I know I’ve not been on here for quite some time… But, the good news is I’m coming out with my first album, which I’m super excited about. I worked with some amazing artist! Also, there’s a lot of steelpan! Woot! Anyway, I thought this article I originally wrote for Tom Tom magazine is a great starting point for this direction I’m heading. Here’s to things to come!
“Underlying the music Africans brought to the New World was the principle that music must help people live. Without being less aesthetic, this is a very functional approach, whereby music is made to give people strength when they are weak; it must lift their spirits when they are down. With music people can celebrate the joys of life, and indeed music is itself one of life’s greatest pleasures, yet it must also connect people with their ancestors in the land of the dead, and summon the deities from the heavens above. Most importantly, music must strengthen the bonds between people because only with and through others we become fully human.” – The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg.24.
I grew up surrounded by music. For most of my formative years, I lived seconds away from a steelband orchestra panyard. I remember being so excited when the Christmas season began, because it not only meant the sound of Parang, but also the beginning preparations for Carnival. It is during this season the steelpan orchestras choose their calypso song anthem, and begin rehearsing for the largest steelband competition in the world: Panorama!
My little self would stay up late, trying to feign away sleep at my window, listening to my village’s steelpan orchestra rehearse, which was one of the most magical experiences of my childhood. My brother who is a couple years older, he was allowed to play and be in the panyard. I suppose it was because of his intimate relationship with something as beautiful as the steelpan which initially made me wonder why I could not be involved in such magic. I mean, we were a part of the same magic we created for our parents when we sang together with our other siblings; when we put on our own talent shows on evenings. Break dancing, believing we were a version of Michael Jackson. So, from a very young age, my curiosity was sparked. This spark helped in my obsessive love of the steelpan.
I fell in love with the tenor pan. I fell in love with its circular, shiny chromed mystery, which to me represented, genius. I would stare at my brother’s tenor pan, completely mesmerized by what I probably did not understand at that time was the instrument’s aesthetics. The sound of the steelpan possessed me. Enough so, given any opportunity, I stole my brother’s sticks, and tried to play the calypso song our village’s steelpan orchestra chose for their ten minute Panorama reinterpretation. I did not care how much noise; how many bad notes I played trying to capture the arrangement, or how many times my brother swore he was going to kill me for touching his pan. I could not resist the pan’s hypnotic allure.
I began running away to the panyard. I possibly annoyed the orchestra’s captain with my fantasy, that I was a crackshot. When actually, I was out tuning the various pans which were left unattended. I was unaware there was a touch; a difference between beating and playing the pan. A grace.
The captain started me off on the Grundig (Double Guitar). It was both exciting and difficult learning how to play, because not only does the pan want of the player to understand rhythm, but the rhythm has to be strummed, in synced with the melodies. The touch has to be even, precise, on both pans. The physical hand coordination must execute equal independence, like harmonious ambidexterity.
The captain, satisfied that the mystery of balancing the physical motion of this hand dance for the Grundig‘s sound held my attention, told me if I learned how to play it well, then I could move onto my desired pan: the shiny chrome tenor. The lead pan in the orchestra. Nothing, absolutely nothing seemed more important, as everything meant being a part of this complete brilliance.
Though I did not have the words for it, being in the panyard meant something beyond the zeal I felt. I’d goggle at the crackshots – the steelpan prodigies, the steelpan god geniuses – in complete awe, because they knew something far beyond my obsession and shared love of the instrument. Yes, even though they were possessed as I, their lives surrounded living and breathing for this period in Trinidad and Tobago’s celebratory uproar for freedom. They lived for carving the arrangement into their hearts; for the united dance of going into battle with their fellow pannist. I wanted to be like them.
“[Clive (legendary steelband arranger] Bradley himself said that Carnival is a healing time for us, it is a golden link that runs through everybody, it is a connector for all of us, and he used the music to reflect his relationship to the band and the community.” The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 228.
My parents became concerned about my presence at the panyard. Although my brother and I are close in age, there were not many young girls, and very few women pannist in the orchestra. With a playership which can exceed eighty members, the beginner age for a steelband orchestra’s pannist can be as early as a six year old to however old a pannist wants to hold on their sticks and play. This in itself, the wide diversity of ages, symbolizes the unison nature of the steelband culture. It also made me wonder why I could not join.
“My pan sticks. Look at them. I was proud of my pan sticks. The Ministry of Culture should teach that to people. Our sticks should be cherished. We shouldn’t be knocking up the pan any more. I lost a lot of friends. You couldn’t be seen with a pan stick: ‘You in a panyard?’ Of course you play piano or guitar. People looked at you in this scornful way, even though you had the cream of the crop next to you playing pan, doctors and lawyers. I was first female member of Renegades 16 years ago, on nine-bass… It’s as though you now become the music. If your spirit not in the music, you can’t perform…” The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 256.
