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The Case Study: Steel Bands Battle in Brooklyn

 

By asking and answering these five basic questions, we can build a “mini-ethnography” of a musical community, drawing forth some insights into what music reveals about the culture that makes, performs, and listens to music. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, a thriving West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn, late on a Friday night in August, one passes few people and many vacant lots. The air is still and damp, and the only sounds are the hum of window air conditioners and an occasional car alarm. Yet turning down Sterling Avenue, one is suddenly surrounded by the ringing sounds of several different steel drum orchestras, or steel bands. These community-based ensembles of tuned metal drums and assorted percussion instruments play lively melodies at a galloping pace. The people in these groups (pannists, or panmen and panwomen) devote the better part of summer to their bands and to perfecting their musical skills.

 

The focus of these efforts is organized public performances, and doing well at these is the most important objective of steel bands. To get ready for these performances, pannists raise money, promote their bands, and seek publicity. Bands work hard to impress one another and their audiences in order to raise their profile in the community.

 

One of the biggest events for steel bands in Brooklyn is Panorama. Originating in Trinidad, it is tied to the Carnival season and is best understood as a music competition embedded in a series of festive activities and performances. Carnival in Brooklyn is celebrated on Labor Day; allowing many Trinidadian New Yorkers who return to the island for Carnival to celebrate the event twice a year. Early in the summer, masquerade bandleaders and designers start planning their themes and costumes for Carnival.

 

Music is a major sphere of activity during the buildup to Carnival. As soon as one Carnival ends, composers of calypso songs (calypsonians) begin composing new songs that comment on current events, social trends, or male-female relationships, or explore the general theme of arts, creativity, and exuberant pride in Caribbean music and cultural heritage. The themes are reflected in these shouted lines from the calypso song “Music in We Blood” from the 2003 Carnival season:

 

“You can’t get away! It’s in your system! It’s in your blood! Turn on your radio and run! It’s like your DNA! You can’t get away!”1

 

The reference to radio clues us into calypso’s commercial viability. Once calypsos are released, they are immediately aired and played repeatedly on Caribbean radio stations on the AM dial.

 

Preparation for Panorama begins about six weeks before the event. Each band determines how many functioning pans it has, and how many players it needs. Bands then select their arranger, who in turn decides what the tune will be. Each band presents a single tune, and it must be a calypso from the current year’s carnival season. Rehearsals begin, pannists drift into the panyards, and there begins the long and arduous process of teaching the tunes by ear. A week or so before the competition, tuners blend (tune) all the pans. A day or so before Panorama, players give their pans a thorough going-over with window cleaner and rags to make them shine.

 

Panorama itself is a one-night event taking place the Saturday night before Carnival in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Steel bands fill the area and many are busy holding last minute rehearsals. Crowds cluster. People are there to dance (“jump up”) to the sounds of pan. But Carnival isn’t until Monday. Here, it is the music that matters. At Panorama, band after band plays, and the event ends in the early morning. Judges select and announce the winners and award the prizes ranging from $10,000 to $15,000. All the prize money goes to the arranger. No pannist ever sees a cent.

 

Who makes the music? Who is listening?

 

Steel bands first appeared on the streets of Port of Spain and other Trinidadian towns. Their players, the creators of the early steel drums, were young males of African descent. They belonged to the “grass roots” of Trinidad, the unemployed drifters, the disenfranchised working poor. Steel bands often engaged in violent conflicts and were compared to street gangs. Later, following Trinidadian independence in 1962, an emerging middle class began to embrace the steel band as a valued cultural tradition. The pan-playing Trinidadians both of the Island and immigrant communities in Brooklyn (the Trinidadian Diaspora) today run the gamut of professions, ages, and interests. Here are a few people I met when visiting the panyards.2

 

  • Jeanette, 63, born in Trinidad; a grandmother and mother of a teacher of steel band, impresario, and “pan matriarch,” whose daughter is in a band. She considers the fellow band members to be her children, and she helps them by bringing food and raising money for uniforms, instrument tuning, and for the arranger’s fee, which can run more than $1,000 per Panorama season.

