THE PANLAND steelpan manufacturing company rests inconspicuously among other commercial buildings on the Eastern Main Road, Laventille. But behind those walls some of the country's greatest pan tuners have plied their trade and the steelpans produced have journeyed across the world.
Business Day met up with Panland president Michael Cooper at his office for a history on the company and the future of the industry.
Panland started in 1993 as TT Instruments Ltd under the Neal and Massy Group. At the time, Cooper ran the motor vehicle assembly plant but as that industry was targeted for extinction, steelpan was chosen as one of the new product options. Several small companies were set up, including TT Instruments, a joint venture between Neal and Massy (majority partner), Pan Trinbago and the Metal Industries Company (now MIC).
Steelpan manufacturing, he explained, was seen as a good business opportunity with a lot of potential and a number of attractive features, namely: it is indigenous and all the expertise, knowledge, technology and human capital reside locally; it is an industry that will grow and create significant development of people, careers, economic activities and communities; it is a high-potential foreign exchange earner; and it could provide employment in communities where the pan evolved.
Before the company Cooper was not involved with steelpan besides being a fan of Desperadoes, All Stars and Renegades. "I am not a panman," he deadpanned.
In 1994, Cooper opted to leave Neal And Massy and the steelpan company was part of his exit package. That year the company moved to Laventille (where he is from but did not grow up).
"Being from that strata of the community and the history of Laventille with the pan and the brand of Laventille with the pan, which I saw as an asset, this was the reason for choosing Laventille as the place to be at the time and it still is."
The original location was Old St Joseph Road, which was changed to Bertie Marshall Boulevard in honour of the late steelpan icon, and in 1998 the company moved "a stone throw's away" to the current location opposite Angostura. Also, that year, the company became Panland as part of capital restructuring. Cooper recalled the company received venture capital from new investors and he wanted them to have a "sanitised company". Panland was already a trademark the company had registered in TT and the US.
Tuners are a critical skill in pan manufacturing and have always been a focal point of the cottage industry.
"They basically supply the steelbands and anyone else who is interested in acquiring a steelpan."
Cooper said the opportunity for commercial activity outside of the Carnival season always existed because as pan spread all over the world there was a demand. He noted the late Ellie Mannette, known as "the father of the modern steel pan instrument," left TT and taught people abroad how to make steelpans as well as others who developed that capability.
"But Trinidad remained the source in the main of good pans because all the good tuners actually resided here."
He cited tuners like Marshall, Herman "Guppy" Brown, Leo Coker and Lincoln "Delgado" Noel. Panland drew on the experience of the tuners, who worked under contract arrangements, and they had strong relationships with Marshall and Noel. The company also sought to develop its in-house tuner capabilities with the senior tuners – Noel especially – passing on their knowledge. Tuning is a practical skill and it is learned by doing.
"There is only so much you can learn in a classroom."
Many of the top tuners currently working with the top steelbands are ex-employees of Panland, Cooper said, including Mario Joseph and Juma Simmons of BP Renegades, and Augustus Peters of Massy Trinidad All Stars.
"The cream of tuners are Panland people. And that has been our legacy."
Mini-pans, a musical toy
Between 1994 and 1995 the company began to think bigger and build smaller as they got involved in earnest with miniature pan production. The mini-pans provided not only a new product but a learning tool for tuners-in-training as they would start with tuning the mini-pans (which have fewer notes but similar principles) before graduating to the larger pans and eventually, the full range of the bigger instruments.
"Something had to pay the bills while the tuners were training."
The company was also able to develop capacity in the mini-pans and develop a market. The mini-pans, which come in five different sizes, are targeted as gifts, souvenirs, toys and early education in the foreign market; there is little interest in the local market. With the mini-pans the company has made substantial entry into the Japan, US, UK, German and other European markets. "It's a musical toy. It doesn't have a language."
Cooper walked Business Day through the manufacturing process: materials are brought into the store room; pneumatic hammers are used to produce the sinks into the pans using templates for consistency; the pans are cut and stamped with a special number and then burned outside the factory. Then it's off to the insulated sound-proof tuning booths for the first tuning; after, there's the powder coating, which is electrostatically charged and sticks to the object and then baked in an oven where the powder melts on to the product. After coating there's a final tuning for the customer, then packaging, lettering and stands, which are fabricated in the welder shop. Panland produces about 8,000 to 10,000 miniature pans in a year and for big pans they can do one steel band or three school bands (a 16-piece orchestra) in a month.
