Righteousness is the enemy of compassion.
Come February 3, the St Francois Girls’ College Steel Ensemble will seek a hat-trick in the Junior Panorama competition at the Queen’s Park Savannah. The girls have worked long and hard, some of them practising since last year, with an eye to taking their third consecutive title as U21 secondary schools champs in the competition.
Their arranger and bandleader, Peter Rorry Aleong, has been part coach and part lion tamer, devoting many hours to teaching them his complicated arrangement of Tell Dem, a Black Stalin and Steve Sealy song composed by Brian “Bean” Griffith.
As a parent I’ve admired his musical skills—his arrangement of the sweet melody has been augmented with jazzy riffs that have the young pannists’ hands flying over the steel. I’ve also admired his patience and determination in the face of the inevitable high spirits of a few dozen teenaged girls who sometimes seem to be more interested in giggling than playing pan.
His enthusiasm is contagious, though, and at the completion of each day’s practice, the girls cheer at the end of the run-through of the tune. They’ve come a long way in the weeks since practice began in earnest at the PCS Nitrogen Silver Stars panyard in Woodbrook and are now refining and polishing their performance.
Pan itself has come a long way since it began. I was telling the Lady, my 12-year-old daughter, about the history of the steelband movement and the violent clashes that characterised the early days of pan, such as the Invaders/Tokyo battle Blakie sings about in his classic Steelband Clash. The rivalry is musical today, as Stalin and Sealy sing in Tell Dem: “After all is said and done/ it boils down to fun/ for all of us./ It ent no war we fighting/…is only just a musical war.”
St Francois has a long and storied tradition in pan. It was one of the earliest all-girl bands, started in 1974, according to the richly informative book by former St Francois music teacher, Laura Franklin, Music on the Hill.
The band was started as a project in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. With the assistance of the T&TEC Power Stars, particularly McDonald Redhead and Samule McConnie, the girls practised on Thursdays from 4.30 - 6 pm with four girls to one pan until they acquired more instruments. Within a few years, they had won second place in the Junior Carnival Steelband Competition, and took first place in 1980.
Pan arranger Michelle Huggins-Watts got her start at St Francois and said in Music on the Hill, “My journey with the St Francois Girls’ Steel Orchestra provided me with experiences that were both socially and emotionally edifying, while being musically challenging and empowering.
“My experiences served as a launching pad to my music career and during times of reflections I ask myself, ‘Where would you have been if you had not joined the steel orchestra in school?’” Huggins-Watts went on to arrange the 2011 National Panorama winning tune for big band Valley Harps.
Miss Thing has been playing pan since she was a wee girl and loves the instrument. This is her first time playing in a serious band, however, having had individual tutors for many years and only once taking part in the annual Republic Bank Pan Minors programme, which includes an ensemble performance.
She comes home every evening from Silver Stars exhausted, with sore feet and arms, but with a face shining with excitement. She lives for this; I can see it. I am so proud of her commitment to the ensemble and hope they will win.
The other girls, their parents, music teacher Miss Clarke, the school committee dedicated to the Panorama effort, and the school’s principal and vice principal have all been putting in equally sterling efforts, this is truly a team enterprise, and should they take the hat-trick, it would be a victory for all of us, not just the players and the tireless arranger.
Rorry Aleong said to me last year in an unpublished interview, “Music is a tool to be used for the development of the holistic child. It possesses the ability to calm nerves, relieve stress, nurture self-esteem, motivate and, most of all, I believe, is the solution to a lot of the problems teenagers face in the world. I’ve seen it.”
Aleong has surely chosen the most appropriate song for the band this year. As Stalin sings in Tell Dem: “We coming to light up the Savannah/…You know they can’t discourage we/ Because we full of energy/…You know they just can’t keep we away/ So we coming again.”
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