When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music

If the best way to honor your parents is never to refer to them in the past tense then I must go to the graveside of my father to tell him I now understand what he says about Hell’s Gate: Whenever North Star and other steelbands compete, the supporters of Hell’s Gate say, (in “beautiful arrogance”), that Hell’s Gate have to win; even if they don’t compete.

After a few years of skirting around a single tenor pan, I made a second, successful attempt to play in panorama this carnival, in addition to playing saxophone in the All-Star Band for the calypso semifinals and finals. If music is the food of love, Shakespeare warned that excess of it can sicken the appetite. In fact, my appetite for pan music has increased immensely.

Almost everyone knows that Hell’s Gate is the “oldest, continuously operating steelband in the world”. Relatively few people have had the opportunity to witness or take part in the continuous evolution of this profound and essential institution. I am truly grateful and immensely thankful for the honor and privilege of being accommodated by the band.

A panyard is a social and cultural unit that brings together a cavalcading mass of people. Like seemingly disparate musical notes, this gathering can combine to produce the most remarkable treasure of communal bonding. The sharing function of music must not be confined to the stage and audience interplay. Indeed, as most artistes will confess, what happens on stage is sometimes a mere pittance of emotion compared to the richness and entanglement of rehearsals.

The late Jamaican saxophonist, Cedric “Im” Brooks, introduced me to this wonder of music in the making of the community, one Saturday afternoon in the 1970’s in Patrick City, Jamaica. There were woodwinds and brasses and double bass, drums and percussions all over the yard with women cooking, washing and plaiting hair and children running about. If music is the food of love it must be shared to avoid the consequences of excess.

Learning the flat tune, the original melody, and the complex arrangement was a challenge. Here I was among players, some just one year older than my eight-year-old granddaughter, who absorbed the music called out note for note and phrase by phrase by the arranger, Maestro Khan. After about the fifth phrase, I had forgotten the first phrase and so I had to rely on getting the music sheet to learn from the score what they readily grasped by rote like new, eager sponges.

This learning by rote was most remarkable in the extent to which an entire evening’s lesson was learnt and recalled the next day. What did these children posses that I didn’t, apart from their youthfulness and the color of their hair? There were older players too, including adults. But the children’s ability to harness the dictated music astounded and inspired me.

On one memorable occasion, Maestro Khan called out a set of notes that covered all 12 notes of the musical alphabet. My fascination was congested by the sheer musicality of the arrangement and the nimble control of this musical gem by the children. In equivalent music theory terms, it was as if Maestro had taken the three primary colors and weaved all the possible colors from this trichromatic chord to arrive at a kaleidoscopic rainbow of sound. The children, and some of the adults, did not recognize the music theory of the phrase, but certainly they must have had understood this musical nugget in ways more than those provided by the sheer geometry and geography of the pan. Certainly they knew the physical layout of the pans very well but there must have been something else, some sort of musical, sonic logic that complemented the pan structure and made sense to them in similar ways to how music theory informed others and me.

This learning by rote that in recent years has being taken by Maestro Khan far beyond the confines of simple musical patterns, speaks volumes about the way children learn music and warrants a scholarly dissertation. It also translates into the way children learn in general, freed from the restrictions of early, excessive theoretical explanations and undue machinations.

Not only can these children learn, they can teach. They taught me a thing or two. I was informed, very respectfully, by my nine-year-old pan teacher that when I was rolling the notes, my entire body was shaking, and that only my wrists should move! I told her I knew but I needed more practice. She kindly suggested I keep practicing. The fact that she was always stationed in front of me suggested that other players reported my Parkinsonian musical tremor to her.

Regarding my initial difficulty using my wrists for rolling and other technical maneuvers on the pan, my older musician, non-pannists, friends, suggested an exercise that cannot be mentioned here in detail. Suffice to say it gave new meaning to the suggestion an adult female might offer a rejected male by reciting to him King Obstinate’s line, “Wet you hand and wait for me”.

The panyard generates order, discipline, respect and reverence. Refreshments give the hands a break from the pan sticks and quiet the stomachs. From the caring of the pans to the pushing and guiding of the trolleys through the streets of the city to the Big Yard at the Recreation Grounds for the pan man war (with weapons of sticks and pans only), absolute dedication and the overwhelming feeling of being part of history surround you and take you in.
Hell’s Gate is an institution that must be nurtured with respect for history and with clear, present and future planning.