     

  • George, 58, Jeanette’s husband; a pharmacist, pan enthusiast, and self-professed “panaholic” who practices each day after returning home from work at a local hospital.

     

  • Tianna, a 16-year-old high school senior of African American descent.

 

These three “snapshots” suggest that the history of pan is taking a different turn from its roots in the rough-and-tumble working-class male culture of Trinidad. The majority of players in most of the bands are young, teenage women enrolled in local high schools. To people like Jeanette, whose parents forbade her to visit panyards when she was a girl, the present pan culture (which includes active retirees, students, and working people) is a welcome development.

 

Bands depend on independent arrangers. This person is in charge of selecting the tune, orchestrating it for steel band in the appropriate style, and teaching it to the band. Well-known arrangers are revered and regarded as musical celebrities inside and outside the Brooklyn West Indian community. They are well paid for their efforts.

 

Bands also depend on a coterie of supporters, fans, and fundraisers to succeed in Panorama. Rehearsals attract regular listeners and become social centers. Supporters of each band often dance in the yard for most of the evening,, and enjoy drinks and food. Enthusiasts check up on their favorite bands and make predictions about the upcoming contest. Panorama is local in its orientation. It is devoted specifically to the Carnival tradition and calypso music—the popular and folk music of Trinidad—and it hopes to convey pride in and enthusiasm for that tradition.

 

The most powerful listeners for Panorama are the judges. With their long checklists of criteria such as “modulation” and “dynamics,” they bring a specific set of sensibilities, similar to those that inform listeners of European classical music. They perceive pan music not just as Trinidadian heritage music, but as an art form that has transcended the local tradition to become part of the international music scene.

 

Pans as Artifacts

 

Each day when George—whom we met earlier in the panyard—arrives home, the first objects that greet him are a set of steel drums. Gleaming and displayed on racks, the pans take up an entire wall of the living room.

 

Like the piano positioned on the opposite side of the room, the pans are on display for visitors. They remind us that this family can afford a few expensive things (a good pan costs $500-800), has enough leisure time to play music, and has good taste (is it a coincidence that the pans match the chrome accents of the living room chairs?). These pans are there to be played , but because of their iconic power, these also function as powerful “signs” or “signifiers.”

 

Both George and Jeannette are aware that their favorite instrument embodies the ingenuity of their forebears in Trinidad. Early steel drums took shape in the 1930s and 1940s through the efforts of industrious young musicians who experimented with combining and manipulating castaway metal objects such as biscuit tins and oil drums. They know about the tremendous advances made in the tuning of pans and the expansion of the range and quality of the instruments. In the 1940s, “the father of the modern pan,” Ellie Mannette, developed an elaborate process which is now standard for making pans: the sinking of grooves in a pan with a hammer to create the different notes, the tempering of the steel by heating the pan in a fire, and the tuning of the notes by hammering the sections.

 

In George’s home, pans are symbolic of the family’s personal style, their identity and sense of themselves as cultured people. When the pans are on display in public, they are symbolic for the community that supports this tradition. Pans are closely linked with the musical traditions cultivated by African slaves working on plantations in Trinidad’s early colonial days. Forbidden to play drums, the slaves developed ensembles of bamboo sticks and other percussive instruments that allowed them to play a key role in the island’s annual Carnival celebrations.

 

Steel pans carry forward a deeply embedded African heritage, but also allow many Trinidadians, proud of their cultural sophistication, to participate more fully in the Western European classical heritage. In steel bands, pans are organized in various sections corresponding to the symphony orchestra. The tenor pans carry the melody. Rhythm pans play harmonies, “fills,” and accompaniments. They often jump to the forefront of an arrangement by playing challenging solo passages. The jumbo-sized 55-gallon oil drums are the bass section of a steel band. They are accompanied by a rhythm section—drum kit, timbales, irons, scrapers, cowbells, and various Latin percussion instruments—which is aptly known as the “engine room.”

