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Saturday, December 07, 2013
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Celebrating the steelband classics Playing pan with pride
The T&T National Steelband Music Festival was started in 1952 as a category in the National Music Festival hosted by the T&T Music Association. Despite strong resistance from the Association, steelbands were finally allowed to compete at the Music Festival for the Hope-Ross Challenge Cup. The Association had opposed attempts by the steelbands to play classical music. Lacking an adequate concert hall, the event was conducted in cinemas such as the Roxy in Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain. The Point Cumana Boys Town Steel Orchestra, led by Clem Bellerand, won that first Festival on March 11, 1952, staged at the Roxy Cinema in Woodbrook where the band was required to play the test piece Under The Marabella Bridge, and a tune of choice, for which it chose the selection You Are My Heart's Delight. As the Festival continued in a sporadic and spontaneous fashion throughout the 1950s, the increased number of participants, and the high standard of music and panmanship displayed, demanded that the show be staged independently of the National Music Festival.
What attracted most attention at the time was the intense rivalry between the soloists, for it was an era of fine pan musicians whose skill on the instrument was cause for much agitated debate among pan supporters. Among these “crackshot” pannists were Kelvin Hart, Patsy Haynes, Theo Stephens, Sonny Roach, Belgrave Bonaparte, Emmanuel “Cobo Jack” Riley, and Chic “McGroo” Springer. A defining year in the Festival's history came in 1959. At the final, which actually took place in 1960, Dixieland Steel Orchestra led by Curtis Pierre, with an awesome interpretation of Agnus Dei, a liturgical text from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass set to music by many composers, secured a narrow victory over the Ellie Mannette-led Invaders Steel Orchestra doing a mind-blowing Jocelyn Pierre arrangement of In a Monastery Garden, a famous piece of light classical music composed by Albert Ketelbay in 1915. In 1962 the Biennial Steelband Music Festival began as an independent entity. Staged as such, the Festival gave the steelbandsmen an opportunity to display the versatility of the instrument which attracted tremendous international attention. This international interest led to the staging of the first World Steelband Music Festival in 1988, which saw participants from Venezuela, Guyana and Sweden. That inaugural World Festival was won by Witco Desperadoes. The second edition was held in the year 2000, with a much wider participation from the United States, England, Sweden, Finland, France, Finland, Switzerland, Grenada and St. Lucia.
1966 was, perhaps, the year the Festival reached its zenith. Both Pan Am North Stars and Syncopators Steel Orchestras chose as their tune of choice Von Suppe's Poets and Peasants. The selection was played with such accuracy and skill by both aggregations that it took the creative and artistic treatment by North Stars of the Test piece Intermezzo In E to separate them, and give the Anthony Williams-led band its second lien on the trophy that it had won previously in 1962. Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra won the first of its six Festival championships in 1968—two as Trinidad All Stars, two as Catelli Trinidad All Stars, and two as Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars. At the 1973 Festival, held at the Queen's Park Savannah, three categories were contested for the first time. Nutones of Arima won the large band category, while Blue Diamonds and Samaroo Jets took the medium and small band categories, respectively. No Festivals were staged after 1973, until 1980 when Pan Trinbago found a willing partner in the Kirpalani Group of Companies and re-established the event as Pan Is Beautiful. The Kirpalani Group again lent its support for Pan Is Beautiful Two in 1982. The revived Festival saw the re-emergence of two of the oldest steel orchestras in the country—Trinidad All Stars and Casablanca. Interestingly, Casablanca, which had been dormant for a few years, but was now sponsored by the Iron and Steel Company of Trinidad and Tobago (Iscott) won that year's Festival.
Royal Bank partially sponsored and provided resource services for the 1986 Festival that saw the Witco Desperadoes Steel Orchestra making a re-appearance after a 19-year absence, and winning the title in a close finish with the favourite, Trinidad All Stars, and the innovative Phase II Pan Groove Steel Orchestra. Desperadoes repeated its success in 1988 (World Festival) and 1992. In the early days of the steelband movement, most pan tuners and arrangers belonged to individual steelbands. They tuned the instruments and arranged pieces for the orchestra, but an exception was made for the Music Festivals. During that time the steelbands would hire a trained musician (most times from the Police Band) to arrange and conduct the classical piece to be performed. Professor John Russell, an English musician, conductor and a regular adjudicator at the event, in high praise of the bands, once said, “the most electrifying performance of a classical piece of music can be heard from a steelband.” So the stage was set for the first World Steelband Music Festival in 1988. Once again, the Royal Bank was a part sponsor, and providing resource services. The title was won by Witco Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, with Amoco Renegades and Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestras, securing second and third places, respectively.
Every local steelband was fully aware that the 1998 Steelband Music Festival doubled as the qualifying round for the World Steelband Music Festival, and all were invited to participate. However, some bands opted to go on tours evidently more important to them than remaining in Trinidad for the playoffs. They, therefore, voluntarily disqualified themselves and did so in the knowledge that their situation was irreversible. While Despers had won the title on three occasions, Renegades, Phase II Pan Groove and Fonclaire have simply never been in winners’ row. In fact, in the steelband fraternity, Renegades and Phase II Pan Groove are not really considered top-drawer “festival bands” and should not be lumped with the likes of Desperadoes and Trinidad All Stars.
The Festival requires special skills, not the least of which is a degree of musicianship far superior to what is demanded of the pannist at the annual Panorama competition. Nor is prestige transferable in this example. The five bands listed above have just about always been in the Panorama final. However, that was not a criterion for achieving similar status in the World Steelband Music Festival.
At the 1998 qualifier, surprising as it was to the many, Trinidad All Stars, which has won the Festival on six occasions, was eliminated from the preliminary round. At the time, All Stars held a press conference at their Duke Street panyard to lament the exclusion, but the highly disciplined band, taking its plight in stride, was careful to emphasise that it was not protest action. Bandleader Beresford Hunte said: “We are out, but we are supporting the festival fully.” Pan is Beautiful XII–Respect The Steelpan, Play It With Pride promises to be a world-class event. It was originally scheduled for October 2011, and several reasons were attributed to the postponement, among which were the availability of a suitable venue, limited funding and the declaration and extension of the State of Emergency. It will be an event of intense competition between bands, with pannists displaying remarkable talent, genius and passion for this unique instrument—the steelpan.
Champs of the Steelband Music Festival:
The Festival winners since inception:
1952 – Boys Town
1954 – Southern All Stars
1956 – Katzenjammers (Port-of-Spain)
1960 – Dixieland
1962 – Pan Am North Stars
1964 – BWIA Sun Jets
1966 – Pan Am North Stars
1968 – Trinidad All Stars
1972 – Trinidad All Stars
1973 – Nutones
1980 – Catelli Trinidad All Stars
1982 – Iscott Casablanca
1984 – Catelli Trinidad All Stars
1986 – Witco Desperadoes
1988 (World) – Witco Desperadoes
1992 – Witco Desperadoes
1994 – Neal & Massy Trinidad All Stars
1996 – Neal & Massy Trinidad All Stars
1998 – Exodus and Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (tie)
2000 (World) – TCL Skiffle Bunch
2002 – Exodus
2005 (World) – Exodus
2008 – Exodus
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