It may be difficult to convey to those not of that era the special connection we had with our local steel-bands , back in the days before electronic noise overpowered the sweet sounds of steel-bands at carnival.
Before big trucks and DJs , the sweetest sound at carnival was the sound of a steel-band “coming down”.
Growing up in the fifties and sixties , carnival to many of us was primarily about the steel-band.
In spite of their fantastic costumes, the “historic” bands (as we called them ) featured mostly brass music bands back then, and never appealed to us youths the way the steel-bands did .
Steel-bands presented mostly military and adventure based mas’ bands that typically featured sailors , soldiers , cowboys , Indians , etc. , and many of these costumes conveniently became part of our regular attire , after the carnival .
A major attraction was the steel-band itself . with the bands proximity to the public at street level allowing us to feel the natural , organic vibration of the steel-band, and putting us under its spell (catching the “pan jumbie” , for those who know).
For those of my generation , our lives paralleled the growth and development of the steel-band at carnival , and many of us hold pleasant memories from childhood of the first sounds of a steel-band approaching from a distance on the dawning of a J’ouvert morning .
First you heard the booming of the bass , the rhythm section , then slowly the music formed voice and became identifiable.
Of course , if it were the local steel-band , you instantly recognized the tune , even from a distance.
And , if you were in the right location , say on Harris Promenade in San Fernando , or on Frederick Street in Port of Spain , it would be the prelude to a procession of steel-bands that extended way into the middle of the morning.
Back then , as much as I enjoyed the elaborate costumed bands of the era , the steel-bands were primarily my focus , since the pulse and vibrations of the steel-bands touched my core.
And of course, I must admit that the element of rebelliousness associated with steelbands back then also appealed to my youthful restlessness.
In my wildest imagination , I really could never have envisioned Trinidad’s carnival without them on the streets.
As a boy in Marabella , I knew carnival was truly over , when in the still of the night and from a distance we heard the sounds of Southern Marines steel-band coming back home.
Sound travelled well , back then.
As I grew older , I couldn’t wait to hang around the steel-band at carnival time, hanging out at practices , assisting the band on the road ( pushing pans , for example,which gave one a sense of belonging to the band ) and eventually becoming a player.
The community connection was strong back then ; it was nurtured during practice sessions in a pan yard environment bustling with carnival activity – tailors , shoemakers etc. would be measuring and fitting for carnival costumes , while the band practiced its repertoire of carnival tunes.
That connection made some of us feel responsible enough to ensure that the band returned home after las’ lap.
Back then , the majority of players in any steel-band were youth from the local community , giving the steel-band a significant role as a community representative.
Of course , one of the unfortunate side effects was that bands could easily become proxies for community rivalries , which led to conflict.
But in general , close community relations were important to local steel-band activity and remain so , but nothing better demonstrates the distancing of steel bands from the community today than taking them off the streets from among the people, and putting them on trucks.
Very much in the way that the middle and upper classes segregated themselves from the poor by “playing mas’ ” on trucks, in bygone days.
All in all though , with the modern focus on panorama , “crack-shots” , and getting paid , I fear that we may have lost something extremely valuable and irreplaceable .
And , as much as we hate to admit it , it is not all the fault of modern technology, DJs on trucks, or changing times.
It is just that we never seemed to recognize the importance of the steel-band in the street parade as an integral part of our cultural identity ,as defined by Trinidad’s signature cultural festival, the carnival.
And we simply made no effort to adapt to changing times.
4 thoughts on “Steelband coming down !”
Well put together piece. Back then we played with the steelband Monday and brass band Tuesday.
Very well written and explained Glen. I really enjoyed this article. I love the photos. Brought back wonderful memories. Thanks for reminding us of our cultural history.
I’m a son of 2 trinis…. I have grown up around Calypso and soca and jazz and 80s and then became a drummer at 12 and got into American metal and fusion jazz and then started DJing and got into the tech house and drum n bass and breakbeats and glitch hop and tribal house… Then minimal techno and Berlin hard techno…
Point is I love music and want to mix Calypso with some electro/dubstep/edm…i never paid attention to the actual tempo but I assume it’s 136bpm. It’s club music and world music… positive vibes and sexy and usually has a message rather it be shake your tail to dance and drink till tree(3am).
This new generation doesn’t care about anyone but fashion and social media. But there will be plenty that have nostalgia and can keep anything alive…rather it be food or costumes or music or just the discipline needed to raise a kid into a caring well mannered educated respectable individual…
I do not know how to play steel drums but I love Andy narrel ..and the renegades are my dad’s favs.
I’ll play iron anyday in a carnival
COMM-UNITY is the key word in the entire story there, brother. When one revisits the history of the instrument and the struggle of its pioneers, it becomes quite obvious why ‘Pan was so readily embraced by the masses. Far too often the ‘Social Dimension’ of the birth of the Steelpan is overlooked – this most likely because of the social stigma attached to its pioneers. Even to this day, when playing ‘Pan is ‘Socially acceptable’ and its pioneers’ names are bandied about, there is a glossing over of the ‘Glory of the Creation Struggle’.
The steelbands were not just of the community but were, in fact, the community itself. This does not seek to discount the presence of the naysayers, but they were too greatly outnumbered to ever really matter. The crisis of the absence of functional and functioning community is our Nation’s greatest affliction and the lot of, not the ‘Pan – which is only the instrument – but the Steelband – which is the joint effort of the Human and Social Forces – is but one manifestation of this malaise.