"We are gearing up to go after the market in a big way for the miniature pans and do big numbers." What about the market for the regular-sized steelpans? Cooper said the school system has been a significant area of development with the Pan in Schools initiative in the curriculum. This was followed by the Pan in Classroom programme, which brought pan manufacturing into schools and certification at the secondary school level. Individuals also buy steelpans mostly as gifts for children or else the State and corporate entities are their main customers.
Steelbands always wants steelpans and Cooper said Panland has received orders from new bands but generally bands have relationships with a single tuner. It was not a market that the company placed too much emphasis on as it is served by several different people.
"The steelband activity is seasonal, and we are not a seasonal company. The emphasis has to be more than that."
When the company first started the intention was to be an exporter that would not replace what existed in the industry but add to it. There were opportunities in the diaspora and West Indian communities, which all have their own carnival events and would want steelpans, as well as across the education system in the US and England. Panland has expanded into Europe including France, Germany, and Switzerland, where there is a high number of steelbands, and Japan where there is a Panland Steel Orchestra, part sponsored by the company. Other markets include China, Australia, South Korea, Belize, Costa Rica and Mexico but the largest market, however, remains the US.
"We have been everywhere."
Cooper stressed that steelpan is not really "big" anywhere, but it is significant to the company and can be expanded significantly with proactive and strategic steps and proper investments.
$5m grant more than just money
Last month, Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon announced a $5 million steelpan manufacturing grant fund facility to provide financial support to steelpan manufacturers for the acquisition of machinery, equipment, software, tools, raw material and training. Asked about the facility Cooper described it as a very positive development which Panland has been advocating for quite some time. He has had several conversations with Gopee-Scoon and Education Minister Anthony Garcia about more development of the industry. The Trade Minister even visited Panland in August, last year, and he believes she now has a good appreciation of what is involved in pan manufacturing and the concerns of the industry. He said the critical discussions held with the minister were some of the ingredients that went into the development of the grant.
"As far as government support and incentives this is one of the things I am particularly pleased about."
Cooper was glad that the facility was about development of the industry rather than just giving money. He said the issue was now how the facility would be administered and who would benefit.
"I am hopeful every one of us in the industry benefits."
He said it will certainly add levels of activity to the industry and, combined with Government's announced initiative to increase school steelpan activity, there will be more opportunities for steelpan manufacturers. He stressed that availability of market opportunity is a crucial factor.
"You have to be producing for something."
Panland "took some body blows" over the years, Cooper said, and it is still recovering. It lost a lot of export work during the 2008 financial crisis especially in the US market, and again with the cessation of the Pan in Schools initiative (which had increased the company's domestic output from 30 per cent to 50 per cent) when the previous administration took office in 2010. Operations drastically reduced in the recent past though Pan in Schools subsequently resumed around 2013.
"By that time, we were on our knees, our bellies, crawling."
The company was forced to retrench workers and staff was cut from about 80 to currently fewer than ten. Panland's story, then, is a story of survival.
"We still here. We owing plenty people but we still here."
The company had been "treading water," he said, but it is now at the point where it can recover after all of this time.
"We can get back up again and be even bigger than we were."
Cooper said that for the industry to be taken to an even higher level it is dependent on investment and capital injection. Panland has been pursuing collaborations and partnerships with investors over the last few years.
"We came pretty close but have not crossed the river. But there are things currently in play."
He noted Pan Trinbago is the governing body for steelpan but the concern has been steelbands and not manufacturers.
"Other aspects of pan have not been represented or given prominence in the Pan Trinbago agenda. It's not about knocking or blaming them. But quite a few areas have not been attended to and drifted over the years. The State and TT as a people have not taken responsibility for the steelpan."
Cooper said that he has gone on a thrust to develop an entity to look after the issue of the steelpan manufacturing sector and other aspects of the steelpan that do not fall under Pan Trinbago. This group of people can come together and determine the course forward. Cooper is on the board of governors of the University of TT and he intends to have this entity through the university.
He said there were consultations last year on this entity with various stakeholders including Government and Pan Trinbago. When established the entity will set product standards, look at certification and qualifications and address several issues including training and research and development.
"We need some kind of think tank that will allow the industry to develop in a deliberate way."