Panyard vibes, sacred spaces
by Archbishop Jason Charles Gordon
Conversations with Archbishop J
Provided with the expressed permission of: the Author
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If the whole nation was a panyard, Trinidad would be the best place in the entire world. - Rev. Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon
Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - Recently, I did a panyard crawl. It was a very rich cultural experience. In conversation with the leadership of Renegades, I heard so many gripping stories.
Colin (Greaves) spoke about a five-year-old who came to learn the pan and was completely overwhelmed by the learning experience. Once the teaching was broken down in manageable bits, that child—a few weeks later—mastered the pan and the tune and was smiling from ear to ear while performing with the junior band.
For Colin, the panyard was a sacred space where children were protected. Youth who journey there might come from communities where they experience violence daily, but in the panyard they find safety. In the yard, they have a family who looks out for them.
He recalled dropping home one player who said, “Drop me here.” “No, I will drop you to your house,” Colin said. The young man insisted: “You cannot go in here with your car. Drop me here.” In the band, the youth are outstanding, their communities rough.
At Phase II, John spoke about the culture of his band. It was normal to practise till 4 a.m. and go to work the next day. There was a vibe in the panyard, and many people came to clear their head and soak in the vibe. It was creativity and energy mixed with music and dedication. Many just do not understand the vibe.
Recently, they got some large prints of artist Jackie Hinkson’s works for their yard; these have brought a sense of history and perspective.
Some would argue that Exodus has the best designed space: an amphitheatre with the pans in the centre and the patrons all around, separated from the band by a grassy area; storage and memorabilia, food, and drink on the western side.
I could not help but muse how far the panyards had come. They are now a sacred space, musical theatres, places for learning and performing music.
But more than, they have become places for the development of our young people in the traditions of excellence.
Where we come from
To think that we transformed a dustbin into a musical instrument is a leap of all imagination. It happened gradually but it happened. A dustbin yielded musical notes. Then it yielded the only new instrument in the 20th century. David Rudder, in his poetic best, wrote: “Out of a muddy pond, ten thousand flowers bloom!”
When we consider what has been achieved since the 1930s—the movement from the steel drum as a percussion instrument to an instrument with musical notes—it is astounding. The evolution of the instrument is miraculous. Now we have, not just different pans, but a full steel orchestra playing all styles and types of music.
The black underclass of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) gave us this precious gift of the steelband. Two generations ago, there was gang rivalry; many people were seriously wounded when the steelbands clashed.
For an insider, it was a safe place; for people from other communities caught in the crossfire, it was very unsafe. When bands clashed, there was war. In 90 years, we have witnessed the miracle of a social transformation fuelled by music.
In his ‘Engine Room,’ David Rudder says:
Check your grandmother… talking to she neighbour next door
If the times didn’t change up… all now we woulda still be in big war
That is the same woman who put out your mother because she was in love with this pan man
She used to open the church door… just to pray on meh head
Now she boasting to the neighbour next door
“Oh my granddaughter beats for a steel band”
If it wasn’t for you girl… your Daddy woulda be so dread
But when you see I in my pain ah does have to think again
And take it out on the steel.
The social transformation of the steelband is one of those areas of national life that we do not ponder deeply enough. In two generations, the panman went from social stigma to the pride of a grandmother. How is that possible?
In 1951, the first steelband left Trinidad for London: today major universities have pan sides as part of their music programmes. The evolution of the instrument is one part of the story.
The social evolution of the panman is the other side. Black, white, rich, poor, local or foreign all come together in the panyard and play side by side, with the same dedication and skill. The panyard is the melting pot of Trinidad and Tobago. It is where a new culture is being born. Its focus is on all the right things—discipline, dedication to excellence, one helping the other, solidarity, building community and identity.
A model of development
The panyard is one place in T&T that transcends race, class, and gender. Jit Samaroo was the arranger for Renegades for many years. They would have protected him with their lives.
For many, the panyard is their home that gives a sense of identity and family. You are valued not by the societal norms, but rather by competence, helpfulness, having each other’s back and building community. Colin told me if someone did not get the tune right, those around would work with the player till he or she did.
What is interesting is that the money does not drive the panyard. Because of this, I believe, the value system in the yard presents great possibilities.
There is so much we lament in the communities around the panyard—underdevelopment, gang violence, the murder rate, etc. Consider the panyards and see what they have achieved: their role in the development of our young people, in skills, social progress and character; their contribution to culture, and a sacred space all year long.
Black Stalin in his ‘Caribbean Man,’ observes:
If the Rastafari movement spreading
And Carifta dying slow
Den it’s something them rastas on
Dat dem politicians don’t know
There is something that dem panyards on that the rest of us do not know. In front of our eyes is a model of national development that we need to understand—one based on a sense of community, respect, and love. It draws out the best from its members and invites them to become a better version of themselves.
If we ran our nation like a panyard, in 50 years’ time we would be the best place in the world. In 50 years’ time we would be past gang violence, corruption, individualism, crab-in-a-barrel, and the gross disrespect we show to one other.
We would be a sacred space dedicated to excellence, community and each helping the other.
Remember integral human development is the vocation of the Church. Look to the panyard!
Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon
The panyard is a vital space of national development to which we have not paid attention. All the elements of a 21st century Trinidad and Tobago are already present.
Look at the organisations, family, Church groups, and other groups that you are part of. See how they achieve building community and inclusivity.
Philippians 1:3–6, 9
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