I have always maintained that Trinidad’s Carnival has suffered in quality as steelband participation diminished. This decline is also partly responsible for the Carnival parade’s decline into what has become primarily a “bead and bikini” show, since the steelbands brought a variety to the parade that is lacking today.
It was the steelband, and to a lesser extent the calypso, that made Trinidad Carnival unique. This is not to “diss” calypso, but obviously you can party to other music besides calypso.
The pan is unique, and without it the Carnival becomes generic, indistinguishable from its counterparts Rio and New Orleans.
The steelband, perhaps more even than the magnificent costumes, was the signature act of the Trinidad Carnival.
But apart from that, steelbands need to take better advantage of the Carnival’s high profile.
The best thing that the steelband can do to promote itself is to have a powerful presence on the road at Carnival, and this does not only apply to Trinidad, but everywhere there is a Trinidad-style Carnival.
I will always believe that the best demonstration of the power of pan would be a successful reintegration of the steelband into the Trinidad Carnival parade in a manner that could be broadcast around the world in its power and beauty.
In the early years of steelband conflict, music competition at Carnival time was seen as a healthy way of channelling the rivalries between steelbands that sometimes resulted in violence on the streets, and this was one of the reasons for the creation of the Panorama competition.
In some quarters, the steelbands were even considered a bit of a nuisance, often seen as the cause of congestion and gridlock on the streets, as the bands grew in size.
As the focus on Panorama grew, street participation of the bands lessened, and it became obvious that one of the side effects of that Panorama focus was to remove the large steelbands from the streets, and contain them in the Savannah.
Many were happy with this development.
I’m sure that bandleaders who profit from the “beads and bikini” revellers would not enjoy the prospect of the steelbands back on the streets in full force.
What attracted many of us to the steelband in the early days was the power of the bands on the road, the way the panmen seemed to own the streets for Carnival.
Remember, in earlier times, the Trinidad Carnival was for the most part a middle class celebration, sometimes on trucks, before the steelband brought thousands of young black men and women onto the streets.
We felt such joy and pride in the steelband, especially as poor young black men. Something about the pan made us feel good about ourselves.
But take a look at the masqueraders in any mas band of today, compared to the mas bands when the steelbands were in their heyday.
One cannot help but note that as the steelbands diminished on the roads, so did the participation of young black men in the Carnival masquerade decline.
Even the quality of our music was affected. We bemoan the disposable nature of the so called “pan tunes”, without realising that both the sound of modern soca and the creation of pan tunes were results of a diminished steelband presence on the road.
Without a major steelband presence on the road, it became no longer necessary for our best artistes to compose pan-friendly tunes to compete for the road march, and they began to cater to the DJs instead.
In the days when steelbands ruled the roads on Carnival day, the best calypsonians in the land had one eye on the calypso crown, and the other eye on the road march prize.
So they created songs that told stories capable of winning the calypso crown, but were also structured to appeal to the steelbands.
Because in those days, the steelbands determined the road march.
Today, however, the road march no longer determined by the steelbands. It is determined by the DJs.
No longer is it necessary to compose a pan friendly song to compete for the road march.
So calypsonians, especially up and coming young singers, started composing music to please the public’s demand for DJ music on the road; the “wave yuh flag and wine” type of music .
Certainly not the best type of music for a percussion instrument such as the pan. In effect, modern soca music.
Hence the necessity for steelbands to create a new genre for the pan, the pan tune.
To many today, pan is all about Panorama, jazz, internationally known pan soloists, and the dozen or so big name steelbands.
To some of us however, pan is also about community and culture.
Since Carnival is the signature festival of Trinidad and Tobago, the Land of the Steelband, it is not only right, but necessary that the steelband be a major component of that festival.
(Concludes on Monday)
• Glenroy Joseph is a former
masquerader and steelband player. An ardent lover of the pan and its culture, he currently lives in New Hampshire in the US