New World Steelband Order: Teague’s minor changes make a major note

by Sharmain Baboolal

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

© 2018 -  All Rights Reserved.

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Professor Liam Teague (Photo Frederic Dubray)
Professor Liam Teague   (Photo: Frederic Dubray)

“I am a Dreamer,” he declared. And he’s got ideas. But, here in Trinidad, Professor Liam Teague does not speak unless spoken to except when he is teaching. You would have to seek knowledge. And it is only then this humble man with an unmatched steelpan performance resume and teaching history would give some insight. Usually stoic and measured, Teague steers clear of controversy. Being in a panyard is not quite a normal experience for him anymore. The greater part of his life is now in the classrooms and the concert halls.

But it has become an annual pilgrimage, a humbling one. And while the internationally recognised steelpan virtuoso is honoured to be among the thousands of musicians and players of instruments he hungers for more people, in Trinidad, to be able to truly appreciate what we have.

All year he works with students who sight read music. In the panyard, he adjusts his game to become a different kind of teacher.

Teague, who distinguished himself before he left Trinidad when he was just 18 years old has clear and workable ideas of how to bridge the gap between generations. He has a radically different - and very workable-take on music education in the panyard.

Even with all the accolades attached to his name, most of which go unnoticed in Trinidad, when Teague enters the arena he explains how he is honoured to be lined up alongside the legends in what is the largest steel band music gathering in the world.

In his own words, learn how Liam “Hands like Lightning” Teague who under the guidance of Trinidad Dr Cliff Alexis before him, has laid another cornerstone in the foundation for the bridge into the new world steel band order, starting with the Panorama experience.

Demystifying Panorama

“I think a big part of what can help Panorama is actually education. It’s simple. For example, a lot of people who come to the panyard just sit and they listen and many times they aren’t aware of what’s going on, like the intricacies, the subtleties and that’s one of the things I would actually like to do where we spend five, maybe ten minutes speaking to the audience explaining what’s going on.

“For example, we can say listen to this particular motif that is in the original, now hear it in the cellos and while the cellos are doing that this is what the tenors are doing. In so doing we can give them a deeper appreciation of what’s happening. And I think a lot more people may be more inclined to visit panyards because what they are hearing won’t be a mystery. it’s also about packaging and marketing. And that goes beyond Panorama.

“So many times we take this instrument for granted. It is all around us and truth be told so many people think of the steelpan as noise and I know if I was a layman and my only experience with steelpan was Panorama then a lot of the bands may sound the same and would just sound loud. And it goes back to where people are not aware of intricacies and subtleties. This is where education is important and getting to young people from early.

“It’s not just for young people that play the instrument but for the masses. By educating them explaining to them what is happening so even if they don’t go on to become professional musicians at least they have a love for it, a profound respect for it.

“And they may be more inclined to attend different events.

“A lot of times people may walk into a panyard and they start talking to the players during rehearsals and are very nonchalant about it.

“They won’t even realize they are being disrespectful but this is a serious social experience going on here.

“This is part of the education process and again, beyond Panorama for steelpan in general, education is key. You see it in the classical world and in the jazz world where people like Leonard Bernstein would have broken down the symphony orchestra and created music for young people.

“It’s all about making it more marketable and easier to appreciate, I think.

“In some ways, it is being done at the tertiary level in places like the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT).

“A lot of the students that are playing with Silver Stars when they talk to me about the music it is very very profound. They are not just making general statements to say I like that part or something. They say I really like that whole tone part that you are using , I would not have thought to use that.

“They are speaking very specific and that tells me you are seeing changes.

At Silver Stars’ Panyard (Photo Frederic Dubray)
At Silver Stars’ Panyard   (Photo: Frederic Dubray)

“I really wish that adjudicators would come to the panyards routinely; they could be anonymous because this is the level of respect that is afforded to Symphonies. You know nobody is gonna fully appreciate Beethoven’s Fifth without multiple listenings so why do we treat our own like that?

“We cannot decipher every single thing about the arrangement in eight minutes.

