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Pulling no Punches - Andy Narell, Arranger for birdsong Steel Orchestra, Speaks on the 2014 Panorama Season

An exclusive WST interview with Panorama arranger, recording and performing artist Andy Narell

A When Steel Talks Exclusive


Andy Narell
Andy Narell

“...You ask if I want to win Panorama.  In its present form, I would have to say it doesn’t interest me at all.  I would however like to be able to play my music at the finals, and have always considered that a privilege  worth striving for.  Every year I’ve participated I’ve tried my best to get my band there, and it’s very disappointing to not be invited to the party...” Andy Narell

Global -  Panorama arranger for birdsong Steel Orchestra Andy Narell shares his thoughts and speaks candidly about the recently-concluded 2014 Trinidad and Tobago National Panorama in an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks.  The annual Trinidad & Tobago Panorama is the world’s premiere tuned percussion competition.

birdsong Steel Orchestra band logo - When Steel Talks
listen to birdsong
semifinals performance

Andy Narell - “Let’s just cut to the chase and I’ll give you a broad answer to [WST’s questions] #1-#10. Once I had written the piece for this year, I basically knew what to expect.  It’s a jazzy piece of steel band music, even by my standards, full of harmonic ideas that aren’t being heard at Panorama, and I wrote a section in an African 6/8 rhythm that I figured would get me an official ‘not for panorama’ stamp from the judges.  As I expected, the players thoroughly enjoyed playing the piece, the public on the track seemed to love it, and the judges wanted nothing to do with it.  Since the performance has been posted online, I’ve had a lot of nice feedback from people who enjoy the music, appreciate the fact that Birdsong and I are committed to presenting new music at Panorama despite all the pressure to conform and come in with all the Panorama clichés and formulas that we hear year after year.  There are of course those who consider what I’m doing an attack on the culture, and yet others who think that I really want to win Panorama but keep showing up ‘with a knife to a gunfight.’  Your website provides everyone with a venue to express their opinions,  and I enjoy hearing everyone’s opinion, even those who think I should take the music elsewhere.

WST Questions to Andy

  1. WST - “WST has done many interviews with you over the years - it’s always been about the music first. Let the music do the talking. 2014 represents your second consecutive year with birdsong Steel Orchestra. What were your expectations going into the Panorama 2014 season?”

  2. WST - “For the second straight year birdsong has not advanced into the finals. Beyond providing a world platform to your music and different vision on Panorama music, at what point, if any - is advancing to the next level important to you, the players and the birdsong franchise?”

  3. WST - “This year you chose “We Kinda Music" as your tune of choice with birdsong. Why this song?”

  4. WST - “Have you ever considered using a non-Andy Narell composition for Panorama? And if so which one?”

  5. WST -“Is there any merit in such an approach (the use of your own songs) from your perspective since you (like Sharpe, Holman, Goddard, Herbert) are also a songwriter, in addition to being an arranger?

  6. WST - What is the advantage to being both the arranger and songwriter - beyond the obvious? ”

  7. WST - “This the second year of the Andy Narell/birdsong collaboration - what was different this year? ”

  8. WST - “Coming out of the preliminary visit from the judges, did they offer any advice musically, that you find credible, to have alerted you to what appeared to be a disconnect from the birdsong arrangement and performance, resulting with the 15th placement?”

  9. WST - “As much as the late Clive Bradley sometimes detested the competition aspect of panorama and its judging system - particularly on the creative nature of the arrangers -   he understood importance of winning within the Panorama context. Do you want to win a Panorama?”

  10. WST - “What’s up next for Andy Narell?”

“Since you were kind enough to post the audio recording of our performance online almost immediately after the semi finals, a lot of people have expressed their astonishment at our last place finish.  I wasn’t surprised by it.  If anything, I think the gist of the conversation I’m having with the judges has become much clearer. I’ve made my position clear, that I won’t conform and write down to the level of composition which they are encouraging year after year, featuring all the same chromatic runs and gimmicks that we’ve heard over and over.  I’m here to compose the best music I can for steel band, and will seize the opportunity to present it at Panorama if it’s offered.  What I find interesting about this year’s result is that the judges brazenly refused to judge the performance, deeming it the worst performance at Panorama, which it clearly wasn’t.  As everyone can hear from the recording, it was one of the cleanest performances of the night, at a much more acceptable ‘panorama tempo’ than we played the year before, what many would refer to as a ‘Bradley tempo.’  It was in fact a few ticks faster than the winning performance of the High Mass.  Oddly enough, one of the five judges gave us 91 points, the second best performance of the night in his opinion. So what happened?

“You’ve probably noticed that year after year Pan Trinbago installs a panel of jurors whose musical qualifications are never mentioned. This largely anonymous group of people have taken it upon themselves to define what is and is not appropriate music for the world’s biggest steel band music festival, apparently at the behest of the steel bands themselves, since they are the ones who choose the judges. The discouragement of innovation has been going on for decades.  Ray Holman and Boogsie Sharpe were rebuffed for daring to compose their own innovative music for Panorama, going all the way back to the early 70’s.  However, in recent years we have seen a downward spiral in the level of composition for Panorama.  There is a general cynicism about the whole process - all the arrangers know that it’s pointless to try anything new, and the music is mostly forgotten the day after the results are announced.

