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Dear Editor: Heroes of the chord; pride, pan, power and Panorama

“Steelband arrangers are constantly seeking to craft an individual style in their arrangements which, they hope, will be recognized and acclaimed by the artistic community in general and the pan fraternity in particular.”

“Their musical productivity contributes to the development of new styles. But it is not a luxury; they have to be creative for the threat of being ‘dropped’ by their current panside if they don’t get results is very real.”

The following Letter to the Editor, which pays tribute to the tireless work of the men and women who arrange music for the steelbands which participate in Panorama, was submitted to Wired868 by Lambert Phillip, who is a long-standing adjudicator at the annual competition:

Photo: With “baton” in hand, ace arranger Len “Boogsie” Sharp puts the Phase II Pan Groove Steel Orchestra through its paces during the 2016 Panorama semi-finals at the Queen’s Park Savannah.
(Copyright Socanews)

It may not be overstating the case to say that there is a kind of hero myth created around the figure of the steelband arranger. So I want to begin by offering you six words that are not infrequently used in connection with these heroes of the chord: boss, genius, great, top-notch, vintage and wizard.

Now it’s your turn. Let your mind run for a few minutes on the annual steelband Panorama competition and then think of six words, six nouns–we shall come to the verbs right at the end–that you associate with that event.

Finished? I’m willing to bet that ‘power’ is not one of the six words on your list.

Power pervades, cultural studies experts insist, every level of social relationships. And no exception is made for relationships in the panyard, where the arranger wields virtually unchallenged power. Desperadoes’ Rudolph Charles was not an arranger but if you lend an attentive ear to David Rudder’s 1986 classic “The Hammer,” you’ll perhaps begin to understand what we’re talking about.

Photo: Powerful calypsonian David Rudder, who has sung several songs that salute steelbands and steelbandsmen, gives it his all, as he always does.

The power we refer to is not the exercise, as the dictionary defines it, of force or control imposed on individuals or particular social groups by other individuals or groups. No, power in the context of the panyard is the almost automatic authority wielded by the arranger—and willingly acknowledged by all and sundry—because of his/her superior musical knowledge.

Cast your minds back to 1963, when, playing Sparrow’s ‘Dan is the Man,’ Pan Am North Stars won the first Panorama. The following year, Anthony Williams, who arranged the music, again produced a masterly arrangement of Kitch’s ‘Mama, dis is Mas’ to seal the double for North Stars and earn them the princely sum of TT$1,000.

More than 50 years later, people still talk about Williams—Anthony, not Eric—in hushed, almost awed tones.

There is that same reverence when people, closer to the present, speak of Renegades’ Jit Samaroo or Desperadoes’ Clive Bradley. And with Trinidad and Tobago currently preparing for the big show, there are still opportunities to see the phenomenon at work if you take the time to go and see the bands in their panyards as the arrangers—often with the able and indispensable assistance of their drill masters—put their players through their paces before their big night in the Big Yard.

Photo: Ace arranger Anthony Williams (centre), whose Pan Am North Stars won the first two Panorama compositions playing calypsoes arranged by him, poses with two other national awardees displaying the national award with which he was honoured for his work with the steelband and the national instrument.

These heroes of the chord enjoy a status, one dares assert, on par with that of a prime minister in the cabinet.

What is it, then, that makes the Panorama arranger almost revered in his/her community? No need to guess; I am certain that I have already given you the answer. Yes, it is superior musical knowledge that is the single most important element which makes these heroes veritable monarchs of the pan world they survey.

Great steelband arrangers understand the peculiar acoustics of the instrument. They know, for example, that certain harmonic voicings which are permissible with conventional orchestral instruments without producing dissonance will yield dissonance when you’re working with steelpans. They know how to convert sophisticated musical techniques into simple and transparent music in order to please the listeners.

The arranger’s personal aesthetics governs the many musical decisions that are made during the arranging process, especially when (s)he asks the ‘What if….?’ question. What if I use this Latin idiom instead of this jazz phrase here? Will I get the effect I am looking for? What if I use extreme dynamics and changes in textural colour to project the meaning behind the lyrics at this point? What if this, what if that, what if the other and so on.

Photo: The Chord Masters Steel Orchestra gives the type of spirited performance of a tune that gladdens the hearts of pan fans and encourages arrangers to produce their best work.
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

In addition, steelband arrangers are constantly seeking to craft an individual style in their arrangements which, they hope, will be recognized and acclaimed by the artistic community in general and the pan fraternity in particular.

There is also their ability to ace the stress test. When, with mere days between the semi-final and the final, there are last-minute changes to be made to give the band an additional oomph or whatever, who has the responsibility for not merely coming up with the necessary improvements but also for ensuring that they are satisfactorily learnt? The arranger, of course.

