Panorama Re engineered: It Is Now A Hustler’s Paradise

by Sharmain Baboolal

Provided by, and published with, the expressed permission of: the Author

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - No one had to dare him to speak publicly, for the records.

It was about time. And that was evident in his tone strident but respectful, as is the nature of the man who was part of the team that built the structure for all the financial benefits that accrue to steelbands competing for Panorama, at least.

Ironically, for the post-COVID Panorama (the Jubilee year, no less) his band was starved of funds.

For starters, birdsong Steel Orchestra (Academy and Social Enterprises), born out of The University of the West Indies, has been denied access to TT$60,000, which Dennis Phillip says is owed from the 2022 Taste of Carnival. Indeed it was a bitter taste for the band that did not “qualify” for a place on the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah, as Pan Trinbago’s President Beverley Ramsey-Moore arbitrarily ruled their exclusion on the grounds that they did not play a bomb tune. “She deemed Andre Tanker’s Forward Home as a calypso, even though it earned birdsong a third place in a J’Ouvert Bomb competition at Victoria Square in Port of Spain about ten years ago.

“Was she uniquely qualified as a musical anthropologist to make that call for a song that was never perceived as calypso?” Phillip asked.

“Again, she said the band did not play with the required numbers on the night when they passed through the yard in what they said was a courtesy call and not a judging moment. What was the mechanism ascribed to the executive to play the role of adjudicators for the large band for a Taste of Carnival?” he asked, again.

Since no one knew the parameters of the Taste of Carnival her decision was challenged in the High Court. But birdsong, in the spirit of pan, withdrew the matter which was set for 11 AM on Saturday, hours before the show.

Consequently, Philip and his team were punished. A withdrawal of government funding is a painful blow to any unsponsored band, especially in an environment where most bands were held hostage by players as the post-COVID Panorama morphed into a big-time hustle.

“In normal legal practice, if you withdraw a matter there are no costs involved. She says her lawyer’s fee was $100,000, while our lawyers charged $23,000. Her reasoning, as we understand it up to now, is that she has to pay that bill and that’s why she has not yet given us the money,” Phillip explained.

Dennis Phillip - birdsong
Dennis Phillip (at right) looks on at birdsong

Charlie [as Phillip is familiarly known], very much a man who prefers to remain behind the scenes, is not just an architect of birdsong. Starting as a UWI graduate at the age of 24 years, and working through both Pan Trinbago and the National Carnival Commission (NCC), he was part of the team that shaped the business side of pan, giving birth to PANVESCO, eventually, after years of riding the bull to ensure that money was wisely invested in the steelband communities.

Against this backdrop, his tone became more strident.

Elite Hustle

“The powers that be perceive pan as another CEPEP (Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme) programme. The entire commentariat (educated people and so called experts) see pan as a way to keep the ghetto quiet. It all has to do with money passing through like a dose of salts to keep us quiet after Ash Wednesday.

“The Tobago connection has a lot to do with it,” Phillip said during an interview last week, as all bands went into post-mortem mode after Panorama 2023.

“You must understand that Tobago politics is on a knife’s edge since the two parliamentary seats on the island are critical to national politics. Beverley Ramsey-Moore has always been in opposition to the People’s National Movement (PNM) in Tobago. She now has Rowley by the ‘short and curlies’.

“It won’t be surprising to see her take it to another level and contest an election for the PNM, just as Bertie Fraser (a former President) when he fought for the Tunapuna seat in the 1976 elections.

“Anything she comes up with she gets it,” he stated, matter of fact.

“She has traction and access to government funding and determines where the corn is being shared, and there is a certain kind of arrogance that goes with that,” he charged.

“They are distributing the largesse as if it is their own manna from heaven,” Philip said, starting to build a case against inequity in the distribution of resources.

“Tobago is, therefore, an elite hustle.

“One young player boasted to me that he called a price of $7,000 to play for a Tobago band, which did not factor in the cost of transport to the island as well as accommodation and meals. Their bands had the advantage over all others, having also received money in October from the Tobago House of Assembly, THA, as Chief Secretary Farley Augustine pointed out - added to the money from the national body [Pan Trinbago].

“That’s in addition to other funds easily doled out by the THA, on request, which they are fortunate to have,” the birdsong founder said.

“If you approach any young person under the age of 22 years, they ask one question; how much are you paying? That’s the mentality that is now haunting every steelband,” he said.