The stage is set for a wonderful journey far into the future from the start in the 1940’s. With Maestro Kahn as arranger and an eager cadre of young players blending with mature pannists, and a supporting cast of good management and sponsorship, panorama is simply one of the many things Hell’s Gate does well and wins. Indeed, much more than winning panorama is expected of the “oldest, continuously operating steelband in the world”.

As an institution nurturing a community ranging from children to grandparents, musicians and others, and going beyond the confines of panorama criteria, I now understand what my father says the supporters say: Hell’s Gate have to win, even if they don’t compete.

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Comment by Morris Edwards on August 13, 2013 at 6:07am

 Matters not which is oldest (red herring) but some clarity  would be ok. ..the debate regarding oldest steelbands (re Hells Gate) surfaces from time to time even..recently. All Stars. Despers, Invaders etc., its said been around ..from the bgining, I also read that Despers (formerly "Young Destroyers") adopted its name from the movie Desporados  staring Glenn Ford. This movie  was in 1943...Hells Gate ..birth in 1945.,  if Depers adopted its name between 1943-1945. that would make them older or as old as Hells Gate, and I guess similiar  records exist regard All Stars..and others. Well would be interesting to get some  more comments...about this talking point......One Pan Love.

Comment by Stafford Joseph on August 7, 2013 at 4:08pm

My Colleagues,

The fact that Hells Gate Steel Orchestra of Antigua and Barbuda is known universally to be "the oldest continuously operating steel orchestra in the world", will continue to have some degree of uncertainty for the doubtful Thomas' in the world of Pan. Hells Gate Steel Orchestra is not a "has been".  Hells Gate Steel Orchestra is of the past, living in the present and walking in the future. Hells Gate Steel Orchestra main objectives are to ensure that the steelpan artform is maintained, preserved, advanced by way of collective thoughts and positive actions and promoted globally. Being the "the oldest continuously operating steel orchestra in the world" is important, but however of more importance are  the  values we place on the artform. Morally, culturally and economically.

Comment by Robert Saldenha on August 7, 2013 at 11:10am

Hi Lester, you claimed that "Almost everyone knows that Hell’s Gate is the “oldest, continuously operating steelband in the world”.  I am not too sure about that, maybe in Antigua, but not in the world.   In Trinidad we have steelabands in existence prior to 1945, the year when a melody was first heard in a steelband, which are not only still active today, but are a force in Steelbands' competitions.

Bands which come easily to mind are "Invaders", "Tokyo", "All Stars" and "Desperadoes".   Do you now wish to correct your statement.

Comment by Alexis Edwards on August 7, 2013 at 12:09am

I had a long talk with my brother former captain and builder who joined the band in "47.(will record our next conversation) learn some pretty interesting stuff .he was out of his skin very happy when I told him of the win and the conspiracies, Hells Gate has always had to  deal with adversities and  dislike...and confrontations...road blocks..I learned that  band never became distracted or side tracked ..just work harder..so its just a continuation of what existed before.All the detractors will be shortly forgotten and caught   in their tangled webs.Anyway time to move on and let them stew in their juices. Every establishment needs a Stafford.

Comment by lester simon on August 6, 2013 at 10:29pm

My sincere thanks to you Stafford. Every steelband needs an engine room and you are undoubtedly the engineer of the entire band and pan yard. I could not have done it without you.  I am transferring some of my sax practice pieces to the pan and with your help as well the help and encouragement of others, I will be better next year. 

Comment by Stafford Joseph on August 6, 2013 at 10:18pm

Well said Doc. I must congratulate you for your sterling effort made in completing the journey on the stage, on panorama night, 2013. Certainly, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. You made that step, and completed the journey. Well done. As a student of the Eustace 'Manning" Henry Steelpan Academy [a subsidiary of LIME hells Gate Steel Orchestra]  adult class and a member of the Golden Gates Steel Orchestra [name of the adult class], you have always exhibited the determination to propel yourself into the panorama rehearsal group. As your tutor, just as I am very proud of Master Khan Codice who was under my supervision when he joined LIME Hells Gate Steel Orchestra, I am proud of you too and admodish you to encourage your contemporaries to come on board. Thank you Doc.  

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