Protect our sacred panyards

by Dara Healy

Published with the expressed permission of the author

Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

THE PAIN caused by the recent murder in [the panyard of] Pamberi Steel Orchestra has many threads.

These threads flow back in time, connecting decades, even centuries of hurt and loss. Like the spiderweb design in the pan, the threads hold stories and attitudes about an instrument that is indigenous to our country, but which should be better protected.

Dara E. Healy
Dara E. Healy

The web spins, winding around pan geniuses like Anthony Williams, sitting quietly in his humility, not recognised enough and without the financial security for someone who created magical music on a biscuit tin.

The web weaves around the pan players of the early 20th century, dismissed as vagabonds, hooligans and outcasts. As Mighty Sparrow lamented, “They enjoy your song, they enjoy your music/But still they’re so damn prejudiced/They bracket you in a category so low and mean/Man, they leave the impression that the Caribbean’s unclean.”

The weaving continues, reaching back thousands of years to the Ifa/Orisha belief system of the Yoruba. Practitioners understand the influence of Ogun in the creation of the steelpan, the instrument with web-like notes that may now be heard in almost every corner of our world.

In 1938, calypsonian Executor commented on an apparent crime wave in Port of Spain. The unearthing of seven dismembered skeletons with “heads east and west” seemed to be part of a larger reality of social ills, as in the calypso Executor highlighted issues from suicide to family violence and infanticide.

“There seem to be bloodstains everywhere
 Murder hovering in the atmosphere
At Cedros a contractor was killed
You can see the spot where his blood was spilled
At San Juan, Sahib was on a spree
When the car turned and he died suddenly
That was more sad
Than the seven skeletons the workmen found in the yard”
The Seven Skeletons in the Back Yard, Lord Executor 

So while the discovery of the skeletons was unsettling, reaction to the find revealed a familiarity and perhaps even numbness to crime.

Fast-forward more than 80 years after Executor’s calypso: children must learn to “duck and cover” from gunfire, while students beat a maxi-driver so badly he may not be able to work for several months.

Today, we have matter-of-fact conversations about shootings of innocent people, human trafficking and corrupt officials who ensure the criminal network is well-supplied with arms and ammunition.

Can we even feel outrage over murder in a panyard?

In our culture, the yard is a potent force for growth and unity. The jamette yards of the 1800s fuelled the creativity visible in the traditional masquerades of our time.

Orisha yards nurtured many community pan groups. As such, steelbands like Pamberi Steel Orchestra offer more than a place to rehearse. They are a safe space where creativity may flow and be thoroughly explored. For many, the panyard is also a space of identity and belonging.

As Caribbean people grappled with independence from colonialism, much was written and performed about the yard as a cosmic space.

That is, for authors, playwrights and performance artists, it was important to focus on and understand the yard as a place to gather and build family, but also to resist oppression and cultural domination. For many cultural practitioners and philosophers like Lloyd Best, the panyard was the focal point for fostering community and resilience.

At another level, the panyard is a place of obia, correctly spelled from its West African language of origin. This is not the negative, anglicised “obeah” or black magic of Hollywood sensationalism.

In its ancestral form, obia speaks to ritual, healing and a deeper understanding of the inter-connectedness between humans and the universe. It is about recognising that the connection between the pan and Ogun confers sacred status on the panyard; panyards are sacred ground.

Every time the community gathers to make music, a portal opens, inviting powerful energies into the yard. However, when we allow blood to be spilled in the yards of pan and mas, we are encouraging the opening of a different kind of portal.

One that refuses to recognise our sacred nature. One that makes us numb or blind (or both) to attacks on our cultural foundations.

We should feel outrage against what happened at Pamberi, but the times demand that we do more.

Plant the flags, protect our panyards. Let us weave a better story for the generations looking on.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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