October 20, 2000
By Terry Joseph
EVEN as the deeply troubled national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago remains burdened by deficient research funding and performance facilities, pan enjoyed a brief but glorious ascendancy from October 12 to 21.
The paralleling of the first International Conference on the Science and Technology of the Steelpan (ICSTS) with the World Steelband Music Festival achieved more for the instrument in ten days, than the sum of governmental effort since the middle of the last century.
Given a justifiable perception in this country, that a ten-day period in the spotlight makes no pretence of providing the tools for predictable income, continuing development or sustainable growth; the coincidence was at least eerie.
The only major pan initiative of which the state can brag is the introduction of the annual Panorama competition (1963), a concept that soon outlived the usefulness of its primary purpose. Even so, government remains almost singular in its ongoing belief that the “ten minutes of glory” contest has done pan a world of good.
The cruel reality is that Panorama, audited at its most lucrative manifestation, has provided us with little more than another national wining opportunity. Over the 38 years of Panorama presence, pan research at street-level restricted itself to that single cause and was largely confined to the search for a louder noise. Music literacy, marketing and product development were frivolously sacrificed in the frenzied quest for relatively petty cash prizes.
An infinitely worse by-product of Panorama is the successful manipulation of the minds of pannists. Convinced that they were forever raising the bar, the instrument somehow remained in limbo, but none among them seemed puzzled enough by the antithesis to effect radical change.
Instead, Panorama triumph was elevated to the status of spectacular achievement. The ten minutes of glory contest quickly becoming nothing but a microcosm of the “ten-days” syndrome. And like the social concept it so closely mirrors, Panorama also lulled us into a false sense of security, while offloading a host of other equally cruel delusions.
Small wonder then that such a large slice of the population responded with abject disbelief last week at the sight of foreigners flawlessly executing music on “we” instrument. And for one scary moment in the early stages of the music festival, it seemed the visitors would actually beat us at our own game.
The pervading consternation only grew when an international group of science-scholars sought to explain to its inventors and innovators the technology involved in the tuning and playing of pan.
“If you find all of this very complex, it is your fault,” said ICSTS chairman Dr Anthony Achong. “It is you who invented this instrument, not us.
All we are attempting to do is explain it in scientific terms, as we are able to do for any other musical instrument; although none of the others I have come across has thrown up so many complexities.” With copies of the ICSTS proceedings due this weekend and available to scholars at universities around the world, research and development should experience a quantum leap. Physicists, electronics experts and thinkers involved in ancillary disciplines will be able to translate curiosity into findings that can only help pan.
The musical integrity of the instrument itself should enjoy parallel enhancements, with the return home of particularly those foreign festival participants who made it to the grand final and who were able to take back as valuable souvenirs the rousing endorsements they received here.
The very level of musicianship demonstrated by visiting pannists should also serve to inspire local counterparts into pursuing the technical aspects of their craft, after seeing the ease with which the foreigners were able to implement adjustments to their musical scores.
Returning home for the first time in 33 years, the arrival of pan innovator and researcher Ellie Mannette also fitted into the ten-day period under review. Mannette brings with him a proposal for technical and academic co-operation between the West Virginia University (where he is an adjunct professor and artist-in-residence) and the University of the West Indies, which will confer an honorary doctorate on him this Saturday.
The net effect of these events occurring simultaneously should not be underestimated. They conspired to give pan an image makeover that it could not have managed through a thousand Panorama competitions. What we lack in technical and scientific expertise should now be accessible, if not attainable, through international co-operation and other linkages that can really do us a world of good.
Pan has therefore milked its ten days for optimum value. And quite unlike the promises of last year’s staging of the Miss Universe Pageant final, or the World Beat Music Festival, results from festival participation by seven foreign orchestras and the conference involvement of internationally published scholars are predictably positive.
Like the much-maligned “Carnival mentality”, pan has provided another self-replenishing indigenous raw material that has been demonstrably embraced by the global marketplace.
But who among us will harness these opportunities and massage them into their most productive possibilities? Certainly not the same people who believe that “a ten days” can ameliorate social problems.
Terry-J at I-Level