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Amrit Samaroo - Standout Panist, Composer and Arranger Speaks on Panorama 2012 and more

by When Steel Talks

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

“...Listening to a full complement of skillful, hard working and eager players that you worked along with for weeks, performing your arrangement is truly fascinating and somewhat addictive to be honest.”  Amrit Samaroo

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, steelpan musician, composer and arranger - Amrit Samaroo, shares his experiences, visions and overall thoughts on Panorama, its past, present and future.

WST - Why do you arrange Panorama music?

Amrit Samaroo
Amrit Samaroo

Amrit - “Why do fishes swim?... Why do birds fly?... It′s inherent, it′s in me, I was born into it. Panorama music is what makes me tick. It gives me the opportunity to put out ideas that are sometimes burning in me or other times never even knew were there. Listening to a full complement of skillful, hard working and eager players that you worked along with for weeks, performing your arrangement is truly fascinating and somewhat addictive to be honest.”

WST - Describe your creative process.

Amrit - “Well it starts by listening to the piece to be arranged. I pay attention to the melodic as well as harmonic structure of it as these play a key role in creating variations of the song to keep interest throughout. It′s got to make me move so the players can. In putting down the piece I look for a suitable key as not all singers sing in suitable keys for getting the best ranges out of pan keeping my style in mind.

“I like to do music on the spot because I feed off of the players energy. Steelbands have their own unique energy, that′s why a Pantime (an eager band), arrangement would sound different from a Renegades, (a confident one), or Melodians, (a more exuberant band), for that matter.

“But it all depends on your players of course. It comes down to if they are used to your style, since it might take longer than you would want it to which could break your flow and as arranger; and knowing if they will remember the music as you gave it.

“If I write, like I was forced to do last year, I do it with the band in mind. What you miss in this process though is the player′s reaction and interaction.

“I try to finish the song and then tweak after. this gets the players familiar with the flow of the song and adjustments could be drilled properly after.

“I am one who puts on the intro last as your introduction determines where your arrangement is going to take you. So at the end of the body of work I arrange an introduction with the overall vibe of the piece in mind as to avoid it sounding like a musical Frankenstein. Although Frankensteins do work well if done properly.”

WST - Do you ever feel the need to compromise your music to satisfy the judges?

Amrit - “Well if the judges aren′t satisfied, I can′t win. It′s simple as that. Panorama is, was and will always be a competition that has to be judged. The judges job is to award points that reflect their opinion of a piece of music. If I didn′t get 100 out of 100, I want to know why. They better see me something other than just points and a “Good Luck” or “Happy Carnival” on that score sheet. I can′t stand seeing comments that constantly say “Good”, but points that say 18/35. Tell me where the other 17 points gone... or why it wasn′t “Great.”

“Compromise” is a strong word, since as an arranger you have to be flexible. I have no problem considering a judge′s comments or suggestions once that judge will be sitting at the table for the next round of competition.

“I′ll have a full length concert of “uncompromised” music when the Panorama done!”

WST - In addition to being an arranger you are an accomplished composer. In your opinion, is there such a thing as a “Pan Tune”?

Amrit - “This is an interesting question since the steelpan can replicate the mood, feel and melody of almost any piece of music that exists today... even techno! However the question of how the music would be categorized for archiving and sales purposes is what led to the term “pan tune”. It is a marketing tool, for example, would you as a pan lover quicker visit a site that says “music that all instruments can” or to “”?

“Even COTT has a “pan tune” category at their awards where they tabulate the royalties brought in by the piece from live performances, (mainly Panorama); and radio broadcast to determine the winner. But your song must be registered as such by the composer. Whether you like the term or not, it works...  

“But to me a true pan tune is what we call instrumental music like “Paradise Garden”, “Coffee Street” or “Hands of Lightning”... made for the pan and played on the pan!”

WST - Your composition “Band From Space” is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, tunes for the steel orchestra in the last 10 years. Why do you think that is? How did that tune come together?

Amrit - “I thoroughly enjoyed writing and producing this song at every stage. This song was truly an international song as it evolved a little more somewhere else in the world.

  New York′s Pantonic Steel Orchestra performing “Band From Space”

“I got the inspiration for the melody in the “contemporary jazz workshop” at the Center for the Creative and Festival Arts, UWIsta; where I did my BA in musical arts. I was encouraged by Mr. Wayne Bruno to write a piece for improvisation. However, much younger and a bit intimidated by names like Clarence Morris, Brian Villafana, Cheo Cato and Wayne Guerra who were just a few in the ensemble, I did not submit it.

“It came together in New York the summer of 2005 where after a rehearsal with Steel Sensation, I knocked it together with the boys to give us our first original composition. It got great responses on all the gigs we performed it on and the manager/ drummer Ian Japsi started nagging me to put lyrics to it to be a selection for panorama. I refused saying “no one would play that, it′s just a minor jam”, and left it as that.

“However the following year in St. Lucia, Cecil “Tortee” Philgence of the Pantime Steel Orchestra heard it and liked it as their panorama piece. I asked Chris Moris, to put lyrics to it and named it “De Vibes”... yes people you read right, “De Vibes” was the first incarnation of “Band From Space”. The band ended up second in the competition that year with the infamous 0.5 points of separation from the winner.

