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Darryl Reid plays the Steel Pan at the Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean cruise industry booth at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping convention Tuesday March 11, 2008 in Miami Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Adame)
From The Ghettos Of Trinidad and Tobago To The Hallowed Halls Of The International Community
As Trinidad and Tobago celebrates 51 years of independence from Great Britain it is perhaps apropos to examine the remarkable evolution of the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century. That this instrument originated in ghettos of Trinidad and Tobago’s depressed and exploited laboring class make the instrument’s march to respectability and prominence all the more historic.
Today, as the steelpan continues its evolution it has paradoxically retained its bacchanalian relationships that have helped to define the instrument since its birth. The steel pan instrument, (a name I’m still having trouble to associate with an instrument I have known simply as “pan” or “steelband”) has moved during its tortuous ascendancy from the realm of the poor to the sacred halls of Westminster Abbey and, at the start of the 21st century, become somewhat respectable.
Now recognized by the government of Trinidad and Tobago as its national instrument, the steel pan has finally gotten the praise that it so richly deserves at home and abroad. For the steel pan it has been a long, sometimes bitter and tortuous march to legitimacy and respect. And the quixotic thing is that it is here in the United States – miles away for its ghetto origins – that the instrument has the greatest potential to grow and develop.
Waves of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago came and settled in New York, Boston, Washington, Baltimore and Florida bringing with them the steelpan and setting up “pan groups” in their adopted homelands. Today, it is fitting that first, second and third generation Caribbean – Americans are keeping the pan alive and have furthered its longevity and popularity having had the good fortune “learning the ropes” from these original immigrants and pan players.
Of course the instrument is still riddled with controversy over the issue of standardization. The problem is that there are many schools of the pan’s musical formation and herein lies the ongoing and sometimes heated debate. Panists (again, one of those modern politically correct words used to describe one who plays the pan. I know that simply as “a pan man.”) agree that there needs to be some level and form of standardization to make the instrument internationally acceptable and to be played by all and sundry. Yet how to get there is still being debated.
The steel pan’s evolution is imbedded in the ingenuity of the poor of Trinidad and Tobago. The only musical instrument invented in the 20th Century was a grassroots, urban ghetto creation. The steel pan’s humble beginnings took place in the squalor and poverty of Trinidad and Tobago around the early 1930s in places like Laventille and John John. Enterprising Trinidadians hit upon the idea of using discarded (today we call it garbage) steel oil drums, not only for storing water, but to make music. By a sustained process of evolution these early panists added to and improved upon the instrument known today as the steel pan.
That pan’s early roots were to be found among the so-called social outcasts of the day – a euphemism for Trinidad’s poor and disenfranchised – was no accident, and pan’s tortuous march, cloaked in controversy and the like, was a virtual double baptism of fire. Indeed, the hot fires and the banging of the nail and hammer that early pan tuners used to create the instrument were the tools that ordinary folks had at their disposal. So that even after being forged and refined by fire the instrument still had to withstand the fire of vicious ostracism and scorn of so-called genteel, prejudice society that looked down on the instrument with loathing.
But in those times, like today, the early panists were their own worst enemies. Petty rivalries between “pan sides” often turned violent and bloody and gave the upper classes the excuse to say: “see, playing pan is the devil’s work, and all pan men are hooligans and Bad Johns.” Naturally, in those days playing pan was a “man’s thing,” and like early calypso, excluded women. And so the instrument, partly because of its humble roots, and partly because of its early pioneers, was covered in prejudice and stigmatized by a society that measured musical acceptance by the Eurocentric violin, piano or the clarinet. So for much of its lifetime, the steel pan – that wondrous instrument – remained outside of the social pale, to be resurrected only at carnival time and then put aside until the next year.
But that was then. The steel pan’s history although filled with obstacles, roadblocks and social rejection, was and is like its inventors. The pan is a survivor and today it marches on playing its own music and gathering devoted adherents in the process. From being played with a rope or strap slung around the neck, with simple arrangements and tonal adjustments, the pan of today is a sophisticated instrument with an incredible tonal range. It is now played in churches, taught in schools, and has gained international acceptance – grudgingly though that is – as an instrument of class.
Here in New York the steel pan is experiencing its strongest growth rate. Labor Day Carnival’s Panorama competition features about twelve bands with a collective playing list of over 600. There are more than 12 steelbands in the New York Metro Area but competition has to be limited to only about twelve bands because it could run well into the next day if more were added. Most of these bands average between 60 and 100 players. These are full steel orchestras and are the ones competing from over 40 or 50 bands found in the New York Metro area. And as new waves of immigrants from the Caribbean settle in New York the pan fraternity continues to draw more and more members.
But one curious dynamic is the large number of youths that are now playing pan in New York. There are many 10 and 11-year olds in bands like CASYM and Sesame Flyers. Many of these pan organizations also have a community/youth component that involves not only playing pan, but also getting good grades and discipline as criteria for membership. How ironic it is that an instrument that once was vilified and held up as a symbol of violence, ill-discipline and disunity, is today a vehicle to prevent youth violence and focuses on education?
Another interesting development in the evolution of the pan is that there is now the first all-female steel pan orchestra in the United States. Called “WOMEN IN STEEL” this band comprises young women from Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, Grenada and Barbados. They have been making waves in the community, not only with their sweet pan music, but also with the organization’s outreach programs. These programs help young women in a variety of ways, including help in education and job skills. WOMEN IN STEEL is one more example of the positive evolution of the steel pan in a society that places emphasis on the rights of women.
Then there is the growing fraternity of panists in states where Caribbean nationals have made their adopted homes: Florida, New Jersey, Boston and many other states in the U.S. The truth of the matter is that here are more steelbands in the United States than most places, including the Caribbean. And it is here that recognition and eventual standardization might happen.