Endless stories have been told about the struggles of the steel band, the panmen, and their rise from the ashes of hooliganism and banishment. These battle weary soldiers, forged from the love of steel, in the fires of the backyard, dry river, and panyard, are very versed and rehearsed in accepting and overcoming challenges. Since those hard felt days of the pan struggle, pan has attained some measure of acclamation such as, acceptance into the archives of global music, as the sole percussive instrument invented in the 20th Century, and locally, the proverbial discarded oil drum, has achieved the status of, the national instrument of T&T.
Additionally, the studies of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus professors, researchers and technocrats, have just a few years ago produced the G and PHI pans, taking the steel pan instrument to the heights previous innovators have attempted to reach. For clearly, these new and improved steel pan concepts are hinged to backyard experiments, attempted by many of our pioneers such as Anthony Williams, Bertie Marshall and Rudolph Charles, and conducted minus government or corporate funding and cutting edge technology. This past weekend, against the backdrop of a State of Emergency, and its impending laws and restrictions, the panmen have accepted yet another challenge, which is that of support for, and participation in, the 2011 edition of the tenth annual, Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan & Jazz Festival (TTSPJF), an event that is a homegrown fund-raising product of the Queen's Royal College (QRC) Foundation.
This festival, apart from the "pan jazz" element, carries two underlying objectives which are: the showcasing of an undying commitment to place the national instrument at the pinnacle of the musical realm, and offering the youth of the nation the opportunity to enhance their music literacy skills, through workshops facilitated by local and foreign tertiary level musicians, steel pan, and jazz greats. The beginnings of this festival stem from a simplistic fund-raising activity, highlighting the steel pan, with a mixture of local and foreign artistes. These one nighters such as, Simply Music and Here Comes the King, generated some distinctive energy and creativity, and in 2001, the first edition of Pan Royale signalled the growth of the event, from a one night stand, to multiple shows over extended periods.
This unique product is pregnant with potential, especially since some international music journalists and performers, have rated this festival very highly, in terms of its components, musical content, and event management, as a cut above some of the big name jazz festivals regionally and internationally.
With the usual consistency and innovativeness, the QRC Foundation, has pushed the envelope even further. In the midst of the State of Emergency, they overcame some seemingly insurmountable challenges, by employing sound organisation and management skills, and the qualities of creativity, entrepreneurship and calculated risk taking, to successfully stage the qualifying round of the International Steel Pan Jazz Challenge (ISPJC) on October 16 in the big yard, Queen's Park Savannah.
The ISPJC is an out of the box competition for steel bands, with some attractive prize money to be had, totalling $150,000. However, there is also a twist to this competition, which took us away from the Panorama big band syndrome.
Firstly, regardless of the size or status of the band; they had to select or pull together an eight to 12 piece ensemble, under the respective band's name. This group must comprise, inclusive of a drummer, a mixture of no less than 50 per cent of steel pan instruments, and any set of conventional instruments.
Further to this, competing bands had to choose and play from a slate of scored calypso classics, with a jazz idiom. The qualifying round featured 13 bands. From the North, Witco Desperadoes, bpTT Renegades, Codrington Pan Family, Starlift, and Courts Sound Specialists of Laventille; from the East, Republic Bank Exodus and Pamberi; from South/Central, Siparia Deltones, Couva Joylanders, Golden Hands, Tropical Angel Harps and TCL Group Skiffle Steel, nee Bunch; and, from Tobago, RBC Redemption Sound Setters.
With Pan Down Memory Lane, Pan in the 21st Century, and Pan is Beautiful cancelled indefinitely, the stage was set for an interesting showdown, where there were no small, medium and large band categories. Based on the enthusiasm and musical performances that ensued, it was obvious that the ranked outsiders, the small and medium bands and their arrangers, accepted this challenge with plans to beat the daylights out of the top seeded bands, especially since size did not afford them this opportunity previously. They went toe to toe with the heavy weights; there was no class or handicaps, no 100 players or bigger sound, the big yard was level.