“My colleagues Kareem Brown and Andre Robley kept telling me they could hear big bands back home playing this song, but I never considered releasing it in Trinidad. Until one night, back home on my bed, about to sleep when it hit me; “The band from space coming... oh, oh!” and I wrote the lyrics we know today. The next morning I called “Crazy” and he asked for me to sing a part of the tune. After the first half of the verse he was sold telling me “This is a Crazy tune! Only a mad man could get away with singing that! That tune is mine!” and the rest is history. ”

WST - “What are your thoughts on the growing field of material being written with the steelband in mind for the Panorama season?”

Amrit - “I′m happy with the amount of material growing every year and with the variety styles offered there is something for everybody.

“The only problem is that in Trinidad and Tobago there isn′t a proper forum for hearing the material outside of “When Steel Talks”. By that I mean a radio station. We had 94.7 “Radio Trinbago” but sadly lost it a couple years back because of it not producing financial gains. Businesses generally do not show interest in stations of local content. Thanks to all who have pan programs but 2 hours on a weekend just isn′t cutting it if we have to get the music out there and appreciated.”

WST - “If you had the power to change some things in the Panorama scene what would they be?”

Amrit - “I would like to see more premiere bands taking shape. To encourage it, I would remove the medium category after working out a player count that would provide a level playing field. There are some really good bands and music in the medium category that I think would shake up the large. Open it back up and let the games begin. I mean who wouldn′t like to see another magical moment like a Nu Tones victory.”

WST - “Has the steelpan music scene in Trinidad and Tobago taken a wrong turn?”

Amrit - “It didn′t turn at all, it just stalled. We definitely need events during the year. Festivals and shows that we can market to the rest of the world, like New Orleans does with its Jazz Festival and Jamaica does with Reggae Sunsplash.

“Educate, Entertain and Earn, that′s what we need to do in Trinidad and Tobago. The pan world is huge and we need to capitalize on being the birth place of it.

“But again it don′t come cheap and we need the support of corporate T&T to pull it off.”

WST - “With all the new changes this year with arrangers, what are your expectations?”

Amrit - “BACCHANAL! (lol). I′m really excited to see what happens this year with “The young blood Panorama”. It′s been a long time coming but it′s here so prove yourself guys and girl... I am really happy that the music of these arrangers will be heard on the biggest stage of pan and I know they going to bring it hard cause they are hungry.

“I think the usual suspects will bunch again but the dark horse will be one looking for number 10.”

WST - “Name three great Panorama songs that you didn’t arrange? What made them great?”

Amrit - “There is so much to choose from, Kitchener, Sparrow, Merchant, Holman, Greenidge, Sharpe... I could go on all day. But just three that I didn′t do a 6-10 min arrangement of would be...

“1) Dust in your face- Pelham Goddard (1993): Great topic, excellent melody, bold chord changes, amazing singer and that Intro and Bridge makes my pores raise still. The song itself was expertly arranged and you want to listen to from beginning to end.

“2) Pan in me- Aldwyn “Kitchener” Roberts (1988): Intricate chordal movements and triumphant melody, helpful motifs and sequences built in already. This was an emotional piece of music. Kitch really tapped into the psyche of the panman of that time to pull off that masterpiece of 1988. They don′t make them like that again!

“3) Pan man vibration- Dr. Jit Samaroo & Michael Marcano (1992): Pure music, the moves are so unique, it could take you in so many directions. It came from the belly of the greatest.”

WST - “You are a familiar face on the St. Lucia steelband scene as an arranger at their national Panorama as well. What are your overall thoughts on the differences, and similarities in the St. Lucia, and Trinidad/Tobago competitive landscapes?”

Amrit - “St. Lucia is a beautiful place with beautiful people, but when it comes to their steelbands, they are fiercely competitive. That was the main culture shock for me on my first trip there. I remember walking through the streets of Castries with the manager of the band, Tortee, and a executive member of another band walked up to us and said to him, “You can bring the arranger from Trinidad, Venezuela or Mars we go deal with you all for the Panorama”...

“In Trinidad we will get into the odd picong with one another but that′s about it. They go hard over there, which all goes well for the competition cause you know if you didn′t win you coming harder next year. I love it.

“It′s all about community in St. Lucia and T&T though. North bands, South Bands, Band from Country, Band from Town. That reminds me of Trinidad alot and people come out to support their bands in the stands!
“It′s refreshing though to see how much it really means to people outside of Trinidad and Tobago.”

WST - “Do you and your father, Dr. Jit Samaroo, ever share thoughts on your arrangements perhaps after, or at any time, regarding their performances by the steel orchestras? If so, do you care to share any?”

Amrit - “From the age of eleven I would always go to the yard with him. On the ride back home I would ask questions about the arrangement I just spent all night listening to. I tried not to be annoying but he loved to answer them. So from that age both of us developed this relationship that was not just based on father/son but as pan lovers as well.

“With Renegades Youths, we never discussed the arrangements really, he would ask how it was coming along but that would be it. Most times he would hear my arrangements at the performance and would come over at the end and shake my hand and then asked one or two questions. Like “what were you going for in the intro?” or make a comment like “watch the rhythm on that spot... it want to take off.” But you could always see the pride in his eyes. In defeat he would always give words of encouragement like “each loss makes the next victory even sweeter.”

“A true champion, legend, mentor, friend and father.”

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