Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - There are echoes that haunt panyards. You won’t know about this unless you have entered one and stood behind a pan. So, do not call the police if you see me passing such premises slowly in my car, windows down, one hand cupping an ear as if to capture the failing strap of a loose face mask.
After almost 40 unbroken years of Panorama competitions, pan performances and pan talk, I heard the echo last year as I took my place (“like Boogsie”, I told everybody) behind birdsong-branded double seconds and between the instructions of the incomparable Derrianne Dyett, and the discordant jumble of other beginners.
Who could have told then what the future had in store for all of us?
The year 2020 came to test pan, both as a musical instrument and as an agent of social cohesion and change, in ways not previously experienced or envisaged. Even in its manifestation as the best thing we do, tougher challenges would have been extremely hard to find.
A determined pandemic barely missed Panorama 2020, but its careful management has ensured that in 2021, the practice of pan will comprise invention and ingenuity – qualities that have given the instrument its true value both as creative platform and as largely unrealised economic prospect.
Desperadoes Steel Orchestra's Championship Christmas Celebration
We too often do not recognise that the world’s best pan manufacturers, players, tuners, arrangers, and innovators reside right here among us – riding the maxi taxis, teaching in our schools, administering medication in our hospitals, advocating in court, generally contributing to public life as regular citizens but also working and earning from the practice of pan.
True, there are those who resent its egalitarianism and some who assign to it narrow ethnic cleavages. But there is no doubt that the steelpan is the most widely played musical instrument in T&T and is a gift we have given to the world.
Its pervasive presence also stands in sturdy defiance of VS Naipaul’s once wildly uninformed claim that our story as a people is problematic since “history is built around achievement and creation (and) nothing was created in the West Indies.”
It could not have been that the famed author had not at some enlightened moment in his youth deduced that in the underdeveloped tinny sounds that often broke the Woodbrook silence, resided a story of the conquest of adversity and the triumph of joy.
It is not that we have always got things right. The annual Panorama competition has at different times been described as the best and the worst thing to happen to pan. Both sides are worth a careful listen, especially now that prohibitions that will persist well into the New Year, offering a challenge some have already conceded.
As Peter Ray Blood reminded some of us a few days ago, “by now, the stage and North Stand, and South Quay Stand would have been built. This time last year Panorama had already started. I have a tabanca.”
Even so, the search for pan in the pandemic has not been an altogether onerous exercise. On Christmas Day, Desperadoes brought us a high-quality programme, and Starlift presented its Virtual Concert. Players/arrangers such as Duvone Stewart, Leon “Smooth” Edwards, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and others have kept things flowing over these coronavirus months.
The virtual world has also highlighted the likes of younger Turks such as Zahra Mawusi Lake of Antigua, André White in the US, and Aviel Scanterbury of T&T. We have been able to listen to Dane Gulston and Mikhail Salcedo, among the more seasoned.
The point I am making is that the practice of pan has neither been paused nor brought to a halt because of the pandemic. But it has certainly changed and will continue to change.
This year, we also said thank you and farewell to Hugh Borde, Neville Jules, Hanny Leon, “Tash” Ash, Nervin “Teach” Saunders, Denzil “Dimes” Fernandez, Jomo Wahtuse, Clifford “Rope” Alfred, Karen Codrington, and Milton “Wire” Austin.
‘When Steel Talks’ has listed all of these and more - (panonthenet.com). We need to find the occasion to share special thoughts about all of them. There aren’t enough words here to express what needs to be said. There’s all of 2021 to do so. Their names are in the echoes we hear.
Wesley Gibbings has been a print and broadcast journalist and media trainer for over 30 years. He is a columnist/feature writer for the T&T Guardian and contributes to several news agencies in the Caribbean and overseas. He has authored numerous papers on the media and journalism and is a campaigner for press freedom in the Caribbean and internationally. He is President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) and sits on the Council of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) and was a member of the inaugural Steering Committee of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD). Gibbings is a former journalism lecturer at the Caribbean Institute for Media and Communication, UWI, Jamaica and has co-authored and edited journalism training manuals on the environment and elections.