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Raffique Shah - journalist, nationalist, activist, columnist and cultural historian speaks on Pan in Trinidad and Tobago

An exclusive interview with Raffique Shah

A When Steel Talks Exclusive


Global - Seen that, done that, heard that... Indeed the name ‘Raffique Shah’ resonates loudly within and around all, aspects of Trinidad and Tobago life, culture and history... Mr. Shah brings a special knowledge-base to the subject of the steelpan instrument in Trinidad and Tobago both from a local and worldly perspective. Never afraid to speak to truth, meet Raffique Shah in a When Steel Talks exclusive interview.

WST - “What are your earliest memories of Pan?”

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah - “I was maybe seven, lived at Freeport Junction where there was Carnival (stickfighting, jab jab, Indian, robber, devils, etc). J’Ouvert morning, Sunny Side Kids passed in front our house playing Blakie’s ‘Steelband Clash’. I stood in the yard and listened. I knew the melody from listening to the radio. That’s my earliest memory of pan.

“Later, I would develop an affinity with SSK, the resident Freeport band, led by Son Marchand. I would hear strains of the band practising...its yard was half-mile upwind of where I lived. I had loved calypsos that I listened to via the radio, and I learnt and sang them. The year Blakie dropped ‘Mama ban yuh waist’, on the eve of Carnival, I remember cycling to the panyard and singing the song for Son so that the band could learn the tune.

“As a teenager, I used to jump/chip to the sounds of SSK as the band made its way from Freeport to competition at Carapichaima, which was a beehive of activity on Carnival Monday (it still is). There were two bands in Carapichaima, where I attended primary school (EC).”

WST - “Have you ever played Pan?”

Raffique Shah - “When I graduated from Presentation College (Chaguanas) and took up a teaching job (1963) at a private college in the town, I joined Sissons Wonderland and started learning the tenor pan. I was a slow learner. Before I could play the instrument (I was very good with the harmonica), I got a military scholarship to attend Sandhurst (September 1964), and that put paid to any pan ambition I had. I never tried again, something I regret.”

WST - “Is it just human nature, or is it truly - “it was better in the old days” in regards to pan and carnival - which in itself brings up a weird dichotomy about forward progress - as it relates to human happiness?”

Raffique Shah - “From the standpoint of pan, while there were many advantages the steelband enjoyed in ‘de old time days’ (central to carnival before amplification, played at fetes, etc), one cannot question the evolution of pan music over the years. No offence meant, but the sound of pan in the 1950s, when compared with what we have enjoyed since, say, the 1980s, is almost chalk and cheese.

“Too, pan has been accepted by most in the society. In the 1950s, it was not. Also, sponsors have come on board and Government lends assistance. There are many opportunities for people to learn to play pan and for skilled panists to express and exploit their talents. Globally, pan music remains a work in progress. I wish we in T&T could see the possibilities there--tuning and producing pan at a level way beyond what obtains today.

“Regarding the Carnival, I think everyone agrees that we have seen a degeneration in costuming and creativity. The least said about that, the better. I must add, too, I am disappointed in where calypso is, or is not. As I put it so often, when last yuh hear a song that is lyrically and musically strong, it makes you shout, “Kaiso, boy!” (or girl).”

WST - “Let’s talk about the North Stand. Can you take us through its changes, let’s say, every decade, to its current version with its “Greens connection”?”

Raffique Shah - “Regretfully, I cannot give you a precise history of the North Stand, or, indeed, Panorama. My first Carnival in Port-of-Spain was in 1964!! Country bookie! I knew the names and sounds of many big bands then--North Stars, Invaders, Cavaliers, Highlanders and so on. But I hadn’t seen or heard them play live. I will have first attended Panorama in 1967/68, and I think I was in the Grand Stand. I don’t even remember when the North Stand came into existence, but I recall being part of that experience from around 1973.

“It was the stand for mostly younger people who wanted to enjoy pan on our feet, not on seats (as per the Grand Stand). We loved pan music and wanted to enjoy it fully...and we did. So alive was that stand, one year (must have been late 1980s), when it was poorly constructed, the whole stand was ‘wining’ as the bands played and we danced. Dangerous, but true.

