The Business of
Symposium tackles the Panorama question: Is
there a need to revisit the Steel Band
by Dalton Narine (as read at NY Symposium)
Brooklyn, New York
- Just listen to all the voices.
In a changing world of cultural pursuits I hear Pan as an anachronism.
Why is it that time and again Pan finds itself languishing on the outer consciousness of our folklore?
Seems to me Pan has ceded its position in the driver’s seat of the Carnival. No GPS to guide the way, stuck as it is in steerage - with Panorama, no less.
No cheap shot this, but Pan used to ride high and mighty; now, alas, no direction home. It has strayed in the desert for too long ramajaying with Panorama, his gyul of 48 years. You know how many calypsos have bemoaned such relationship? Mos’ def, Pan needs a deputy. Bad. It needs an infusion of essentials to jack up its manhood. Fo’-day morning, one could hear chords and crescendos drifting in the breeze a long way from the pan yard, yet nobody would dare brisk their way into the Panorama to arrest the Carnival madness. Nobody wished to see the forest for the trees. Nor the music for the money. Any money.
Now, there you go.
For the 24 years I worked Panorama with Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT), Les “Professor” Slater, a former Highlanders arranger who heads the T&T Folk Arts Institute in New York, had been blocking out the golden moments in my Panorama stories. Bradley and Boogsie; Jit and Smooth; Pelham and Philmore. And Ray. Cynical was the middle name I bestowed upon him. You’re too close to it, he would warn. We had many a soft argument: whether the million notes flying off the drum face had any relevance to the advancement of the instrument - without coming to a conclusion.
The weekend TTT shut down in 2004, though, I watched Panorama from the lip of the stage, having taped interviews of the arrangers days earlier in their element - the pan yard. That was my last hurrah ... me watching their bands play, in some cases, the identical song, bedeviled by sameness in structure because the judges scoresheet for years had straitjacketed arrangers with unnecessary categories that fit their works into a box full of matches. That’s why hearts burned over a half point.
So the festival ended dishearteningly for me. My exit before the last band played had left Slater’s handwriting ringing on the inner wall of the brain. Not anymore as graffiti, but now as tattoo pounding on the eardrums. With my antennae out of commission, only then could I decode my friend’s handwringing over the dissonance in the dialogue with panists and panatics. For, just two or three bands had startled the evening.
So it was, then, that for the past six years I dropped Panorama out of sight and out of mind as I would a fretful girlfriend.
November gone, it returned like a ghost. An e-mail from San Juan reached me at an airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nestor Sullivan of Pamberi chimed in from cyberspace complaining about the perils of Panorama. Sullivan had his finger on the pulse all right, but he wasn’t close to the heart of the matter. His beef on Panorama soured on lack of prize money at festivals in New York and Notting Hill and elsewhere in the Diaspora. Bands were performing for free in some enclaves while waiting to exhale the last breath. At other locations, the mourning season was already over for Panorama.
Hear Sullivan. “The purpose of this piece is to examine this trend of the global demise of The Steelband Panorama and to make some suggestions for its sustainability.”
Sullivan had seen the light, but perception about the state of Pan elsewhere had no parallel in Trinidad and Tobago. The twin rails running down the track bed never meet at the light of the gravy train emerging from the tunnel, only appearing to do so.
Suggestions for sustainability happen outside. But when reference is made to the “mecca of Pan,” to many folks “here” is what’s happening. We culture. This is where the cue reside and resonate outside, is the common man’s mantra. Everybody have to take the cue from we. Well, they just might, literally, take it away.
Because “here” is what’s not happening.
In a world of changing cultural policies and rituals, the perpetuation of Panorama breeds latrine thinking. Why deny Pan, this sweet oil, old-world invention a turn at postmodernism?
Flyers Steel Orchestra
“Revolution, in order to be creative, cannot do without either a moral or metaphysical rule to balance the insanity of history.” Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus
might be speaking from the grave about the behavior of the Pan culture that runs counter to the once fringe element turned social mainstream for change.
