The steelpan and its culture belongs to Trinidadians, all Trinidadians, and of course Tobagonians.
We cannot on one hand refer to the instrument as our national instrument , and yet have it claimed by or even identified with one ethnic group that makes up less than forty percent of the nation’s population.
It is therefore extremely disturbing to me to see arguments made to support or sometimes even disparage the art-form purely based on racial identity.
This is extremely unproductive, and the worse sort of identity politics.
The major problems affecting the steelbands of Trinidad today are not problems of ethnicity or skin color, though historically class and race have been impediments to progress.
They are the struggles of an art-form that emerged from the poorest, least educated segments of our society, that is still trying to find itself, and it’s not easy.
And a large part of the blame lies in the fact that we’ve not yet fully learnt how to adequately and efficiently manage our affairs.
But in spite of all this, we have managed to make our mark, where the artform is recognized, studied and appreciated, and the instruments played all over this planet.
As Trinidadians, we can be extremely proud of our creation, the steelpan.
But as Trinis, we all share in responsibility for its growth and survival, and therefore in the blame for its current stagnation , and all the blame (or credit) cannot go to one ethnic group.
True, it came out of the urban areas of T&T, at a time when the majority of the Indian population were rural.
And , one cannot deny its African roots ( like most modern music- rock and roll , jazz , r&b, etc.)
Also , we know that Indian leaders have disparaged steelbands, and discouraged their youths from participation ( like middle class parents, back in the day).
I remember, though that the few non-Africans that lived in the neighborhoods were just as involved in the local steelband and its culture as anyone else, resulting in a number of significant contributors to the art-form.
I’ve been attracted to the steelband since I was a child in the fifties and, at least in south there have always been Indians involved, so it was more about neighborhood than ethnicity, and if there was a steelband in the area, neighborhood youths were involved regardless.
For example, Broadway Hatters had the Beharrys in the fifties and later the Achaibas; Seabees of the fifties and later Trinidad Maestros had the Lalsingh’s.
Gondoliers steelband was a struggling group of Market Boys that became successful when they got leadership and a place to practice courtesy the Mohammed’s , and that ended when they were evicted because of their badjohn tendencies and Cavaliers were formed, led by Bobby Mohammed.
And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the impressive artistic contributions of legendary arranger Jit Samaroo and his family, and the impact they have had on the style and sound of steelband music as an instrumental music genre.
There are many examples of Indian contributions to the art form, financially and otherwise but unfortunately this has been downplayed because of racism, especially that of some Indian cultural, social and political leaders and because of an Afrocentric ideology of some.
Indians, mixed race Trinidadians and others have been involved in the art form from the beginning and to deny that is to deny our history.
And in my experience the panyards of T&T have always welcomed anyone who wanted to join, and learn to play, even in the badjohn days.
The steelband is the most significant part of Trinidad’s culture, with the most potential for contribution to the nation’s tourist economy.
But it will take the involvement of all aspects of society, including the business sector.
Because the steelband is not an “Afro” thing.
It’s a “Trini” thing.