Once again the Birdsong Music Academy rose to the occasion and produced a scintillating performance at its benefit concert on June 21 at NAPA in Port of Spain.
Last year at Queen's Hall the young musicians wowed the audience at their first ever benefit and followed this with another stellar performance at Christmas.
The programme notes explain that "Birdsong Academy reaches beyond the steelpan to include other instruments (keyboard, string, wind, brass and other percussion instruments) as it prepares students to be well-rounded musicians with the skills and competencies to enjoy a lifetime of music".
Birdsong is being modest because its greatest achievement is the development of well-rounded human beings equipped with the self-confidence and self-discipline to succeed in life. And it does it without charging any fees, an amazing feat, especially at a time when few people do anything except for financial gain.
The primary objective of the NAPA concert was to raise money for the Academy's scholarship fund which seeks to "expose our top students to quality tertiary level music education".
Two scholarship recipients performed at the benefit concert—vocalist Nyol Manswell who attends Berklee College in the US and Derianne Dyett, a student at the Prince Claus Conservatoire in the Netherlands.
The concert itself was a treat for music-lovers with the young musicians showing off their skills while a star-studded cast of special guests added to an evening of musical excellence.
The Birdsong guest list included local jazz vocalist Vaughnette Bigford, Frankie McIntosh, the doyen of calypso arrangers and internationally acclaimed, US-born pannist Andy Narrell.
Narrell's admiration for the work done at the Birdsong Music Academy is unmistakable. The following day he remarked, "I was knocked out by the performances. The playing was beautiful with some very creative young musicians doing their thing, and real interaction between us old timers and the kids."
He said he had no hesitation in accepting the invitation to perform because "this is the kind of music programme I want to be involved with, encourage, and help develop. A few years ago I came to Birdsong's panyard and I really liked what I saw.
"I've been involved with music programmes like that and I believe it's the way we should be approaching music education in Trinidad and Tobago."
He added: "Birdsong is going in the right direction. They're offering instruction in a wide range of instruments, introducing the kids to theory and musical literacy, preparing them to go on to the next level and giving the young musicians a rounded musical education that they can go in any direction with."
The legendary Frankie McIntosh is equally enthusiastic and he believes that Birdsong "emerges as a beacon" because of its unique, indigenous approach to music education. He adds: "I hope that its light will serve to illuminate the minds of others across the Caribbean."
To this end, Birdsong is fortunate to have the genius of world-renowned, son-of-the-soil Raf Robertson as the director of the Birdsong Small Ensemble which is made up of its more accomplished students.
Robertson echoes the sentiments of Narrell and McIntosh but laments the disregard for steelband music in T&T.
He says: "Music is a blessing and the world is waiting to be blessed by our music. However, they are getting tired of waiting and they are moving ahead to embrace the steelband and that is why the instrument is growing in popularity in the US, Japan and all across Europe."
He sees Birdsong as "an agent of change" because it is encouraging the youth "to see themselves more than just pannists but as musicians who play pan".
In a country where foreign templates and imported solutions are preferred, the Birdsong Music Academy has shown that most of the resources for genuine progress are available right here at home.
It is also a reminder that our youth are no less gifted than their overseas counterparts and that, under the right leadership, they are a capable of exemplary self-discipline and achievement.
Fortunately, the Ministry of National Security has recognised the value of the work being done at the Academy and has begun an important pilot project to replicate "the Birdsong Model" in seven communities.
Some years ago the late Lloyd Best articulated an innovative "School in Pan" theory which sought "to build community spirit and guide the transformation of young persons by giving them a means of creative expression through their involvement with the steelband".
It's good to see that some aspects of Best's idea are gaining traction and kudos to Birdsong and the ministry for this initiative.
I hope they will incorporate the various Police Youth Clubs since these community-based youth groups, despite their tremendous potential, remain largely ignored and underutilised.
In 38 years Birdsong has evolved from a competent steelband at the annual Panorama to an all-year-round music academy providing top-quality music education. And it has done so while remaining true to its community roots and the spirit of the steelband.
This requires vision and superior management skills and Birdsong is blessed with both in people like economist Dennis Phillip, the self-effacing intellect behind the Academy.
The recent performance of Birdsong and its outstanding work over the years deserve the highest commendation. Perhaps it is best summed up in the spontaneous outburst from an ecstatic fan at end of the show: "Birdsong is brilliant!"
• Richard Braithwaite is a