For the home-based steel band arranger, participation in the Panorama competition held annually in Trinidad and Tobago must be an experience that never ceases to regenerate itself, in terms of the commitment, dedication and discipline necessary for what is now being actively debated as steel bands’ major contribution to the Carnival festival.
For myself; after an absence of 19 years from the Panorama arena, the prospect of returning evoked a myriad of conflicting thoughts and emotions, which started with the initial offer made to me by the late (WITCO Desperadoes leader) Rudolph Charles in February, 1984, my final acceptance in November,
’84, and did not really end until the personal elation that I felt on Carnival Sunday morning when, true to my superstition of not waiting around for the final tally of points after the Panorama final the night before, I inquired of a young newspaper vendor on Frederick Street and his reply was music to my ears: “Renegades and Despers tied for first.”
The last time I had attempted a
Panorama tune for Despers was for Carnival of
’69, by which time I was already residing in New York, having emigrated in September, 1966. But the 1969 effort was different. For one thing, I was unable to complete the offering, Sparrow’s
Sa Sa Ay. I never actually went to Trinidad, the game plan being that the band would learn the piece during their Brooklyn stopover from the Calgary Festival in Canada in late
—a plan that obviously did not quite work out the way we envisioned it.
Throughout the years away from Trinidad, I had always maintained a constant, if not highly visible relationship with the Despers, and “the General,” as Rudolph was popularly known, would keep in contact regardless of the gaps between communication.
My association with the band in an arranging capacity went all the way back to 1962. And in the years prior to my leaving Trinidad, I had achieved some measure of success, most notable, perhaps, being the coveted triple crown in 1966—Panorama, Bomb Competition and Best Playing Band on the Road.
It was during
my vacation in February, 1983,
that Rudolph first mentioned the
idea of my returning to arrange
for Despers. At that time he merely suggested that it would be nice if I could find the time “to do a few tunes for the band.” For my
part, I imagined that it was just a courtesy being extended to me because of past services. I knew that Desperadoes under Clive Bradley was very successful in the Panorama competition and I saw no reason for this to change.
There was no further mention of this by either party until I was personally invited by Rudolph to attend the Carnival
’84 festivities as a guest of the band. It was then that he again broached the question, only this time he elaborated a little further. It appeared that the band was experiencing some internal problems which were having an adverse impact, as reflected in the public eye. In addition, he said that Clive’s schedule, as far as his other musical commitments, was beginning to have a serious ripple effect on the band membership. He did not press me for an immediate answer, but said that he would contact me in New York for my reply.
Then in August of
’84 I received a call from him and I inched closer to the final OK that I would give in November. One important stipulation of my agreeing to do the arrangement was that I would be the one selecting the Panorama piece.
On January 9th of this year I left New York for Trinidad and the formidable task that lay ahead. Fortunately, I was to have the assistance of Robbie Greenidge, who had preceded me to Trinidad and had started some verse and chorus arrangements of several
’85 calypsoes so that the panists would not be idle. Robbie, an internationally known panist and arranger in his own right, was a regular with
Desperadoes at Carnival time, when he left his Los Angeles home to assist the band in preparing for Panorama.
I had decided on
Pan Night and Day by Kitchener as the Panorama selection since November and I had already worked out some of the parts. But upon getting to the
island and hearing the other
available material, I decided on a safer course of preparing two tunes—focusing on
Pan Night and Day and bringing along
Break Dance, yet another Kitchener offering, just in case the opposition zeroed in on the former. I have a phobia about any tune emerging as the favorite of many bands and thus becoming a “theme song” for the Panorama. Such, in my view, is what happened to the Merchant piece,
Pan in Danger, a brilliant selection in both melody and lyric.
In the following days,
Pan Night and Day began to gain momentum and soon became the stronger of the two selections. More and more it was assuming the character of genuine race day material. I
finally decided it was time to put all our eggs in one basket and we pooled our
efforts in Pan Night and Day.
The bands had to make—if fortunate enough to reach that far—a maximum of four appearances: Preliminaries, North Zone Finals, Semi Finals and Finals.
As the competition got going, I paid special attention to the judges’ comments and their suggestions. If I thought a particular comment was a positive thing, I was
willing to go along with it. Our plan was to improve the tune with each rendition. Despers placed fifth in the North
preliminaries and we improved our place steadily during the last three performances. After the first effort, my brother Selwyn realized that my resolve was waning and he offered me a lot of encouragement and technical advice also, reminding me that the race was “not for the swiftest but for the fittest.”
Robert Greenidge was a tireless worker
—demanding, berating, cajoling, threatening, and always loving his panists, telling them that Despers could do it; giving the same message: “victory is ours if we really work hard.”
Robbie helped the arrangement. He had certain tasks throughout the tune. His ultimate effort was to come up
with a solo in the final key of G. We had taken the tune to the first two stages of the competition without actually arranging the solo in G. I began the solo and did 16 bars and asked Robbie to match them. This he did, and we combined the solo that I think eventually won the Panorama for us.
Emerging at the top of the heap in something like Panorama naturally makes for a euphoric feeling, a feeling of fulfillment—that the long hard hours were not invested in vain.
But I don’t think
it is possible for anyone who has a genuine love for pan music to participate in the Trinidad Carnival celebrations—whether as actively as I did or as an interested bystander—without some deep-seated emotions taking hold regarding the steel band’s role in Carnival as of late.
As someone with a long-standing association with the pan movement, I am bothered by some of the recent developments, many of which are of the annoyingly
frustrating nature where finding solutions to them could be as difficult as allocating blame for them.
I am not too thrilled, to be sure, by the fact that after the Jour Ouvert jump-up, panists and
revelers pretty much come to a parting of the ways. Why aren’t masqueraders playing mas to pan music as was the case yesteryear? I have nothing against DJ’s but I obviously can’t be too happy when informed that DJ’s are charging (and evidently receiving) more money for an engagement than an entire steel band. To have sound boxes blasting at maximum levels all around town, courtesy the Carnival day vendors, is all well and good. But when I view that situation against a backdrop of practically no pan on the streets, I begin,
perhaps unfairly, to see the proliferation of huge speakers in a bit of a negative light.
I happened to catch (Jamaican bandleader) Byron Lee during a TV interview program in
Trinidad, singing the praises of a new rhythm box which could reproduce the sound of a steel band’s iron section. Rightfully proud of the new creation by means of which he had brought his band even further into the computer age, Byron also advanced the view that steel bands would likewise have to begin to move with the times or become obsolete. Is Byron’s a correct assessment? Is the pan movement supposed to embrace modern technology lock, stock and barrel in order for it to survive?
I don’t presume to have any of the answers. But I do know that, as far as Carnival is concerned, a concerted effort needs to be made by the key players in the ongoing drama—the band sponsors, the CDC (Carnival Development Committee), mas band leaders and of course the steel bands themselves—to come up with some sort of solution to the problem of the disappearing Carnival steel band.
Apart from its obvious strength on the basis of musicality—beautiful chord patterns and so on—one of the factors which influenced me in the selection of Kitch’s
Pan Night and Day as the Despers’ choice was the sense of hope it seemed to convey:
“the whole world wants to hear you play”; “we need you, but permanently”; “the music of the century.” While not denying the legitimacy and intelligence of Merchant’s “prophet of doom” approach in
Pan in Danger I want to feel that there is indeed a broad-based “we” who yearn for pan night and day during Carnival.
It is with this spirit of optimism that I look forward to Panorama
’86 when Despers will be automatically in the finals and we would then have the pressure off us. We now have the leverage to do whatever—to stun, to mesmerize, to enthrall— to win again... this time alone!