Steelband Panorama 2012


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Les Slater - Panist, Intellectual and Director of the Folk Arts Institute of Trinidad and Tobago - speaks on Pan & Panorama 2012

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

by When Steel Talks

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  journalist, panist and former arranger of the renowned Highlanders Steel Orchestra - Les Slater - shares his overall views on Pan, Panorama and more...


“As far as a blessing or a curse, Panorama is probably a bit of both. It certainly is a blessing, having been on this incredible orbit since it began, generating a remarkable intensity within the worldwide pan community. And in Trinidad and Tobago and the Diaspora, as the only pan activity that commands interest among pan people on such a scale, it cannot but be viewed in positive terms. ”    Les Slater

WST - Is Pan where it should be after 50 years? Or is this journey so improbable that it can’t really be measured or quantified?

Les Slater
Les Slater

Les - “It depends on what aspect of pan’s journey we’re talking about. As far as the family of instruments we Trinidadians introduced to the world, the refinement we have brought to the process of building and tuning instruments has been stunning. We’ve done ourselves proud in that area for sure. What we have done with the instrument is where I think things have gotten somewhat murky. It’s nice to know that the pan has been steadily amassing new converts – folks eager to play and countless others just bowled over by its allure – around the world for decades. My concern is that where pan was incubated we should be leading by example in a much greater appreciation of the instrument’s potential than we’re showing at this stage of the journey. The pan was formally proclaimed, rightly so, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and everything suggests to me there’s never been any proper comprehension of what that should entail.”

WST - Describe your creative process as Highlanders’ principal arranger.

Les - “I would want to underscore at the outset that what I contributed to Highlanders was invariably complemented in some way by Bertie Marshall. Bertie and I enjoyed a symbiosis musically that ultimately would work to the band’s greater benefit. In terms of the creative thrust, bear in mind that there was one significant dynamic driving the process back then that I guess isn’t that much of a factor today, and that is we didn’t dare shift our gaze from the party music imperative. Because that’s what we were back in the early to mid-60s, a party band – at Carnival time and throughout the year. So if I focused on a particular selection for the band to do, having of course found the piece melodically and harmonically appealing, I would be immediately thinking of what kinds of dance-groove embellishments the piece lent itself to. Sometimes there might be some cross-pollination to achieve the desired result, like taking something from the pop genre and fitting it into a whole Latin frame – that sorta thing. Also, conceptually, there was always a jazzy or bop style in the phrasing. And then it’s about seeing how best the constituent pan voices could execute what’s in your head.” 

WST - What has been your greatest disappointment and greatest joy in pan?

Les - “The disappointment would have to do in large part with what was said earlier about the pan not occupying a more dignified space in the place of its birth. The once-a-year hurrah surrounding Panorama is hardly good enough, and it perfectly captions the pigeonholing of pan that the society as a whole seems comfortable with. The great joy has to be the steady stream of young people, internationally, who are drawn to the art form, so many of them opting to become serious students of music and evidently willing to apply their musical acumen to the training of young enthusiasts or wherever in the pan world their talent can be put to good use. I mean, 21 year-old Andre White being tapped to arrange for Despers this year is fantastic stuff. Despers is to be applauded for the move; and I hope the young man enjoys great success.”

WST - Pan is much more than an instrument – it is a culture. Will the cultural aspect of pan eventually fade as it moves globally?

Les - “Pan would be most unlikely to be a major cultural phenomenon in the U.S., Britain and other centers of pan activity around the world, akin to the narrative in Trinidad and Tobago. All the more reason to ensure that the pan culture remains firmly rooted in the Trinidadian psyche. There’s no need to worry about global developments in pan eroding the pan culture back home, so long as we’re prepared to give this art form its due and shore up its cultural underpinnings as things evolve. In fact there have been trends in the global pan movement that we might tap into as definite pluses in “bigging up” our pan culture. For instance, when you look at the work Andy Narell, Rudy Smith and others have been doing for years, just in case a reality jolt was needed, you wonder why there’s been no move to have this “national instrument” of ours become a permanent fixture in every musical aggregation in the country. That kind of vision (and it ain’t rocket science) would offset some diminution of traditional value in the pan culture that was…such as the steel band’s role as a bedrock community beacon. The gatekeepers simply have to be alert to whatever compromises pan as a cultural mainstay and chart a proactive course. ”

WST - Is Panorama a curse or a blessing? Has the competitive aspect of the event curtailed creativity, or has it inspired – and continues to – musical pieces that last a lifetime?

Panorama orchestra on stage
Trinidad All Stars steel Orchestra

Les - “As far as a blessing or a curse, Panorama is probably a bit of both. It certainly is a blessing, having been on this incredible orbit since it began, generating a remarkable intensity within the worldwide pan community. And in Trinidad and Tobago and the Diaspora, as the only pan activity that commands interest among pan people on such a scale, it cannot but be viewed in positive terms. At the same time, the very fact of its being an outsize phenomenon invites criticism of how this has sucked so much air out of the pan movement’s aspirations to a viability that is ongoing. Also, in Trinidad and Tobago in particular, where the hugeness of Panorama makes officialdom’s involvement in it unavoidable, a make-believe show of support for Panorama, primarily through government funds, provides the political directorate with an escape hatch and cover for its indifference to any serious engagement of pan’s way forward. That, perhaps, is the biggest curse.