“So why, you may ask, does this repeat itself year after year?  I say ask Keith Diaz and Pan Trinbago.  It’s not the fault of the judges that they don’t know what to do when presented with new music.  They do what they do every year, and the steel bands (Pan Trinbago) ask them back to do it again.  Apparently the steel bands are content with the status quo.  I heard Pat Bishop say it a long time ago - if you don’t like the judging, don’t blame the judges, blame the steel bands.  If you want to keep the element of competition and encourage innovation at the same time, I believe there is a simple solution to the problem.  Hire a jury of serious musicians, composers, and music educators - the best ones you can find. Of course there’s a big risk in doing that.  It could turn the results on their head. So don’t expect to see that happening anytime soon.

“You ask if I want to win Panorama.  In its present form, I would have to say it doesn’t interest me at all.  I would however like to be able to play my music at the finals, and have always considered that a privilege  worth striving for.  Every year I’ve participated I’ve tried my best to get my band there, and it’s very disappointing to not be invited to the party.  However, imagine a Panorama with a jury of musician/composers and all the best arrangers trying to outdo each other and create the hippest new steel band music.  Maybe I’d be right there in the mix of bands competing to win instead of in last place.

“One of the comments that I keep seeing is that people are coming out and thanking Birdsong and myself for daring to imagine that Panorama can be about the music, and about new ideas. My question is, why has it gotten to this place where winning Panorama and creating music have diverged?  Panorama started in 1963, in the middle of a golden age of steel band music. Tony Williams and Pan Am North Stars won the first two Panoramas.  At that time Tony Williams was in the process of revolutionizing steel band music from the bottom up.  He created a whole new set of instruments based on symmetrical patterns and he discovered the power of tuning octave harmonics, an idea that changed the pan forever.  His arrangements were unique and instantly recognizable.  In 1966 Beverly Griffith arranged Obeah Wedding for Desperadoes and put a jazz solo in the middle.  Guess what?  People loved it and they won Panorama.  The next few arrangers to win were Bobby Mohammed, Earl Rodney, Ray Holman, and Clive Bradley, all of them pushing the limits of what we knew as steel band music.  By contrast, nowadays everybody seems to accept that the music will be more or less the same every year, that nobody will be punished for repeating themselves, filling the piece up with clichés, or banging on the pans for that matter.  On the contrary, those qualities are rewarded.

“You didn’t ask, but I can’t let the opportunity slip by to comment on some serious problems that Panorama is facing.  The biggest one is that a large percentage of the best young players are hustling around, playing in as many bands as possible in order to pick up performance fees.  As the bands playing Panorama got larger and larger, the system that Trinidad steel bands created over the years was that the core players would learn the music from the arranger, teach the other players, and set the standard at rehearsals that the whole band would play up to.  That’s how it was when I worked with Skiffle Bunch in 1999 and 2000.  You can still see that happening at a band like Trinidad All Stars, but it’s falling apart all over the country.  Pan Trinbago seems to be oblivious to the problem, and continues to funnel money in a way that encourages the players to play in as many bands as possible.

“While I’m on the subject of Pan Trinbago, let’s talk about the soca fete that is so loud that it interferes with the performances onstage at Panorama semi-finals. Guess who the promoter of that event is?  Pan Trinbago, the organization entrusted with defending and promoting steel band music in Trinidad and Tobago. There’s another fete on the track at finals that interferes with the bands rehearsing and with people hearing the music.  It’s mind-boggling.

“Anyway I had a great time this year.  The vibes were good at Birdsong, and we continued with our international project, with about 30 players from all over the world joining the band.  I did a project with Machel Montano - a steel band remix of Happiest Man Alive which we performed at Machel Monday.  I played concerts with my quintet at the Normandie, and played with David Rudder and Etienne Charles.  I’m working on the score for Kim Johnson’s film about pan, which will be finished soon and hopefully will be premiering at Cannes Film Festival.  So it was great to be in Trinidad, working and taking part in all of it.

“You ask what’s next.  I’m finishing up my new album, which is steel band music with guest soloists Mike Stern, Etienne Charles, and Relator.  I play all the pans again, like Tatoom.  I’m planning to mix in May when I get back to Paris and it should be out this summer.  I’m working on an album of pan solos that I hope to have out later this year, as well as a book on harmonic improvisation for pan players.  I did a project last year with my quintet and a symphony orchestra.  We did it with the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra in France, with Kwame Ryan conducting.  Kwame is from Trinidad and the project was for his final concert as musical director there.  My son Isaac did the orchestral arrangements.  I’m hoping to develop this project and take it to a larger audience.  This summer I’ll be teaching again at Ellie Mannette’s workshop in West Virginia, and hopefully will be going back to South Africa for an amazing Marimba and Pan Festival there in August -  Last year I adjudicated.  I heard 1400 young people from all over South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe play for two days - 200 performances.  It was totally inspiring.  So I’ll get back to you in a few months when the new album comes out.  It will be at my online store at” 

“all de best.


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