QUO VADIS Panorama?
Written by Simeon L. Sandiford
Thursday, 21 July 2011 22:19


Among the West Indian islands, known throughout the world for the vibrancy and creativity of their people, the twin-island state of Trinidad and Tobago stands out. It is the country that gave the world calypso. It is also the birthplace of the newest addition to the family of musical instruments, the steelpan, and it is still the place in which to hear the most amazing and electrifying expressions of steelpan music in this world.

The "Trinbagonian" coaxes from the steelpan echoes of the violin, harp, guitar, woodwinds - like a gifted mimic, it can capture the tonality, even character, of nearly every other musical instrument. Yet it remains itself, unequivocally the steelpan in the silver purity of its sound and its bell-like, resonating clarity.

"Trinbagonians" breathe music in a way that is very special. Some attribute it to the ethnic mix that is so much a part of the Caribbean experience. African, Indian, French, British, Chinese, Syrian - all of these and more brought their culture to the New World. The cross-fertilization that took place resulted in the evolution of several new forms of artistic expression.

Slavery is important in this context. Under the yoke of bondage the slaves found a unique form of revenge in parodying their masters, mocking them in veiled songs. These were the early chansons and the singers were called chantwells. This happened especially at Carnival time, during which the slaves were allowed a certain liberty to celebrate in their own ways. The lyrics of calypso, with their tendency to satire and social commentary, grew out of the early chansons.

The calypso is also indebted to another tradition that is all but gone, surviving only in tiny pockets in the country parts. This is called "quesh", a French- patois term describing a custom of community sharing at Christmas time. Quesh was accompanied by songs and, although these announced the birth of Christ, their rhythm was the lively beat that later became the hallmark of calypso.

Although Trinidad was never owned by France the French influence is powerful, as shown in the old patois (now slowly dying away) the terminology and many place-names. The Spanish influence is also powerful. A form of celebrating Christmas which is unique to Trinidad and Tobago is the "parang", songs celebrating the nativity in Spanish. The singers are called "parranderos". Parang fills the air throughout the Christmas season and there are parang contests and festivals.

Perhaps Spanish-based customs have survived better than the French because of Trinidad and Tobago's closeness to Latin America. A local joke goes: Cedros, a small fishing village in Trinidad, is really a ward of Venezuela. People there claim that on a clear day they can see the mainland. Many Cedros fishermen have a "wife" in Trinidad and another in Venezuela.

Certainly, Trinidad and Tobago's strategic position as the gateway to South America makes it an important transshipment point not only of cargo but also of cultural ideas. There is a healthy and ongoing artistic evolution. Even the beat of calypso music has undergone more than one transition. In recent years Indian music has also infiltrated the calypso form.

These and many other influences have fed into the magic that is steelpan music. In the powerful surge of music one can hear the beauty of our rare flora and fauna, particularly the brilliance of our native humming birds. (Trinidad has more species of this bird than any other country in the world). One also hears the powerful waves of the Dragon's Mouth, the dangerous passage between Trinidad and Venezuela. And one gasps at the breathtaking beauty of the Buccoo Reef, where nature has painted coral and fish with gorgeous extravagance.

There is love, too, in our steelpan music. The steelbandsmen play for nothing but the pure joy of expression. A conservative estimate will give an idea of the cost of operating a Panorama-sized band (say, 100 to 120 players) for one Carnival season:

Blending of instruments - $10,000
Transportation - $20,000
Arranger fees - $15,000-$30,.000
Uniforms and new Instruments - $27,000
Recurrent - $7,000
Flag, banner, etc. - $2,000
Food - $8,000
TOTAL - $89,000-$104,000

There are three main pan festivals in Trinidad and Tobago during the year: Pan Ramajay, the Pan Jazz Festival and Panorama. The Steelband Festival, which encourages the playing of classical music, is held every other year. Panorama, which is held- at Carnival time, is the most popular and it is every band's dream to "win a Panorama".

Only calypso is played at this time. If one should add to the cost outlined above the extra cost of paying 120 persons playing for 10 minutes per performance (20 man hours, 10 times per night for 6 weeks = 6,000 man hours) just for the preparations and performance at Panorama at a minimum wage of $10.00 per hour, the extra cost would be $60,000.00. As it stands at present, the actual money given to players is between $100.00 and $200.00 for the whole season. Most of the prize money goes to the tuner, the arranger, the tailor and for transport.

