The Night Pan Was Saviour

Members of the once-alienated  Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan fraternity last Saturday bedazzled the nation with a performance that spoke of  a willingness to make great sacrifice for country when called upon, at the launch  of the National Carnival Commission’s (NCC) Taste of Carnival at the  Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain last Saturday (February 19) night.

Following three days of auditions, 15 Single Pan and 12 Small Conventional Bands  each played a vintage calypso of not more than eight minutes, in a grand show which was successfully pulled off in grand style by organizers who had the excruciating deadline of two weeks to prepare.

In a show which was very relaxed in nature  because of the lack of the usual competitive environment of Competition, a number of bands were especially outstanding in the way they excelled in taking up the option to perform medleys, with most bands doing three retro tunes while the Police band successfully  took on the gigantic challenge of doing 15 songs in their 8-minutes of glory.

Among officials in the audience, no one appeared happier than Pan Trinbago President Beverly Ramsey-Moore.

Ramsey-Moore told Newsday that “the show brought a sense of relief to the steelpan community after not being able to perform publicly for two years”.

She said 83 bands registered for the show and judges whittled it down to those scheduled to perform. She said she did not expect so many bands to participate but was glad of it.

“It is amazing because without one cent, because we haven’t been given an allocation as yet, the bands have put on their best. I mean they’re here in uniform, all dressed up, and that is the resilient spirit of the steelpan movement.”

In making such a noble, selfless intervention on the Savannah stage, Pan Men showed the extent to which they have come of age by stepping up to the plate to present themselves as a constructive force contributing to the evolution of the Future.

It means that gone are the days when they – based their own misdeeds and by the labels placed on them by society – were the subjects of denigration in songs such as this one by the Mighty Sparrow in the 1960’s:

Calypsonians really ketch hell

For a long time

To associate yuhself with them

Was a big Crime

If yuh sister talk to a Steelband Man

The family want to break she hand

Put she out

Lick out every teeth in she mouth fast

Yuh Outcast!

Against this background, it’s been a pleasure to see Pan Masters like Len Boogsie Sharpe and Anthony Williams honoured for their great work by the University of the West Indies.Ramsey-Moore said Pan Trinbago got some assistance from the private sector but the organisation was still asking more of corporate TT to get involved and support youth in culture and communities because there was a shortfall in the budget. The organisation was allocated $4 million by the National Carnival Commission (NCC).

Despite the non-competitive nature of the Show ,however, there were competitions within the show. For example, IDB sponsored a $20,000 prize for the most technologically-savvy band. There were also best flag waver and best performing band prizes.

Carenage’s Stardust had the honour of taking first use of a public, live, in-person pan stage since Panorama 2020. The Simeon Superville-arranged Point Cumana orchestra  selected a Sparrow medley for the occasion and  played the calypso king’s “Drunk and Disorderly”, “Rose”, “Melda” before closing their set with Stalin’s “Feeling to Party”.

Superville said while the band was excited to return to the Savannah stage, they were “surprised and a bit pressured” about being asked to open the show.

“We are very excited to actually return to the stage after such a long time, but we didn’t expect to open. Truth be told, we (fekt) a bit pressured because us starting the show means we will be setting the tone,” Superville told the Express. 

The charismatic arranger, however, said: “Come show time on Saturday, Stardust (was) ready to jam and proudly fly their flag..

It’s against this background that attention is being constantly drawn to the work being done with the Pan in various institutions abroad, such as in Petsokey, Michigan, USA where  Interlochen Public Radio reported on panonthenet.com about an issue involving a call by the Public Schools of Petoskey’s Board of Education “to discuss a special report…about whether recent faculty (of Pan)  suspensions would be discussed”. 

The Petoskey Steel Drum Band’s Home Page describes itself as bringing   “a unique sound to events all over Michigan” after being captivated by a steel drum performance at Central Michigan University back in 1994 – wanted to bring the instrument to the students and people of Petoskey and officially started the group in 1996. 

In an article posted on Pan Times on April 21, 2020, Bennet remembers : “In the beginning, there were only about 12 people in the band, and that included a few adults,” 

“The learning curve was very slow because no one in Petoskey had ever played a steel drum before, including me.”

Over the last 20+ years, the band grew from 12 members to about 45 members. They’re now one of the largest steel bands in the country. 

Getting back to the Trinidad and Tobago Savannah launch of the Taste of Carnival on Saturday night, Sandra Griffith of Long Circular found the music to be “great” and she felt safe at Carnival City, so she intended to attend the large and medium bands event next week, especially to cheer on Phase II Pan Groove.

Catarina Camarinhas from Portugal said she has been working in TT for about four years and it is the first time she has attended a Carnival event other than mas.

She said her daughter participated in Kiddies Carnival in 2018 and she enjoyed it. So when a colleague suggested they attend Pan in d Sancoche, they went as a group.

“It’s fantastic. It’s fabulous. We’re loving it…We’ll definitely come back.”

In all the discussion, one vital element which does not appear to receive enough recognition for its huge value, is  the Carnival’s massive contribution to maintaining the very sanity and soul of this restive twin-island Caribbean nation.

In a Newsday article dated May, 2020 by Julien  Neaves, University of the West Indies (UWI) senior lecturer in psychiatry Dr Sandra Reid  warned that “careful decisions have to be made about Carnival 2021”, at a UWI virtual symposium on Sunday.

She noted French sociologist Emile Durkheim used the phrase “collective effervescence” to describe the contagious euphoria humans experience when engaging in certain customs including concerts and large sporting events. “And definitely it is part of the Carnival experience.”

Durkheim said this phenomenon fills a human need for belonging, promotes happiness and societal connectedness, and serves as an effective coping mechanism for some people.

Dr Reid said that while mass gatherings are unlikely to happen in February 2021, for Carnival, with the attendant lost opportunity for collective effervescence, “the rumbling of creativity has already begun to take place in showcasing the cultural spectacle of Carnival.”

Reid cited Panorama, a virtual competition for pannists on Instagram. She said, however, there is a danger in having a Carnival mentality.

“In true Trinbagonian style, we might start relaxing the social distancing and the hygiene measures once the lockdown measures begin to roll back. Without a true grasp of the importance of continued social distancing, we run the risk of our celebratory attitude to life leading us to hyper-socialise, not through social media, but through making up for missed parties, limes, the drinking, all of which have potential to undo all that has already been accomplished. That is one reason why we cannot rush to roll back (measures).”

She said that TT has been fortunate as the country has benefited from “rapid, incisive leadership of this pandemic” and sadly with human loss but less than many other countries, and with a quickly flattened curve. Reid added it will take at least a year before there is a vaccine for covid19 and therefore physical distancing must continue.

In this exciting scenario therefore, it’s most encouraging to see the once-alienated Steel Pan players leading the charge to promote our nation’s sense of patriotism  while at the same time providing therapy for our people’s sanity.

In this regard, Saturday night’s  very successful launch of A Taste of Carnival,  with very limited funds under the resourceful and creative leadership of accomplished Calypsonian Winston Gypsy Peter, served not only as a most apt example of  not what only our Pannists can accomplish as an at-risk community, but what collective  greatness we can rightfully aspire to as a people.

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