At an event in La Brea just before Christmas, Michael "Scobie" Joseph, chairman of the south/central region of Pan Trinbago, stated boldly that "the steelband is the greatest crime-fighting tool in the world." He was speaking at a formal ceremony to announce the sponsorship of La Brea Nightingales Steel Orchestra by the National Gas Company. While he may have been guilty of some hyperbole, Joseph's words have some merit.
He is not the first to make this claim. I recall cultural activist Nestor Sullivan making a similar statement a few years ago at a workshop in Siparia staged by the Diatonic Steel Orchestra. In fact Sullivan provided statistics to justify his theory and even showed where other countries were using the steelband as a fundamental youth development strategy. I have also written on this topic but with the annual Panorama competition just around the corner, this is another opportunity to analyse at close range, the social phenomenon that is the steelband.
Panyards across the country including those in so-called "at risk" communities will be buzzing with activity as Panorama draws near. Please visit as many as possible and enjoy the music but also pay close attention to the intense focus and exemplary self-discipline of the pannists themselves. See how easily they accept without question, the instructions from the arranger and count the many hours they will rehearse without complaint or excuse. As Dr Michael Alleyne stated in 2006 "some of the positive educational features of the panyard like discipline, punctuality, sustained attention span are qualities that teachers claim are lacking in the same students in their classroom."
Dr Alleyne was speaking at a tribute to the late Lloyd Best who had written a series of thought-provoking articles on the theme "Schools in Pan". Best wrote that "the idea is that the panyards would become industrial estates and learning centres. We need to design forms of organisation inspired by our own experience and traditions, as well as our current circumstances". He also noted that the panyard "is a magnet of mobilisation. The youth in particular are lifted; they get both gratification and edification."
Best's seminal theory is yet to be realised and the challenge remains to move the steelband beyond the seasonal mobilisation of Panorama. There has been some progress in this area and steelbands like Birdsong are at the forefront of the new direction. After attending their annual Christmas concert Express columnist Martin Daly wrote recently that Birdsong "is a music academy for youngsters. Its events begin on time and the participants enter the performing area in disciplined but cheerful lines". He also pointed out that Birdsong, like most successful community organisations, draws its strength and inspiration from the people themselves. "No politician," Daly noted, "created the peace of that evening in the park. It was not the result of top down dictation. Self-effacing, dedicated citizens of vision and the community within which they work created it with slender resources. From this vision and by this work many communities can be restored to peace without the unsubtle bribery of politically partisan controlled special works."
These words echo some of Best's earlier statements on the role of the steelband in the community. "At one and the same time," Best wrote, "it links so many aspects of existence, it is so integral to the culture, it engenders activities that are social and economic, spiritual and material, making itself the natural centre of community." Pan has emerged as a "centre of community" because from inception it was of the people, by the people and for the people and therefore an ideal catalyst for transforming communities.
What groups like Birdsong are in fact practising is a form of social entrepreneurship which is recognised as an imperative for national development. The irony is that while these community-based organisations struggle to do their work "with slender resources", millions will be spent for foreign consultants to advise on strategies to reduce delinquency and to give our youth a sense of purpose. Despite 50 years of independence, there is still a tendency to use templates for development that are rooted in external experiences and devoid of local knowledge and ingenuity. This is perhaps most evident in the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which determines to a large extent, the form and content of steelband sponsorship.
In a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of CSR, Wayne Visser writes that "developing countries present a distinctive set of CSR agenda challenges which are collectively quite different to those faced in the developed world." Understanding the differences and analysing our own unique circumstances is a prerequisite for designing more relevant and effective strategies. In this regard Best also had some advice for sponsors. He wrote that "all big firms and some not so big ones should be recruited not so much for funding but to provide management and above all, to offer opportunities for training in a systematic way." He then added the famous lines..."the aim is to shift from pan in schools to schools in pan".
The aim should also be to shift the prejudice and insecurity that blocks our ability to see the indigenous possibilities for human and social development. As long as we maintain that pan is nothing more than a noisy instrument that should be confined to Carnival and Panorama, we will continue to miss the forest for the trees.
• Richard Braithwaite is a