Meet Gerry Kangalee, author of ‘Out of Pain This Culture Was Born’ - UpClose!

One of the great intellectuals, historians and progressive practitioners of the moment.

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“Without new, visionary leadership, we will continue to wallow in the hog pond that we know. This will lead to institutionalized mediocrity and fifty years from now we will still be shouting that we created the Pan; that it is ‘we thing’ and ‘nobody does it better than we’...but we will be shouting from the sideline.”  Gerry Kangalee

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Global - Gerry Kangalee is the author of the seminal manuscript titled “Out of Pain This Culture was Born” - which should not only be required reading for anyone involved with the steelpan instrument, but mandatory studying for all Trinidad and Tobago citizens - as it documents not only critical moments in Trinidad and Tobago history - but as important - the Trinidad and Tobago experience. In addition, it should be vital reading for Humanities classes that are part of the core curriculum of leading world universities.

In this exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - writer, editor, researcher, historian, and intellectual and critical thinker Gerry Kangalee shares his thoughts on the creation of “Out of Pain This Culture was Born,” the steelpan instrument, culture and more.


WST - “Tell us about Gerry Kangalee.”

Gerry Kangalee
Gerry Kangalee

Gerry Kangalee - “Gerald “Gerry” Kangalee aka Kangaz. Born 1952.  Married to Grace Boyke; two children; three grandchildren.

“Grew up in the San Juan/Santa Cruz area. Attended San Juan Boys’ RC School; St. Mary’s College; University of the West Indies (dropped out). Founder-member of Birdsong Steel Orchestra. I was greatly impacted by the 1970 insurrection and my “leftist” political views and activity have been profoundly shaped by that significant historical occurrence.

“I joined the Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) in 1975 as an education and research officer. Between 1987 and 1999 I was editor of the Vanguard, the newspaper of the OWTU. I was also involved in an editorial position with the HOLD THE FORT, the newspaper of the Committee for Labour Solidarity (now defunct). I worked with the OWTU until 2008, when I took early retirement and am now associated with the National Workers Union (National Education and Research Officer). I am responsible for the web site and the Facebook page of the National Workers Union and the Facebook page of Southern Marines Steel Orchestra.

“In the1990’s I became involved with the Southern Marines Steel Orchestra through the influence of Michael “Brother Scobie” Joseph and Joseph “Tookoo” Wilkinson with whom I had already developed trade union and political ties. I have been associated with Marines ever since.”


WST - “When and how were you first introduced to the steelpan instrument?”

Gerry Kangalee - “I wasn’t introduced to the Pan as such. It was always part of the environment; part of the background; part of the scenario within which I grew up. I was not involved in actually playing the instrument until the formation of Birdsong, not because of any parental pressure or anything, though they would have probably frowned on it; in any case I was never put off by parental disapproval and always found a way to do what I wanted.

The band that made the biggest impression upon me as a pre-adolescent was, of course San Juan All Stars; for its music, its mas and most importantly, for me, for its articulation into the social structure of the San Juan area. The band was critical to the political and sociological advancement of the PNM (People’s National Movement) in the San Juan area and I had a front seat in observing that development – my father being a local government politician and a colleague of people like Kamal Mohammed and Robert Wallace.

San Juan Hill Finland was also a band that I was familiar with, having attended primary school on the hill and attending school with people who were involved in the movement like the Pauls, particularly Cecil and Cabot.

“I never considered myself musically-inclined although I enjoyed pan music and my plunge into actually playing (six bass) was more a political decision than a musical compulsion.”


WST - “What is it about the Pan that so fascinated you?”

Gerry Kangalee - “Pan is a unique phenomenon in that it is not “just an instrument.” It is, at one and the same time, an instrument and a movement of people: the Steelband “movement.”  There is a school of thought that Pan should be treated like any other musical instrument and that the focus should be on the technical and the “scientific” and that we should move post-haste to standardise the instrument.

In terms of the makeup of the instrument, I think we are some way off of perfecting the instrument, which is still in its juvenile stage. Tuning is improving by leaps and bounds and its forward trajectory has its own dynamic. I will not be so bold as to venture uninformed opinions on where it is likely to go. 

Where imagination, leadership and foresight are sorely needed is in the future direction the steelband “movement” takes. This is not solely dependent on the quality of the music, although this is of major importance. It depends on the relationship between the steelband and the community and whether the “community steelband” is still a viable construct. It is also dependent on whether the steelband yard continues to be a locus of skills development and transmission.

“It also depends on how far the commoditization of Pan has gone in that once it becomes “just another commodity,” and in capitalist systems all human relationships tend to be commoditized, then the conditioning factors are likely to be: how Pan is articulated into the framework of the entertainment industry; the level and quality of sponsorship and whether the needs of the sponsor predominates; whether unsponsored bands (which, to a large extent play the role of nurseries) crash under the weight of growing expenses; whether Pan continues to be boxed in and stifled by the Panorama syndrome and, critically, how steelband leadership evolves in terms of its relationship with the players, their families and the communities within which they operate.”


WST - “The Steelband of Trinidad & Tobago - Out of pain this culture was born” is an amazing document that, from When Steel Talks’ perspective - should be mandatory reading by every Trinidad and Tobago citizen. What compelled you to write this awesome manuscript?”

Gerry Kangalee - “My friend and colleague, Kasala Kamara, the noted author and educator, told me that a West Indian student association in the United States had requested of him an article tracing the evolution of the drum and he asked me whether I could tackle it. This, I think, was sometime in 2008. I reluctantly agreed, because Kamara is very persuasive.

