Myth vs Science – Part One

October 31, 2000

BERTIE MARSHALL has historically enjoyed ultimate respect from the pan fraternity for his every innovation or endorsement, not the least of which was the concept of sheltering delicate pans and dedicated players under canopies.

There are those who confer this dubious credit on Tony Williams of the Pan Am North Stars Steel Orchestra. However, scientific opinion coming to light recently, indicates that whoever was initially responsible for the installation of canopies might have inadvertently overstated their usefulness.

More than 36 years after the first canopies appeared over pan racks, not just the actual construction but the largely useless concept seems extraordinarily difficult to dismantle.

Today, no self-respecting steel orchestra goes to the annual Panorama competition without these frightfully expensive sheet-metal constructions, even in the absence of any evidence that canopies help their music.

Franklyn Ollivieri, a leading player with Marshall’s Hilanders in the 1960s, last Wednesday spoke between chuckles about how the famous Laventille band came to have its first set of canopies and the rationale behind that development.

University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturers/pan researchers Dr Derek Gay and Dr Clemont Imbert also spoke to the Daily Express of their findings on the same subject.

And Jit Samaroo, musical director of BP Amoco Renegades Steel Orchestra, remembered the flak he received for that one occasion on which he removed the band’s precious canopies for a Panorama final.

According to Ollivieri, Marshall’s idea was designed to thwart the effects of Carnival-day sun, coupled with stick impact on the notes of his delicate instruments; a combination that often threw them off pitch.

“At first, Bertie used to have us pour water on the pans when the sun got them hot,” Ollivieri said. “In fact, it was Bertie who started drilling holes in the grooves between the notes, to get the water to run off. It was not called a bore-pan then and had nothing to do with sound.”

Nor, as Ollivieri points out, did the canopies.

“It was all about the sun and the problem of finding water when we were in the middle of Port of Spain,” he said. “It was in 1964 that Hilanders first used canopies. We tied broomsticks to the pan racks and stretched tablecloths on top to keep the sun off the pan and the player. My mother’s red and white chequered tablecloth was actually the first canopy.”

Other steelbands, mistaking Marshall’s expediency for another technological advancement, hurried to not only replicate the canopy, but “improve” upon the original idea, eventually arriving at sheet-metal versions, which they continue to parade proudly, as one would the results of careful study.

But scientific research indicates otherwise.

Dr Gay and Dr Imbert, who have spent many years studying the acoustic behaviour of the steelpan, remain bemused by the enthusiasm with which otherwise astute steelband managers rush to construct metal canopies for their pans.

Speaking to the Daily Express at the end of the International Conference on the Science and Technology of the Steelpan earlier this month, Gay said: “Canopies do nothing for the sweetness of the music and certainly make no sense in terms of the distribution of sound. It is one of the myths of the steelband movement for which we can find no basis in science.”

Imbert was equally dismissive of the canopy concept, although emphasising that his research into the dispersal and radiation of pan sounds continues.

“What I have so far discovered is that canopies do nothing special for the bands,” he said. “I am currently involved in a project with Sanch Electronics to further explore how sound radiates from the pan, but there is no evidence anywhere at this time to suggest that canopies provide any kind of advantage.”

Samaroo, recognising that canopies had never impacted positively on his band’s chances, took the bold step of removing them for the Panorama final of 1991, when the Renegades Steel Orchestra was on a hat-trick.

Quite unfortunately, the band ran second to the Witco Desperadoes, its rendition of Chris “Tambu” Herbert’s “Rant and Rave” scoring 466 points, a mere 3.5 less than the Despers’ version of Robert Greenidge’s “Musical Volcano”.

The fact that each of the top three bands were awarded equal prize money ($23,000) and the uncovered band tied with Fonclaire and beat Exodus’s “Get Something and Wave” didn’t matter to Renegades players. They blamed the band’s loss squarely on Samaroo’s decision to remove the canopies.

Pan researcher Gideon Maxime shares the players’ view in his book, Pan Through The Years (1952 to 1996).

“What was notable about the final night of Panorama (1991),” Maxime opined, “was that Renegades came on stage without their canopies, which gave the band a soft sound and may have contributed to the band not being properly heard.”

This is not borne out in the judges’ comments, as Samaroo noted.

“It had nothing to do with canopies. I prefer to see and hear the orchestra without these canopies. With them, the band looks like a shanty town and spectators cannot see the players’ movements, which is part of the beauty of any band,” he said.

“There might be a point to them on Carnival days or if the band is playing before sunset at the North Panorama preliminaries, but look how nobody uses canopies at the Music Festival or for any other kind of performance. They said I gave away that Panorama competition because I took them off, but I stand by my opinion. They also cost the band a lot of money,” Samaroo said.

In fact, they cost the National Carnival Commission (NCC) even more.

Pan Trinbago invariably insists on maximum stage lighting for the first Panorama playoff, when all the light does is shine on the metal hats of this convention of douens that presents itself for media photography and spectator appreciation.

Perhaps now that scientists have declared them irrelevant to most pan applications, we may be spared the sight and cost of canopies which, given the new information, have nothing to do with sound and only hide the players and the truth.


Terry-J at I-Level

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