On the heels of the 50th anniversary of Independence, the outgoing head of state, President Max Richards, placed the steelpan in an even better perspective than its declaration as the national instrument. In his throne speech, he opined that—“except for the steelpan, we have been consumers rather than innovators, and we must be careful not to miss out on getting in at the ground level of the new scientific exposure, and here, university education matters.” Although he was alluding to the proper use of tertiary education, and our advancement in terms of world-class science and technology, he was contradicted publicly by his second-in-command, which in some manner resembles the criticisms of quite a few pan prophets, who have pontificated negatively about the G and PHI pans, while others have issues with its patent and ownership. From the message sent by that learned national of the highest standing, we should also deduce that creating and tuning the 55-gallon instruments was in fact the first degree of steelpan science, practiced in makeshift laboratories, as against advanced scientific experiments, undertaken by highly qualified and trained researchers and technologists, operating in a university setting.
Just a few weeks ago, an incident which spoke volumes about the state of pan in this country, occurred when my colleague Peter Ray Blood, was unable to explain or give a valid excuse to a group of European pannists on an off-season visit, as to why live steelpan music is not readily available, not even as a TGIF moment, in the mecca of the steelpan Further to this, it is alleged that the national instrument was not included as something Trinbagonian, in theT&T exposition at the recently-concluded London 2012 Olympiad. Nonetheless, in reflecting on the Golden Jubilee of Independence, back in the 1960s, steelband moved from being the epicentre of gang violence, rioting and lawlessness, to being something acceptable to society, based on some rather interesting developments, in its transformation from a negative situation to a positive influence. This was made possible by the efforts of some serious steelband soldiers like George Goddard, who interfaced with the government, and brought some measure of order, organisation and representation to the table. Meanwhile, there was an increased presence and influence of the then powerful middle class, the college students, etc, on the steelband landscape. Additionally, the advocates of independence, led by Dr Eric Williams, were involved in strategies which included putting an end to the not acceptable period, by implementing five-year development plans and schemes, in which the unemployed panmen and citizens alike, could receive welfare through the ‘crash programme’.
Put it all together, politics, the organised steelband body, the involvement of persons of a certain race and class, and the eventual acceptance, shaped the initial process of moving pan to new and higher levels. This 1960s to me, therefore, represents the platform from which modern steelband was launched, and all of this actually took place in our early years as an independent nation. Steelpan experienced some heavy progress and extremely bigger challenges during this period. Of the positives we saw the sponsorship of the steelband, and numerous upgrades to the portability, the sound, the tuning and the widening range of the instruments, even to the level of amplification, which, believe it or not, all transpired within the 1960s. The mastery of classical music exhibited in the annual steelband music festivals, and the influx of creativity, knowledge and skills evolving from delving into this formal musical arena, enhanced, and in many ways produced, the formidable art of arranging steelband music. That type of accomplishment, to me, is the only real success story coming out of another 1960s landmark, Panorama. The 1970s, huh…by this time splitting up of the larger bands was a norm, and the arrangers and the overall competitiveness began to push the boundaries. The own tune for Panorama, soca, less dependency on the calypsonian, setting up Panorama as a separate entity, and removing the national finals from Dimanche Gras night all resulted.
Black Power, the army coup, and the mini guerrilla war staged by NUFF, did not seem to have any effect on pan as it did to Carnival 1972. When all the above is added to the expansion of steelband zones, and the focus on Panorama the competition, steelband began to experience its decline from a major to a minor Carnival ingredient. There was no Panorama in 1979; a turbulent end to the protest and revolutionary era of the 70s, and the1980s emerged from the ashes amidst continued restructuring. The survival of unsponsored bands, winning Panorama with an own tune, among other things created new milestones, as new bands and arrangers moved into the leading roles. Across the pan diaspora, players migrating to the more popular final night bands, and the breakdown of the community-based bands, began the shrinkage and eventual disappearance of many steelbands and their zones. As the 90s developed, one of the solutions employed to deal with this big band phenomenon, and life support for smaller bands, was standardising according to number of players. The advent of the small, medium and large categories, set the stage for arranger monopolies, and messed with the anticipated survival and growth of steelband and Panorama.
The stark reality that every band by then was programmed towards winning and/or reaching the finals, it is also pretty obvious that it was and still is the consensus, that a top arranger is what is needed to achieve that goal. Preliminaries, the ignition of the Panorama flame, also bit the dust, and were replaced by panyard judging. The latter plus the national finals in San Fernando, enforcing the rules by auditing the number of players on final night, and the resurgence of Silver Stars, are the biggest developments to Panorama in the 21st century thus far. Nevertheless, steelpan in itself is probably 80-plus years old, and in the past 50 years, similar negative occurrences as recounted above, has fuelled some sort of growth, but has impeded the potency, progress and profitability of this innovation. Against this backdrop, a very significant level of success and upward mobility has been miraculously achieved, notwithstanding the gigantic challenges faced, in this fast-forward, post-independence era.
• Compiled and produced by D Anthony Blackman