 

The Panorama Musical System

 

Panorama is a concert, a social event, and a festive affair, but it is also a competition. Players are part of an arduous teaching and learning process that is unique to Panorama. Arrangers teach by rote. They begin by demonstrating the music, phrase by phrase, to the top players. They in turn must teach it to others within the sections of the steel band. The objective is for each pannist to perform each note exactly as taught. Unlike other kinds of Caribbean music, there is no improvisation. Rehearsals last six or seven hours, every night of the week.

 

 

A Panorama arrangement is an elaborate musical composition between eight and ten minutes long—double or triple the length of a calypso. Essentially, the arranger’s goal is to reshape the calypso into a magnificent new original, borrowing from the styles and music of American pop, Latin music (salsa and merengue), funk, jazz, and European classical music.

 

Most calypsos today adhere to the soca style, a genre of Trinidadian popular music developed in the 1970s. Soca developed in part as a local response to commercial American pop music (funk, disco, and R&B) and boasts a strong, highly syncopated bass line. In this example, a central rhythmic theme, a “riff,” is played by rhythm guitar, cowbell, and high-hat cymbal. The structure of the calypso consists of a verse and chorus which is repeated. This calypso has two “interludes” for dancing and a finale. The finale revolves around an upbeat improvisational vocal style similar to scat singing.

 

Listen to the calypso song "Music In We Blood" from the 2003 Carnival
season:

 

 

Let us now turn our attention to how a skilled steel band arranger handles a calypso. The orchestras used for Panorama pieces are quite large, between 50 and 100 people. The typical Panorama piece has an expanded structure, consisting of an introduction, verse, choruses, variations on verse and chorus, and an ending. Bridges and vamps are used.

 

Listening to “Music in We Blood” as arranged by Ken “Professor” Philmore and following the chart below, we can hear how the calypso is transformed into a competition showpiece.3

 

Listen to "Music in We Blood" performed by the Sonatas at Panorama 2003:

 

 

0:00 Introduction

0:44 verse

1:09 chorus (two-part) and repetitions of second half of chorus

2:09 first variation of verse [punctuated by players shouting hey!]

2:33 repeat of verse

2:57 variation repeats

3:40 vamp in r&b style

4:36 key change C to F

5:00 2nd variation of verse in key of F, melody in cello pans

6:05 variation of vocal material

6:37 second half of chorus (Bb)

6:51 “jam”: repetitions and variations of melodic material (improvisatory style)

6:59 Bb to C major chromatic modulation

7:09 introductory material in key of G

7:15 verse in C (third variation)

7:38 chorus repeated (four-pan solo)

8:18 coda

 

How much of the old version of “Music in We Blood” is left here? Note that the restatements of verse and chorus are not literal repetitions, but loose approximations of their originals. This gives the arranger more leeway to decorate the melody with countermelodies (melodies playing against melodies), snippets of new tunes, and new riffs. Although this version of “Music in We Blood” is certainly not a vocal piece, the performers shout “Hey!” at 2:09. This signals the first variation of the verse, traditionally the most difficult and challenging passage in a Panorama tune. Now that the band has your attention (and hopefully, that of the judges), they can show off some fancy musical moves. Each of the sections is given the opportunity to perform a brief solo. At 6:51, the arranger lets loose with a “jam,” evoking the spontaneous rhythmic energy of Carnival while sticking closely to the Panorama conventions.

 

Philmore’s treatment of the syncopations in the chorus riff borrowed from the calypso is noteworthy.

 

In the calypso version, the riff is as follows:

 

In the Panorama piece, it is adapted slightly:

 

Both riffs are “syncopated,” they stress notes played on the weak beats. Syncopation is a characteristic of many African, African American, and Afro-Caribbean musics. In the Panorama tune, the arranger has balanced out the syncopation, making it less lopsided and easier to handle by a large ensemble. It infuses the finished product with a smoother style, suggestive of R&B or classical music, or both, depending on how you’re listening.

 

Other elements one finds in arrangements of calypsos for Panorama include shifting of keys, call-and-response patterns, crescendos and decrescendos, vamps, and scale runs. How many of these can you identify in “Music in We Blood”?

