Thanks for the Panorama music

By Raffique Shah
February 27, 2011

Raffique ShahAMIDST the continuous cacophony in the political gayelle, blood-curdling cries from the killing fields of Trinbago, and two million tonnes of “tatah” spewed in the Chutney Monarch wasteland, last Sunday’s Panorama semi-finals came like a refreshing, calming breeze that soothed a badly wounded nation.

I make this bold assertion as someone who loves music of all genres, but also as a Trini who gives pride of place to our indigenous art forms and artistes. If readers find I have taken time out from addressing burning issues that cry out for attention, understand that this writer longs to “say something nice”, as Donna Summer sang in her heyday as disco queen. And I found that haven in Panorama.

Sadly, I was not in the Savannah for the third consecutive year. I must confess I miss the biggest party in the world, the Woodstock-of-Pan, the sea of smiling faces, the loud guffaws, greeting old friends I see once a year, and most of all listening live to the scintillating sounds of steel live-and-alive. Truth is I can no longer handle the traffic getting to the Savannah, the horrors of looking for parking space, the risk of being confronted by criminals, of becoming another crime statistic because of my love for great pan music.

However, not being in the midst of the action in no way hampered my enjoyment of the rich musical fare on offer. I have fine-tuned the art of watching the ‘Rama on television and listening to the music via my audio set. What a treat it was! From the smaller bands that played early, almost to the last note I stayed awake for as the large bands ramajayed, this was a feast-for-the-senses no human being who loves the sound of music would have wanted to miss.

As someone who has stayed close to pan music since I was a boy, a time when the sounds from the unpainted pans of Freeport’s Sunny Side Kids were crude when compared with today’s well-tuned instruments, I note that pan is still evolving. Just when you thought the All Stars frontline was the best line-up of pannists and “sweet pan” you would ever hear, up comes some innovation that makes Phase II or Fonclaire or Deltones come up with a rendition that boggles the mind.

It’s not that the musical side of Panorama is perfect. Far from it, arguments that start in a panyard over how an arranger is “putting down” the selected tune spills over into differences that linger long after the judges award points, the festival always dogged by controversy. When Culture Minister Winston “Gypsy” Peters said Panorama was “killing pan”, he had a valid point.

Because Panorama means competition, there will be winners and losers. And given the whopping $2 million awarded this year by the People’s Partnership Government, there will be big winners and very sore losers. We already saw what happened in the wake of the Chutney Monarch competition.

Gypsy’s refrain came to mind when, last Tuesday and Wednesday nights, I passed by Skiffle Bunch and Tropical Angel Harps’ panyards, and painfully encountered the sounds of silence. Where, one week earlier, there were activities aplenty, the yards looked like ghost camps. Reason? These two bands were eliminated from the competition. And they are two excellent bands that, with repertoires larger than Beethoven’s, could make one’s pores raise on any occasion.

So Panorama does have its down side, it negative fallouts. The pan fraternity must find ways of dealing with them, just as they should deal with the drunken hooligans in the area of the North Stand who caused Renegades to wait more than 15 minutes before playing for the judges and pan fanatics, putting the band at a disadvantage.

On the positive side, besides the musical treat, what thrilled me was the mix of players in the bands. There were very young players, many in the frontlines, and they blended easily with the older, more experienced players. To add to the assured future of pan music, there is a noticeable increase of Indians, Chinese and other non-Afro players generally. I think I saw Ray Holman’s “Japanese Posse” in the mix. There were whites, Europeans and North Americans who come to this country every year just to be part of Panorama.

Most of all, one has to look at the bands play, watch the sheer joy on the players’ faces, look at them dance and cavort as they tease the high notes on the tenors or drum the low ones on the cellos or base. These players spend months learning the tunes, sacrifice nights others may spend at bars or fetes, just to get the music right, to put their bands in contention for the top prizes. Some of these players are still attending school. Others hold jobs, from management levels to blue-collar labourers. What they have in common is a love for music, and, by extension, a commitment to promoting the most indigenous of our art forms.

Outside of great mas presentations (bottoming out, literally), good calypsoes (endangered species), and the effusive-but-tolerant atmosphere that comes with Carnival, it is pan music that carries the colours, to use a military term. Let’s face it: without pan there can be no Carnival, at least not the festival this country gave birth to.

I don’t think we treat those who labour in the panyards with the respect they deserve. I thoroughly enjoyed last weekend’s semis. Thanks for the music, my friends.