Pan music as a tool in fighting crime

by Raffique Shah
Sunday, February 3rd 2008

SteelpansTHE newly appointed Minister of Culture, Marlene McDonald, assured the nation last Thursday that “all systems are in place” for this year’s Carnival. Her optimism came amidst a cacophony of protests, some from calypsonians, others from the pan fraternity, over the standard of judging at various competitions. This annual bacchanal has become as much a part of the Caribbean’s biggest street festival as the inane, mostly jarring songs-if one can so classify them-that form today’s (cess)pool of road march material. I imagine the minister, being a Trini, has grown to expect and accept such rumblings as par for the carnival course.

But the few persons I heard query the judges’ decisions did raise some pertinent points. As a ‘pan peong’ of considerable vintage, I can well understand why certain bands that performed in the Panorama semi-finals would feel cheated. But unlike them, I no longer blame the judges. I have long determined that the level of ‘panmanship’ and quality of music have risen to a point where it is near impossible to separate one band from another, in all categories, but more so among the large bands.I have long argued that we should take competition out of pan and richly reward all bands for their performances, once they have surpassed certain defined standards.

The bands will hardly ever agree with such suggestion. Panorama has always been about competition, and so, I guess, it will remain. I cannot, though, think of any other genre of music-jazz, classical, pop, rock-that is judged by a handful of persons, however qualified they may be. Music is not only universal, it is unique. One person’s delight may be another’s distaste. And while those who claim to know music speak of nuances that make one presentation better than another, to the ears of thousands of fans, these minor differences do not matter. Sweet pan is well, sweet music.

In my last column I wondered aloud why we should use state funds to further enrich the mas’ bands of today, whose creativity is questionable. If anything, mediocrity, not to add duplicity, seems to be their hallmark. With pan, there’s a vast difference. By now most people will have noticed the near domination of young pannists, across the board, from single pan bands to the biggest bands. Just for grooming and tutoring these stars of tomorrow, the bands should be rewarded. Every young person who takes to pan seriously would hardly end up turning to a life of crime, and if only for that we should be thankful. But there is more. Those who go beyond, into learning to read music, enhance their general education. Music, like sports, adds to a healthy lifestyle in more ways than can be counted.

Calypso is in a different ballpark. The art form has been in decline for many years. Besides the now-aging masters who have maintained high standards, and a few younger ones who have not been seduced by the incomprehensible ‘tatah’ that bring in big bucks, the landscape is barren. Before our soca artistes come down on me like thunder, let me add this.

Music evolves, and what sounds great to one or two generations, may come across like crap to another. And I have no problem with fete-lovers jumping and waving to the command to some singers. I would say only that any soldier who has had his fill of sergeant-majors barking orders behind him, would take umbrage to two-bit artistes doing the same to him during his leisure time.

Still, I don’t know if these singers, some of whom are gifted by way of their voices and their panache to command big stages, ever consider the shelf-life of their music. Those who have the savvy to combine marketing skills with their music-Machel Montano being the master here-thrive financially. But how many others are consigned to the dustbin of music history before the echoes to their current ‘hits’ die with the Carnival season?

In contrast, many of the masters of calypso and soca music have died, only to have their music find new, successful lives in remakes and remixes.

This year we have the perfect example in Bunji Garlin, who has resurrected Maestro’s ‘Fiery’ that could well take him all the way to the Soca Monarch title. It was also instructive that many steelbands chose to perform hits of yesteryear over current musical fare during the Panorama competition. Besides, at any time, and I imagine anywhere in the world where Caribbean people live and fete, one has only to strike up the first few notes of David Rudder’s ‘Bahia Girl’ or ‘Calypso Music’, or Sparrow’s ‘Jean and Dinah’ or ‘Ten to One’ to elicit massive feedback from audiences.

And I have barely scratched the surface of Sparrow’s works, without mentioning a phalanx of artistes who have left us rich legacies. The crowning glory of any artiste is for his music to live on long after he or she has passed on. Listening to today’s offerings by most of the young singers, one wonders if they would survive their music, not the converse.

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