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Has Trinidad and Tobago dropped the ball on the steelpan?

Conspiring To Pigeonhole Pan, And That’s Cool?
  by Les Slater -

Chairman of the T & T Folk Arts Institute and former Highlanders Steel Orchestra arranger

Global - I don’t know if he remembers making the comment or still is of that view, perhaps more than twenty years later, but no less a pan-world figure than Boogsie Sharpe once said to me that if pan had been invented in Jamaica, it would have made greater progress. The particular reference to Jamaica (or anyplace else, for that matter) in that context might precipitate some spirited give-and-take. But be that as it may, there’s no doubt lots of us have had occasion, over time, to ponder the path pan has traveled, and whether we Trinidadians, as its creators and gatekeepers of record, have come anywhere close to affording ample opportunity for pan to realize its full potential.
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By locking pan into this cultural box, which many Trinis have,  it has merely served to stifle it's artist and commercial prospects.
First we must understand that there a two aspects to pan and its promotion.  First there is pan music as played by the steel ochestra. The there is pan the instrument itself.  In my opinion it is much easier to promote the instruments in band settings along with other conventionals (sax,guitar,piano etc.) ; while one must have cultural feel for pan music as performed by the steel ochestra.  Since our Trini pride spring from the invention of the instruments then it is the instrument that must be marketed and promoted.  In fact if we really serious about pushing pan then every music band from soca to chutney should include some steelpan instrument.  Ah lie?

I totally agree with the jamaican comparison. For example. Reggea came about years after calypso and pan yet it has

surpassed both of them in this country and around the world. As far as I am concernd, a pan should be included in every

so called orchestra for it to be considered an orchestra. My mentor ( Rudolf King) sacraficed a lot of time and energy to make

the musicians union in New York accept the Steel Drum as a bonified musical instrument. I have yet to a Steel Pan featured

in any way, shape or form in our telivision commercials, whats up with that? Pan music is ideal for supplying back ground

music for numerous commercials. Thre seems to be no problem backing up commercials with reggea music. It's time for

pan community to stand up and demand eqality for our instrument because if we do not do it, no one else will.

                                                                                                                  Tahzann / Curly


Very thought provoking article.

I would like to reiterate that we are not talking about the steel pan as an instrument,though sometimes the team "pan" is used in reference to all things related to the steelband.
The pan itself is doing fine.
Artists, too many to mention, have taken the instrument to levels where is is being recognised as a worldwide as a musical instrument of note, not as exotica.
We are not even talking about the steelband in academia; the steelband is celebrated in many schools, colleges and universities.

We are talking about the growth and development of the steelband as seen in its traditional context as a viable part of the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, and its relationship to Trinidad's primary music festival, its Carnival.
We are talking about the need for the steelband to be seen as a viable music band, particularly in its cultural context.

I sincerely believe that the ingenuity that created the steelpan and then gave it mobility,could have continued to develop a viable musical entity capable of providing a credible alternative to the DJs at Carnival time.

Surely, we could have advanced from the pan pushing days and found a better alternative than tractor pulling!

In other words, the steelband would have adapted, using ideas such as for example, expanding and further developing Bertie Marshall's pioneering work on amplification.
Instead, the steelbands acquiesced, settling for a token presentation on the road, and focusing  solely on the annual "single billboard event" that is Panorama.

And who could blame them? That is where the best prizes were.

As the Panorama pot became sweeter, the competition became more intense, demanding the steelband's complete focus and preventing the bands from fully exploiting the steelband's prime time, which is Carnival in Trinidad.

Panorama became the so called "800 lb gorilla in the room", sucking up all the air , using up all the steelband's energy and not allowing anything else to blossom.

And putting the steelband at risk of being seen as a "one trick pony"


The problem was not the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  The problem is that those in power refused to open the up the penthouse and or let the room grow or move themselves out of the way. 



well said bugs no further coment
Thanks for clearing that up.

LOL! There's more than enough blame to go around,.. a few times, at least. I think it's good that you mentioned the fact that steelbands haven't adapted to the times, by expanding on the amplification techniques started by Bertie Marshall, donkey years ago. In fact, back in the early  70's (which could be considered the golden years of steelband, Phase 2 and Fonclaire even had vocalists, which helped to move the thing more into the mainstream. That was also the time when steelband arrangers defied the norm and started composing their own tunes for panorama. Many fought against it, even some steelbands.