“I always try to keep one foot in traditional and also genuflect to what’s happening in the contemporary world.

“I am just a fan of Panorama music, so outside of the competition I just love listening to the arrangements.

“When it comes to music I do not believe in absolutes, to say that I have a favourite arranger.

“But there are arrangers who have influenced me more than others.

“Probably the biggest influence would be Jit Samaroo. With him being musically literate and very organized he did the majority of his arrangement at home and still left a bit of space to create in the panyard and I am very similar.”

Impartiality is important....for all
“It is just listening to all Panorama arrangements as works of art, the same that you would be if Shostakovich performed next to Mozart and next to Beethoven or any piece of art for that matter be it a Van Gogh painting lined up against Salvador Dali. They are all great for different reasons.

“Obviously, it will be fantastic if I win, if Silver Stars win.

“But win lose or draw for me it’s about the music first and foremost.

“Symphony orchestras do not play the work of just one composer.

“I think it is very very educational for players to learn different styles and appreciate different arrangers and listen with impartiality because it is so important and it will help us to grow and bring us together as a fraternity.

“I am a dreamer. One of the things that bothered me at the semi-final round (2017) I was listening to a band on the Drag and a gentleman asked me what I thought of it and I said it was brilliant and he could not believe that I said that. 
“He was expecting me to shred the arrangement and the Arranger and then he went on a diatribe.

“People don’t realize how much work this is. These are symphonic movements. It doesn’t come overnight. For you to just say an arrangement has no vibes, it is simplistic and if they really come to the panyard and really try to understand the music- I am not saying you are gonna like everything or enjoy everything, but have some respect for it.

At Silver Stars’ Panyard (Photo Frederic Dubray)
Every steelband is a symphony orchestra at Panorama   (image provided by S. Baboolal)

“It should not be a rare occurrence for an arranger to say something good about another arranger or a player or a band.

“Yes, I agree that you are preparing them for going to war. One of the reasons this instrument developed so quickly is because of the one-upmanship with people trying to outdo each other.

“However, that could break things down as well.

“We can have bands going to other bands and performing even without the competition aspect, naturally, people want to play well. When I play with the symphony orchestra, of course, I am going there to give my best, but it is not a competition.”

We have to be honest with ourselves

 “I go all over the world and most people if they have heard about the steelpan they know it as the steel drum. They hear it in the stereotypical way playing the classics. By the classics I mean the Yellow Birds, the Mary Anns, you know, the kind of music that is associated with the beach or tourism and that is their experience with the steelpan.

“When they hear me or any virtuoso panist play The Flight of The Bumble Bee which is something a little more demanding they are shocked.

“There are pockets of people that really understand the potential of this instrument. In the US it is going to the High School and University system, no doubt about that. Every year we have had students from the university system come and play with Silver Stars and of course, the other bands have that as well.

“A lot of times I think we tend to exaggerate where we are and what the international market understands about this instrument and we have to be honest with ourselves.

“First of all, we call ourselves the mecca of the steelpan. What does that actually mean? Sometimes these terms are used because they flow off the tongue nicely.

Len “Boogsie” Sharpe (Photo Newsday)
Len “Boogsie” Sharpe   (Photo: Newsday)

“Perhaps we could have a Len “Boogsie” Sharpe Monday and Ray Holman Tuesday....if it was actually a national instrument, the masses would be engaged in that kind of way. That’s not happening. It may not happen in my lifetime, but I do hope it happens.

“Still, there are a lot of positive things happening especially with the young generation, not just musically but they are becoming more business savvy.

“They are starting to see there is more to life than just Panorama. It is great if you can win but two to three weeks after Panorama, that what happens with your life?

“Can you actually make a consistent career out of this instrument?

“This is one of the things I advocate for. This is my life. It is the greatest joy in the world to do what you are absolutely passionate about. And I am very, very fortunate to be doing that and I want that for everybody who may want that.”

Reverse brain drain

“I left Trinidad when I was 18 years old to pursue a Bachelors in Music Degree with a specific emphasis on the steelpan at Northern Illinois University. At the time it was the only institution in the world where you could specifically study steelpan and get a degree. I did my Masters and they invited me to Faculty and I went through the ranks, Assistant to Associate and now full Professor.

