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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

So the Petrotrin strike has been averted, for now, if the impending disaster that is the company and its management lumber on. But while all this was going on, talk of another strike was muted by the potentially crippling fuel shortage. This other strike was threatened by that uber-essential national institution, Pan Trinbago.

No Panorama this year, they threatened—something to do with money from the gubbament, or lack thereof. (And really, is that a threat? The thought of no Panorama for me, and don’t delude yourself, a large majority of the population, is like being told “free fries with your burger.”)

I don’t know if anyone else has been following the Pan Trinbago soap opera these last few months. The T&T Guardian reported last year (November 2,) that its vice-president, Byron Serrette, quit because of financial kangkatang. (Something to do with a BMW X5 and an Audi Q7, such vehicles, as is widely known, being essential to the pursuit of the grassroots business of hauling steel drums.)

Last Sunday, Newsday reported Pan Trinbago’s education officer, Aquil Arrindell, had quit the organisation—something to do with wanting “greater accountability and transparency.” The same edition reported the formation of a pan players’ organisation, the United Players Movement, whose grouse was also financial accountability. It quoted a member of the Pan Trinbago executive, Beverly Ramsey-Moore, who had discerned “serious problems” in the organisation since joining the board in 2010.

Last week there were reports of panmen’s cheques bouncing. Then on the CNC3 news a couple of nights ago, I heard some fellow whose name I didn’t catch, berating the Minister of Culture for not giving the organisation millions of dollars for institutional strengthening. A pattern seems to be emerging here.

But before getting into the pattern, stop and step back a bit: you’ve got to admire the cojones on these fellers—mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money for the cult-yere, they seem to be saying, while thumbing through luxury car brochures. The script is old, it’s been the same for the 20-something years I’ve been studying Trinidadian culture and Carnival. They always need money for the “development of the steelpan” and no matter how much they get, it never seems to be enough.

Now it’s gotten to the point where they’re threatening to strike for more. I’m going to take a wild stab here and propose this (strike) wouldn’t be a bad thing for anyone except Pan Trinbago. It might also be a good time to take a quick look at the organisation, and the pan movement. Starting with an issue no one seems to have noticed—the term “movement,” as in social movement, cultural movement and of course, People’s National Movement.

The steelpan establishment and apologists believe it to be a cultural phenomenon of premium importance, and the Government agrees. Thus the “national instrument” designation, which has worked out really well, from all indications. But here’s also the reason many people are ambivalent at best to the steelpan, and contemptuously dismissive at worst.

I say “many people” but I have no evidence (other my own observations) for that proposition, because no evidence exists. No one has taken a survey or done any research to determine whether the steelpan was thought, by a majority of the population, to be significant enough to be deemed a “national” instrument. It was just one of those things “everybody” (in Government and the people they listened to) assumed to be self-evident, and money, titles, status and various other resources were thrown at it. The results? See opening paragraphs.

As a musical instrument, the steelpan is established. Ensembles exist worldwide. There’s a master’s programme in music where students can choose the pan as their principal instrument at the Northern Illinois University. The programme is led by Trinidadian virtuoso Liam Teague (ANSA Caribbean Awards Arts and Letters Laureate, 2014). And all this spread of the steelpan seems to have taken place, miraculously, without Pan Trinbago.

Pan Trinbago’s contrasting lack of success comes from the fact that it does not consider the steelpan a musical instrument. For them, it’s a political instrument, which entitles them to some special consideration, money, and status, to which others aren’t. Naturally, there’s an ethnic dimension to this. You can’t cast even a casual glance at the pan fraternity without being told pan is an African thing. Indians and other foreigners participate, but don’t forget where it came from.

Last year, pan pioneer Anthony “Tony Muff-man” Williams, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the UWI. In a letter to the editor in Newsday on October 25, Pan Trinbago PRO, Michael Joseph, obligingly made the connection explicit: African—slavery—drum—Canboulay—tamboo bamboo—steelpan.

This was a wonderfully explicit statement of what Pan Trinbago’s uh, thing, is. And this is why so many people who would otherwise be receptive to the steelpan simply turn away in exasperation or apathy. The national instrument is to its DNA “African.” What is everyone who says this over and over, saying to Trinidadians who are not African? Let’s leave that there for now.

There’s another question: what about those who love the steelpan to death? Why won’t they pay for it? Again the lack of research data on the steelpan’s audience—which absence is not accidental—leads to conjecture. And I’m conjecturing most Trinidadians who purport to love the national instrument won’t, don’t, and haven’t actually reached into their pockets to show that love. The same people will reach into their pockets for an iPhone, or the keys to an Audi or BMW, or buy a ticket at Movietowne.

So, Pan Trinbago, please do go on strike. You’re way overdue for a reality check.