernandez Trust, the Rockefeller Foundation and United Way. Our business entities are fully compliant with all relevant regulatory requirements. We maintain annually audited accounts and are up to date on all statutory payments, including income tax and VAT, national insurance, workmen’s compensation and public liability insurance. We owe nobody.
  5. A defining feature of our business operations is that our directors receive no remuneration and all profits from our social enterprises contribute to the maintenance and development of our music education and performance operations including: - The funding of our scholarship programme which supports graduates of our academy in the pursuit of tertiary education at universities in the US and Europe. - Payment of tutors, purchase of instruments, payment of registration fees for exams - all at no cost to our students.
  6. The decision to seek mortgage financing for our proposed land acquisition is a matter of deliberate strategy which reflects, among other things, the strength of our balance sheet and, above all, the confidence that the financial sector reposes in our business model, viability prospects and management systems and processes.
  7. Efforts to find a sustainable solution to the insecurity of tenure pre-date the landlord’s legal initiatives to regain possession. Indeed, our records show that we have been engaging successive past Ministers of Culture on this issue from as far back as April 1986 when the Hon. Muriel Donawa-Mc Davidson was the relevant line minister.
  8. It is precisely because of the apathy, indifference and tokenism that has characterized past political and bureaucratic responses to our efforts, that we took the decision, in the immediate aftermath of the landlord’s initiation of legal action, to seek to establish our social enterprises and to acquire a suitable property on the open market, with the full confidence that our limited means at the time was not a constraint on us achieving any targets that we set for ourselves.
  9. In the face of the landlord’s rejection of repeated purchase offers, subsequent attempts to acquire land focused on a property which is owned by a defunct friendly society. When we made our first offer to purchase this property, the value, based on the opinion of professional valuators, was of the order of $300,000. However, due to a combination of systemic inefficiencies and no small measure of bureaucratic ineptitude, it took a full 5 years before we were able to make a down- payment in 2010 by which time the market value had quadrupled to $1.2 million.
  10.  Effectively, 12 of the 20 years that have elapsed since the landlord’s initial legal action have been spent attempting to close a simple land purchase transaction that, in the normal course of business, ought to have been concluded in 3 months.

birdsong remains undaunted by the events of the past weeks. Rather, we are particularly pleased that the eviction has opened up the national conversation on pan, the role of community-based organizations and the systems for supporting education in the arts. Inspired by the example of Servol in forging indigenous solutions to gaps in the social and educational support systems, we are encouraged by the emerging prospect of a partnership with UWI and UTT to develop a community-based pre-University music education programme to be replicated in other communities. We are determined to emerge from this crisis unruffled and committed to breathe new life into the description of the steelband movement so artfully articulated by David Rudder – “out of a muddy pond, ten thousand flowers bloom”!


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