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Thursday 20 June 2019
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Commentary

The zero-sum game of pan

Culture Matters

“The war was drawing to an end in 1945 and the colonial authorities decreed that when the air raid sirens sounded to declare victory on the European front, citizens would be allowed to congregate in celebration. On VE Day, March 8, 1945, the steelband was presented to the world for the first time. Throngs of happy revellers paraded the streets of Port of Spain and in the words of a reporter for the Trinidad Gazette, "They waved branches and chanted songs to the accompaniment of music thumped out of old iron.”

– Extract from Government website

IN JANUARY 2019, almost 74 years after VE Day and almost 84 years after metal replaced bamboo at Carnival time, a new reality hit the pan fraternity and people of TT. Pan Trinbago, the governing body for pan, informed that it was not in a financial position to pay the $1,000 payment to pan players for Carnival, and worse, that payments for 2018 were not going to be possible either.

I read the words of recently elected Pan Trinbago president Beverly Ramsey-Moore promising to make our pan industry viable: “...We will ensure that that drum-making factory...will bring in millions, upon millions, upon millions so that our players won’t have to look for a $500.”

Other figures associated with pan are just as bewildering – $100,000 to transport a band from San Fernando to Port of Spain, $200,000 to sponsor a relatively small band, $500,000 for a large band to prepare for Panorama.

However, after more than 80 years of evolution, the numbers still do not add up.

Four is the number of years since the last international conference on pan took place at the Hyatt, Port of Spain...naturally. Topics included the Business of Pan, Pan Manufacturing, even a discussion on the way that notes are laid out. Zero is the number of papers or policy positions that I have seen from that undoubtedly expensive gathering.

But what really struck me about that international conference was the attendees. There were representatives of the Steelpan Association of Australia, the Steelpan Association of New Zealand, from Canada, the United States and even from Steelpan European, based in Switzerland. Today there are pan sides in countries such as Japan, China and parts of Africa. In the Caribbean, the pan is a requirement at hotels and other tourist venues.

Number of state-of-the-art pan theatres in Laventille – zero.

In 1986, more than 60 years ago, Pan Trinbago was incorporated as an act of Parliament. Its main goal, to “further the development of the steel pan and protect the interest and welfare of the members of steelbands.”

As part of this responsibility the organisation was given the authority to purchase or lease land, manage competitions, festivals, conduct research and other activities. Twelve and a half. That is the number of acres that was given to the organisation some 18 years ago for a headquarters. Number of headquarters – zero.

From the 1930s-1950s, steel pan innovators emerged from impoverished areas around the capital city such as John John in Laventille, Behind the Bridge and St James. After emancipation in 1838, the Carnival of the ordinary people became offensive to the elite. Eventually, the African drum was banned in 1884, but the ordinary people created music using other available materials.

By the 1930s they invented a new instrument from bamboo, called tamboo-bamboo. This appeared on the streets in 1931 with the full range of sound from boom to cutter; by 1935 this too was banned. Metal instruments were substituted and in that year, the first pan or “ping pong” emerged “with sufficient notes to carry a simple melody.”

Today, our nation is in an ongoing battle with the rest of the world for the rights to our pan. Foreign academics, business interests and smart men are filing patents, creating new types of pans and teaching our instrument. Number of people around the world learning to play our pan as part of general music programmes? Easily tens of thousands. Number of schools in TT with pans, full curricula and teachers – not nearly enough.

We repeat the following like a nursery rhyme: “The steel pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. Made from discarded oil drums, it is the only (percussive) musical instrument invented in the 20th century.” Number of people who really understand the depth of this statement? So far it feels like zero, but hopefully that will change. For the sake of our pan, it must.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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