Steelband Panorama 2012


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Dalton Narine - steelpan historian, musician, film director - speaks on Panorama 2012

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

by When Steel Talks

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, steelpan historian, musician, film director and journalist Dalton Narine shares his overall thoughts on Panorama - its past, present and future...


“Clive Bradley coming through clear in the wind on the hill in the year of the Cocoyea. He said he never had full control as an arranger for Desperadoes. They never told you such and such but you knew there was a ceiling. So he was never allowed the artistic freedom that he got from Dunlop Tornadoes. Or, Nutones...

....But I’ve already been in the trenches. Meanwhile, I’d have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball legend standing by for his shot. Jabbar knows the score. He won’t make a fuss about following Boogsie.”    Dalton Narine

WST - Some of the most significant Pan-related interviews over the years were done by you. Moreover, they were done at extremely critical moments in the steelpan music timeline. Your interviews with Pat Bishop, Rudolph Charles, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Ken Philmore, Robert Greenidge, Clive Bradley and Neville Jules, to name a few, at very special moments in their lives are classics. Your excellence in the capturing of these key people in critical moments has resulted - however unintentional - in you becoming a significant icon in that history. Having said that - why does it seem like today’s journalists seem to have lost completely that sense of timing in regards to where they need to be and who they need to be speaking to?

Dalton Narine
Dalton Narine

Dalton - “In a word - homework. When the list of the final bands, for example, is announced, I hit most of the pan yards to set up the interviews that I perceive would interest the Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) watcher. And I’m mindful that not all viewers would appreciate each arranger overwhelming them with PowerPoint presentations in their living rooms. Not everyone sees the same picture, so a balance of interviewees is inevitable. And the arrangers know where the camera is situated.

“Just in case, while the instruments are being locked into place on the stage, I’d follow, say, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, and remind him and his assistant that the red light would be on for him as soon as the song is over. Now, remember radio is in play, too. But I’ve already been in the trenches. Meanwhile, I’d have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball legend standing by for his shot. Jabbar knows the score. He won’t make a fuss about following Boogsie.

“And, considering TTT analysts’ POV of the band’s performance, if another two minutes or so are available, which is usually the case because - trust me, it takes a large band an average of 20 minutes to organize itself - there’s a young female pan player from East London who has a story to relate and she’s not going anywhere until the camera moves on. It’s why I scour the pan yard in the first place. For people with interesting stories. That’s how I knew Arddin Herbert, the current arranger for Invaders, would tell the nation that never mind he’s a nine-year-old tenor player, he’s determined to become an arranger and composer. His maturity had viewers spellbound. I’d meet some of them in the street or at the Savannah, and they’d talk about how they watched persistence pay off over the years. They’ve become Invaders fans because they felt like they lived his experience.

“About street cred, after so many all-nighters of sending people to bed with that heady mixture of who, what, when, where and why, you become a privileged interviewer. That’s what Jabbar told me Carnival Tuesday when I couldn’t find my parking pass at the Grand Stand entrance - the attendant waving me through the gate and I’m still rummaging through the car because I want him to KNOW that I HAVE a pass. “Why bother? You’ve earned the cachet,” Jabbar said. I guess it’s because I’m always prepared when I’m onstage.”

WST - Is Panorama a curse, or an unrealized potential and an unfulfilled blessing?

Dalton - “No, Panorama is not a curse, but the medium within which it is framed might be. How the instrument was born; the rough times it went through...Let me tell you a little story. I started out as an analyst on TTT, and a colleague, a respected steel band man (some guys prefer to be credentialed like that) used a commercial break to inform me that “the beast still in this thing, you know.” As if it were transferable from one era to the next. Yet I believed him. From the happenstance or blessing of finding notes on a paint pan or a biscuit drum to the reality of a curse? I have no empirical data. Let’s say it’s how the head receives such a metamorphosis.

“Unrealized potential, though, rings in my ear as a lazy student. But I don’t see that happening in Trinidad and Tobago, even the rest of the world. When the E-Pan and variations thereof were unveiled a while back, the invention disturbed traditionalists who thought that Pan was being robbed of its steel. But these new ventures endeared themselves to progressives - which is like saying one more time, “Ay, man, look where Pan reach!

“Bertie Marshall created the best pans I’ve ever heard, an amplified double tenor that could sustain notes like an organ, which he dubbed the Bertfone. It was a favorite of Boogsie’s. He saw the instrument as cross-threading the sounds of an alto sax and a violin. Marshall lost the Bertfone in a fire almost four decades ago. The fact that he was rebuffed by the government when he sought funding to rekindle his passion was in itself an unfulfilled blessing. I remember Pat Bishop telling me on camera, “Boy, we have it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” A statement so heavy that it should never ever be taken lightly.”

WST - Are we just ‘spinning top in mud’ or has there been genuine progress as it relates to Panorama?

Dalton - “Today, I only get to see the time and not the guts of the clock. How it works. What makes it tick. But during 23 years of broadcasting I saw the pride of the movement in its attempt to build status with the Pan is Beautiful series. The classical music festival was a sellout and patrons, dressed to the nines, contributed to the concert hall atmosphere. Other models were successful, too. It took a while to get to that stage, though, spinning top in mud, as you put it.

