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The great hope of youth in pan
Every year, at Panorama competitions, we hear the best steelbands in the world playing arrangements by the greatest arrangers on instruments blended by the leading pan tuners anywhere on the planet. On the instruments are the best players interpreting songs that could not have been composed anywhere else.
In defiance of assertions even from the people who manage the steelband movement, the young are streaming through the creative gates—as players, composers and arrangers. We perhaps also need greater interest in pan tuning—a lucrative pursuit with fewer than 100 competent tuners operating professionally worldwide. Yes, worldwide!
Why then can’t we concede that pan, in all its aspects, is the best thing we do in T&T and that we need to work much harder on activating its inert potential as a social and economic good?
It’s almost like the point I made about street food entrepreneurship in T&T a few weeks ago—that familiarity and commonness have conspired to generate private and official contempt.
I recall a discussion I had with the late, great journalist Keith Smith as we walked along Independence Square in search of snacks around 1986 or 1987. “Keith,” I said. “Don’t you think we should stop focusing on oil (natural gas wasn’t as important then as it is now) as the main driver of the economy and pay greater attention to the economic value of pan?”
Silence. Then the terse response: “You think people will take anybody on with that?” It was a response that belied his well-developed views on the instrument as an agent of positive social and economic change, but also pronounced, albeit provocatively, on the question of how we perceive of national development and the factors that drive it.
Far more eloquent expression and a much better conceived formulation of such an argument would later come from public intellectual, Lloyd Best, who argued that the panyard offered a space capable of delivering service both as an “economic zone” and as “an education plant.”
Best, of course, was all the while conscious of the fact that deep-seated prejudices existed then, as they do now, against the steelband movement, based on nonsenses about which I constantly remind people in this column from week to week—the supposed “failed” status of one group, the need for urban, middle class validation etc, and so forth.
Very little of this has to do with Carnival per se. In fact, a valid argument can be advanced to suggest that Panorama can have a stultifying impact on the development of the instrument—all things being equal.
There is also a strong case to support the view that increasing the platforms for delivery of a greater variety of musical genres will have a positive impact both on its economic prospects and on the creative values that drive the instrument’s development.
The growing involvement of young people in the culture of pan brings cause for great confidence, but is problematic because it runs against the grain of the established developmental orthodoxy of our time which grants limited space for innovation and the dimensions of human interactivity that never existed before.
I constantly make the point among old-stagers like myself that there is no comparison between the analog disciplines of our time and the digital reality of today. This is important, I believe.
Today’s young people occupy dimensions provided by digital space we 50 and 60 and 70 year olds never dreamt of in our youth (I turn 60 this year). The mindset is different. There is nothing obsessively linear about their thought processes or in how they conceive of the things they create. They are capable of occupying time and space in ways we never thought possible.
For this, our society applies punishment and estrangement instead of encouragement and reward.
The young music arranger brings riffs, melodic twists and harmonies to his/her craft that are borderless and defy the parameters of the judges’ traditional score sheets. Too close to Panorama finals to get into the details, but I have noticed the slow but changing tide in favour of the new.
At the semis a week and a half ago, two journalistic colleagues confessed to their tears when the first bands entered the Panorama stage. This drew my own admission of overwhelming joy and hope and the trickles that run down my own cheeks.
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