The panyard was considered a predominantly male space. A space born out of poverty, branded as criminal, possibly even labelled uncivilized in its early days. While that stigma was shifting during my brother and I’s youth, the attitudes surrounding the panyard – where the steelpan lived – was still viewed as one where safety and the ideas surrounding privilege was open-ended for boys and men. The image of the panyard was regarded as unsafe and was not an activity deemed proper for a lady. The irony of this dynamic’s then unspoken stigma of criminality and respectability, which haunted the instrument, is that it made the steelpan inaccessible to everyone who shared in this struggle for freedom.
“[The steelpan] limed outdoors and was wild. The piano sat indoors and was respectable. Piano lessons were part of a decent girl’s cultural finishing. It combined a classical “culture”, the discipline of practice, and domestic entertainment. For males it was different. In the US the piano had a wild streak in the saloons, where men created ragtime, boogie woogie, jazz and rock-and-roll, but in Trinidad young men beat drums and invented pan.” The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 248.
What cannot be ignored in the discourse surrounding this gender dynamic is its concurrence with the rise of feminism, and the history of the United States. As they are deeply influential, but at the same time of the shared similarities of exclusion, it is completely different for black women and girls in Trinidad & Tobago. There must be the allowances for when the United States was no longer a British colony, but the country itself was participating in slavery and the slave trade; to the abolition of slavery; when segregation began; to the civil rights movement, to the rise of Black Panther, the Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude Movements… These periods all connect together, and played a significant role in the dialectical discourse of transatlantic feminism. “[The 1970’s] Black Power allowed women active if not leadership roles, and it infected everything. Grassroots women joined steelbands as never before.” The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 254.
The lacking of historical presence of women and girls in the panyard is rooted in the creation of the steelpan itself. A history which is tied to and intersects with absenteeism slavery and classism, or in more contemporary terms: respectability. In the various forms of the steelpan’s inception, it was not even viewed as an instrument. The first steelpan orchestras were not even considered orchestras. Whilst it was celebrated during its early development in the 1950s, it was in the form of earnest political agendas. Prior to the seventies, it was not even thought of as an artform, as culture. During the 1930’s, the activity itself of playing the steelpan signified criminal, vagabond, hooligan.
“Daisy James’ younger sister wasn’t allowed to enter a private school… because word got out that her brothers were in Casablanca [steelband]. What would have happened if it was known that Daisy was in the band too? … when Daisy was six in 1944 she secretly played with [her brother’s] pan at home… [Daisy’s brother] had to sneak her out because their mother was against even the boys being in a steelband… however, until Eric Williams, who was hero-worshipped by Daisy’s parents, came to power in 1956 and his government endorsed the steelband. Steelband, initially a rage among teenage boys, was not in schools before the 1970s… In 1965 (The Nation, January 1, 1965 p.7) Eric Williams [Trinidad & Tobago’s first Trinbagonian Prime Minister] exhorted, [`]Let us catch them, as we are doing now in cricket… The schools would require some funds for the provision of the necessary instruments. But if this can be associated with the spread of musical instruction in the schools… we will thereby taking a powerful step in the direction of giving our native talent a professional foundation. [´] Yet only in 1972 did pan enter the education system…” The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pgs. 233 & 237.
The impetus for the creation of the steelpan plays to an immediate reaction to a law. In response to the Canboulay Riots, former slaveholders banned the use of African drums by the ex-enslaved and their descendance. It was feared that, through drumming, the ex-enslaved were communicating to ignite revolts in the Caribbean. “The whites feared and loathed black music-making. The noise disturbed them. The drumming and dancing outraged both their musical tastes and their sense of propriety. They especially appalled Protestants, for whom the Sabbath was sacred and the African music satanic. Additionally, the whites were terrified of unsupervised slave gatherings. Indeed, in 1805 a drum dance carded for Christmas by the slaves of several plantations in Trinidad’s North-West Peninsula was brutally suppressed for fear of being a planned rebellion. But in 1882, the government introduced a “Music Bill” that made a police licence necessary to beat drums, tambours and shak-shaks from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., after which it was absolutely prohibited. Public outcry forced the government to withdraw the bill, but Ordinance 11 of 1883 was passed to make property-owners liable for “rogues and vagabonds” on their premises singing and dancing to drums. There were riots when the police tried to stop the drum dances, but gradually the African drum was excluded from Carnival.” The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pgs. 25, 32. Because of this ban (law) and destruction of all African drums, the ex-enslaved in Trinidad began beating the stems of bamboo trees. This practice, which was eventually outlawed as well, is known as Tamboo Bamboo.
