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Desperadoes And The 50th Panorama

by Dalton Narine

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Trinidad and Tobago, W.I. - For one thing, the mind didn’t deceive.

At all.

Despers USA
Despers USA

Desperadoes wasn’t at the finals on Panorama night, in part because the average fan could have hardly recognized the personality of the band, though 42-year tenor player Ursula Tudor stood out as usual.

For another, given the durable sponsorship of WITCO, a leathery leader in Kirt Gordon and the slick arranging skills of Andre White (Don’t be bamboozled by his 21 short years on earth.), the band remains displaced. Desperadoes is no longer a mainstay of Laventille because it finds itself in a steadily worsening plight - trying over the past few years with all its might to make do in the teeth of an unsound environment.

Certainly, like a red dress at a funeral, the self-styled world’s greatest steel orchestra seems out of place hanging its shingle in Belmont come Panorama season.

The Radoes, in a way, has become like Starlift, literally unbelonging at its Mucurapo Road Extension pan yard. As attorney and pan writer Martin Daly sees it, The Lift “has a wonderful piece of real estate, but the band is not community-based. And Despers is an [even bigger] institution.”

Good thing Phase II Pan Groove has been fighting for its life (and successes) to keep its home-based community.

Daly envisions a Pan City surrounding Starlift, with a foot path across the discomfiting narrow body of water that adjoins the Ariapita Mucurapo Foreshore Extension. He also has engineered in his mind parking facilities on the green verge alongside the roadway.

While one band appeals to buildup, how did the institution of another break down? You can boast of heart and pluck all you want, still there’s a lack of conscience. And conscientiousness is inspired by spirit and morale. Conscience might have vanished when the crime spree moved in, killing and killing, and killing some more. The surge planted its skull-and-bones flag all over, but not as deep anywhere, conceivably, as on The Hill. And like the badjohns in the old “panmen” movies that played at Royal and Pyramid, the message sounded disparagingly clear up there. “We here, like it or leave it.”

It matters not that The Hill is Desperadoes and the band is The Hill self. Even as the Radoes trumpets a blowback repertoire that the average steel band would crave. And with Prophet of Pan metaphorically riding roughshod down the steep descent - no brakes whatsoever - to the Savannah party, Despers would have been hard-pressed to win an eleventh title for old time’s sake. Not that you couldn’t count supporters on one hand, and sigh long and deep.

Not forgetting, too, that once upon a time hundreds upon hundreds of Laventillians, it seemed, had been privileged to celebrate at will, not only on the Drag but also on the mega stage; half-bright lights beaming down on the orgy of music, the soul of the band partying like it was 2099; the band itself broomed in cocoyea. Yep, swaddled in an old world that protected it to the max.

In a word, swagger.

Wait till next year is no throwaway line when your feelings are hurt, when you have ax to grind, point to prove (to the adjudicators them). Wait till 2013 when once again there’d hopefully be a deep well of talent at Desperadoes’ disposal. When maybe, just maybe, the authorities will have made it happen for ordinary folk to drive up tortuous Laventille Road, to settle into the Despers “stands” and take in the makings of great artistry in the (Panorama) orchestra’s Symphony No. 11 - the buzz of the city’s lights traveling viral around the Savannah from the panoramic view of your seat in the house. A work that would be 13 years long overdue being laid down in your inner ear, you hear?

What! A mad man’s rant?

Well, the Pitch Lake still have pitch, eh.

Whether Despers reaches “happily never after” will be predicated on reconnection as family on The Hill, in the short-run and the long-run.

All of that ingrained, the rest of the story relates to how the Rama went down without the once Almighty Radoes in play.

The sun had just gone down and the mugginess of the day still hung around at 7 on finals night in this land of rare beauty, relentless violence and pan musicianship (though it is apparent sometimes that a whole set of nationals come off not so grateful for the miracle of the instrument. Especially when competition is so tight that it inhabits the mind of, well, Trinidad All Stars, Phase II Pan Groove and Silver Stars. Contention for championships, and the Bible, too, could scramble rational judgment, loosening screws.

Panorama, celebrating its 50th year, grabbed spectators like scorpion ice - you know, not the cubed stuff, but the shards that bite at the containers in the cooler that refrigerate the Carnival drinks.

It mingles with life under your skin, broadcasting the new pecking order in Pan. How the politics work; how a driven band can slip on some lapse of detail in a piece and another can make it tick in the ear; why tattooing an over-entertained society with sensual moods of the steel band in heat can cause a national ripple.

Panorama can be an adjudicator’s nightmare. In Kim Johnson’s new book, The Illustrated Story of Pan, Joslynne Sealey says dryly: “The textures change all the time. The introduction is gone in a minute and it’s not coming back. So you have to work as the music going. The artist has to be totally subjective, he has to pour his soul into it. But the judges have to be objective. When [bands] think they bound to win, they don’t hear anybody else. I have to be objective but they have to be subjective. When they’re done they figure they play the best they ever play. I can’t let applause affect me. I have to blank it out and listen.”

