Carnival: Focus on Pan
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
February 10, 2023

Carnival: Focus on Pan

Last week I had intended to focus my column on Cricket and Carnival, two essential elements of our cultural existence in the Caribbean. Unfortunately the cricket issues occupied the space allotted so I had to delay the Carnival comments for this week as a separate column.It is still very timely since following the Covid-caused Carnival drought, Carnival celebrations have returned to the “Caribbean Mecca”, Trinidad and Tobago, this year. Such is the enthusiasm over its return that organizers have dubbed the 2023 festivities as “The Mother of Carnivals”.

Fittingly there is much focus on pan, the steel pan being our people’s contribution to the world of music, our own and original invention of a musical instrument.
Carnival developed and expanded around pan for in the days when there was no amplified music, no “big trucks” on the road, it was the sweet music of the pan which provided both entertainment and music for the street jump-up.

Pan was the hub of the Carnival celebrations and here in SVG, Carnival bandleaders would, as Carnival approached, travel to rural communities (Byera, Barrouallie, Camden Park, even Union Island), to secure musical accompaniment for their Carnival bands from steel bands based in those communities. That also indicates the role of the pan as a community organizer.

However, as Carnival and the society became more “modernized”, pan as the main musical provider of Carnival road music, became relegated to the sidelines until it was abandoned altogether as road music for the bands, not even on J’ouvert.

So, to observe the focus on pan in Trinidad and Tobago, though it had never been completely abandoned as here, is a most welcome development.

The year 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the Pan-o-rama competition in T&T. It was first held in 1963 and the first winning band was the Pan Am North Stars led by the legendary Anthony Williams. The North Stars repeated this victory the following year, but emigration and other factors put paid to its existence. But there are bands, like All Stars, Renegades, Invaders and Desperadoes which are still around after 60/70 years.

What a wonderful accomplishment!

On a personal level, I have nostalgic memories of the Pan Am North Stars for the band had recorded a lovely album to mark its victory. In 1965 that album became the first record I ever purchased to begin my musical collection of the times. It was bought from Arthur Connell’s store in Middle Street, obliquely opposite E.D. Layne’s. Incidentally Arthur Connell was not only prominent in social organizations, but his store was also a leading provider of paints as well as musical accoutrements and records. He was also very much involved in Carnival and even sponsored a steel band.

My love of pan grew by leaps and bounds since then and each year via transistor radio, panatics like me, and my cousin Leroy Rose, would endeavour to tune into Radio Guardian in T&T to follow Pan-o-Rama and argue for hours afterwards about the placings. I have maintained this avid following of Pan-o Rama for more than 50 years and it pained me on the few occasions when work-related travel abroad forced me to miss live coverage.

So naturally, taking advantage of modern technology, I continue to follow the fortunes of pan in its southern “Mecca”. Where competition is concerned, it is clear that in spite of the enforced Covid break, the standard is of an exceptional level, not just by the big bands, but at all levels. There are also important issues to be noted.

First there is the undying fan support for Pan-o-Rama not only at the highest level (Large Bands) but at all levels. This is not surprising for there is a deep and abiding co-relationship between the steel band and the community. It is something that we here should note.

The national organizing body of steel bands in T&T, Pan Trinbago, has organized competition at various levels, meaning that Pan-o-Rama started since late last year.

There was a Single Pan competition which concluded in December. Given the financial difficulties that countries like ours face in giving support to steel bands in small communities and in schools, it may well be worth the while to examine the single pan approach as one possible solution.

Similarly, competitions were organized separately for schools (primary and secondary), junior bands, including the Juniors of the Large and Medium bands and the existing bands are divided into three categories -Small, Medium and Large.

One point of note is that the steel bands are no longer just playing pan by ear, there is a definitive and remarkable role being played by treating music in schools seriously and a bid to make the pan, THE musical instrument in schools. Already this approach is bearing fruit for many young people are now pursuing musical studies at both UWI and UTT (the University of Trinidad and Tobago) and already they are emerging as the next generation of musical composers and arrangers. Food for thought!

Yes, pan is continuing to go places in T&T.

As we praise their efforts and those of persons like Rodney Small here, let us see how we can give full support and introduce innovations.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.