“While doing that I managed a healthy performing career and also creating music and also kept one foot in Trinidad and Tobago, whether it was arranging for Panorama or coming back and speaking to students at UWI, because a number of my students are now professors at UWI and UTT: Mia Gormandy, Seion Gomez who directs the program at UTT and Akua Leith conductor for the National Steel Symphony Orchestra (NSSO) and they are all arrangers.

Akua Leith, Artistic Director/Conductor of the National Steel Symphony Orchestra.
Akua Leith, Artistic Director/Conductor of Trinidad & Tobago’s National Steel Symphony Orchestra   (Photo: NSSO)

“What I enjoy about that is that we are getting away from the brain drain ‘cos so many people will go abroad to study and will stay there.

“It is very important that we do have some people that come back home and contribute.

“In my case, I always try my best to come back and contribute in different ways.

“I teach at a camp in summer in Wisconsin, Birch Creek Music and Performing Center, and it’s mainly for high school age kids. For the past few years, I brought students from Trinidad and Tobago to attend that camp and open up new worlds for them, offer them different ways of thinking creatively.

“They could take that newfound knowledge and bring it back to Trinidad and change things.”

Virtuoso on a garbage can... “It is not a percussive instrument, something you can beat”

“It is discrimination in more ways than one. Again, I mean for example, when I play as a soloist with symphony orchestras many of the musicians see the steelpan as a novelty. They haven’t been exposed to it playing some of the most difficult kinds of music; profound music.

“When I step on the stage for the rehearsals I can see many of them looking at me in a sceptical way probably thinking what is this guy doing here with this garbage can.

“I am a little cheeky. Because I used to play the violin back in the day when I am warming up I would actually quote violin pieces while I may be standing and playing next to the violins. It’s just to get a little reaction from them. So I see their faces change I can imagine them saying “Wait a minute , he is playing Paganini”.

“Once I play the concerto and what have you I think it brings a newfound respect to the instrument. The most important thing is that people get this new vision of the instrument.

“When I think about the steelpan I don’t necessarily think about it as a percussive instrument something that you beat.

“I think of its melodic characteristics. And truth be told ,the steelpan is one of the most beautiful instruments in the world and in the wrong hands it could be one of the ugliest because if you overplay it is very jarring.

Ray Holman (Photo FOBA)
Ray Holman   (Photo: FOBA)

“Some of my early heroes would have been Robert Greenidge and Ray Holman who play with this degree of finesse and sometimes it is deceptive because they make it look so easy and it is some of the most virtuosic music out there.

“So that finesse is very important. We don’t always address that in the steelband world. We look at speed, but not playing with a consistent tone, coaxing the beautiful melody out of the instrument and part of that has to do with my violin background again.

“The difference between a mediocre artiste and the great artiste is that the mediocre artiste makes the easy look difficult and the great artistes make the difficult look easy.

“The technique is important and I see tremendous skill. I am not always a fan of how loud they play the instrument. The mere fact that traditionally when we try to get the attention of the band we strike the instrument, is not good. You will never do that to a piano or violin but this is something in our DNA which I want to see it stopped. I personally use the jam block or the cowbell and hopefully, that will influence change.”

The difference I can make

“Education. Going beyond the status quo. Think about future generations.

“I never set out to be a teacher. I was thinking this is consistent income, I will make it work but over the years it has been so gratifying to know that we have had a small part to do with someone else’s development and they, in turn, do the same. That’s the cycle.

“Mia, Seion and Akua are all contributing in small ways.”

Dr Mia Gormandy. (Photo YouTube)
Dr Mia Gormandy   (Photo: YouTube)

All images provided by the Author

Author Sharmain Baboolal
About the author, Sharmain Baboolal

A Journalist/Editor based in Trinidad and Tobago, with 35 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 Netherland 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 the mother of a young scholar, an undergrad at Columbia University in New York, and a lover of steelpan music.

contact Sharmain Baboolal at:

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