'We went over with our rusty pans. They weren't painted or chromed or anything – just dustbins. People didn't know what to expect, but they liked it. They said it was "black magic."'
Sterling Betancourt, pan tuner/arranger
IN 1951, Sterling Betancourt travelled to England with the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) for the Festival of Britain. The players were selected from among the best in the country. It is believed this was the first time steelpan was showcased on a global stage since its invention near the end of the Second World War.
At home, Carnival had been banned for three years, from 1942-1945, due to the widespread effects of the conflict. When on May 8, 1945, victory by the allied forces against the Nazis was announced, the people chose to celebrate with pan. They “waved branches and chanted songs to the accompaniment of music thumped out of old iron."
This week we celebrated World Steelpan Day. You are forgiven if you were not even aware that the day existed, as we did not experience any of the excitement that one would expect for the honouring of a national instrument.
Should we blame it on the pandemic? Maybe. On August 11, the day of the pan commemoration, media headlines declared that the delta strain of the covid19 virus had arrived. Hundreds lined up for vaccinations, while health officials assured that they were ready. As we face a steady increase in cases and deaths, it is understandable that enthusiasm for our pan would be muted.
But perhaps there are other reasons for the quiet nature of the day. This year finds us at another crossroads in the development of our national instrument. Bertel Gittens, chairman of the World Steelpan Thrust, has stated that the commemoration offers a chance for “sober reflection on our national instrument.”
No doubt, one of the areas for reflection is the passage of time. Seventy-one years ago the National Association of TT Steelbandsmen was established to bring structure and calm to competing forces within the pan community. Fifty years ago, in 1971, a new institution evolved, namely Pan Trinbago. Fifteen years later in 1986, Pan Trinbago was incorporated by an act of Parliament. This allows the organisation certain freedoms, such as the right to acquire land, pursue patents or other means to protect the pan or invest in the production of instruments.
In the 70 years since star pan players such as Betancourt from Crossfire, Philmore “Boots” Davidson from Syncopators, Winston “Spree” Simon from Tokyo, and Ellie Mannette from Invaders travelled to England to perform, our steel pan may be found across the globe. In the post-WWII period, TT artists, from calypsonians to pan tuners, pan players and mas experts, settled all over the world. By the 1960s, three of the major carnivals – Notting Hill in London, Brooklyn’s Labor Day and Toronto’s Caribana – were started.
By 1988, the steelband fraternity had outgrown the Steelband Music Festival established in 1964. That year, the World Steelband Music Festival emerged. By 2005 the final competition was even held outside TT, in New York. The 1970s and 80s saw our music appear in the global film and popular music arenas. Pan was included in the 1977 Star Wars movie, as well as a host of films in the 80s. Mega pop group Earth, Wind and Fire included a pan solo in its song Side by Side.
But was all this international exposure enough? Steelpan was affirmed as our national instrument almost 30 years ago, on August 30, 1992. Historically, August is dedicated to celebrating pan.
Yet there is still much to accomplish. Beverley Ramsey-Moore, current head of Pan Trinbago, regularly speaks of effectively marketing our skills abroad.
However, covid19 not only caused artists to shift the way they entertained, but how they market their art. PanoGrama, an online pan competition, created last year as an outlet, is now an annual, sponsored event. Competitors and spectators are not only from TT and the Caribbean, but the US and Europe.
In the midst of war, we invented beauty. “Rusty pans” and “old iron” outgrew the yards that Lloyd Best envisaged and created new, global spaces for our talent.
Perhaps this is the reason for our reflection. We have already enriched the world with our pan; perhaps we need to turn our gaze inwards and allow the music to rebuild our yards. Perhaps now we need to let this magical music enrich the place of its birth.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN