There is hope yet for pan

By Raffique Shah
February 13, 2023

Raffique ShahEvery year, ritually, come Carnival, steel pans and drums rescued from the paws of scrap-metal hustlers hunting for a few dollars, or rust that’s threatening to render them useless, join hundreds of cellos, bass and retired hubcaps from derelict motor vehicles, coming together to treat music lovers with the most scintillating sounds and songs that could allow the “mad blood” in all of us to enjoy “we music”.

Thousands more, tenors that are works of art that famous tuners and other craftsmen had sculpted into musical instruments comparable with anything master musicians of eras long gone proudly played, these two apparent opposites harmonising to make superb music: play on, give us excess of it, we chant.

I write of the annual Panorama semi-finals, not the finals, as readers might expect me to, with the finals being the night on which the finalists strive for excellence, rendering the most melodious, pulsating performances you can imagine. But, sadly, it’s not the night on which the largest crowds assemble to wallow in “sweet pan”.

That dubious distinction, if it can be so described, falls to the “Semis”, in which tens of thousands of fans, many of whom know little or nothing of pan, some even disliking the instrument, seeing it as “ah slave t’ing”. But they feel compelled to appear at the Savannah, more to be seen by their peers than to listen to good music.

You see, because pan has not taken its rightful place in the cultural pantheon, the “Semis” have seized the prime spot on the Carnival and our broader cultural calendar. More than half of them present have turned up to party, not to listen to good music. In their substance-induced stupor, their behaviour becomes irritating to pan fanatics who expect that people who make the pilgrimage to the Savannah will observe the code of staying silent when the bands play for the judges. But not our party animals who “come out to play” and, in the process, deny others a musical treat they have looked forward to for months.

Worst of all, these buffoons alienate the thousands of young people who now play pan at junior competition level. Many have set their career sights on becoming professional pannists. I cite simple statistics or visual proof that says otherwise. Some 67 registered bands competed in the three “junior” categories this year. Those children are products of programmes run by primary and secondary schools. The least they expect from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations is some respect, some silence as they play their hearts out. “Wine”, if you wish, “dingolay”, if you must, but for $#*! sake, keep your drunken @$! quiet.

“Pan peongs” know that the greatest treat of pan music anywhere in the world is that Savannah stage, the drag and other practice points near the entrance to the competition zone on the finals night: it doesn’t get better than that—unless you go for panyard concerts where bands play full repertoires of their music. The Drag has more pickpockets than pan lovers. On one of the biggest nights in the “Mother of All Carnivals”, the hub is not quite a ghost town but more like a rural village.

The answer is simple: part-time pan lovers have cast pan back to the panyards for the remainder of the year as they turn to reggae and other beats that feature lyrics and exhortations to the young people who attend them to be tempted into mischief that could easily be converted into crime. I have heard people say such music, if it can be called music, is partly responsible for the upsurge of crime in many Caribbean countries.

So, Control, we have a problem… a big problem: we must make our local music more attractive to our young people, which is a near impossibility. You cannot dictate music or broader culture to people. If, as happens to be the case, young Trinis adopt Jamaican dancehall music as their choice, lurid lyrics, et al, we adults would be stupid to prohibit them from playing or listening to it. Indeed, if they pay exorbitant fees to be part of what they call “The Greens” crowd at Panorama, if businesses that we’d like to see promote local products to boost our export earnings instead play and party to foreign bile, then we must accept that we have failed them.

Look, there are many local families who actively groom their children to enjoy and be proud of local music, and to their credit, some schools have pan music as part of their curricular or extracurricular activities. And when I see and listen to the enthusiasm and skills that some children show as they play the national instrument, I have great hope and abiding faith in our culture claiming its space, even stamping its authority on the landscape.

There is hope yet.
Steelbands, panprama

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