Back in the day, steels bands, especially bands like Starlift, Despers, Solo Harmonites, etc., used to be playing in big time fetes, year round, alongside all the major brass bands and combos of the day. I remember runnin' into Bradley nuff times (playing keyboards with Esquires), while I was playing with Starlift, with both bands rocking the house.

Granted, they had about 8 members, (with sound system, etc.), while the steelband had 20 -25 stage side  players,  and depended on the natural acoustics of the hall, etc.

That was then!!! Bands these days are using mega amplification systems, and steelbands instead of moving forward, they've been backtracking. 

Instead of playing music all year, now  panorama  seems to be the only thing going on. So perhaps it's not totally inaccurate to say that - "PANORAMA MAY BE DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SLOW DEATH OF THE STEELBAND IN T&T".

Pantrinbago and other powerpowerbrokers seem to think that steelbands competing against each is the only game in town; however a radical rethink may be needed. Steelbands need to start thinking about competing with all other music makers, for it's mere survival, especially it they want to reclaim their place in Carnival.

It's time to challenge all the DJ's and brass bands, and any and all musical groups that people are listening to and partying to.

In closing, as far as I can see, the main stumbling block that steelbands are facing is that mentality of stubbon resistance to any kind of change. As a trini man who came up in steelbands, it pains me to see that steelbands around the world are busy redefining the artform, with a kind of freedom to choose which ever direction they want,  freedom to innovate without restriction,..... perhaps because they don't have that PANORAMA  monster scaring the daylights out of them.


I totally agree, every music band should incude a steel pan instrument including country music which my deceased

Trinidadian parents enjoyed almost as much as calypso.  tahzann / Curly

I would like to add that the lack of a major presence by steelbands on the road at Carnival time has been very detrimental to the Carnival itself.

I've always believed the the steelband was the distinguishing feature which made the Trinidad Carnival unique, and superior to other Carnivals.

Without  a steelband presence on the road any claim to the title  of Greatest Carnival rings hollow.

There was a time when the expression "Steelband and Calypso" was almost synonymous with "Trinidad Carnival".

Today, the expression "Beads and Bikinis" seem more apt.

This is a complex issue that is summed up in one phrase: THIRD WORLD.


It is the same phenomenon that has resulted in the uneven distribution of the world's wealth, most of it ending up in the hands of the metropoles, most of it the result of the more aggressive and knowledgeable taking advantage of the ignorance of peoples who were none the wiser of the potential wealth they possessed.


So, our brothers sold our ancestors for cowrie shells. Now they are also reaping only a small percentage of their wealth as measured by the world in gold, diamonds and petroleum, for example. Thankfully that is changing a bit - Google the  recent successful initiatives of Rwanda and Uganda. 


Trinidad gave up more than pan. Its Imperial College for Tropical Agriculture (ICTA), for example, developed strains of cocoa that are now worth their weight in gold. It is estimated that local producers can easily improve their returns by at least 20-fold if they marketed themselves better. That industry almost died - because ignorance had us writing academic papers instead of developing and maintaining an industry based on products that we researched and developed. ICTA was world renowned in Tropical agriculture developing many strains of citrus, coffee, I understand, and cocoa that have made their way to successful enterprise elsewhere. And this was lead by academics who were SUPPOSED to know better, not so?


AND for all its "wealth" gathered from oil and gas, Trinidad and Tobago is very reliant on the international oil companies for its production technologies - that is a sin when one considers that the oil industry here is well over 100 years old AND that the very first oil well EVER was drilled in Trinidad!  


It is this history that fueled the Steelpan Initiatives Project and its G-Pan and PHI sub-projects. If you are up to it, see the attached paper that was presented at the Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Conference, UWI, St Augustine, September 25-27, 2008. It not only discusses the problem but also proposes a solution. That will take a generation. 


While you are at it, anyone who saw the PHI as played by Rhapsody New Generation at WeBeat last night (sorry no media available yet)  or at the Pan Semis (see  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdSvcfHk2P0 )  would have no doubt that Trinidad and Tobago has not dropped the ball - at least not yet. We at the SIP remain firmly committed to ensuring that a robust industry is built in Trinidad and Tobago in and around pan.


In the end, if a people cannot build some means of survival from ideas they create then they will forever be ... THIRD WORLD. We have much to do -- and our track record thus far stands solidly against us. 

Sorry ... I botched the file upload. Here is the paper in question . The diagrams tell the story...


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