There was a deadline which I failed to meet because, although I was familiar with much of it, the historical study material proved so fascinating and the project took on a life of its own. When I did come up for air OUT OF PAIN was the result. I did send it for the people who requested it, but I must confess that I don’t know whether they ever published it because it did not meet the deadline and it did stray far from what they wanted.

Someone (maybe Kamara) persuaded me to submit it to the TrinbagoPan.com. I did and they published it in August 2008. In 2011, I think, When Steel Talks asked for permission to publish it, which I was only too happy to give.

I need to put on the record that the analytic formulation of the central contradiction being examined in the piece - that of the tension between the Canboulay and the Mardi Gras, which is the reflection of the class struggle in the cultural gayelle – is not my formulation. As far as I am aware it was first formulated in print by Andre “Sladdy” Moses, the educator, Pan player, cultural activist and Pan in the classroom administrator and a schoolmate and former political comrade of mine.

He did so in an article entitled Canboulay versus Mardi Gras published in the newspaper HOLD THE FORT, February-March 1985, Vol. 3 no. 2. In that article which should be re-published as a seminal document, Moses states: “The essential contradiction of the modern day carnival can be explained in terms of the contradiction between the Mardi Gras and the Canboulay.” All I did was to put historical flesh on the bones of Moses’ thesis.

Incidentally, the National Workers Union in conjunction with Southern Marines intends to publish OUT OF PAIN in hard copy. So far, it has only been published online.”


WST - “Present-day - is there anything you would add to this document?”

Gerry Kangalee - “Not really. I suppose more and more historical evidence supporting the central thesis can be added, but I don’t think it is necessary. But I think, as a separate topic, the morphing of the bamboo yards into steelband yards may be a rewarding area of investigation and as I mentioned in OUT OF PAIN, there is a crying need for an examination of the cultural history of the Indo working class from the days of the Jahaji massacre to the modern day framed in the context of the class struggle.”


WST - “Recently, we were surprised to learn that the “Merikin” soldiers who were resettled in Trinidad by the British - are responsible in part for the Baptist religion which is based on their own native, authentic religion from Africa, which they then took with them, from the United States to Trinidad. Many of the When Steel Talks’ members have mentioned over and over that they were never introduced to the information in your article - as part of their education. Why is this information not readily available as part of the Trinidad and Tobago educational system?”

Gerry Kangalee - “When I do trade union seminars dealing with the history of the working class, I get the same reaction: how come we didn’t learn this in school?

I think what we must understand is that there are as many historical narratives as there are economic, political and cultural interests being propagated by different sectors, classes, cliques etc. This is so all over the world and is not something unique to the Caribbean.

When the outer layers of religion, region, ethnicity, race and culture are peeled off, it becomes clear that the fundamental interests are class interests. Our relationship to production determines how we think, how we work, recreate and reproduce: how we live. It has long been accepted that our material circumstances are the major determinant of our consciousness (major not only).

“Those who have the material means of production at their disposal have control over the mental means of production – the dominant ideas are the ideas that those who control the society, want propagated. This is done through control of the education system and the mass media to a large extent. Of course there is always resistance which in the intellectual and cultural field are led by artistes, radical intellectuals, political and cultural activists etc.

“The dominant narrative that we learn in school is not designed to encourage us to investigate and develop perspectives  that would tend to engender revolutionary consciousness, but  one that says there was slavery, indentureship, colonialism, independence and now we free, so let us embrace capitalism and neo-liberalism, because there is no alternative.

“School, anyway, does not encourage critical thinking, research and investigation - rather it encourages stifling conformity, the regurgitation of outdated data and concepts, and is a death trap for free spirits, those with imagination and curiosity.”


WST - “What are you most proud of in Trinidad and Tobago culture as it relates to Pan, and by extension the art form?”

Gerry Kangalee - “That Pan has not yet become a specialized, elitist art form; that it still caters for citizen musicians.”


WST - “And what continues to drive your passion for the steelpan art form?”

Gerry Kangalee - “I have seen the effect Pan has on children and youth; how it focuses and disciplines them; how it opens their eyes to their own potential and the possibilities inherent in co-operation. That drives my passion.”


WST - “What disappoints you the most - some 50 years after the Pan was invented?”

Gerry Kangalee - “The conservatism of the steelband leadership; their unwillingness to break out of their comfort zone; the tendency among the steelband leaders toward fractionalism; the inability of the state to understand its role vis a vis the arts in a small society.”


WST - “In terms of creating a sustainable steelpan music industry in Trinidad and Tobago - what has to be the list of priorities?”

Gerry Kangalee - “Critical is the access to suitable material for the construction of the drums; co-operation and collaboration among tuners; a unified approach and strategy toward international marketing of the instrument, with a view to positioning brand T&T as the best game in town.”


WST - “Panorama - curse or blessing?”

Gerry Kangalee - “Once a blessing...now a curse.”


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

Gerry Kangalee - “Without new, visionary leadership, we will continue to wallow in the hog pond that we know. This will lead to institutionalized mediocrity and fifty years from now we will still be shouting that we created the Pan; that it is ‘we thing’ and ‘nobody does it better than we’...but we will be shouting from the sideline.”


WST - “Any additional observations relative to the steelpan art form?”

Gerry Kangalee - “I’ve said enough. I have this tendency to go on and on!”


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