Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music
I also attended the ‘Excellence in Steel’ NY Panorama at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday, September 3, 2016. I have withheld my comments about the section in the program booklet referenced by Dr. Nyomba (https://whensteeltalks.ning.com/forum/topics/pan-players-dissed-by-...) while observing the posts from the WST community. The responses on WST were wide-ranging. But, along with consensus on the distraction posed by his struggle with the language ‘mechanics’, there was agreement that much of what Mr. Babb wrote was confusing and logically inconsistent. Any sober pan player could relate to where he was coming from and all should agree that the program booklet was no place for such verbiage.
But when the entire situation is put into proper context, one realizes that the disrespect in the program booklet was just the tip of the iceberg. The management of the steelband industry and the production and distribution of “cultural goods” requires more profound understanding and thorough analysis of these processes for the realization of the economic benefits especially by those involved in their production.
Pan players dissed pan players while Pan Trinbago Officials wined and dined
First about the section in the Panorama program booklet, it is obvious that Randolph Babb, Chair of “Excellence in Steel 2016” Committee, was disrespectful to the same pan players who were performing at the panorama. Panorama adjudication is always contentious. Pan players usually do not agree with the results of Panorama unless their band wins. Ken “Professor” Philmore, for example, still complains about Fonclaire’s ½ point defeat on more than one occasion. The subjective element in the judging, which underlies this contention, will remain until the technology for computerized adjudication is developed. Nothing is wrong with criticizing pan players, especially if the criticism is constructive, but using the official program of the NY Labor Day Panorama as a forum to “pong” pan players amounts to nothing less than total disrespect, not only for pannists in Brooklyn and elsewhere, but also for the mostly Caribbean audience at the Brooklyn Museum grounds on Labor Day Saturday evening.
Ironically, among the guests of honor in the VIP section of the audience were several members of the Executive Committee of Pan Trinbago: President Keith Diaz (he was introduced as being “on his way”), Allan “Pablo” Augustus, Trustee, Michael “Scobie” Joseph, Public Relations Officer, and Gerard Mendez, the Northern Region Chairman. Whether they were in Brooklyn attending to the business of pan, or simply enjoying one of the many perks of being in the leadership of “the World Governing Body for the Steelpan,” is open to question. Apart from the partying, there seems to be some disconnect between the affairs of steelbands in Brooklyn and the Pan Trinbago leadership.
While the steelband executives were basking in the limelight, enjoying the complimentary liquor and food, the leaders of some steelbands competing in the panorama were hoping their band would win so that they would be able to defray some of the expenses associated with outfitting their band for the competition. In Brooklyn there are no “appearance fees” and “assistance to bands” as in the T&T Panorama. Other leaders were concerned with vacating the lot which they rented to practice for the contest. Few steelbands in Brooklyn have a panyard, not to mention one that could accommodate a 75- to 100-member steelband. Real estate in Brooklyn is a scarce resource which is increasing in value and cost.
"Same Ole Khaki Pants"
In actuality, steelbands in T&T and Brooklyn face essentially some of the same issues. Panorama just serves to highlight these concerns and bring them back into the annual conversation. Problems with adjudication (real or perceived) will always be present given the subjectivity which undergirds the judging process. Also, as businesses become more fiscally conservative, sponsorship and other funding for steelbands decreases. Like in T&T, Panorama along with band launchings and other fund raising events is the major, if not only, source of income for steelbands in Brooklyn. Meanwhile prize monies are stagnant and the price of pans and other accessories for steelbands keeps increasing.
Tuners too are encumbered by the exorbitant cost of chroming pans and the making and blending of pans for steelbands which cannot afford to pay the tuners for the value of their skills and labor. To add insult to injury, some steelband leaders opt to bypass Trini master-tuners to whom they are indebted and instead contract other less experienced tuners to blend or, in some cases repair individual notes on, the pans made by the master tuners, further decreasing their income stream (not to mention the coveted space on the band’s banner!)
Respondents to the piece on WST also expressed concern with the judging criteria for the panorama. Adjudication issues reoccur year after year, Panorama after Panorama. Panorama compels us into a unidimensional mode of thinking about the steelband. The end result is that we tend to address the surface level problems: judging, competitions, prize money, the sound reproduction, etc., as opposed to the building of a solid logical foundation for the industry.
49 years of Carnival: progress, stagnation, or what?
