Main man and arranger of Phase II Pan Groove Len “Boogsie” Sharpe was more than gracious in victory at the 2014 Panorama. He lavished praise and thanks on Phase II’s players, on sponsors, vocalist and flag-waver Destra Garcia, arranger Leston Paul, lyricist Nigel Rojas and Gary Aboud for decorations.
But the “Boogsie” message with more lingering impact must be his pledge to form a “youth band”.
The celebrated panman welcomed young people from everywhere to “come to the yard and register”. What this inspired and inspiring idea does, assuming it can be properly implemented, is to ensure “continuation”.
Commendably looking to the future, “Boogsie” has sought to ensure Phase II, of which he is a foundation member, “will continue to produce good musicians and arrangers”. To sustain the development of pan, and to provide for Panoramas and other performances, it will take vision and concerted effort to build an adequate corps of young musicians.
This is an historic mission, equally critical for Phase II and for other bands, to reverse a worrisome pattern of diminishing youth interest in pan and lessened community identification. One result has been the growth in “crackshot” virtuoso pannists, hiring themselves out to multiple bands for Panorama. While these talented players have their place, this practice demonstrates the distance the steelband has moved from its roots. Originally, the bands were essentially gangs, offering a structure for otherwise rootless young men and allowing them to battle through music, even when the musical competition did descend into actual physical conflict.
Dr Eric Williams saw very early the social (and, no doubt, political) usefulness of the steelbands as an avenue to channel and contain the rebellious energies of mainly young black men, and used his prime ministerial clout to get private-sector companies to provide sponsorship for the leading bands. The Williams initiative, which has continued today, was intellectually expanded by the late Lloyd Best with his “schools in pan” concept.
But many socioeconomic and historical factors conspired to undermine pan as an instrument and the steelband as an institution, till today the national instrument relies heavily on State sponsorship to maintain its prestige. Yet, as the cultural product which brands Trinidad and Tobago, there are many benefits to be reaped from proper development and promotion of pan. These range from its value as a cultural attraction to the positive effects musical training has for young people.
But, as “Boogsie” has rightly intuited, no development can occur without generational continuity. This will require funding and a proper campaign to stimulate the interest of musically talented young people. Other steelband leaders, who may also be concerned with “continuation”, should be following “Boogsie’s” example.