Pan As A Developing Art Form

An opinion

by Ansel Joseph

Provided with the expressed permission of: the Author

The world is waiting for us to sprout wings and fly while keeping an honest respect and reverence for our history and culture... Ansel joseph

From Rudy Smith, Ray Holman, Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, Othello Molineaux, Andy Narell, and Robert Greenidge to Duvone Stewart, Garvin Blake, André White and Khan Cordice among others - Ansel Joseph asks, do they not bring back influences from around the world, to pan?

With thoughtful observation, critical analysis and keen understanding - Ansel Joseph brings his over sixty years of dedication to the steelpan artform and culture as a skilled panist, lecturer, touring musician, steelpan craftsman, tuner and manufacturer. Moreover, through his vast experiences and encounters he raises the pertinent issues to the way forward and meeting the challenge of growing the Art form. 

Ansel Joseph in his own words...

Global Pan As A Developing Art Form

As I look back through my own history as a Pan Man from my first experience at 12 as a school child in City Kids in the 50s through becoming a member of the Shell Invaders, a brief stint with my own Belmont Steel Band (Satisfiers) then leaving Trinidad and Tobago with Merry Makers for a European Tour as their tuner, working in Canada with Pan, then New York, Boston, Atlanta, California, and finally Arizona where I currently reside at 77 years young, I see three areas of the Art Form that I would like to comment upon: one is in regards to the actual furtherance of the development of the Steel Pan, a second concerns the composition and arranging of music for Pan and the third involves my thoughts on a way forward. I also believe it is of the utmost importance to know your history to clearly see the present and the future.

Know Your History

Ansel Joseph
Ansel Joseph

During the historical development of the Steel Pan art form we have witnessed a focused intensity during certain points resulting in major improvements whether it was the basic shape and placement of notes, the size of the barrel, the length of the skirt, the expansion of voices, making them mobile, the addition of chromaticism, their role in J’Ouvert and Carnival, and the birth of Panorama. At this point in our culture we are noticing a huge emphasis on Panorama in the same way that the Steel Pan fraternity used to focus on any one of the previously mentioned milestones in the primordial development engineered by our pioneer pan men. There seems to be a lack of critical ideas present that would help to propel the Steel Pan into an orbit that would benefit the movement going forward. It is almost as if Panorama has become the platform and main focal point for ongoing discussions replacing the actual Steel Pan’s true progress towards the art form’s development.

It is important not to lose the connection to the deep-rooted innovations that got us to where we are presently. Today these innovations seem to have gotten lost during discussions where present and past Panorama performances and dates, have become a little more than trivia. Who did what and when they did it has become the focus and Panorama itself has replaced the function and main purpose of the art form which is to build upon new critical ideas for the future of the Instrument and the music.

We need to regroup for a moment and be a little critical of ourselves, to step back and observe where we came from and where we want to be in the future. We need to instill in the younger generation the importance of understanding what our pioneers had in mind when they designed the different Instruments, the how why and which conventional Instruments that they may represent. It is only logical that our heritage came with us from Africa, but we were introduced to Western Classical music as part of our colonization very early in our new instrument revolution which became the Steel Pans. This exposure may have been in part responsible for the Steel Band’s rapid musical development in European musical culture, which helped to widen our concept of music in general and hence our ability to execute their music amongst others in such a confident and commanding manner. Through this exercise we have come to understand how classical music can be interpreted into our genre and Panorama is a perfect example. Western classical music is represented in the form of a Panorama arrangement to this day. Classical style endings are standard at the coda of Panorama tunes. We must understand this fact if we are to move forward to legitimate change and nuances. This is not a finite point. We are not done. This is only the beginning.

About The Instrument: A Noticeable Fact

There is very little said about Steel Pan tuners these days. It almost seems that many believe we have arrived at the point where we don’t need to progress anymore. Referencing our history, has anyone noticed that there is no longer that tuner with a Steel Band yard affiliation anymore? At one time, the leader of the band was the Steel Pan maker, tuner, arranger, innovator, and all things Pan. There is a period that can be described as a high point in the evolution of Pan that involves a young player interested in learning the art of tuning being able to witness the building of the Pans on site. The knowledge and culture were passed on through direct word of mouth with hands on participation with a subtle discipline that was developed as you became more experienced in managing the skills of the Art Form. It was required that every apprentice understood all stages of Pan manufacturing under strict supervision.

Today however (and it was inevitable that we would arrive at this place) the Art Form has split into separate parts, such as sinker, marker, shaper, groover, pre-tuner then final tuner. This may have caused a fracture in the art form. Presently, in many instances, each separate unit has become its own separate entity. We must be very careful to make sure we are all on the same page, sharing the same pertinent information without prejudice that leads us to the same consistent end result, of one universal mind whose Intellectual properties belongs to us alone in building a well-tempered Instrument.

We must know also by now that the methods used during the manufacturing and tuning of Pans today are quite different than say even ten to twenty years ago. Today’s methods require a more precise, critical, and measured approach. Today’s technics require the use of harmonics, partials and octaves that are placed within the tuned area or mass to create more sympathetic vibration giving more clarity to the pitches. To apply these critical methods however the metal must be worked more vigorously, making the mass become more delicate to vibrate more quickly. So, it is very important that all players are aware of this fact to understand how hard he/she can apply their sticking. There’s nothing worse than a well-tuned Steel Pan being hammered into “playing” a song.  

This brings me to a series of pet peeves of mine. A really good quality pan is not meant to be hammered to death in an eight-minute Panorama tune. Pans should not be transported one inside the other with the rim of one clanging on the playing surface of another. Care should be taken in the hanging of pans whether on the rack or a stage side stand, so they all hang at the same angle. Stands should not stick up between multiple pans so that your sticks must take a detour to avoid hitting the stands each time you move from one pan to another. The sticks must be the right weight and covering for the size of the note and balanced in the hand.

