Pan Potential

By Raffique Shah
February 17, 2020

Raffique ShahAs I savour some of the best offerings from this year’s Carnival from the comfort and safety of my home, I cannot help but think of the thousands of performers and revellers out there who, even as they immerse themselves in the gaiety of the festival, must ponder the possibilities that they might become victims of some criminal act before the day or night is over.

The fact that more than 90 percent of the population will never experience or perhaps even witness crime-in-motion in their lifetimes brings little comfort to anyone. The state of the nation in this respect is oppressive, not to add fatalistic. We have been conditioned to expecting something horrible happening to us or our loved ones any time, any place.

A cousin was telling me last week about a mutual friend of ours who has resided in Canada for fifty-odd years, and who, because of his health, has difficulty coping with the cold weather. He wants to return to his native land for the duration of the winter, but he is afraid he would become a victim of crime. “I told him that the only times I have been robbed at gunpoint was twice in Toronto,” said my cousin. “But that did not ease his fears,”

Crime does that to many people. It instills a kind of irrational phobia that is difficult for them to explain or for others to understand. Yet, there are large numbers of people who have become inured to it, who cast their fates to the laws of probabilities and get on with their lives.

Take the hundreds, nay, thousands of children who form the core of the steelpan players fraternity. As a “pan peong” of note, I have watched them, over the years, change the face, and I dare add the quality, of pan music. With energy to burn, in a manner of speaking, they have almost displaced older pannists from the front lines of bands big and small. They execute the arrangers’ scores with such flair, passion and accuracy, they have carved their niches as the present and future of the national instrument.

I have long argued for greater focus on pan the instrument, and pan music, being not just the axis of our cultural development, but potentially as an anchor of the diversification of our economy. In this latter regard, what we have going for us is dominance in pan tuning, which is a skill that, while we do not own it, cannot be fully automated. While some aspects of the instrument have been mechanized—sinking, marking the notes—the actual tuning requires “the man with the hammer”, or more properly put, many men with many hammers.

I recall reading many years ago that some ambitious Japanese tech-wiz had tried to fully tune a pan mechanically, but failed to achieve the tonal quality that is acceptable. I have long lamented our failure to exploit pan-making and tuning as an industry. I don’t know how much a tenor pan costs today, but I feel certain it must be more than US $1,000. A good tuner can live comfortably off earnings from pan tuning, and with a measure of entrepreneurship added to the mix, including state-assisted international marketing, the instrument can bring in some much-needed foreign exchange.

I am aware that the University of Trinidad & Tobago has a diploma or degree programme for potential tuners. But we need more than that if we are to monetise pan. We have a rich history in this aspect of pan. Names like Bertie Marshall, Anthony Willians, Herman “Guppy” Brown, Butch Kellman, Rudolph Charles, Sonny Roach, Leo Coker, Roland Harrigan and Milton “Wire” Austin come to mind. I know there are many more whose names and reputations as tuners I have omitted. But when steelbands strike up and the sweetness of those notes, in symphony, arouse your appetite for good music, and almost in a trance, you say “Play on, give me excess of it…”, you are overpowered by a combination of the genius of these tuners and the skills and passion of the players.

I can hear some detractors warming up, ready to inject the race factor, to accuse me of bias against “my own”. Let me stop them in their tracks “one time”, as many of my friends would say. Pan as an instrument was born right here in T&T many decades ago, and there is hardly any disagreement that nationals of this country have been at the heart of its evolution, from the almost-crude “ping pong” that I grew up with (hail Son Marchan and Sunny Side Kids of Freeport!) to the full range of notes we now have.

Like the guitar, piano or sitar, it can play any music. There is great scope for it in Indian melodies, or any other genre. I am no musician, but I have always enjoyed good music, from timeless Indian melodies (I particularly like Gita Dutt’s range, although Rafi, Lata, Mukesh and our own Mungal Patessar form part of my staple) to the European classics, the Latin beat and more, much more. Mungal, an accomplished sitarist, was a pioneer in recognising the potential and exploring the blending of the pan with sitar and tabla. Indeed, his recordings through “Pantar” form part of my CD library.

Also, one of the great pannists of all time, Jit Samaroo, started his career with the family band “Samaroo Kids” that played many Indian melodies in its wide repertoire. Jit’s legacy lives on through his talented son Amrit. I need add that music transcends race and that many young Indian pannists have distinguished themselves among the said youthful players I referenced earlier on.

Because of pan’s immense potential it should be embraced by nationals of this country for its symbolism as our invention, an important part of our culture and its economic prospects.

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