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Protecting and promoting the steelpan

Published: 
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Massy Trinidad All Stars pan player Dane Gulston speaks to pan players outside Pan Trinbago’s headquarters, Park Street West, Port-of-Spain, during a protest on Wednesday. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

For many citizens of this country, both here and in the Diaspora, the invention of the steelpan from discarded oil drums in East Port-of-Spain more than 80 years ago has been a source of national pride and identity, ranking highly among T&T’s spectacular beauty queens, its batting maestro, its Olympic gold medallists, world-class footballers and Nobel prize-winning writers.

The boast that the pan is the only musical instrument invented in 20th century trips easily from the tongues of T&T nationals, who are quick to imbue it with the mystique of struggling to overcome class and racial prejudices in its formative days and being transformed into a symbol of unity and togetherness.

If the steelpan is a symbol of anything these days, it may be a reminder to the people of this country of their tendency to take for granted those aspects of local culture that should be cherished, promoted and well funded, even in these times of economic decline and uncertainty.

The fact that many of the over 7,000 panmen and women in T&T still have not been fully compensated for their participation in Panorama 2016, nearly 11 months after that event was held, is a damning indictment of the continuing poor organisation of Carnival and the scant regard with which the pan, and those who play it, are treated these days.

There are several reasons why this treatment of the steelpan is particularly galling.

Firstly, the steelpan is T&T’s national instrument and this country is one of the few globally (along with Japan and Paraguay) where the government officially recognises a specific national instrument.

Secondly, while T&T has suffered a substantial decline in its total revenue in the last two-and-a-half years, the $7.5 million that is paid to panmen for their contribution to the national Panorama competition is but a tiny fraction of the total amount of money spent on Carnival and an even smaller fraction of the country’s total budget.

Thirdly, the $1,000 that each pan player is paid is but a token for the long nights of practice that must be undertaken by all participants who contribute to their steel orchestra making it to the Panorama competition.

Fourthly, as one of T&T’s national emblems—along with its flag, coat of arms, national flower and national birds—an argument can be made that the pan should enjoy the protected status of the Scarlet Ibis and Cocrico, which in the context of the national instrument should mean that the allocation for the promotion of the steelpan should be immune from the annual budget cycle.

Indeed, is there a good reason why the national Panorama competition—and all the elements associated with the promotion and protection of the national instrument and T&T’s other national emblems—should not be funded directly from the some of the interest generated annually by Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF)?

After all, as the national instrument and as one of this country’s most significant contributions to global culture, the steelpan perfectly fits the definition of Heritage, which is something precious and significant that is handed down from generation to generation.

And, since the annual budget cycle seems to be a big part of the problem of late payment of panmen, perhaps Minister of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, should be at the forefront of setting up a trust fund—similar to the structure that insulates the Caribbean Court of Justice—to protect and promote T&T’s national emblems.