Australia - When I arrived in mid-2012 in Perth, Australia, I wondered if I would somehow encounter steelbands or pan (as we say in Trinidad and Tobago) in any shape or form. Little did I know that less than a year later, I would end up in a small town called Marysville, about 2 hours drive from Melbourne to witness a wonderful event, the 1st Australian Steelband Festival. Steelbands that performed came from Oman, New Zealand, Cairns, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Taggerty and Marysville.
In February 2009, a fire tragically destroyed most of the town’s infrastructure, and claimed several lives in this small community. Marysville, a lovely town surrounded by mountains and lush green forests, and one of Victoria’s highest waterfalls, has been rebuilt by a strong and resilient community.
Marysville – Falls Road, Victoria, Australia
This spirit could clearly be felt throughout the Festival, which was spearheaded by Rita Seethaler, a Swiss musician now resident in nearby Taggerty, and who responded to the tragic incident by forming community steelbands like Pans on Fire, Hot Pans and Jammin’. Help also came from Swiss friends like Werner Egger, who had performed with Panch in the World Steelband Festival in Trinidad in 2000, and is a talented tuner who volunteered to make and tune pans, (having learnt his skills from master tuners Felix Rohner and Roland Harrigin).
After two years of learning to play the Pans from scratch, the vision was clear; to bring together all the bands from various parts of Australia, and to stage a festival in the heart of Marysville.
I was meant to be a mere spectator a few days before the event, when Matt Davies and Lennox “Madman” Jordan from Tunapuna (now living close to Brisbane), two dedicated musicians, called to ask me to be a judge for the Festival. Ray Holman could no longer make it to the Festival due to visa issues, a major disappointment for everyone, including myself, who had been looking forward to meeting with Ray. I could never fill such a gap, and had never judged for any pan competition before, but I agreed to assist. I was fortunate to collaborate with the other judges, Errol Renaud, Courtney Leiba (from Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband) and the talented Nicky Bomba.
After arriving on the red-eye flight from Perth, and walking straight into the judging seat, my tiredness immediately dissipated once the music started. It was such a joy to witness how far this instrument had come in uniting communities, and people from all over Australia and other parts of the world.
The Royal Guard of Oman Steelband
What transpired was far more than anyone expected: an ambitious weekend program celebrating Pan, Carnival characters and costumes, and various aspects of our Trini culture with an Aussie twist. One had to be there to experience the pan players’ love for Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument, warmly embraced by all. The pan competition included wonderful music, ranging from compositions by David Rudder (The Hammer), New Zealand’s unofficial anthem and traditional love song ‘Pokarekare Ana’ performed by Caribbeanz Southern Stars, rock classics like Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ to original pieces from Oman performed by the Royal Guard of Oman Steelband.
Adding to the atmosphere were Trini food and drink delights which included ‘doubles’ and stewed chicken, and Angostura lemon lime and bitters.
Later in the evening the community center was electrified by an authentic Carnival fete, including traditional mas (Jab Jab, Sailor and Midnight Robber) and masqueraders as tropical birds. Superb entertainment was provided by the Trinidad Connection performing ‘Portrait of Trinidad’ (Mighty Sniper), ‘Black Man Feeling to Party’ (Black Stalin) and ‘Tribute to Spree Simon’ (Lord Kitchener) sung by Alvin Rostant. Nicky Bomba’s dynamic Bustamento, “mashed up the place” and had the panists from Oman clapping with the music on stage.
Just when you thought it could not get any better, Sunday included a Kiddies Carnival parade with camels trailing behind (that’s a first); but I should not be surprised, given that Australia is home to the largest population of wild camels in the world (estimated 750,000 in 2009). Next was goat racing, also a first for me, given that I was never in Tobago at the right time to witness the Buccoo Goat Race.
The winning band, Pantastic Steelband, performed their pieces, including Matt Davies’ original composition ‘Pans is D Remedy.’ Matt had been inspired in Pan ever since he stayed in Tunapuna visiting for Carnival in the late 90s, and heard the sounds of Exodus. On returning to Australia, he formed the band with Clive Stead in 1998.
With no detail overlooked, the programme included the recognition of the children who participated or contributed to making the event a success. This was followed by a lively discussion on Pan with the topics ranging from trends in Trinidad and Tobago in Pan, to the possible direction of Pan in Oceania.
The grand finale of the event was the arrangement of a Super Steelband, which included all steelbands performing Roaring Lion’s ‘Netty, Netty’ under the on-the-spot arrangement of Lennox Jordan, a virtuoso pan player/tuner/arranger. Lennox had all the bands sounding like a “large band” calling out the notes and directing each of the sections to perform the piece as if they had been playing together for a long time.
All bands performing Netty Netty, with Lennox Jordan arranging
Unfortunately the event finally came to a close, and I would like to give a heartfelt thanks to Rita Seethaler and the committee, who made it appear that this was the 100th time they had done such an event. Everything was well thought out and planned, and smoothly and effortlessly executed. There was excellent communication about the event including a logo, a website, facebook page, posters, and certificates of appreciation. It was incredible to witness the birth of a festival which can only get better (though I cannot imagine how), and I feel privileged to have been part of such an historic occasion.
The event touched a nerve in all the Trinbagonians and indeed West Indians present, whether they were in Australia for many years or had just arrived, far beyond the Trini flags being waved or the food and drinks and music.
The community of Marysville, all the bands, entertainers, audience, family and friends, organizers, etc., were all winners, and the instrument invented 16,000 km away in Trinidad and Tobago was proudly showcased. It demonstrated that no matter how far Pan is from its roots, it can be just as uniting, crossing all boundaries, and magically igniting creativity and the human spirit. Congrats to the resounding success of the 1st Australian Steelband Festival!!
Thanks for a fantastic and memorable experience.
by Mark Loquan - Composer
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