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Raffique Shah


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Future in the hands of young pannists

By Raffique Shah
February 22, 2009

By the time people are sober or sane enough to read this column, this year's Carnival celebrations will have been just about over, or close to it. A Carnival Sunday column is one of the toughest the average columnist must write as he stares at a blank computer screen. As a Trini-to-the-bone who follows the festival closely, scintillating notes from Wednesday night's Panorama finals (small and medium bands) still echo in my mind, much the way last night's (Thursday) calypso-categories-finals' lyrics and melodies do.

Only the daring or the reckless writer would venture into seemingly irrational judges' minds to predict which big steelband would take the major Panorama title. And given the lyrics and melodies of most finalists in the Calypso Monarch competition, again, it would be sheer folly to forecast how the "horses will run" at tonight's Dimanche Gras competitions. I must confess, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality calypsoes that I heard, in most instances for the first time, at last Saturday's semi-finals. That proved the point that among the 30-odd radio stations we have in this country, calypso and pan-fans can expect little air-play for some of the better tunes, while the one-season-wonders dominate the airwaves.

Among calypsonians who sang at the "semis", I was impressed with Tigress' "Wajang", Gypsy's "Supply and Demand", Bally's "Amigo" and Brian London's "A Nation's Son". Now, here I go again, like the proverbial fool, daring to enter where angels fear to tread. Still, I cannot help but comment on what I thought were cleverly-crafted lyrics blended with good melodies and delivered with stage performances that ranked among the best I've seen or heard.

Through the years, though, I have learned to never dismiss singers like Sandra, Chalkdust and Cro Cro, if only because these three have the talent to take their performances to surprising heights on competition night.

How many times had "Chalkie" been written off before the show, only to add new lyrics, change the song's tempo and emerge with a winning formula on Dimanche Gras night? Too many to remember, I tell you. The "Midget" makes up for what he lacks in melody with powerful stage performances. And Sandra, but for her songs over the past few years seemingly stuck in the dirge-mode, is a class act.

On the political side of the art form, I trust Prime Minister Manning has noted that all the songs-and there were many-that were critical of his governance style, won lusty applause from audiences that are usually heavily PNM. All Rounder's calypso on the firing of Keith Rowley, which he sang at Wednesday night's political commentary category, is a gem. To add to the PM's woes, Tigress' "Wajang" all but savaged his Panday-like treatment of a PNM son who has served the party well. And Bally's "Amigo" signalled that there is rising discontent in the ranks of the ruling party, worst of all from its ever-faithful bards and core-Skinner-Park supporters. Even Gypsy, who unfairly endured hell because of his political allegiance, was welcomed like the prodigal son at the "semis".

But who knows what the judges would decide on tonight? Or what they did last night at the Panorama finals? Last week, an ex-soldier who is connected to a small band-and let me add that many ex-military personnel are providing quality leadership in pan and mas' bands-called to plead with me to write something about the judging. "Raf, these judges are hooked on big names, not on the quality of the bands' performances," he said.

Given the calibre of the judges, their experience in music, I shan't take public issue with their evaluations. But I do gripe when I experience sentiments similar to my friend's. I did not hear the performances of all bands in the small and medium categories, but for me Tobago's Buccooneers put down a spirited piece of music that was hard to beat. Yet Clico Sforzata, no doubt shaking off their future-sponsorship worries, beat them into second place. I'd listened to Arima Golden Symphony earlier, in the small bands category, and thought its performance was a winning one.

Among the big bands, who would dare wager money on any one band-even Boogsie's Phase II? True, the pan maestro has the ability to weave magic on the special night, and players who are capable of executing his composition and arrangement in a devastating manner. Still, who is brave enough to challenge the genius of Pelham Goddard and Exodus, the versatility of Robbie Greenidge and Despers, or the reputation of Leon Edwards and All Stars? And Edwin Pouchet's Silver Stars, having listened to them during the "semis", seems set to return to big-band competition with vengeance.

If there is a bright side to murderous darkness that has enveloped this country, it resides with the thousands of children who have taken over the front-lines of our steelbands. Just listening to them play the music composed and arranged by the pan-masters is sheer joy. They, not the mindless young criminals, will chart our tomorrow. The former will fall like the bum-bum flies they are. Our young pannists will scale musical heights like nothing we have seen in the past.

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