“The North Stand livened up Panorama...until part-time pan lovers, or the ‘one-dayers’ increased in numbers. These are people who knew little about pan and cared less. They made noise even as the bands played, which was a no-no for us. These were people who never visited a panyard or patronised other pan events during the year, who wanted nothing to do with pan--except that one day, semi-finals, on which they ‘come out to party’.

“Sometime around 2000, my lime decided we could no longer cope with that. But we still could not enjoy Panorama sitting down. So we migrated to The Drag where we would be band-side as they made their final ‘runs’ before hitting the stage. When we wanted to listen to a band perform, we would get as close to the stage as we could. Eventually, I sometimes went into the Grand Stand.

“I should add that while I made a few trips to the Savannah for the finals, I have long had a personal routine for the big night. Radio tuned to perfection to capture the sound, TV for visual, and relaxed at home or with a lime, I’d listen from first note to the last. Sheer joy.

“One final note. The Greens is a vulgar extension of the North Stand at its worst. You know, in designing a Carnival City for the Savannah some years ago, architect Colin Laird came up with an enhanced Grand Stand....and a huge elevated berm on the opposite side (where the North Stand is). Perfect! No temporary structure every year. Freedom to break down the berm (try nah!). But, and this is where I part company with Pan Trinbago, no DJs or instruments. Pan must be the ONLY focus at Panorama.”

WST -“From your perspective, what is the greatest challenge pan in Trinidad & Tobago faces at this moment?”

Raffique Shah - “Like most of our indigenous art forms, pan faces many challenges, the foremost to my mind being universal acceptance by the people of Trinidad and Tobago. We cannot lay claim to having invented the instrument while more than half the population ignore its presence, development and potential. Point is, even as our engineers and pan geniuses take the instrument to new heights (eg G-pan), many if not most people could not be bothered.

The leaders of the pan movement (not just Pan Trinbago executive) must formulate year-round programmes for all steelbands and panists that should reach out to communities. When pan wins universal acceptance here in T&T, then we can focus on conquering the world.”

WST - “There are obviously many bright, intelligent and committed people in Trinidad and Tobago. Why is it every year, there seems to be so much controversy around all aspects of Carnival?”

Raffique Shah - “Yes, we have many bright people involved in the arts and adept at staging huge events such as Carnival. Still, year after year these very people come up with hare-brained ideas. Witness the fiasco that was Dimanche Gras 2013--and someone was paid handsomely for that, eh! The Greens--a success that ‘broke even’. Mas in the West.... Nuff said about our bright people.”

WST - “If you had the power to change one thing in pan what would that be?”

Raffique Shah - “Besides what I mentioned in 5 above, I would establish either one massive pan manufacturing factory, or a few strategically divided factories (in relation to the instruments produced). We should be marketing pan to the world. Anyone who plays pan anywhere should demand and pay for a made in T&T instrument. Think of the jobs created, the skills developed and what this can do to promote pan at home and abroad.”

WST - “Who is your favorite arranger?”

Raffique Shah - “I don’t have a favourite arranger or band. At different points in my adult life I supported certain bands, hence their arrangers. Because I love pan music in a holistic way, I have matured enough to support good pan music...period. All Stars blew me away at this year’s semis, so I’ll have to say that “Smooth” did an excellent job. Has he ever done otherwise?

“With the geniuses we have arranging pan music, I shall not single out one that remains active. Instead, I’d say Clive Bradley was boss, and Jit Samaroo, now retired, was a magician.”

WST - “There are members of the WST forum who have called from time to time, for a separate Ministry for Pan. What are your feelings on such a move?”

Raffique Shah - “Re the idea of a Ministry of Pan, take my stupid advice: keep politicians out of pan! The movement must throw up its own Cabinet who will be voted in and out, and who will look after all aspects of pan.”

WST - “What is you prognosis for the future of pan in Trinidad and Tobago?”

Raffique Shah - “I think I have, in my responses above, given my prognoses for pan. They are manifold. Pan is our one creation that we can use to conquer the world--with the sweet sound of steel, not the staccato chant of guns! Just conjure in your minds pan symphonies playing in the great music halls of Vienna, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Mumbai, Lagos, Rio, Washington....

This is an achievable goal. We are perfectly capable of getting there. I hope I live to see and enjoy such spectacles.”

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