‘“White French Creoles controlled Carnival in the Savannah. Before the war poor bands had bamboo tamboo. Middle-class people had orchestras on foot, complete with drums – 12 to 14 people with reliefs. Middle-class people on lorries had a trio sitting on the lorry hood. Those glorified to play on a lorry, you get to pick of women. We tried to get through side of the truck to pull their dresses. They said ‘We don’t play foot mas’.’ The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pg. 33
Many Trinbagonians still keep to this tradition of playing Tamboo Bamboo during the Carnival season, as its significance, as does Carnival, symbolizes the August 1st, 1838 declaration of emancipation of the enslaved in the twined island under one republic that is Trinidad and Tobago.
The playing of Tamboo Bamboo transcended into the Ping Pong, as discarded biscuit pans exported by Britain into the dependant colony was the derivative of the steelpan. Although the Ping Pong was integral in the Carnival celebration, the stigma of criminality persisted, as the island was still under British colonial rule. Even after emancipation, the governance of the island was one of absenteeism regulation which existed during slavery: the dominant population of black ex-enslaved and descendants of black ex-enslaved ruled by decrees, laws, religion, aesthetics, etc… from the outside.
It is not a coincidence that the evolution of the Ping Pong to the first steelpan – wider in octave range – coincided with the period of World War II. Amongst Trinidad and Tobago’s many natural resources, the most valued was the island’s oil resource. Because of the economic realities (which I won’t go into here) of World War II, British colonies like Trinidad and Tobago, with a geographical proximity to Europe and the United States, played an important role in the supply of petroleum. These colonies natural oil resource were used in the economic market as a point of control, a source of and as oil reserves. The steel barrels (drums) which were used to ship Trinidad’s oil to Europe and America, these oil barrels became an ingenious raw material for the steelpan musical inventors.
Still under an Victorian British rule of aestheticism, religion, philosophy of life, economical value, etc. – because Trinidad and Tobago gained independence in 1962 – it was undignified for a “lady” to play the pan. For women and girls’ involvement in a steelpan orchestra, outside of providing a yard where the pans can live and the steelpan men and boys can play, meant “vulgarity”, “looseness…” Most of the women who were a part of orchestras during pan’s early days and during World War II were not playing the instrument. Their roles were of flag women, which was originally done by men and/or boys; and in many cases women showed their support of the steelband movement by providing safe havens for the boys and men who played in bands. Thus, the underlying discouragement stemmed from both the stigma of criminality, Victorian idealism of respectability, and as well as the norms of sexism intersecting in this ridiculous organism.
“Women were vital from the outset. As heads of households many were in a position to give succour to the youths at a time when they most desperately needed it, because a steelband without a home quickly died. Such women were supporters, lovers, flag-wavers, sex objects, weapon-bearers or even fighters in the band but almost never pannist. Their role was just another aspect of the traditional sexual division of labour.” The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pg. 238
The criminality/respectability of the steelpan slowly shifted in the seventies through the nineties, and this may have been heavily influenced by Trinidad and Tobago’s public recognition of the steelpan as the country’s national instrument, dated August, 30th 1992, which may have been encouraged by the shift in imperial power from British to the United States, coinciding with the global recognition of the steelpan as the first, and only instrument created in the 20th century. The country’s middle class, mothers, radical movements such as the country’s vibrant trade unions; these groups involvement in the steelband movement helped shape the future longevity of the steelpan by cultivating the instrument into the education system which ultimately made it accessible to women and girls. With these shifts in power and ideals, the image of the steelpan began to change, and more women (although still disproportionate to men and boys) began to play.
This shift is most dramatically demonstrated in 2014, as women and girl pianist’s involvement were highlighted/documented in that year’s Panorama. I believe this initiative is related to the creeping rise of feminism in the Caribbean. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago appointed the country’s first woman Prime Minister, honorable Kamla Persad-Bissessar, in 2010, precursor by Jamaica’s honorable Portia Simpson Miller, in 2006.
Since my passion for the steelpan never died; wanting to play tenor in the orchestra still absorbed me at twelve. Knowing I was not going to stop running away to the panyard, my parents allowed me to join. I am really thankful they finally did; as I daydreamed about playing for our village. With a great sense of what may have been pride, I hungered for Panorama. Every chance I got, I continued to steal my brother’s sticks… I wanted to be like the brilliance that is the late artist Pat Bishop, and all pioneering rebel women steelband orchestra conductors. I wanted to be a crackshot. I wanted to play.
The Illustrated Story Of Pan, Kim Johnson
Trinidad & Tobago National Library and Information System Authority: http://www.nalis.gov.tt/Research/SubjectGuide/Music/Steelband/tabid/239/Default.aspx?PageContentID=429