There is the other side of the coin: steelbands are associated with their home territories, who take a fierce pride in them. In the old days, steelband fights were common during Carnival time. Today intense rivalry still exists. It expresses itself productively in the total dedication of each player to make his band the best, without hope of any other reward.

Very recently, however, the harsh economic conditions of the country have led to the emergence of "mercenaries" - people playing in several different bands purely for the sake of sharing in the tiny pittance of each. This can adversely affect the quality of a band's performance because the "mercenaries" cannot learn five or six elaborate arrangements well. Something else that may affect performance is the new, very elaborate marking system for judges. Many steelband arrangers feel that this can have a cramping effect on their arrangements and lead to uniformity of style.

Although every part of Trinidad and Tobago produces steelbands, the greatest cluster comes from the East Port of Spain area and these bands have tended to dominate Panorama competitions. Maybe the people in these depressed areas regard the steelband as a way of defying poverty and neglect, of expressing the indomitable nature of the human spirit and its defiant, joyful creativity.

When you listen to the steelband music of Trinidad and Tobago, you feel the indescribable excitement that thrills along the muscles and veins of the players. It must find an echo inside your heart.

The Caribbean Carnival Series - A Living Odyssey

Sanch Electronix was the first company in Trinidad and Tobago to become actively involved in the marketing and sale of digital audio products for home entertainment. As far back as 1983, we were distributing CD players and compact discs manufactured by Philips and Polygram, respectively. After a series of healthy discussions with fellow engineer and audiophile, Peter Beckles, we came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to try recording steelpan music digitally in order to take advantage of all the benefits offered by this new technology - reduced noise, wider dynamic range, better channel separation, etc. Moreover, we felt that there was urgent need for the company to diversify its portfolio into the manufacturing of cultural products which would earn foreign exchange in the wake of a shrinking Trinidad and Tobago economy.

Sanch invited Jack Renner, President and Chief Recording Engineer of Telarc International to visit Trinidad for the Carnival season of 1984. At that time, Telarc was famous for its digital recordings and production of vinyl discs using the "Soundstream" encoding system invented by Dr. Thomas Stockham. Who can ever forget Telarc's recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture which caused so many cartridges to mistrack while playing back the 30 cannon shots? Using a very sophisticated portable recording system and one stereo pair of high intensity microphones, Mr. Renner proceeded to capture an electrifying performance of The Exodus Steel Orchestra. They played Blueboy's "Lucy" arranged by Harold and Kenrick Headley at a rehearsal in the courtyard of the Scarlet Ibis Hotel, St. Augustine. When we listened to the playback on a pair of massive Bozak loudspeaker systems, driven by a 1000 watt Mclntosh amplifier, we were more than convinced of the commercial viability of the project.

After two years of further experimentation, we made our first professional recording with the Phase II Pan Groove Steel Orchestra in 1986 with equipment similar to that used by Mr. Renner. (Len "Boogsie" Sharpe's "Pan Rising" has since been put on compact disc, DE 4017). We have always adhered to the "less is more" principle using minimalist microphone techniques and acoustic mixing of the music directly to two tracks. Between inception and now, Sanch has recorded the Panorama arrangements of every major steelband in Trinidad, mainly in the natural acoustic environment of their panyards. These have formed the nucleus of "The Caribbean Carnival Series" of compact discs. As an ongoing project, we have released 50 of these recordings to date from 1987.

We firmly believe that the beauty of the intricate arrangements and a lot of subtle nuances are lost when the bands play their calypsos at "break neck" speed at the national competition in an effort to impress the judges. In addition, the noise of the crowd, the tension of the players and the usually gusty wind make it difficult to achieve recordings of any quality and consistency at the Queen's Park Savannah where the competition is held. In testimony of this we have recently begun to release complete Panorama arrangements of calypsos played at "practice" speed ("Special Brew" and "Panic" DE 4025) which Trinidadians call "coasting". The interest which these have generated internationally suggests that we are indeed on the right track. We will attempt to analyze the structure of at least one full Panorama arrangement on each disc ("Panic", DE 4025, "Somebody", DE 4026) featuring the music so that you will be able to understand and appreciate the processes involved in transforming the melody of a calypso four minutes long into a complex musical arrangement of approximately ten minutes.

© 1995 Simeon L. Sandiford