Not to rain on Sullivan’s sober observation, but sustainability suggests that Panorama be replaced by a fresh initiative, an innovative rebranding of the festival.
For starters, it shall be called The Festival of Steel, or The World Festival of Steel.
Its goal is to allow bands, local and foreign, to rebel through their music, unfettered, in the final analysis, by the whim of judges; and unrestrained by an eight-minute repetitive performance of a Calypso or “pan song.”
A dozen local bands will be selected by competent adjudicators in the field of Pan (and Pan alone) following lottery-arranged visits to pan yards during the month of May. The works will adhere to current practice of performing a Calypso, but limited to a five-minute rendition.
Simultaneously, four foreign bands will be chosen from competitions staged in New York and London. Britain will also host steel bands from far-flung countries in Asia and Africa. Through their own initiative and/or with assistance from sponsors, the bands will be responsible for transportation and accommodations.
In the new order, there will be no restriction to the complement of players or instruments. No discrimination between ensembles and big bands. No bawling over amplified pans. The music will be the message.
Results will be announced by the end of June, allowing winning bands buckets of time to prepare two other works, a free-form piece done in any musical genre with absolutely no limit on content or time, and a Jouvert special conforming with the spirit of steel band arrangements in the era of the Bomb (Classical pieces or vintage songs spun in Calypso rhythms of the jam or the chip).
The top eight bands (The Elite Eight) of the 16 selected for The Festival of Steel, to be held at the Queen’s Park Savannah and other locations around the country during the three-week period leading to the Carnival, will perform at the main venue on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And bands can unite in a “blocko” arrangement or pan jamborees with others from the group on weeknights, or stage their own concert performances at their pan yards. One stipulation: No coasting or rehearsing. If it’s music in we blood, we must let it flow. For the yard will have evolved into a pan theatre. And an emporium and mas camp, too. (Besides, pan will be in vogue all year long, and the pan yard will be brimming with activity and new music.)
Notwithstanding the revenue each band rakes in at its yard, The Elite Eight will receive $2M each for festival appearances.
The other finalists (The Magnificent Eight) will be featured at the main venue during the week, not on weekends. And similarly can avail themselves of the opportunities to shine in their own pan yards, or elsewhere, through collaboration among finalists in their group. But all finalists will walk the walk Carnival Saturday night, the Carnival season’s opening salvo. On global television.
The Magnificent Eight will take home $1M each as finalists, albeit in the second tier.
Prize monies will be the responsibility of the Tourism and Culture Ministries. And transportation arrangements will be under the patronage of the private sector, vis-a-vis sponsors and advertisers.
The World Festival of Steel, properly advertised, not only in the Pan fraternity but also music circles worldwide should produce streams of revenue through tourism and global media rights. Of course, the event will occasion a pressing need to upgrade facilities that can boast a professional lighting system, first-rate accommodations and mobile stages to shuttle orchestras (or ensembles) to and from the performance area, thus facilitating a smooth transition from band to band without missing beat.
The myriad other bands in the marketplace needn’t worry over their inability to make the Final Sixteen. In Panoramas past, if not championship calibre, they found themselves in limbo year after year. Now, they’ll have incentive to bang the drum of creativity and resourcefulness, hoping to forge success of their own volition. It should be an atmospheric, viral environment, a veritable breeding ground of ideas to stretch the instrument’s capabilities.
Then again, there will always be next year. Not the same old Panorama lah-de-dah. Make the cut and you can make music as you like it, with no botheration from judges. Plus, there are always variations on the theme to explore and exploit.
Sure, change in routine can never be routine. It might require a transition project. As with evolution, which, in effect, is how things get to move forward. Like thinking. The key ingredient in the arts.
What’s to lose? Another half-century of music stuck in a gramophone groove?
Well, it’s time Panorama gets down to business, lest the panatics in steerage give the driver the business for the next bad drive - cap in hand to government for subventions. Though Pan, radically organized, could hold its own on any stage, and certainly not for lack of invention.
The founding fathers would have none of that.
Just listen to their voices in the steel.
by Dalton Narine
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