New York, USA - As per the song, 2018 has been the Year For Love - and the year that Despers USA Steel Orchestra ended nineteen winless years of participating in the annual New York Panorama, capturing its seventh championship title in the process. Despers USA came out swinging with a high-energy performance that hugged now-newly-minted champion arranger Odie Franklin’s outstanding musical blueprint. On a night laced with credible performances of a high nature Despers USA clearly made a statement. Playing in the final position, number seven, the band was also the fourth on this night to choose a song that this year has become so very popular for its positivity while maintaining its stark commentary on life.
Odie Franklin guides Despers USA just before panyard recording session of “Year For Love” - picture by Karlid Crompton
The quiet storm known as Odie Franklin hit New York on September 1, 2018 - full blast, with full effect. No one can act like they didn’t see it coming. Serious ‘hot ice’ burns were dropped on anyone who wouldn’t heed the call of “The Year for Love” by Despers USA in this seven-round heavyweight music-filled fight. Some of the northwest USA’s finest steel orchestras vied for the prestigious title of “New York 2018 Panorama Champion,” with New York’s youngest arrangers going on to clinch the top four spots.
Six bands were given an opportunity to showcase their cause for championship before Despers USA sealed the deal. It was a skillful delivery that was reminiscent of the ‘Verizon guy.’ With each blow or passionate musical passage - Odie seemed to ask “Did you feel that?” and “Can you hear me now?” It was blistering; throwing caution to the wind, the normally reserved arranger launched some early salvos right out the box and had the listening audience in lock step.
It was a beautiful Saturday preceding Labor Day 2018 which was the backdrop for the steelband Panorama competition as it unfolded at its traditional venue at the back of the Brooklyn Museum. The event got off to a significantly later start than advertised - an unusual occurrence given its timeliness in recent years. Guest artists New York Pan Stars, well known on the New York steelband circuit, entertained the crowd until 9:10 p.m. and then made way for band number one, defending champions D’Radoes Steel Orchestra.
The band kicked off the competition phase of the show at 9:40 p.m. Eighty players, attired for what would have originally been the cool evening air in mind—white track suits with yellow inner shirts—channeled their musical energy into their tune of choice, Year For Love by “Voice.” Those track tops soon came off as the energy heated up. Arranger Terrance “BJ” Marcelle and drill master Dane Gulston were both front and center on stage with the band, harnessing the music force that is the mighty D’Radoes Steel Orchestra. A full ten-minute arrangement brought them to precisely 9:50 p.m. as they laid it all out in an effort to hold on to their winning ways, and do what has been done this year in both the Trinidad & Tobago and UK Panorama competitions: claim the Panorama championship playing in position number one.
Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra affectionately known by the acronym PESO got their groove going, greeting the crowd musically via their tune of choice Hello, and dressed in cherry red shirts and white pants. Fresh off his accomplishment as champion arranger for UK Panorama champions Mangrove Steelband one week earlier, Andre White was back in the musical saddle, aiming to rack up his second title as arranger in precisely one week.
Third on stage was Philadelphia (Philly) Pan Stars; not to be underestimated, the band was actually one of the better-sounding, at least via the online stream facilitated by W.I.A.D.C.A. (West Indian American Day Carnival Association). Proudly ‘repping’ Philly, seventy musicians put their melodic stamp on the competition as they too went with Year For Love - the second of four bands who took the tune to Panorama in New York. Dressed too, in white, with red caps, it was also the opportunity to welcome back to the New York Panorama stage, champion arranger Yohan Popwell. He spent ten years with Sonatas Steel Orchestra (2004–2014), and that collaboration generated four championship New York Panorama titles.
By 11:25 p.m. CASYM Steel Orchestra - like Philadelphia Pan Stars before them - opted for ‘all white’ with red caps. With a full complement of the allowed-one hundred musicians the band took command of the stage. Ace arranger Kendall Williams, slight in stature and large on talent, returned with the band for the second year, putting his stamp, on, yes, Year For Love. Jerry Guy is a super efficient drill master in the pan yard, and was a fiery conductor on stage with CASYM. He worked with and channeled the natural passion the players put into their performance.
The pride of Long Island ADLIB Steel Orchestra which last saw championship glory in 2012, forged a new relationship in 2018 with Marc Brooks as arranger. The inspiring Hulk by “Blaxx” was their musical declaration for Panorama, and the players indeed flexed their musical muscles on stage. The orchestra rumbled to life with seventy-five musicians on the stroke of midnight. Black T-Shirts with pictures of the Hulk himself, green head bands, and racks adorned with green, white and purple balloons - the colors associated with the character “Hulk” - rounded out the showcase which brought the band into fourth place by the end of the competition.
The penultimate band was Harmony Music Makers, the smallest band in the competition - but their youthful players put in the hours, and had their musical say on stage, enjoying sharing their version of Patrice Roberts’ Sweet Fuh Days. Green T-Shirts and green bass pans were part of the visuals on stage as they rounded out their presentation of a Clive Telemaque-arrangement, guided by Robert Cadet, Jr. around 12:42 a.m.
Lystra Collis presented checks in the amounts of $5,000 scholarships to each of the participating steel orchestras. Before doing so she shared on her history and knowledge regarding the steelband art form, and on her brother who she described as “an astute panman.” Collis has been personally making the donations over the years in memory of her brother, Bertram - “because he lived and breathed pan” and “to do a memorial in his honor.” Representatives of all seven participating bands received this amount. Results of the Panorama were delivered shortly thereafter, with ecstatic Despers USA players pouring on stage celebrating their well-deserved win, and the show wrapping up around not too long before 1:30 a.m.
There were attendees and musicians alike who found fault with the sound system at the museum, a complaint which has resounded throughout the years. Some bands fared better than others on the night in the opinion of others. Orchestras like Despers USA and CASYM appeared to play through and surmount the disadvantage with their sheer power. What can be said is that as far as the online stream was concerned, the guest artists New York Pan Stars were done an absolute, total disservice in the audio that was experienced and heard. Anyone remotely familiar with New York Pan Stars knows the excellence of their live performances and sound - not anything near what was transmitted/communicated to the online viewing audience. Nevertheless, the steelband music lovers in the crowd undoubtedly enjoyed the show for the most part. And for the love of Pan, the players presented themselves and their best for their ten minutes in the musical spotlight.
Against the backdrop of the perplexing fiasco of the non-Panorama music showcase which eventually unfolded last year under organizers W.I.A.D.C.A. - where some of the “competing” pan players only learned while at the museum that they would not be judged for their performances - the New York steel orchestras nonetheless returned and took part in 2018. Like fellow steel orchestras in Trinidad and Tobago that make the decision to participate year after year despite musicians reportedly not receiving stipends/payments until close to the following season’s competitions - the New York steel orchestras followed suit. No official word on if or when the latter will receive prizes, or if there were any agreed-upon prize amounts before the September 1 event. The musical euphoria that is Panorama and its preparations will continue to prevail. Expect that the New York steel orchestras will show up - for more of the same in 2019.
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