‘Yet, musicians from England, France, the United States and Japan and other parts of the world, who come to Trinidad to play at the Panorama, pay their airfare, accommodation and meals.

“Perhaps the most damning thing I have heard over the season was a young player saying, “I don’t want to be a musician, I am a panman.” There are people playing for 15 bands and can’t tell you who is the arranger or what is the name of the song. Can they really play music?

“These entitled young people are not interested in where the steelband came from and really don’t care where it is going because they are in it for the hustle,” he said.

“After 40 years of a University of the West Indies program, that is clearly an indictment on us. Even worse, there are students begging for funds to do post-grad work abroad, which does not reflect well on our institutions and our self-described nomenclature as the mecca of the steelband,” he put it nicely.

“Why are people leaving the mecca to do graduate work when others should be flocking here to do post-graduate work in the Trinidad environment?” Charlie asked.

“At the last International Conference on Pan held in Port of Spain (2015), there were 30-odd learned papers presented, only two of which came from Trinidad,” he recalled, removing the plaster from deep sores.

“If we can’t tell our own story, what do you expect?” Phillip mused.

A False Sense of Reality

“Essentially we have a national culture that can’t distinguish between Public Relations and Philanthropy. We need perceptive donors who understand that society needs art, and [who] are not just looking to ride on a wave of popularity.

“Unless the elites see all art and culture as intrinsic to the evolution of society, we have nowhere to go,” he said, challenging the commentariat to open their minds.

“Whereas the perceived narrative is that the steel pan is a national instrument, it is instructive to note what is happening in the Schools’ Panorama. Bands that were champions in the past like St Augustine did not take part in the 2023 competition because under the Ministry of Education, the schools’ Panorama is more reflective of the endowments of the schools, rather than the talent,” Charlie continued with the stream of consciousness that’s badly needed in the current narrative contrived by Pan Trinbago.

“UNIPET gave a $35,000 cheque to the Combined Naparima College who also received donations from Tiger Tanks and the San Fernando City Corporation.

“Compare that to a Medium Band; the only private money Pamberi got was a donation of $5,000 from Nestor Sullivan’s widow,” Phillip revealed, to drive home the point of the growing divide.

“Seven out of ten bands in the finals were from Board schools with the only government schools being South East Port of Spain, Pleasantville and El Dorado Secondary Schools.

“Yet, for years, they have been mamaguying bands and saying the categories serve as a stepping stone to move up to a large band. How many bands have graduated?” he asked, adding another thought provoking question to the list, bringing the narrative to reality.

Pan Elders won the Medium Band category about five or six times, is anybody sponsoring them?

“Is the playing field level for a band with just $300,000 in sponsorship, when compared with a band collecting $1.3 million which will allow it to nurture a core of players on retainer fees and not be subject to the mercies of the hustlers?

“What was the audience at the Small and Medium band finals?” he asked rhetorically, knowing both shows operated at a loss.

“These are conversations you are not hearing anything about,” he reminded us.

Stand Pipe Politics

“The President of Pan Trinbago is very much into gaslighting. So she says we collected more revenue in Panorama 2023, but what is the comparison?

“What was the arrangement with the Greens at the semi finals, for example?

“If you make a few million dollars in gate receipts (and that is stretching it), please say what is the total cost of the Panorama? Give us the overall budget and show us what is the share of gate receipts,” Charlie said.

“If you have a show on the scale of Panorama whose main revenue is gate receipts then you are spinning top in mud,” he said, repeating what we all know.

“At events around the world, they collect more money from the global audience rather than the gate receipts. There is no global audience except for a few people in the Diaspora and still the live broadcasts are of poor technical quality,” Charlie said.

“Yet, with this false sense of what reality is, Pan Trinbago acts with a kind of condescension when they give you a small portion of the money due and have you hanging on, using the tactics of a two-bit politician playing stand pipe politics.

“What is the revenue stream from all the Panorama music for which they own all the rights?” he asked again, the questions piling up.

“The fact that we are one of the best in the world does not mean it will be so in the next generation, because we are heading down that slippery slope,” he added, after throwing light on the messy situation.

Thunder Across the Table

Dennis “Charlie” Phillip is a founding member of birdsong (1973)
Dennis “Charlie” Phillip is a founding member of birdsong (1973)

Dennis Phillip is immensely qualified to break the glass ceiling for all the men who have been terrified of offending Pan Trinbago’s first woman President Beverley Ramsey-Moore, unwilling to upset the apple cart for fear of victimisation.

