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Going to France

By Terry Joseph
May 22, 2002

Back in my youth, the words “Go to France” rolled out at deliberate speed and particular melody, conveyed (however palatably) conclusive riposte.

Parents used the line with impunity, avoiding ever-present temptation to answer repeated puerile fantasies with language normally reserved for peers.

It worked every time, for “Go to France” didn’t merely secure swift closure, it invariably banished proposition and advocate in a single swoop.

It was how they said it. A delicate art at minimum, every nuance critical to effective delivery of full admonition, the chocolate-coated command doubled as a flawless device for achieving firmness without using force. France was clearly the agreed first choice destination for losers and “don’t go there” the less-than-subtle message.

But it didn’t matter. At that time, there weren’t 25 of Europe’s best steel orchestras playing in the South of France, ten of them vying for the four places allotted that region at the final of the World Steelband Music Festival II to be held here in October.

Now, none of the above is intended to devalue the advertised charms of France, Provence or, in particular, the village of Sete; where this weekend’s European Steelpan Festival takes place.

And while the larger picture offers its Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and a cruise down the river Seine, in Sete visual delights are painted in slightly softer tones. A hazy view of the Pyrennees or just the sight of fishing boats bobbing alongside luxury yachts in the bay is said to rival Parisian images for effect.

And with the waters off the coast of Sete a preferred training area for senior league helmsmen, one might even be lucky enough to find France’s Phillipe Presti taking his crew on early maneouvres, in preparation for the New Zealand challenge at the 32nd America’s Cup.

In fact, the festival’s main venue, Theatre de la Mer is on lapped by Mediterranean waves, with a guest-book that already boasts famous names like The Wailers, Third World, Ray Barreto and Maceo Parker. On Saturday, it is also the finish line of the annual Midi Libre, a bicycle race that brings out thousands to cheer its winners.

But even so, make no mistake, I’m in it for the pan. With a population still about 50,000 shy of the 60 million touted by Sparrow way back in 1969, France is a potentially pivotal market, well positioned for taking pan through Europe by the southern route.

And as evidenced in the Paris pan festival two years ago, the French are quite available for a tighter embrace of our national musical instrument.

Already warm to the heady rhythms of zouk coming from their Caribbean prefectures, pan could waft almost effortlessly into the space, taking off from plateaux long established there by groups like Steelband de Montagnac and Calypsociacion.

Indeed, Pan European has entrenched itself as a source of quality steelband music, dismantling completely and from first interlude, the myth that only Trinis could extract the desired sweetness from what is, after all, their national musical instrument.

In October 2000, those who clung to the view that we held such a monopoly were rudely catapulted to reality when orchestras from the US and Europe made their statements. And while two of the foreign bands creating the biggest impact on that occasion are doubtful starters this time around, Panch and Northern Illinois University (NIU) have been replaced by fresh talent, musicians of no lesser quantity and some even more determined to win the global contest.

At the inaugural event there was the romanticism of “coming to the home of pan” and “just wanting to be part of this historic occasion”, catch-phrases packaged in Caribbean exotica. The outlook is likely to be different on this occasion, given the success of bands once thought of as peripheral.

From first base, this year’s approach has assumed greater authority. Sete has been transformed into Pan Village for the weekend, with 20 stages strategically positioned around the community for Friday’s play, two locations for the weekend contest and Sunday evening’s concert at Theatre de la Mer, featuring American virtuoso Andy Narell.

Three Trini adjudicators will join Frenchman Guy Bertrand to score the event. Of the local trio, only Junia Howell lives here, while Dr Dawn Batson and Orville Wright reside in the US; another form of testimony to precisely where pan reach.

Indeed, during the two-year interim since the inaugural world festival, pan has made significant strides in regional and global arenas. Just last weekend, Barbadian and St Lucian steelbands put in impressive showings at the Barbados Steelband Festival. Last month it was the turn of Panazz at the Cayman Batabano Carnival.

Next week, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe is due to perform with the BBC Symphony in London, even as NIU Steel participates at a Korean Drum Festival timed to coincide with the opening of FIFA’s Soccer World Cup in Seoul. A fortnight hence, Sterling Betancourt’s efforts at installing pan in British and European school systems will be recognised when, at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth confers on him an MBE.

So there may still be a few glitches locally, most of them taking their cue from the laissez-faire response of successive governments, but in the sum pan has done us proud. And for those who still scoff at pan, feeling a diminshed responsibility for its welfare, well, you know what to tell them:

“Go to France!”

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