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A swansong for Birdsong? Best laments for evicted pan side and national instrument

“Oh gorm,” David Rudder bawl out like Sprangalang. “Shot call!”

The feckless, gutless, witless lot who are not “in charge” waited, it seemed, for an edict from the top. It never came. True to form, Culture Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly passed the buck. She had heard, said one report, that the birdsong band was talking to the UWI, so she declined to intervene.

Photo: Birdsong performs at the 2015 Panorama semifinal. (Copyright birdsongtt)
Photo: Birdsong performs at the 2015 Panorama semifinal.
(Copyright birdsongtt)

More clear-sighted than the Minister who has the use of both her eyes, Nyol Manswell—a visually impaired student of the birdsong Academy—indirectly but unmistakably censured her with his response.

“This is not a political issue,” he declared, “it is a social issue, it is a moral issue.”

Bullseye!

We ask for support and they give us lip service.  The ‘we’ is the concerned citizenry, the ‘they’ the successive philistine governments we have elected.

Birdsong, born in the University, become the epitome of steelband as education, the incarnation of the pan in school idea, banished from its base basically by bureaucratic bungling or political pussyfooting and barely a political breast beaten to utter a mea culpa? Or to propose a proper solution?

Martin Daly SC found what seems like a workable one without even trying. But birdsong is not proposing to rent the Al-Rawis’ property at 1 Alexandra Street, so good luck with that.

Photo: Culture Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly. (Courtesy Elections.TT)
Photo: Culture Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly.
(Courtesy Elections.TT)

The gestation has been long so the details need no repetition. It bears repeating, however, that, although it would be distressing to learn that the panyard has indeed become a parking lot, the seemingly impatient landlord is as much a victim as the pan players.

But the message remains clear.

We ask for support and we get mere lip service.

Read Daly’s columns, not every week but certainly every month. There is no specific mention of birdsong, yet all of these columns are discussing birdsong’s plight. That is because it is the political directorate’s lack of concern for and understanding of the true potential of the national instrument that is at the root of birdsong’s current troubles.

So the repeated pleas all fall on deaf ears. We ask for support and we get mere lip service.

Hear Brigo putting it into plain English almost three decades ago now: “After Carnival, after Carnival, after Carnival, we got to support pan musicians.”

Brigo’s sung protest against the relegation of the steelband to mere seasonal relevance came long after Sparrow’s “Outcast” had alerted us all to the pariah status of the pan player.

Photo: The All Stars perform at the 2016 Panorama semifinals. (Courtesy Maria Nunes/Wired868)
Photo: The All Stars perform at the 2016 Panorama semifinals.
(Courtesy Maria Nunes/Wired868)

“If yuh sister talk to a steelbandsman, the family want to break she hand, put she out, lick out every teeth in she mouth, cast she out (…)

“Exalt dehself and relegate you so low and mean / that if they mix up with you de culture go make dem unclean.”

It’s 2016 and the Culture Minister has seemingly felt unclean enough to wash her hands of Birdsong.

We ask for support and we get mere lip service.

In “Dust in deh face”, the peerless Rudder celebrates Exodus breakthrough while contriving to remind us of the steelbandsman’s badjohn past:

“When yuh see we come down, tell them war declaring in town. (…)  / Guns will be blasting fuh sure in dis musical war. (…) we looking fuh fight; is trouble tonight. / (…) It’s a panman’s war. (…) We come out fuh war to settle a score. / The tenors sawed off so it’s booyaka, booyaka”

But it is the same Rudder who had already sought to re-burnish the panman’s tarnished image with his “Engine Room.”

Photo: Exodus steelband at Panorama. (Copyright Discovertnt)
Photo: Exodus steelband at Panorama.
(Copyright Discovertnt)

“Check yuh grandmother or the neighbour next door. If the times didn’t change up, all now we’d ah still be in big war. That is the same woman who put out yuh mother because she was in love with this panman. (…) now she boasting to the neighbour ‘My granddaughter beats for a steelband.’ If it wasn’t fuh you, gyurl, yuh daddy woulda be so dread.”

So things are better but what have the authorities done to improve the panman’s lot? The annual handouts haven’t really helped, have they?

We ask for support and we get mere lip service.

Perhaps the birdsong story is best told in the late Andre Tanker’s “Steelband Times.” He focuses his attention on a single player who starts out with nothing—like so many of those whom the Academy has saved—who could so easily have ended up on the primrose path.

By dint of hard work, however—which is what the Tunapuna-based Academy has long been offering the opportunity for, no more, no less—he ends up a star:

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)

“He had two stick in he waist, he come to beat down the place; he was young and bad. / “He say he’s a steelband man but he couldn’t beat the tune with the band. They run him out the yard (…) / He work hard to master the scales, building chords; he didn’t want to fail in a big panyard. (…) / This time he walk in the yard now ready to make he play; he jam a tune with the pan and he started to ramajay. / Hear the leader say, ‘Who dat beating dey?” Pick him out and put him in front the tenor section…”

And with his “Smokey Joe,” Tanker closes the circle traced by Sparrow with the opening line of his “Outcast.”

“Society in Trinidad for a steelbandsman was just as hard or even harder than that for any calypsonian.”

“Smokey Joe play a bigtime mas,” Tanker sings, “purple velvet and shining brass (…), / Expensive cloth he had to get on trust / cause playing mas to him was a definite must (…) / I’m the king, he thought, as he mounted the stage. They’ll all see my picture on tomorrow’s front page. / But though Smokey Joe really thought he was best, the judges thought different; they were not impressed. / They crossed out his name with the stroke of a pen…”

What will the current government do to make things better for our cultural ambassadors, to help realise reasonable dreams? Judging by the birdsong case, the answer is nothing.

When we ask for support, they give us lip service.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) poses with soca star Machel Montano during the 2016 Carnival period. (Copyright Trinidad Guardian)
Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) poses with soca star Machel Montano during the 2016 Carnival period.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

But Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, who recently took the trouble to remind us that he is “in charge,” and Minister Gadsby-Dolly need to listen carefully to the end of that “Smokey Joe” stanza.

“The judges called him back and gave him a nice, cold beer, a little silver cup and he left for Independence Square.”

Mr Tanker didn’t say it, didn’t even imply it all those years ago. But in 2016, those who have ears to hear know that Nyol Manswell had his finger on the pulse. Many a Smokey Joe whose name is “crossed out (…) with the stroke of a pen” isn’t leaving “for Independence Square” to play a bigtime mas. More than likely, he’s leaving to put down a wuk and become a new concern for the Minister of National Security.

And goodness knows that, already sullied with the blood of 300-plus murder victims, his hands are more than full.

T&T’s birdsongs, he has to get his “in charge” boss and his laid-back colleagues to accept, can make his load lighter.

AboutEarl Best

Earl Best
Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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2 comments

  1. This about sums it up; but then again, I think not…….I’ve been around pan too long!