Working under pressure with a tight deadline nipping at their heels, they still have to produce the musical goods. And often do. How often have we been more than pleasantly surprised by a final version of the Panorama tune that has been more than tweaked between semis night and finals night?

Respected music commentator Richard Niles tells us that the pop song arranger composes instrumental lines and decides on the instrumentation of strings, brass and woodwinds to play it; his goal is to enhance the song and find a ‘hook’ which encourages listeners to buy the CD. Panorama arrangers, however, don’t start with a clean slate; that is perhaps why Niles calls them re-composers or co-composers.

Photo: Exodus Steelband, joint fourth-place finishers with Invaders in the 2017 Panorama, is a fixture and a fan favourite in the annual Panorama finals. 
(Copyright TDC via Discovertnt.com)

Using an already written calypso as a frame, they draw on a catalogue of different musical genres, such as European classics, Latin American music, jazz, chutney, American & European pop, calypso/soca, etc, to create a sonic and emotional environment for the listener. Sometimes, they even re-combine different idioms and, going beyond re-harmonization, compose introductions, melodies, counter-melodies, musical interludes, bridges, endings, etc.

Their musical productivity contributes to the development of new styles. But it is not a luxury; they have to be creative for the threat of being ‘dropped’ by their current panside if they don’t get results is very real.

And nowadays, the rewards for results are quite substantial. Back in 1963, Panorama was a low-key event and the cash prize was just one grand. In 2014, just over 50 years later, the Panorama first prize had climbed to a grand TT$2,000,000. Today, the financial investment some pansides make in the choice of a music arranger is not insubstantial and, to quote former Pan Trinbago president Patrick Arnold, “Panorama is what we panmen live for.”

Of course, not everyone is happy with the existence of the Panorama. There are the music fans who think that the competition inhibits rather than stimulates creativity. And, as Niles reminds us, British music composer Vaughan Williams has written that, in contrast to writing or painting, “We do not compose or play music for any useful purpose.”

However, that does not hold good for Panorama arrangers.

Photo: Simple Song Steel Orchestra pannist, Makeda, dances during the band’s rendition of a memorable arrangement of Blueboy’s 1983 Road March “Rebecca.”
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

The men and women who arrange music for Panorama have a clear purpose and their music has a definite goal. Like the classical composers, they do not allow the deadlines, conditions and restrictions imposed by Panorama’s organisers to prevent them from producing music of the highest order.

But no discussion of Panorama arrangements is complete without some mention of the “own tune” phenomenon. It has been claimed that the first such tune was composed for Invaders by ace composer/arranger Ray Holman, now a septuagenarian, when he was just 17. What is beyond dispute is that, in 1972, “Pan on the Move,” a Holman composition, earned Starlift third place in the Panorama and earned him, some say, the ire of the calypso fraternity, who seemed to feel that his success represented a clear and present danger for them. Holman followed that up the next year with arguably his best known composition “Pan on the Run” but, more than 40 years later, the annual Panorama is still dominated by arranged calypsoes rather than “own tunes.”

And 2018 promises to be no different. Short season or not, there is always room for controversy and already we hear of one disappointed singer who is appealing to the public to help her persuade a high-profile arranger not to change his mind about using her tune as his Panorama selection. However that turns out, music of the highest order is what the fans will again be expecting this year.

Already, the all-inclusives are off the mark and the 2018 edition of the traditionally pace-setting Soka in Moka is already history with a longish list of others to follow. But in this extended guava season, fewer fans may find themselves at these fine fetes.

Photo: Revellers enjoy themselves on the road during Carnival 2015. Panorama music has the potential to easily transform public behaviour  into public misbehaviour
(Copyright Loop TT)

Not so the Mother of all Carnival events, Panorama. The preliminaries kicked off on 5 January with panyard judging of single pans and culminates on 10 February with the medium and large bands finals.

Who wants to bet that, whatever the quality of the calypso offerings, the wizards, geniuses and bosses that are these proud, powerful heroes of the chord will again produce great, top-notch, vintage music?

And who doubts that, proof positive of the power of the pan and the Panorama, there will once again be mammoth crowds on hand, humming, strumming, sweating, feteing, ramming, jamming, wining, grinding, clapping and generally lapping it all up?

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5 comments

  1. Getting dropped if they dont producec is incorrect . Arrangers have an
    Arsene Wenger type arrangement with steelbands

  2. While reading this it dawned on me the “Pied Piper” effect these bands possess with regard to their community based supporters and fans. Can the Professional Football league learn anything from this?

    • We have seen encouraging signs from time to time. But the Pro League seems unwilling to really embrace community grounds.
      The facilities are not as good. But I feel the benefits outweigh the negatives and they can work more with their corporations to play closer to their fans.