About Our Music

We must also pay attention to our music to recognize when change is necessary so that we will not become redundant to our listening audience and to ourselves. After many years of learning music through trial and error, we have developed a most unique style of music. This is not a weakness but rather this is one of our strengths. Because of the process we have experienced, many different genres of music (classical, calypso, soca, original compositions) which have become fused into what is called our music today, Steel Band Music. Bearing in mind we have produced some of the best arrangers on every level that is possible in our music and we must be proud.

We must however smooth out some of our kinks because music never stops changing; it is an ongoing process and we need to understand this with an open mind. We must not lose sight of some of the earlier methods that played an important part in the development period. We must combine both. Making a study of some of our own virtuoso players’ methods should be a priority for all players, amateur and professional as should studying our own great arrangers and composers. Collaboration between Steel Bands in doing recording dates should be the norm. It should be that all players belonging to other orchestras are able to play with each other, to exchange ideas and ensure a creative environment more suitable for our music. I do not mean just playing on the same gig but combining your ideas together so that the musicians can experience hands on exposure to the different concepts that exist in our music. At present we rely on Panorama competitions which at best barely give a glimpse of that sort of experience especially taking into consideration the speed at which the arrangements are played.

Moving Forward

It is quite common in the rest of the world that any one outstanding musician will have his/her own group but will also have the opportunity to partner with others outside of that established group to perform. Duets between famous musicians is a staple of the art. Sometimes both of those musicians may even play the same instrument or genre of music but often the most surprising results stem from performers of different genres connecting up. To me, pan is an instrument as legitimate as a trumpet or saxophone. Pan can be played in rock, jazz, classical, folk, gospel, or any other setting; with other pans or other instruments/voices. Yet in Trinidad and Tobago this barely happens. Pan is ready to break out and is doing so in the rest of the world but not so much in Trinidad and Tobago. The logical question is why? It may be that Trinis are so ensconced in the competitive nature of the culture of Pan that they cannot imagine the instrument outside of competition. This problem does not exist only with instrumentalists. What about composers, arrangers, recording personnel, marketers, manufacturers, media? Maybe it is time to look “Outta de Box” in order to move forward.

Education is one way out of our doldrums. This is equally important to tuners, players, arrangers, and composers. And I have to say, receiving a certificate of completion after a two or a six-week course in tuning does not a tuner make. The approach to teaching tuning in Trinidad is piecemeal at best. Tuning can be taught in the old-fashioned way with an interested party observing a master at work and gradually taking on more and more aspects of the process. Or it could be a major offered in College and University studying with the best in the country with an extensive lab covering ALL aspects of producing a finished pan. Both are equally important and effective methods. Do not insult a great tuner by sending a student from school to his workplace who only wants to “tune” and has no concept of the work that goes into making the instrument prior to tuning. Only after a complete hands-on course, whether informal or formal, should a student even be considered for an apprenticeship with a tuner. The problem is finding dedicated students who are ready to forego making any money at this as a profession for quite some time. Perhaps this is where the government can step in and offer a stipend to both master and apprentice.

Instrumentalists, composers, and arrangers can get their education in the same way: in the pan yard at the feet of the greats or in the classroom or a combination of both. It is my opinion that every aspiring arranger should be made to study the great Clive Bradley and how his contributions changed the format of Panorama arrangements. But the education MUST go beyond the basics and beyond the setting of competition. There seems to be such an emphasis on being able to read music in TT currently. Reading music is but one tool in the musical toolbox and reading music alone does not make you a musician. Yes, it is important to a musician’s overall competency to be fluent with this tool but not at the expense of listening, observing, imitating, or finding your own way, all of which are equally important tools.

Does “Boogsie” not bring back influences in performance, arranging and composing after performing with jazz musicians at any number of festivals? Does Ray Holman not bring back influences after touring in the USA? Does Duvone Stewart not bring back new ideas after touring the world outside of Panorama season in TT? What about Robert Greenidge? Does Rudy Smith not bring the influences of world music to pan? What world influences mark the music of Andy Narell? Garvin Blake? Othello Molineaux? André White? Khan Cordice? I am not talking about only participating in West Indian Carnival and Panorama celebrations that take place around the world. I am speaking of musical settings outside of this. The more different situations we give our instrumentalists, arrangers, composers the more the Art Form will grow. That is what we need to keep ourselves fresh, so we do not stagnate in our own limited space. The world is waiting for us to sprout wings and fly while keeping an honest respect and reverence for our history and culture. We can change what we do with pan at home as well. Pan was an integral part of Carnival. IT STILL SHOULD BE.

A Note to Young Players

There is a growing tendency amongst young steel pan players who believe that randomly playing as many notes as possible, yet trying their best to exact a complete predetermined scale into a piece music that has no bearing whatsoever to the chord changes or the concept of the piece, makes you a good player: not true. It just sounds like rambling to a trained ear when you take one scale (whole tone, dorian, blues) and use it over every chord change in the piece. It would be more beneficial to create your own models that you can hear as you play the piece. Everything breathes, even rhythm. One way of understanding how this concept works to develop this manner of playing is to observe how you breathe: slow down and think, don’t rush, control. You need to study chords and their usages, how they work, how they can be substituted, how to turn them inside out, how they intrinsically lead to each other, how to make scales sound differently than what they are, understanding the myriad of progressions that there exists, listening to much more than what you really want to play. Miles Davis once said, “Less is more.” Sometimes you need to stop and let time take over. Silence is part of rhythm.


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