In spite of ground rules that certainly couldn’t have been designed with an eye for creativity, there have been some extraordinary creations unveiled on the Panorama stage. It’s a credit to the crafters of this material that, whether consciously mindful of the guidelines or ingeniously circumventing them, they have produced such works of distinction. And yes, some of these pieces do indeed have long-term staying power. Honestly, the whole idea that there ought to be rules about what is and isn’t permissible musically in a Panorama arrangement (except its length) should be revisited like yesterday. ”

WST - What’s the cultural significance of Panorama music? Should the music attempt to reflect, rebuke or reshape the society?

Les - “Panorama is a major cultural happening, whether or not the music is for the most part outstanding or just so-so. It is a “must do” gathering space for the masses for whom the music, if it is good, is a bonus. The crafter of the music would probably be very much “in the moment” as he or she sets about laying the work down. I would think that if the arranger has designs on an offering that rebukes or reshapes society, that given the competition’s institutionalized regimentation, a daring effort like that isn’t likely to fare very well. Far from a focus on those lofty ambitions, it’s challenging enough, for sure, to produce music with qualities – whatever they are – that make it stand out. ”

Renegades Steel Orchestra orchestra on stage
Renegades Steel Orchestra

WST - As the “old guard” steps to the rear, are the up-and-coming talents prepared to maintain and further develop this great gift called pan which the elders bestowed on them?

Les - “I think there’s good reason to expect the younger breed to run with the ball effectively. The energy in their ranks is to be admired. There’s the characteristic restlessness of youth that lurks as a possible concern in back of one’s mind. But maybe they’re robust enough in number to accommodate any such falloff. ”

WST - Has the middle class betrayed the pan?

Les - “The question has to do, I assume, with a Trinidad and Tobago context, since in many metropolitan centers of pan activity there’s no shortage of middle-class participation. In T & T perhaps “betrayed” is too strong a term but there’s no question there was once a middle-class presence and input in the pan world that is largely non-existent today. That phase began when pan was coming into its own in the early to mid-1950s and had pretty much run its course by the mid-60s. The middle class simply found themselves with alternate options for the role the pan had formerly played. For entertainment or partying, the combo craze which began in the 1960s was the new game in town, many of the former middle-class pan musicians themselves contributing to the combo mania, so that middle-class surroundings were the combos’ natural habitat. For Carnival revelry, playing mas with a steel band no longer held for the middle class the attraction of a few years earlier. Conditions prevailed which facilitated large-scale middle-class desertion of the world of pan. And there has since been no trend suggestive of their return. But middle-class folk are certainly part of the “must do” spectator scene at Panorama. Including the real likelihood of many an executive/employee of a band sponsor, doing some “That’s our band” profiling!”

WST - What are two things in pan that are totally intolerable and must change immediately?

Les - “First, in T & T, that the government kill the ludicrous idea that its participatory responsibility, where pan is concerned, begins and ends with shelling out some money for Panorama and a few lesser events. Second, also in T & T, that bands acknowledge how right Bertie Marshall was back in the 60s and try their darnedest, if they plan to hit the road for Carnival, to acquire some kind of p.a. system to enhance their output in the open space of Carnival street parading.”

WST - Name three great Panorama songs that you didn’t arrange. And what made them great?

Les - “The caveat about my not having done the arranging isn’t even necessary because by the time we had gotten to where Panorama, after its first couple of years and bands were zeroing in on it as an essential part of the Carnival agenda, I was no longer on the scene. My three (in no pecking order)would be: (1) Woman on the Bass by ‘Smooth’ Edwards and All Stars, because long before the celebrated slow-version recording got to anthem-like dimensions, I always thought this piece to be just about the perfect rendering of what a Panorama work should be. Some arrangements, although first-rate, venture into where you’re not consumed by the music to the degree you were when it began. The great strength of Woman on the Bass is that it never lets up; it takes you along on a thrill ride that never loses its thematic flavor, brilliantly so. (2) Queen of the Bands that Ray Holman did for Starlift in 1971. Panorama was by then still relatively new (ninth year) and experimentation about what were the requirements of a good Panorama arrangement still at embryonic stage. Ray’s sophisticated touches in Queen of the Bands showed him to be probably soaking up a bit more from the learning process than the rest of the class. (3) Looking for Horn by Desperadoes in 2001. There’s the brazenness of Bradley, first of all, in selecting such an unlikely composition, but that’s just Bradley engaging the “people’s enjoyment” aspect of the thing. What Bradley then proceeded to do with Horn speaks to why it’s been suggested that the pan world may not see his like again. He gets comfort-zone close to the familiar motifs of Shadow’s tome, washing them in so many colors and with a constantly reconfigured harmonic freshness, Horn assumes a persona so much bigger and broader than Shadow’s musical concoction. But that was Bradley.”

WST - What are your expectations and visions for the future of pan?

Les - “I hope that in T & T as well as elsewhere the people in pan exorcise the conditioning that has had them viewing the pan sound as separate from, and not belonging in, the world of “conventional” music. It is a great disservice, especially to the elders who contributed so awesomely to the tuning science and craft – men like Ellie Mannette, Tony Williams and Bertie Marshall – that the pan is still generally seen as something confined only to steel band duty. This is a phenomenal instrument that was created, a powerful statement for our grateful embrace by the art world, which should proudly take its place alongside strings, brass, woodwinds and the rest.”

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