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Raffique Shah


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If only pan music were the food of love...

By Raffique Shah
August 09, 2009

Ever so often I wish I can forget the sad state of my country and instead enjoy the luxury my columnist-colleague Keith Smith does. I can see Keith's eyes "open wide", blurting out: "Luxury? What luxury? Dis man mad or what?" No, I'm not mad. Over the past week, to use one example, Keith has focused on his community, Laventille, on the tenth anniversary of its pan festival, a feast I enjoyed in its early years, but which, sadly, I have not attended for maybe five years.

As an aficionado of pan music, I can vouch for the evolution of that street parade. In its first year, there were fewer bands, some of them half-bands, really, and wider gaps between their appearances and performances. Within three years it had grown to a mini-Panorama, even better than its St James "cousin", this written against the background of pan rivalry between East and West Port of Spain having outlived the infamous steelband clashes of yesteryear.

What struck me most about the Laventille festival was the fact that thousands of people from outside the district could attend and enjoy the fare dished out by accomplished pannists without fear of, well, being in Laventille. I mean parking one's vehicle on some back street, walking freely along the main road and liming until late night, then returning to your car with caution, but not fear. That spoke volumes about a community that in the minds of many has descended into a hellhole that you'd want to avoid like the proverbial plague.

I envied my other op-ed colleague, Martin Daly, another "pan peong" who, last week, wrote about his soul-satisfying adventure at Desperadoes' pan theatre where one of this country's (and the world's) finest steel orchestras dished out a gourmet fare of music. That Pat Bishop continues to stay close with Despers, in spite of the war zone in which the band and its members exercise their creativity and finely-honed skills, is a tribute to both Pat and the band's leadership.

Keith wrote about his conversations with Leroy Clarke, the two men wondering what if, because of the crime blitz, Despers was forced out of the district that gave birth to pan? On this latter score, I know Norman Darway, pan historian from the West, would come at my throat. Mercifully for me, Norman and I go down well, so he would sooner engage me in debate than a cussout. But the scenario that Keith and Leroy painted in their minds' canvas is not far-fetched.

On the eve of this year's Panorama I had cause to telephone and speak with a senior member of Despers. I mentioned to him I had heard that the band was forced to move its instruments away from "the hill", onto the "flats", in a manner of speaking, in order to go through it pre-Panorama drills without worry. He confirmed the rumours, but hastened to point out that the band had done that for a few years within recent times. And yes, it was because so many of its players were young, some coming from outside Laventille, and the band's leadership not wanting to expose them to the dangers that lurked when they reported for band practice.

In fact, another veteran Despers player, Eddie, who now resides in Washington, had, during our email exchanges, mentioned a disturbing incident. A couple, as in man-and-wife, Despers' players, having walked up "the hill" for practice, were returning home (maybe close to where Keith lives) on foot, well after midnight. They encountered a small group of armed men who, not so politely, asked if they were pannists. When they confirmed they were, the youngsters requested they wear white T-shirts in future!

The nerve of these "young guns"! There they were, up to no good, probably waiting to kill some rival gang members, accosting musicians whose joy was entertaining pan music lovers like Keith, Leroy, Martin and me, among tens of thousands spread across the world. If music were the food of love, to paraphrase Shakespeare, these petty punks did not give a damn.

They are steeped in hatred, hatred for their own brethren, disrespect for their elders, caring nothing about what Despers and Hilanders and Tokyo and Renegades and All Stars have done, by dint of hard work and dedication to the artform, to put Trinidad and Tobago on the world map.

Recently, I viewed a video forwarded to me by another pan-lover and journalist-friend, Sherrie Ann de Leon, in which NYPD officers were playing away, on pan, with gusto, in some park in New York. There was the police chief, energetically drumming away, as he explained to the media why his department chose steelband music to reach out the Black youths in their community.

In another clip I viewed a few weeks ago, an all-Japanese pan ensemble played their hearts out to-wait for it-an equally energetic, all-Japanese audience. When we cannot appreciate what our people have created, when boys with murder on their minds prefer the sound of gunshots to sweet pan music, we reach.

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