One can hardly argue over the emotions of the moment that Judge Sealey has been harboring for years.

They come straight out of actual combat, not born from steel band music.

A lot of such trickeration of the mind came to pass before 1:30 a.m., when Trinidad All Stars ramped up on stage. For example:

    Despers USA
  • Katzenjammers, from Black Rock, Tobago, who won the Medium Band title with Edwin Pouchet’s song, This is Bacchanal, made it two in a row. (Pouchet arranged the band’s winning song in the 2008 Pan in the 21st Century competition. He just might be the next genius, what with double victories for Silver Stars and Katzenjammers in the Panorama and Pan in the 21st Century competitions.)

    “We won [the Medium title] by bringing some pans from our yard in Tobago to St. Ann’s for him to arrange [This Is] Bacchanal, because he hasn’t been well.” said Moxon Ramsey, Katzenjammers’ driller. “We learned everything we know from Pouchet. He’s happy that we made it work for him.”
    Siparia Deltones
    Siparia Deltones
  • Siparia Deltones arranger Carlton “Zanda” Alexander interpreted Shadow’s Naked Riddim as not jazz but extempo improvisation. He remained a darling to a raft of patrons following the band’s skillfully orchestrated performance in the semifinals. In this corner, his expression of jazz contributed to his articulation of all strains of unrefined folk. It signified that what he had subsisted on, his own cultural texture, was essential and influential, too. That he carried the confidence to communicate his experience of the Siparia community was also fascinating, absorbing. However, Saturday night showed up as too big an opportunity to miss. But he did miss.
  • Renegades, while it sought a tenth title, showcased an awesome distribution of color throughout the band as well as a sparkling execution of Vibes. Directing the players like sail boats kneeling to the wind in the harbor, Duvone Stewart stylishly coupled a minor key passage to a change key - pure Renegades; such constancy - only to botch a hallucinatory coda by keeping the flame alive until the ending was overdone.
  • ExodusAunty Pat coming home with postmodern music that was less substance than attitude. But they just might have been victims of an overload of reverential worship of Renaissance woman Pat Bishop by three brethren bands. So many paeans to Bishop it was like being at her funeral. Exodus probably slipped a gear or they wouldn’t have gone out into the nettle with three-quarter pants. Nevertheless, Pelham Goddard’s was an efficient engineering of music.
    Silver Stars
    Silver Stars
  • Silver Stars packed its introduction to arranger/composer Edwin Pouchet’s Gie Dem Tempo with exceptional music for chariot-racing then quickly delved into an eight-minute tempo that the Savannah eagerly awaited - more anxious than the ice to cool the drinks, for sure. The frontline pans waxed symphonic until conductor Donell “Bravo” Thomas stopped them cold, bringing back those wild tenors and seconds in the next verse - a triumph of stick play. With background pans beating a tattoo onto the steel, what a thrill it was to watch Bravo’s baton raise their voices, then calm the nerves! As with a few other bands, Silver Stars put their best foot forward on Panorama Sunday, when every camera trained its lens on the players’ dizzying histrionics.
Trinidad All Stars
Trinidad All Stars

All the same, Panorama was cooking around the clock, as it were, and Trinidad All Stars made no bones that they had come to play themselves. The band rolled in 25 canopies or so, each sporting a gold decorative trim, and on the roof a humongous star that supported six smaller ones. Conspiracy theories might not abound in pan but interpretation with little or no evidence suffices in the steel band world. Was All Stars sending a message that with six victories in the bag for arranger Leon “Smooth” Edwards, a seventh was imminent? [Rudy Wells arranged Rainorama for the band’s first Panorama title in 1973.]

What gall! And how foreshadowing!

Most of the players seemed to be on a galactic ride, Clive Telemaque, one of the band’s all-time crack shots, providing the rocket booster as composer of Play Yourself. They wore gizmos on their hats that flashed red, blue or green. A showy, show band for real.

All Stars proved that they could sardine their formidable frontline four-deep so judges could catch the bird whistles warbling off those chromed pans. One time, they employed a frangipani line that explained our culture. Another time, they sort of echoed that tender, persuasive first line of the chorus in Woman on the Bass. Balabadababah. This time the tenors screamed back a riff on Play Your Self, the four pans and basses cutting in on the interplay. The song transmitted to the audience. You could tell.

To hear arranger Smooth, the players were having a ball, literally.

“Everything’s not on the frontline pans. It’s a conversation about what’s about to happen in the various sections. They let you know what each family of instruments has in mind,” Edwards said.

