I have always maintained that Trinidad’s Carnival has suffered in quality as steel-band participation in the carnival parade has diminished.
The most visible demonstration of this over the last few years is the fact that while rest of the carnival parade has deteriorated into a semi pornographic display of beads , bikinis and flesh , the only steelband to seriously participate in the parade , Trinidad All Stars. has managed to win Band of The Year honors two years in a row.
Because it was the steel-band, and to a lesser extent the calypso, that made Trinidad Carnival unique.
This is not to “dis” calypso, but obviously you can party to other music besides calypso .
The pan is unique,and without its participation the Carnival parade becomes generic, indistinguishable from Rio or New Orleans.
The steelband,perhaps more even than the magnificent costumes, was the signature act of the Trinidad Carnival.
But apart from that, steelbands need to take better advantage of the Carnival’s high profile.
The best thing that the steelband can do to promote itself is to have a powerful presence on the road at Carnival, and this does not only apply to Trinidad, but every where there is a Trinidad style Carnival.
I will always believe that the best demonstration of the power of pan would be a successful re-integration of the steelband into the Trinidad Carnival parade in a manner that could be broadcast around the world in its power and beauty.
In the early years of steelband conflict, music competition at carnival time was seen as a healthy way of channeling the rivalries between steelbands that sometimes resulted in violence on the streets, and this was one of the reasons for the creation of the Panorama competition..
In some quarters , the steelbands were even considered a bit of a nuisance, often seen as the cause of congestion and gridlock on the streets, as the bands grew in size.
As the focus on panorama grew, street participation of the bands lessened, and it became obvious that one of the side effects of that panorama focus was to remove the large steelbands from the streets, and contain them in the savannah.
Many were not unhappy with this development.
I’m sure that bandleaders who profit from the “beads and bikini” revelers would not enjoy the prospect of the steelbands back on the streets in full force.
What attracted many of us to the steelband in the early days was the power of the bands on the road, the way the panmen seemed to own the streets for Carnival .
Remember, in earlier times, the Trinidad Carnival was for the most part a middle class celebration , sometimes on trucks, before the steelband brought thousands of young black men and women onto the streets.
We felt such joy and pride in the steelband, especially as poor young black men. Something about the pan made us feel good about ourselves.
But take a look at the masqueraders in any mas band of today, compared to the mas bands when the steelbands were in their heyday.
One cannot help but make a correlation to the fact that as the steelbands diminished on the roads, so did the participation of young black men in the carnival masquerade.
Even the quality of our music was affected. We bemoan the disposable nature of the so called “pan tunes” , without realizing that both the sound of modern soca and the creation of pan tunes were results of a diminished steelband presence on the road.
Without a major steelband presence on the road, it became no longer necessary for our best artistes to compose pan friendly tunes to compete for the road march, and they began to cater to the DJ’s instead.
In the days when steelbands ruled the roads on Carnival day, the best calypsonians in the land had one eye on the Calypso crown, and the other eye on the Road March prize.
So they created songs that told stories capable of winning the calypso crown, but were also structured to appeal to the steelbands.
Because in those days, the steelbands determined the Road March.
Today, however, the Road March is no longer determined by the steelbands, it is determined by the DJs.
No longer is it necessary to compose a pan friendly song to compete for the Road March.
So calypsonians, especially up and coming young singers, starting composing music to please the public’s demand for DJ music on the road; the “wave yuh flag and wine” type of music .
Certainly not the best type of music suited for a percussion instrument such as the pan.
In effect, modern soca music.
Hence the necessity for steelbands to create a new genre for the pan, The Pan Tune.
To many today, pan is all about panorama, jazz, internationally known pan soloists, and the big name dozen or so steelbands.
To some of us however, pan is also about community and culture.
Since Carnival is the signature festival of Trinidad and Tobago , the Land of the Steelband, it is not only right, but necessary that the steelband be a major component of that festival.
To me, growth of the steelband means more participation by our youth, more opportunities to generate income, and more steelband activities throughout the year.
This is why I have been an advocate for moving the Panorama to another time of year, maybe as the climax of a month long pan festival.
The carnival season is relatively short, with many aspects of culture – chutney, soca, calypso- competing with each other for location, time and the fan’s carnival dollar.
From purely a business perspective, it would seem to make sense to move the Panorama to a time of year when there is little cultural competition.
The Panorama could then be scheduled to give all aspects of the steelband time to be sold, promoted and advertised , and include all categories of steelbands ; single pan , small ,medium and large bands.
And don’t tell me there won’t be support in T&T for panorama as a stand alone festival at a time of year with no significant cultural competition.
If that is the case then we may as well surrender all our aspirations for continued growth of the steelband.
This would allow the bands to concentrate fully on Carnival, when with planning, the bands could have fun , entertain the public with shows, dances, bigger street competitions etc., and (hopefully) make some money.
And give the steelbands two big festivals annually.
I firmly believe that Panorama can be successful as a separate festival, even with the possibility of growth into an international competition.
For many steelbands, their activities for the year end with their participation in Panorama, and for some bands this comes early, and the panyard is dead until the next Panorama- the “dead Panyard Syndrome”.
Carnival time was the time when the communities embraced their steelband and the panyard became a focus of pre Carnival actives for many, since the practice session was usually a mini pan concert.
This is when many discovered and learnt to love their local steelband, and how bands developed their fan base that supported them on the streets at Carnival.
Unfortunately most Carnival practice sessions revolve around the Panorama, making the practice session relatively boring for the casual fan.
The mobile steelband on the road was an artform unto itself, but was never truly appreciated as such.
Even the act of pulling the pans represented the closeness of the link between the steelband and the community.
Deliberately or not, those ties have been weakened, and the big steelbands have been contained in the savannah.
Steel-band Carnival Parade on Frederick Street , Port of Spain , Trinidad , 1956
Now let me state categorically that I have nothing against Panorama. I love the festival and have enjoyed the great Panorama performances.
But growth of modern Panorama has taken away from most bands abilities to fully participate in the Carnival.
I think this is unfortunate, as I think that the Carnival season should be prime time for the steelband to be displayed to the world.
Because I also happen to think that the steelband was made for the road.
This is how many of us fell in love with the steel band in the early days; the mobile dynamic steelband on the road, not on a stage.
In the old days, we usually had a stage side that kept the band going through the year, but the big thing, the thing we all looked forward to, was strutting our stuff on the road at Carnival.
So ingenious ways were developed to make the pan mobile.
The Panorama steelband has never been a “stage” side. It is a glorified “road” side. Those wheels were really not meant to bring pans on a stage, they were meant for mobility on the road.
And modern Panorama music is not Carnival party music, or road music. It has become classical music for pan.
Music that is more about the artistry of pan , than the vibration of steelband music.
Returning the bands to the road (and hopefully the dance hall) will encourage the bands to practice and learn dance music each year.
There are ways this could be done with professionalism.
Bands must be able to meet the needs of masqueraders and revelers, something which we’ve never really done properly.
Monies that annually go to a few top bands as panorama prize money could be used instead to assist all bands with viable programs to prepare and support a professional presentation on the road.
There are enough panists that a system of shifts could be used.
Paid assistants ( pullers) could assure mobility, and modern more flexible carriages can be designed for increased mobility.
Decisions about special routes, times, etc. can be made in conjunction with Government and the NCC.
There are a lot of good ideas out there, and, as the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.
There was a time when bands like Solo Harmonites, Silver Stars, Invaders, Desperadoes, Cavaliers and All Stars annually had musical repertoires capable of putting out a record album every year.
That was in the 1960s and 70s.
This is the 21st century.