The people of La Brea are smiling a bit more these days and it has little to do with a recovery from the adverse effects of the recent oil spill. Neither does it have to do with any plans to revisit the many unfulfilled promises that have been made over the years.
It has to do, in fact, with the success of a home-grown, “grassroots” organisation, the NGC La Brea Nightingales Steel Orchestra. For the first time in its 40-year history, the popular band from the deep south will appear in the finals of the National Panorama competition.
Some may think it is a minor achievement since many bands have been to the “Big Yard” before and a few have won the top title several times. But for a community like La Brea—where the people are viewed by some as insignificant and the youth in particular are characterised as lazy and without ambition and discipline—it is a major success story.
In previous articles, I wrote that many of the problems affecting our communities can be resolved if we give greater support to those indigenous groups that command the respect and trust of the community. Instead there seems to be a preference for imported solutions designed by people who have neither understanding nor empathy for the communities in which they intervene. It is similar to the “I know what is good for you” attitude of the colonial masters and the ruling elites who succeeded them.
The late Lloyd Best, who wrote extensively on the importance of the steelband to community development, noted that “we need to design forms of organisation inspired by our own experience and traditions, as well as our current circumstances. There is no reason to persist with ill-fitting ideas whether borrowed from the left or the right”.
He emphasised the role of pan as a vehicle for developing young people, pointing out that “the youth in particular gravitate to it because they are lifted up; they get both gratification and edification”. This explains the ever increasing number of young people who are joining steelbands across the country and enjoying themselves on the Panorama stage.
On top of that, there is also a Junior Panorama competition that caters to an even younger cohort. So it is a bit strange to hear that a major reason for the so-called “Pan Splash” was to encourage the younger generation to get involved in steelband. They are already there and the challenge is to capitalise on their involvement by expanding the role of the steelband as an instrument (pardon the pun) of development, especially at the community level.
Best also touched on this aspect and wrote that the panyard “is integral to the community, it engenders activities that are social and economic, spiritual and material, making itself the natural centre of community”. The possibilities are enormous and several steelbands have already begun to discover them, including the highly innovative Birdsong from Tunapuna. Down in La Brea, Nightingales is beginning to understand its role, not only in terms of steelband music but as a catalyst for community mobilisation and youth development.
While sponsorship by the National Gas Company (NGC) has given a tremendous boost to the band, much of the recent success is due to a selfless leadership cadre that is deeply rooted in the community. Most of them have been involved with Nightingales and various groups in La Brea for years, and the management committee ranges from retired school principal Michael Scott to young Julius Wilson who is also president of the La Brea Sport Foundation.
The captain, Tyrell Marcelle, has been with the band since its inception in 1974 and together with manager Errol Joseph they form an important link between the old and the new. The committee is also fortunate to have Hollis Alexander, a Vessigny son-of-the-soil, as its chairman since his experience as a former official of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union’s central executive gives him the negotiating skills that are crucial to the future success of the band.
Last year, the management committee got together with the stage-side members and formulated a three-year strategic plan. Interestingly, one of their main objectives in the plan for 2014 was qualification for the National Panorama finals. So said, so done.
Another strategic objective is the construction of a modern pan theatre that will operate not only as a home for the band, but also as a cultural centre for the region. State-owned Petrotrin is expected to provide the land while sponsor NGC will assist with the construction. The facility will be shared by the La Brea Police Youth Club, another key community-based organisation that now has over 200 boys and girls within its ranks.
The linkages between groups are very important for sustainable community development since they provide a safeguard against the “one-man show” syndrome that stifles so many communities. And it is also refreshing to see that the new president of the La Brea Village Council, Lyndon Cave, is a member of both Nightingales and the Police Youth Club. Once the leaders in a community come together and work collectively in support of the legitimate aspirations of the people, things will turn around.
Hopefully the success in the 2014 Panorama, as meaningless as it may be to some, will give the people of La Brea, especially the youth, the self-confidence and self-belief to fulfil the vast potential that lies within their community.
• Richard Braithwaite is a