“And it’s not that people in Pan aren’t speaking up. Maybe the powers that be are scared of progress. Maybe Panorama is a sacred cow. Maybe it goes back to the “beast” thing. Just saying. Wait a minute! Take this line and run with it: Pan, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. See how far that would take you. We shouldn’t wait for another country to effect change. Panorama could very well be the Newport Jazz Festival of the music. Or, Montreux. Why not Port of Spain or San Fernando. Or wherever in this blessed land one could find a place to give Pan genuine comfort. Those who bastardize the country as The Mecca of Pan, do they know what mecca means? The dictionary definition should set them straight: any place that many people visit or hope to visit. When Tourism releases Carnival arrivals, I bet hardly anyone takes note that there’s no way to accommodate 50,000, given the paucity of hotel and guest house rooms in the country. I’d believe, instead, 45,000 nationals coming home to visit friends and family.

“Back to genuine progress - don’t tell me that many Panorama players aren’t dispossessed of their just rewards. You could spin the numbers every which way to Sunday and they don’t compute. We need a radical movement, a tectonic shift, to bring hope to the dispossessed. Let us compare the dreams of Pan’s ancestry, not that far back, say 1950s, to Joe Bell suggesting to Trinidad All Stars’ captain Neville Jules that the band should emulate the sound of cuatros played by a Venezuelan family in their Duke Street home, and Jules right away climbing down to the bed of the nearby East Dry River to pound out the raw sound - that’s building the steel band piece by piece, note by note. And Ellie Mannette going for the jugular by fashioning a new template for the instrument instead of taking Tokyo’s bait to come get the smaller Barracuda pan, now hanging in a tree, the one he lost in a steel band clash - all of this is classic stuff. Maybe we need to ask the question of Anthony Williams, whose band, Pan Am North Stars, won the first two Panorama Championships.”

WST - Max Roach described Panorama to WST as “fantastic” and deserving of “a world stage.” Could it be that the participants are just looking at the event wrongly because of their vantage point, and because they and others are aboard the ship called “Panorama” - they can’t see or feel it’s movement?

Dalton - “Psalm 115, 1-8.”

WST - How has the relationship between a steel orchestra and its community changed from the first Panorama in 1963, to now?

Dalton - “Things fall apart. It’s an altered world that is not able to adjust to us. To be practical, a player couldn’t find enough sustenance from Panorama unless he or she was willing to offer their services to other bands outside the dominant pan yard. We found democratization within our culture before the world was pressured into a global village. Until the wholesale practice was curtailed by Pan Trinbago, it used to be about economics, Boogsie Sharpe becoming a model for would-be itinerant arrangers. I knew mercenary panists who carried up to six T-shirts on finals night - because all “their” bands made the cut. Still and all, if a band was good, players came from across the country to play a role in the excitement. You can’t strangle free enterprise in a democratic process. Well, up to a point.”

WST - Why have Desperadoes, Renegades and All Stars (bands within a one-mile radius) been so dominant in Panorama through the years? Is that about to change?

Dalton - “Firstly, that’s hot competition there, you know. Secondly, the pecking order HAS changed. Desperadoes and Renegades haven’t been in the top tier for years. Instead, Exodus, Phase II and Silver Stars have prevailed. And if the rules for administering and judging the competition are reformed, Panorama will become more and more an arrangearama, to borrow Ken “Professor” Philmore’s terminology from an interview I had with him in 1990. If Panorama pivots at all in the right direction for the sake of both players and stakeholders, it very well could be an orchestral treatment for the soul of Pan’s inner self. A cash cow, too.”

WST - Who is the most striking steelpan music figure you have ever interviewed, and why?

Dalton - “Clive Bradley coming through clear in the wind on the hill in the year of the Cocoyea. He said he never had full control as an arranger for Desperadoes. They never told you such and such but you knew there was a ceiling. So he was never allowed the artistic freedom that he got from Dunlop Tornadoes. Or, Nutones. Yet, Desperadoes leads with the most Panorama victories (10). When we spoke following Nutones’ performance of David Rudder’s High Mas, he didn’t say as much, but “I told you so” flashed across his face.”

WST - What is the cultural significance of Panorama music?

Dalton - “If the pan yard offers protection and foxhole closeness, the syncopated rhythms respond by serving up sounds of praise and instant gratification and protest. It also helps build a bridge across the racial/class divide, rephrases calypso as art for the masses and rearranges Pan as the top-draw entertainment in the mas - believe it or not.”

WST - Should the music attempt to reflect, rebuke or reshape the society?

Dalton - “There is infinitely more of that in the Calypso tent. But I’m not sure that the euphoria Panorama brings has such strings attached in a meaningful way. Did Boogsie’s Do Something for Pan change the administration’s behavior? Though his Archbishop of Pan is about his reflection of a value as a loss. Not much room for debate here. What did “Pan by Storm” say? Yet, in my view, it is still lodged in the brain as the best music in 1990. Was “The Bees Melody” earthshaking or melodious? Just asking.”

