Nestor Sullivan was modestly described as manager of Pamberi Steel Orchestra when we lost him at the beginning of this month.
My few precious interactions with him and his cool, dry witticisms caused me to become aware that he was a tireless presenter of scholarly but practical papers on the root and evolution of pan music. He understood the untapped market potential for steelband music and the ability to earn foreign exchange from performances abroad.
In his Master of Arts thesis, Sullivan examined the fundamentals for further development of the steelband movement. In his numerous papers and interviews, he highlighted the business of steelband in the specific areas of instrumentation, musicianship and administration.
He also laid out the history of steelband by eras and the foundational role of Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean nationals in the development of pan globally.
In his presentation on the latter, he acknowledged the significance of the diaspora and concluded:
“The developments in steelband/carnival in the adopted territories of T&T and Caribbean nationals came about spontaneously. Today carnival arts are part of the curriculum at schools and institutions across the ‘first world’ societies of UK, USA and Canada. This is due to the initial inputs of T&T and Caribbean nationals.
“If we prepare for the future and examine the rest of the world for possible markets for carnival and carnival arts products, we can predict a serious impact on foreign exchange earnings for our country.
“Apart from all the talk, I really believe that it is time that we take ourselves seriously and do the ground-work to prepare our people for this multi-million-dollar global industry.”
Sadly, we have been missing this boat. Much of the groundwork has not been done while competing venues have been refining presentation of the arts, which we originated, as well as their event infrastructure and routes. We may lose market share to venues sharper than us despite the brilliance of our artistes.
Co-incidentally, within a few days of the news of Sullivan’s death, it was announced that Tobago is to have its own carnival at the end of October and will move towards having an annual Tobago Carnival to take its place among the other carnivals of the world.
Will the events focus on competition or will different formats be explored?
Hopefully, the organisers of this Tobago event will think carefully about what aspects of Carnival should be positioned to make a positive impression within the global carnival arts industry and to attract the tourism operators, leading representatives of which should be invited before we pack up the place with ministers, carnival ‘officials’ and their satellites on freebies.
As I wrote in 2018 when reviewing the boast of Trinidad having the greatest show on earth: ‘it is now acknowledged that formerly significant offerings of the Carnival product have declined in quality but have been kept out of liquidation by policy incoherent taxpayer subsidy’.
Nestor Sullivan pointed out opportunities to promote pan internationally. He lamented that, on the occasions of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and hosting the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 2009, we did not adequately promote pan music.
He saw the OAS as one means of reaching out to Latin America, which is a huge market for music. We also have rhythmic linkages with African and Latin music.
In keeping with his export vision, Sullivan acted in the global market. He developed a relationship between Pamberi and Japan as a result of a casual meeting while abroad with some Japanese, who listened to a Pamberi CD and as a result introduced them to their Japanese connections.
According to an interview in the Trinidad Guardian in 2011, Pamberi began touring Japan in 1993 and, apart from a two-year break, ‘we have been playing there ever since’.
My limited experience working with performing groups in pan and dance has shown me that exposure internationally readily leads to other engagements abroad. The performances of authentic top drawer artistes in well-produced conditions sell themselves.
Perhaps the refreshed Tobago House of Assembly will encourage its promotional agencies to limit the insatiable desire for partisan control and to avoid the accommodation of mediocrity for political ends.