WIADCA should be given the necessary credit for the massive undertaking it has managed with reasonable success for 49 years. I have had the opportunity of participating at the executive level in the production of an expat Caribbean carnival, albeit a smaller festival than the Labor Day Carnival, so I can attest to that level of organizing and coordinating necessary. “It ain’t no joke.”
But WIADCA is also a part of the problem. Over the years, audiences at their revenue-generating events, the BrassFest, the Children’s Carnival, the Dimanche Gras show, the Panorama itself, and at the Labor Day Parade, have grown exponentially. So too have the vendors and vendor fees. And massive NYPD plus other security at the gates has made it more difficult to “storm.” (Unfortunately, instead of demonstrating their support for the steelpan by being paid patrons at panorama, some “supporters” of steelbands still attempt avoid paying the admission fee by sneaking-in with the band or using other dishonest methods. Arbitrage is a common practice at Panorama and other carnival events.)
Yet the panorama prize money has been stagnant for about 15 years. In fact, the panorama prizes were increased in 2003 only after most of the steelbands boycotted the Brooklyn Panorama opting for the USSA-organized panorama held at Jefferson Field in Flatlands in 2001 and 2002. The top prize in the USSA Panorama was $20,000, doubling the first prize in the Brooklyn panorama. WIADCA was therefore compelled to raise the first prize to $20,000 to attract the bands back to the Brooklyn Museum in 2003. Since then there has been no increases in the panorama prizes.
The prize money was not the only issue that motivated the move to Flatlands. Other matters raised by USSA included the question of respect for pan players and concerns with the adjudication and the sound system for the panorama. These issues remain contentious today as evident by the statement by Mr. Babb in the panorama program booklet and the usual post-panorama wrangling on WST and elsewhere. More fundamentally, there has been little development of the infrastructure for Panorama and the Labor Day weekend events. We cannot, for example, continue to aspire to the dust and pot-o-lets at the back of the Brooklyn Museum.
To my knowledge, beyond the efforts of the Caribbean Culture Center and the work done at Hunter College, it’s not too much of a stretch to assert that there has been little capacity and institution-building undertaken by WIADCA or (except in a few cases) the pan and mas fraternities in Brooklyn. Nor have they been able to use the 49 years of the Labor Day Carnival with 3 million spectators and the estimated over $300 million it generates annually to leverage additional public sector and private sector funding. The National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Institute, and several other private and public foundations, provide major funding to arts organizations with missions similar to WIADCA. Even at the local level, increased public sector funding could be strategically pursued. We should recall seeing a photo of NY Mayor, Bill de Blasio, and his family “jumping up” in the 2014 Labor Day Parade while he was campaigning for the office. Since then he was not heard from until his aide was killed during the 2015 Labor Day J’ouvert. Surely the Mayor’s office could be targeted to address the saga of the “vanishing” (really "non-existent”) panyards in Brooklyn.
Will the “first generation” pan players in Brooklyn leave a legacy of Panorama, rife with all its problems, for the young pan players to inherit? Leaders of steelbands in T&T and North America should be able to empathize with the steelbands leaders in Brooklyn and their annual efforts to secure rehearsal space and funding to prepare for Panorama. For many in the pan and mas business, cultural production is indeed “a labor of love” with meagre financial returns.
Research on Caribbean Carnivals
Let’s put carnival in its proper perspective. Research has shown that, in terms of attendance and economic impact, Caribbean carnivals are the largest cultural festivals in Europe (Notting Hill Carnival) and North America (Brooklyn Labor Day and Toronto Caribana). Globally, the cultural sector, estimated at 7 percent of GDP, is one of the one of the most rapidly expanding segments of the world economy. Studies show that the annual attendance at Notting Hill Carnival and Toronto Caribana both approximate 1.2 million spectators, while Labor Day attracts over 3 million. From the data available, the economic impact of Notting Hill Carnival was $122 million (2002), Brooklyn Labor Day generated over $300 million (2012), and Caribana $438 million (2009). (See references below).
Before proceeding, a few words of caution about the data collection and use are in order. Data made available in the public domain may not stand up to rigorous scrutiny by professionals in the field. Researchers are not just concerned with the data presented. The methodology and assumptions underlying the collection, analysis and presentation of the data are just as important as the data. The motivations of those involved in the data gathering and analysis are also of significance. The predictive capacity of data is impacted by all these factors. Nevertheless, these are the data available and they do give some general sense of the economic activity generated by the carnivals, a point of departure toward realizing the benefits of Caribbean cultural resources
It would be useful if Pan Trinbago became serious about gathering data on the steelband industry in T&T and internationally. Thanks to WST there are some data available on pannists and steelbands globally. Some of the primary data on economic impact of the major carnivals are dated and in cases withheld from public consumption. But the secondary data available show that pan players are at the bottom of the income distribution ladder. For example, I estimate that less than 3% of the total income of Caribana goes to pan players. Another critical observation of carnival is that the economic benefits to those producing the carnivals is smaller when compared to the economic impact on businesses and the tax revenues collected by the host cities.