Among them have been men who did nerve-wracking negotiations, among other things, to make it possible for the current executive to float around on the raft they built. The intention was equitable distribution.

There was no payback for the men who fought for tens of millions of the national purse to be allocated to steelbands. But passions fulfilled was enough.

Dennis Phillip is a founding member of birdsong (1973) and became manager of the band two years later, even as he held jobs at the UWI Campus, the Ministry of Finance and BWIA. By 1978 there were three members of birdsong on the Pan Trinbago executive under George Goddard who resigned after the Panorama 1979 boycott, when Arnim Smith moved up the ladder from Vice President.

Fighting For Assistance

At the time, the appearance fee for steelbands at Panorama was $300, which was essentially the cost to tune a tenor pan.

“Arnim and myself negotiated with the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) led by the late Jack Lewsey, and Ivan Williams was a member of the Board which meant there was thunder across the table when we asked for the appearance fee to move to $5,000.

“The 1979 boycott marked the first time that panmen demonstrated outside of Whitehall including staunch PNMites like Eddie Hart. Only Desperadoes did not heed the boycott.

“We resumed the negotiations in 1980 and they said if we raise the appearance fee from $300 to $5000, all interest groups would want more. Eventually we agreed to raise the fee and the rest came in the form of assistance to steelbands to make up the $5,000 for which they negotiated,” Phillip said, giving context to the benefits now enjoyed in the movement.

And Then Came The Scoresheets

With that settled, the next step was to bring back the Steelband Music Festival after an eight-year hiatus. Pat Bishop who was working with Kirpalani’s, the largest retailer on the island at the time, along with Damian Holder and Kenny De Silva helped to facilitate.

“Two of us, Greaves from Starlift and I, met with Roy Boyke, Kenny de Silva and the Chairman of Kirpalani, Shaffique Sultan Khan at El Socorro and we agreed to use the Jean Pierre Sports Complex.

“By the night of the finals in 1980, tickets were sold out.

“We created a professional environment, at the end of which all the players and their bands lined up and listened to the remarks of the adjudicators, when the results were announced, as it was in the format of the Music Festival,” Charlie, who was the stage manager for the ground-breaking event, said.

“It was the first time that score sheets were used to give the results, which was also introduced for the first time in Panorama the following year. Previously, bands were given a final score. There were no marks or comments.

“After the roaring success of the Music Festival, Pan Trinbago was awarded the Trinity Cross at the National Awards in August. In 1981 we staged the Schools’ Steelband Music Festival, moulding a new crop of professionals,” he said, tracing history that has seemingly been erased for a generation of small hustlers.

Payment For Excellence Killed

“Then came the landmark in 1991 when the international courts awarded millions of dollars to Trinidad and Tobago in the Tesoro Bribery Scandal, the only time that the country ever received money from a corruption case.

“Prime Minister ANR Robinson gave TT$7 million to the steelband movement, which was a lot at that time and we decided that it would remain as capital for steelbands, which gave birth to PANVESCO, with Clary Benn being the architect, as we involved a broader section of the community namely Reginald Dumas and Joe Esau to come on board with their expertise and experience. It was launched with three steelbands playing inside the lobby of the Central Bank building.

“When the idea came for payment to players, it was meant to incentivise excellence in Panorama by awarding graded stipends to players from the first four bands. BWIA had pumped one million into the Panorama and had collected all the names and prepared the cheques.

“But Patrick Arnold came and created the hustle when he said give money to all players,” he said, adding: “It has evolved into one of the most corrupt processes.,”

Sharmain Baboolal

About the author, Sharmain Baboolal

A Journalist/Editor based in Trinidad and Tobago, with 38 years experience in print, broadcast and digital media. As a founding member of the T&T Mirror Newspaper, I served as photo journalist, columnist and editor over 23 years.

My experience in broadcast journalism started and ended at the now defunct National Broadcasting Service (Radio 610 AM and Radio 100 FM). I honed my skills in broadcast journalism at the Radio Netherlands Training Centre (RNTC) and I am a certified media trainer.

Single-handedly, I established a small but effective News Department at Trinidad and Tobago Radio Network Limited (TTRN). As a seasoned news woman I am skilled in photojournalism, parliament and court reporting, writing and producing for print, electronic (radio and video) as well as digital media and promotions. I have mentored and trained a few younger writers and producers along the way. For this and more I earned a National Award in 2012, the Humming Bird Medal (Gold). I am a Mom, and a lover of steelpan music.

Contact Sharmain Baboolal at:

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