 

As commercial popular music, soca music and “socalypsos” (calypsos based on the soca style—most calypsos released in the last ten or 15 years) are mainly disseminated on recordings. Panorama pieces are sometimes recorded, but steel band recordings do not have wide distribution beyond the players and their fans. Steel band audiences prefer to see live performances because the performance setting is so compelling. In addition, recordings of these large ensembles are difficult and expensive to create. The concert culture of steel band performance may deprive steel bands of a permanent record of their activities to pass on to their fans, their community, and historians from later generations. If this is true, the ethnomusicologist’s toolkit—oral history, firsthand observation, and attendance at rehearsals and live performances—becomes even more essential in documenting the history of these artists in their local musical communities.

 

Fire in the Engine Room: Performance of Panorama

 

It is not enough for a steel band to play pan (or in local slang, “beat pan”) competently. They must cultivate an exciting and dynamic performance style. At Panorama, the entrance of the steel bands is climactic. Once a band is ready to play, the announcer states who they are, their tune, and their arranger. The pannists play frantically, dancing in place or jumping on their instruments as they play, and their supporters shout and applaud furiously.

 

Performance does not only take place onstage. Bands muster support through publicity for months leading up to the competition. Steel-band websites such as www.basementrecordings.com provide the central focus of this type of activity. Bands rely heavily on their promoters (often volunteers or members of their family) to spread the word. A cheering booster section at Panorama can make all the difference to the morale of the performers, and may help sway the opinion of the judges. Hence, bands not only perform their music, but their self-image as well. Artifacts such as publicity materials, websites, and news coverage are worth studying because they reflect the aspirations of musicians.

 

What does this photograph of a group, Women in Steel, pictured here without instruments, seem to want to say to the viewer?

 

 

What does the music do?

 

A Panorama composition is a hard-working piece of music. It is created for a specific purpose—to win a contest. In that sense, its players are its “end users,” aware of the music’s role as functional art. Yet many players give up their summer for Panorama without expecting a win. Crucial to their participation are concepts of local creativity, struggle, and achievement. As several ethnographic studies of pan have pointed out, pannists perceive the steel bands—and the miraculous story of their instrument’s creation and development—as evidence of a distinctly Trinidadian or Trinidadian-American creativity. They like to be part of the evidence. At the same time, many people perceive the histories of steel bands as tied up with the struggle to build the Trinidadian nation up from a long history of slavery, colonialism, and poverty.

 

Many members of the Trinidadian community in Brooklyn face the added challenges of maintaining their culture while living as second-class citizens in New York City. From their perspective, beating pan—and all the sacrifices that need to be made to keep the steel bands going—are part of everything else that people do to become more independent financially, emotionally, and culturally. The fact that others (non-Trinidadians) have joined their efforts has enhanced the value of pan in raising the prestige of Trinidad and Caribbean-American culture in the wider world.

 

This case study has been an attempt to reveal the role of music and musicmaking in developing a single community’s cultural identity. The role of music in helping to shape national consciousness is not unique to Trinidadian Americans. Many other forms of music allow people to explore their values and experiences and various visions of themselves as they are seen by outsiders. Do the experiences of pannists in steel bands have anything in common with local choruses, folkloric music and dance ensembles, and musicians in your community? Do people prefer to pursue music through “official” musical institutions, such as symphony orchestras, ballet schools, or ballroom dance academies? Or privately at home, with keyboard, MP3s, and headphones? Now it’s your turn to be the ethnomusicologist.

 

______________________
1 Performed by Anflem Douglas, Music and lyrics by Len “Boogsy” Sharpe. From Socalypso Compilation 2003.

2 I have followed the conventional practice of changing names to protect the identity of these individuals.

3 Ken Philmore, “Music in We Blood.” Performed by the Sonatas steel band on “Pan in New York 2003!!!” Basement Recordings, Inc. Special thanks to Ted Canning and Scott Currie for their assistance with the musical analysis of “Music in We Blood.”

 

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