Caribbean people do not own the airlines, the hotels, the car rental companies, the liquor stores, major restaurants, etc. that benefit most from the spending (of mainly Caribbean people) during the Labor Day and Caribana weekends. Caribbean residents of NY, Toronto and elsewhere where carnival is held are not the only beneficiaries of the tax revenues generated from sales, licenses, insurance, etc. The data doesn’t show the distribution of the jobs created by Caribana among Caribbean versus other Toronto residents. That would have been useful in assessing the extent to which Caribbean expats in Toronto benefit from the economic activity generated by Caribana.
Given that these cultural festivals are the largest in Canada and the US, one wonders why they are not able to attract more funding, at least comparable to other cultural festivals which receive government support. Unfortunately, these carnivals have been associated with violence, squabbling among the organizers and financial mismanagement. Maybe there should be some introspection among the producers of carnival arts in Caribbean expat communities and reassessment of the entire process of carnival production.
In the case of Caribana, it has been compared to the Calgary Stampede which has an economic impact of $173 million over 10 days and in 2009 received $10 million in government funding while Caribana received only $484,000. The question was raised as to whether this is due to Caribana being perceived as a “cultural outsider.” In the case of Brooklyn Labor Day, one wonders whether a similar perception is abound. Put the shoe on the other foot, we lifted the phenomenon out of one jurisdiction and tried to plant it into others, with no modification and then we are upset when neighbors in the vicinity of steelbands complain about the bands practicing late into the night. Should we impose ourselves on others who may have no relation to an activity that may be supreme to us, but totally unacceptable to someone else?
Changing the status quo
But all is not lost. The disrespect in the program booklet definitely calls for dialog between WIADCA and leaders of the steelbands in Brooklyn. With the sentiments expressed by (ex-Flying Squad operative) Randy Babb, maybe there is need to revisit the judging criteria, the selection of judges and the adjudication process itself. Also, WIADCA officials and pan players should be educated on the matters of mutual respect and discipline, as these seem to underlie Mr. Babb’s “ranting and raving.” Definitely the prize money should a major issue on the table. The first prize for the Labor Day Panorama champs has been $20,000 for the past 15 years.
Maybe WIADCA should take the lead set by Pan Trinbago at the 2015 ICP and offer $250,000 for the first prize! LOL! The wisdom of that extravagance is still mindboggling to me, especially since the first prize in T&T Panorama (the only real precedent or benchmark) is only $166.667, and foreign bands received as much as $60,000 in “assistance”! But that’s another story.
Several “minor concerns” should also be part of the conversation to make the panorama environment in Brooklyn more steelband-friendly. For instance, pan players should be more intimately involved in the designing and building of the stage and in the audio mixing and reproduction to avoid problems as the nearly 45 degree sloped on- and off- ramps and inconsistencies in the sound of the bands at the Museum. There should also be dialog with the police with respect to NYPD officers being more accommodating when directing steelband traffic to and from the panorama.
It is good to note that the Mayor is on board in terms of his support for the Labor Day activities. In the wake of the two killings in the 2016 pre-J’Ouvert hours, he promised that the J’Ouvert will not be cancelled. (These murders were not connected to the J’Ouvert and it is important that carnival community makes the necessary clarification to offset media reports which suggest otherwise.) But this is an excellent opportunity for the powers that be in the Caribbean community to begin institution-building and strengthening their relationship with their non-Caribbean neighbors, especially the recent ones brought in by gentrification in Brooklyn. Programs should be developed (or where they exist expanded) to deepen the understanding and broaden the appreciation and acceptance of Caribbean culture among these residents.
BTW, NYPD, Parks and Recreation and all the other agencies concerned should be called out for “locking down” the Ronald McNair Park, across from the Brooklyn Museum, during the Labor Day weekend. The park is usually used by young mas players and pan players as they line up to enter the Museum grounds. With the park locked-down, the sidewalk was the only place for the mas players and pan players to sit and relax, in some cases for hours, before their band is allowed into the Museum grounds. The entrance of bands into the Museum grounds for both the Children’s Carnival and the Panorama is usually staggered for security and other reasons. WIADCA should bear some of the responsibility for the park being locked-down.
