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How does steelpan fit in violent, troubled T&T?

Preparing a column for publication today was a difficult task because of the paradox of the visible joy when citizens congregate for a street lime but under which lies the deep grief of a murderous, contact driven and unjust society.

Why are we having such a good time in celebration of an anniversary of Independence immediately preceding a crisis meeting between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the subject of violent crime? And should we be?

Photo: Two spectators take a selfie during Trinidad and Tobago's 2016 Independence Day Parade celebrations. (Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)
Photo: Two spectators take a selfie during Trinidad and Tobago’s 2016 Independence Day Parade celebrations.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Thursday separated Wednesday’s 54th anniversary of Independence and Friday’s meeting of the opposing political leaderships.

The happy vibe of a Saturday Pan on the Avenue parade was punctuated but not punctured by the tears of the birdsong eviction.

Do we have a situational paradox in which our party mood undermines our ability to seek and implement solutions to our problems and yet those problems have not overwhelmed us to the point of a failed state perhaps because we congregate publicly to party well?

The anniversary celebration sweeps the streets of Port of Spain every year.

“Nation’s joy” proclaimed one front-page headline. It is not a proclamation that can be contradicted when the streets along the military parade route are thronged with large crowds and every nook and cranny holds a brunch.

This year, 2016, Newtown Playboys put on a massive entertainment, high quality singers inside the yard and brilliant steel orchestras in the street.

Photos: Patrons enjoy the festivities during Trinidad and Tobago's 2016 Independence Day Parade. (Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)
Photos: Patrons enjoy the festivities during Trinidad and Tobago’s 2016 Independence Day Parade.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Taking the Pan on the Avenue parade and the Independence Day parade together there was unbridled and trouble free joy everywhere, persons hitherto un-introduced breaking into conversations stimulated by the spontaneous desire to comment to each other on the music and other sights and sounds.

Then some conversations turn to more serious subjects, particularly violent crime such as I had briefly with two gentlemen whose chairs were on the pavement next to mine and who had recently been held up in a group of five gathered at the home of mutual friends.

These casual conversations hold a particular significance for me because of the interaction between a columnist and the citizens, the real people, for whom one writes.

The mingling at the Pan on the Avenue event happily included representatives of younger generations, no doubt comfortable among the pan because of their familiarity with the bars and clubs on the Avenue.

Another constant, striking feature of the pan is the youthfulness of the players, even among some big name bands. It is not necessary to repeat at length that occupying these youngsters in music can keep them away from gangs and guns.

The birdsong model activities include an August vacation music camp, providing more than 1,200 young people with exposure to an integrated curriculum of music theory, practical skills, history of the steelpan and life skills.

Photo: The birdsong academy gets going during the 2015 Junior Panorama competition. (Copyright birdsongtt)
Photo: The birdsong academy gets going during the 2015 Junior Panorama competition.
(Copyright birdsongtt)

Year round there are music theory classes that provide the opportunity for youths to obtain certification from the Royal School of Music. birdsong is sufficiently recognised, as are other bands, that music students from universities abroad earn credits for participation in Panorama.

However against the background of the birdsong eviction it seems unappreciated how well panyards are evolving into academies out of which new arrangers emerge and young musicians in their teens become capable of teaching and running vacation pan camps for children even younger.

San City Steel Symphony is another such model. They were stand out performers at the Playboys’ event, comprised almost exclusively of young persons, playing in harmony at times with brass instruments.

The youthful Aquil Arrindell, in pan since he was four years old and now a music graduate, leads them. I understand that another event that day a tiny tot solo tenor player was rapturously received.

San City members have had their share of playing space problems. Not deterred, Aquil’s obvious rapport with the youth under his baton is another stirring example of youth empowerment through music, a subject on which he is a team leader.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago's own steelpan. (Courtesy Ministry of Planning)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s own steelpan.
(Courtesy Ministry of Planning)

I was privileged to have a conversation with him.  While in that conversation, another spectator said: “That’s the future”.

Yes, it is the future, not just for the players in the band but also for their communities.  I was present for the birdsong public meeting set for an evening on a date that turned out to be the morning of their eviction.

I identified with the words of Nyol Manswell, a visually challenged graduate of the birdsong academy and of Boston’s Berklee College of Music through his mentorship with the late Raf Robertson and birdsong.

Nyol’s view is that the eviction of birdsong is not a legal issue because everyone knows that birdsong did not own the land and has paid a deposit of its own hard earned funds on another property in the community.  It is a social and moral issue.

Put simply: What is the value the country places on its performing arts?  The unsatisfactory policy framework for arts and culture does not reflect: “That is the future”.

About Martin Daly

Martin Daly
Martin G Daly SC is a prominent attorney-at-law. He is a former Independent Senator and past president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago. He is chairman of the Pat Bishop Foundation, a board member of The Little Carib Theatre and Folkhouse and a steelpan music enthusiast.

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6 comments

  1. Was/is the curriculum taught certified ? That may have been a good option so kids/people really have a something concrete to work with

  2. Nail on the head here, ” Do we have a situational paradox in which our party mood undermines our ability to seek and implement solutions to our problems and yet those problems have not overwhelmed us to the point of a failed state perhaps because we congregate publicly to party well?”

    Bang !!!

  3. Earl Best

    Last week, in the Dale’s Choice segment of the morning show he does with Tony Lee, Dale Enoch played Merchant’s “Pan in danger.” Interestingly, he found it necessary to reassure his listeners that, despite what has happened to birdsong, he does not think that “pan is in any danger.”

    In stark contrast, yesterday’s Guardian editorial ended with the warning that “Meantime, (Since when is that single word a coordinating conjunction or a conjunctive adverb?) Japan, Sweden and others are fabricating the steelpan and selling it to the world.”

    Our myopia is mind-numbing.