WST - Kindly contrast Boogsie, Bradley, Jit and Tony Williams, both musically and culturally?

Dalton - “Boogsie. That’s it right there. Just Boogsie. Nuff said.

“And Bradley? Listen to his interpretations of Boogsie’s “Music in We Blood,” Shadow’s “Horn” and Kitchener’s “Symphony in G,” and come away with a sense of understanding how the windmills of the mind work between a man and his music. Like a carousel that’s turning, running rings around the moon. Bradley self.

“As for Jit, Kitchener told me he never met Jit Samaroo, but when he found out that the Renegades arranger was winning Panorama with his calypsos, he wrote songs thereafter especially for the silent one from Lopinot. What did it matter to him that Jit was of Indian descent and he of African heritage? As long as they communicated - in the vocabulary of music. Lest we forget, Jit remains the arranger with the most Panorama victories (9).

“Anthony Williams. The brightest. A most humble pioneer of Pan.”

WST - If you could change one thing about Panorama, what would that be?

Dalton - “Panorama.

“In other words, it’s structure.

“Several years ago, after T&TEC Power Stars played in the finals, I caught a glimpse of a boy, about 12, jumping for joy: “We win. We win.” That’s how supporters behave. It could have been the only band he heard that night. It’s a small victory that we haven’t rioted under this system of busy adjudicators who has just ridiculously strait-jacketed bands to their sublime level of musicianship, albeit, in a few cases, dismissing steel band genius in the process.

“Why not advance a sponsorship system that incorporates steel bands around the world? Begin winnowing out bands as early as July to forge the top ten in the medium and large band categories. Call it the World Festival of Steel. Each of the 20 bands would be under contract to perform during the Panorama season in various cities across Trinidad and Tobago for a guaranteed purse. There will be no adjudication during this festival phase, but selected bands are allowed to play three pieces of music of any length or genre.”

WST - The esteemed Merle Albino-de Coteau said in part, in her recent WST interview “...sometimes describing oneself as a Panist can be met with disgust and even discrimination.” Are the schisms of race and class in Trinidad society too deeply embedded to free the “Panist” of social loathing?

Dalton - “In context, here’s the rest of her quote: “The question which follows is, “What else do you do?” Secondly, the area from which you have come also sometimes brings discrimination.

“Same song, different singer. Sparrow sang “Outcast” when the schisms were more deeply ingrained. I joined Trinidad All Stars while I was still in school. My father believed I was studying at a friend’s. All those long hours into the night paid off because large crowds clamored to see the band, hear its Bombs on J’Ouvert. Some people pushed the pans out of respect. I remember spectators applauding the band for its innovation. We were embraced as steelbandmen.

“‘Social loathing’ has the attitude of a longtime grater. In recent times, Pan has blended well in society. Communities and schools that big-up the culture through Pan, as far as I know, experience no shame or strain. Watch for the racial and gender composition in the upcoming Panorama.”

WST - Has the Trinidad middle-class betrayed the steelpan movement?

Dalton - “I’d say some sponsors have betrayed the movement. I hear talk about steel bands not touring and blaming it on the leadership. But shouldn’t sponsors also be culpable? And aren’t sponsors middle class and upper class in the social order? Get the scoop about how impresarios operate around the world from Hugh Borde and Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed and Ainsworth Mohammed. Businessmen should support the movement by arranging seminars on marketing and distributing the product.”

WST - In an interview with WST the late Trinidad Express entertainment editor Terry Joseph said - “Pan was declared the ‘national musical instrument’ some 14 years ago and that has yielded nothing tangible.” Do you feel this is still the case?

Dalton - “That calls for a feature story. Lot of platitudes but nothing of substance year-round. Maybe it’s the economy. Nah, the economy hasn’t been in free fall all that long. So, yeah, I feel so.”

WST - What are you most proud of as it relates to Pan?

Dalton - “Worldwide acceptance. The marketing of Andy Narell and Relator. The music of Othello, Robert Greenidge, Rudy Smith and a host of other Pan musicians in the hands of radio jazz programmers.”

WST - What has most disappointed you in Pan?

Dalton - “I hear the talk about mas as the greatest show on earth. People with nothing to say. But Panorama COULD be in that realm. A big could.”

WST - If you could change one aspect of Panorama what would that be?

Dalton - “Let’s face it. As someone without a voice? Turn the other cheek. For many years, I used to think Panorama was the most chic happening in the land. From 2004-10, I dropped out to make a film and I didn’t miss it. In 2011, I was assigned to do a feature story about the event, and wouldn’t you know that it crept back in my blood? What clicked was a conversation that writer Lennox Raphael and I had several years ago. He said one of the best places for a writer to search out human behavior was at the airport. But I’ve found anew that, for all its histrionics, the deportment at Panorama is considerably more impressive. If the sparkling 2011 soundtrack keeps reminding me of a hot lead, I’m certainly looking forward to following Panorama 2012 to the end, what with a few new arrangers carrying batons and swagger. Ah, Panorama! How a writer with a hearty appetite can feast on such unbridled exuberance.”

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