Broadening the steelband horizon
Steelbands in T&T and NY should transcend the almost exclusive focus on Panorama. That event is one data point, albeit a significant one, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the steelpan industry. There are so many aspects of that sector which need to be developed strategically and coherently. For example, one of the problems underlying the functioning of steelbands in T&T and the US is that most are not constituted as legal entities. This has contributed to alternate models of ownership, leadership and management very often unfavorable to the pan players. In the North America this also limits the ability of bands to attract funding awarded to non-profits and to participate in arts and culture programs funded by government agencies at the county, state and federal levels.
Steelband leaders should give the young pan players a broader playing-field to explore. Things are already in motion in Brooklyn with the likes of Garvin Blake and Iman Pascal, who performed with Othello Molineux (his first ever performance in Brooklyn), to a mediocre audience on Father’s Day 2016. Iman was also featured at the Arrangers Concert in Brooklyn last May. Both events hint at the direction headed by the young pannists in Brooklyn: beyond the confines of Panorama. Also noteworthy is the progress of young arrangers such as Odie Franklin, Marc Brooks, and Kendall Williams who together arranged for Brooklyn Steel Orchestra in the ICP and for Skiffle in the 2016 Panorama in Trinidad. They should be encouraged to further their musical talents by exploring other genres of music. Some steelbands are obtaining tax-exempt status and pursuing new models of steelband development extending beyond Panorama. This too is an indication of the forward movement of the steelband.
The integration of computer technology, the Internet and the steelpan by Northern Illinois University graduate Mia Gormandy and Pastiche Steel Ensemble in their Virtual Steelband Project demonstrates the promise of the intersection of the vision of young pan players and the application of the modern technology to the steelpan. Further, the use of social media for marketing and networking opens a universe of possibilities for young pan players and steelbands.
In terms of the steelpan in T&T and globally, Pan Trinbago’s leaders, as well-intentioned as they may be, should recognize that the management of a strategically valuable organization requires more than a marginal knowledge of basic business, strategy and other critical prerequisites. This alludes to the requirement that they become more open to ideas and willing to contract professionals to manage the steelband industry in T&T. A myopic vision is counterproductive to the management of strategic cultural resources.
As far as the expat carnivals are concerned, given their economic impact, a major challenge to organizers is how to attract greater capital investment from the public and private sectors. There should also be efforts geared toward increasing the share of the economic benefits of all carnivals which accrue to the organizers and artistes involved in the production of the carnivals. We are the producers, the artistes, and we comprise the majority of the spectators at these festivals, but not the main beneficiaries. Need I say more?
“The Caribana success story,” TheStar.com, May 3, 2010. (https://www.thestar. com/opinion/editorials/2010/05/03 /the_caribana_success_story.html).
London Development Agency - Research, “The Economic Impact of Notting Hill Carnival,” May 2003.
Lennox Farrell, “Caribana, Ownership Versus Control, Part Two,” Share News, November 12, 2014. (http://sharenews.com/caribana-ownership-versus-control-part-two/)
Patricia Meschino, The Business of Brooklyn's West Indian Day Parade, August 31, 2012 (http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/touring/1083948/the-busi...)
Ajamu Nangwaya, “Caribana, exploitation and disrespect of a cultural resource.” (http://toronto.mediacoop.ca/blog/ajamu-nangwaya/7758).
Keith Nurse, “The Cultural Industries and Sustainable Development in Small Island Developing States.” Unpublished paper, Institute of International Relations, UWI, St. Augustine, Trinidad.
Keith Nurse, Globalization and Trinidad Carnival: Diaspora, Hybridity and Identity in Global Culture. Cultural Studies 13(4) 1990, 661-690.
Keith Nurse, “Globalization in Reverse: The Export of Trinidad Carnival,” Unpublished paper, Institute of International Relations, UWI, St. Augustine, Trinidad.
Jo-anne Tull, “Money Matters – Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2005,” presented at Reflections on Carnival 2005, Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago, April 22, 2005.
Dana Yates, “Analysis shows Caribana's impact on economy and potential for future,” Ryerson University, July 27, 2010. (http://www.ryerson.ca/news/news/ Research_News/20100727_caribana/)