“It’s sharing the load. The instrumentation is like that of a symphony orchestra. Melody is not limited to the violins alone. Each instrument in a fine orchestra has a lead. Cellos, oboe, whatever. The technique was deliberate. Teamwork featured the dexterity of the players. For example, the basses are energetic, playing themselves and passing the ball around. Why play defense when you can take shots at the goalkeeper. While the opposition is marking the tenors, the cellos gone running with the ball. Then the basses end it all, enhancing it. The coda is the death knell. Closing of the gates. Not a man would remain standing.”

You could hear the smile in his voice. Smooth doesn’t yap a lot. Except for calling out notes, he is a man of reticence. Not a man would remain standing? Ha! It was as if his music sounded so deep it might have been from the bottom of the ocean. Smooth was on the money, though.

What would Phase II Pan Groove’s composer and arranger Len “Boogsie” Sharpe have said or done had he received the zeppo about Smooth’s gun talk?

Probably not much. Sharpe felt a strong compulsion to write Archbishop of Pan.

“It was in praise of Pat, a mentor, a big sister who guided my musical career.”

A friend who treated his gift of music as sublime.

“This country doesn’t recognize greatness,” Sharpe said. “My music is different and Pat encouraged me to keep at it. Pat’s a great loss to me and this country. We were so close - people don’t know how hard we worked together for the betterment of Pan.

“And every time I write my Carnival music she’s the first to hear it. So what you think about it, Lady B, I’d ask. I confided in her.”

So much bubbling over in Archbishop of Pan. The piece is sad yet praiseworthy. It radiates out from Sharpe’s concept of Panorama music, while humanizing Bishop through her achievements. How we hear and feel things is affected by our aural sensitiveness.

So a minor key meant more than blue funk.

“It was like she just went, not taken from us” could have been Sharpe’s treatment of his song. To the living, the dead carry weight. So he’d been soaked in the hard truth of death and grief all these months. What emerged was passion.

Phase II Pan Groove
Phase II

“Structuring the music was easy,” said Sharpe. “I’m a vibes man. I may not read music but I play from my heart and I’m gifted by the Lord Almighty. But I work hard all the same.

“Pat enjoyed this. She’d say the sky’s the limit and go for it. Well, that’s what I did with Archbishop. It’s a different approach, the structure. There’s no minor part or a major part like you ordinarily get in the Panorama. In one section, I used four bars in the major key, then four in the minor. The whole verse. Back and forth. Thirty-two bars in all. Nobody’s ever done that. And we brought the chorus into the Carnival.”

Such creativity in the pan yard two weeks ago prompted Franklyn Ollivierra, who’s been celebrating 50 years as a lead tenor with Highlanders (amplified pan) and Phase II, to envision a victory with Archbishop a year after Sharpe slammed Pan Trinbago’s leadership in his “controversial” Panorama song, Do Something for Pan. That work put Phase II in fourth place, five points behind its nemesis, Trinidad All Stars, the $2M band.

“Boy, we gonna beat them bad, bad, bad, bad, bad,” Ollivierra said. “They can’t beat we, even if they rob we. Archbishop interpretation is like a beautiful hymn.”

But Sharpe didn’t piss on the rematch. Instead, he bellowed an afterthought to players filing out of the pan yard on Panorama Sunday Eve: “Remember, don’t drink. Let’s go [to Panorama] and kick some ass.”

Tied with Phase II in the semifinals, Trinidad All Stars clearly won the Panorama, judging by the ovation. With both bands deemed as archrivals, consider a scenario that has played out over the years: Phase II losing by half a point a few times, leaving Sharpe to question the value of .5 on the scoresheet.

Sharpe has never not spoken his mind about anything pan or Panorama. He’s been an enfant terrible of the pan movement, striving to cut through red tape in the music business.

Such as it was, five points that the judges felt necessary to separate All Stars from Phase II might have been difficult to swallow for the Woodbrook band. Would a single point have sufficed? Not the way David Rudder saw it following All Stars’ semifinal rendition: “Every performance is different. And you always want it to be better. If I left you flat now, my next journey is to leave you flatter.”

More to the point, congratulations to Smooth, Telemaque and Trinidad All Stars. As for Boogsie and Phase II, never has a loss been so valued in the bright, swirling lights on a Panorama evening. Familiar? Just as a similar scenario had unraveled for All Stars’ Soca Warriors, a 1.5-point loss in 2006 to The Phase. That win transmitted a loud echo. In Germany. At the World Cup. It might have been on the other foot, but that was a golden shoe.

Dalton Narine
Dalton Narine

Filmmaker and Pan historian Dalton Narine, who lived his most formative years on the same Laventille street as Rudolph Charles, offered a eulogy at his funeral service in 1985 at the behest of Desperadoes. Narine was a tenor panist for Trinidad All Stars for more than two decades, a senior editor for Pan Magazine and a Panorama host and interviewer on Trinidad and Tobago Television for 23 years.

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