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Same old song

By Terry Joseph
October 22, 2004

Another facet of calypso history overlooked during this month of celebration is the art's long standing alliance with pan, a brotherhood that may soon be rendered tenuous as discussion escalates on musical choices for next year's Panorama competition.

Essentially, it is a reprise of the same old song: Audience preferences versus eight minutes of glory for each performing band. With declining consumer response in recent years traceable to boredom, desperate searches for a more attractive format began. Among many concerns raised was what could be done to make the music package more attractive.

Because soca singers concentrate their energies on party songs, pan was left with a reduced bag from which to choose. The result is that one song becomes the de facto (or de Fosto) Panorama test-piece, a less-than-audience-friendly situation. Where bands develop their own music, it almost invariably enjoys little or no air play and consequently remains unpopular.

A proposal that steelband selections for Panorama 2005 not be bound by the list of calypsoes released expressly for that season allows orchestras to play new songs but facilitates the option of choosing a classic calypso from years of yore.

Most non-playing pan music lovers and some highly respected arrangers, including Clive Bradley, Liam Teague and Darren Sheppard, have warmly embraced the idea. Objectors argue it would stifle creativity, a point that collapses when one considers the quality of recent offerings across the Carnival spectrum.

For those intimately involved with readying Panorama bands, hearing their final effort described as tedium is cause for war. To them, consumers remain the minor consideration. Patrons are expected to be quiet during performance and grateful upon conclusion-nothing more. Their argument fundamentally narrows to a need for overt appreciation of the work required to bring the song to the stage.

The result often is a string of clichéd variations and with a limited play-list from which to choose, song repetition is the most predictable consequence. Meanwhile, classics like Baron's "Tell Me Why", Brigo's "Limbo Break" or Black Stalin's "Feeling to Party", not having been popular pan choices in their debut seasons, never enjoyed Panorama's finest moments although still popular on the party circuit years hence.

Ironically, in objecting to the proposal for unlimited choice, composers of more than one good pan-kaiso per year (eg: Robbie Greenidge's "Dark Horse" and "Rosie" last season) are also agreeing to have their un-played works forever damned from Panorama.

The gravest casualty of this self-defeating position is undoubtedly Kitchener's "Symphony in G", perhaps the greatest salute sung to the steelband, a classic that never made it to the Panorama final in its year of release (1979), as a result of the boycott implemented by Pan Trinbago after the competition's preliminary round.

Meanwhile, Panorama-the public event-stands at the juncture where audience attrition has set in and showtime is shared between well-rehearsed steel orchestras and impromptu rhythm from amateur percussionists. The music is fast becoming incidental to a social soiree that may soon consider pan an intrusion, as one visitor indicated since 1992 in a letter to then Pan Trinbago president, Owen Serrette.

Panorama's defining elements now include non-musical considerations: identified by special T-shirts, non-partisan cheering squads, banners demarcating turf and jorums of liquor, making for a mere picnic; closing time for most determined by the state of the participant's head and concerns about personal security rather than what actually happens onstage.

In terms of Panorama's aesthetics and downstream deliverables, even steelband music diehards have recently been admitting boredom. Recordings of performances have long proved a less-than-hot commodity. During pan's premier show on Carnival Saturday night, large groups of dozing patrons are not uncommon. Any astute businessperson would have long abandoned the existing formula and at least expressed willingness to investigate radically different approaches.

But pan people become strange when in the throes of competition, counting success by sometimes ritualistic applause. For all their relevance at the material time, few among us remember even the winning "pan calypsoes" of the past 15 years.

To fully internalise the point, try getting the average non-player to sing a stanza from Kitchener's "Iron Man", "Mystery Band" or "Guitar Pan", Robbie Greenidge's "Musical Volcano" or "Fire Coming Down", Oba's "In My House" or "Picture on My Wall", or Pelham Goddard's "Savannah Party" or "A Happy Song".

Not that they weren't works of major musical integrity but their shelf life never extends post-season. De Fosto's five winning titles over the same period may be a tad more memorable because his live performances often include such works but compare any of those 14 with the continuing appeal of Rudder's "High Mas" and you understand the challenge of rendering unknown or unpopular works at the height of a festival whose kinetic energy derives from singing along and dancing.

It is puzzling enough to ponder why some steelband officials cannot see the proposal's consumer appeal but the really damning comment is the ease with which pan now seems willing to consign classic calypsoes to history's La Basse purely because they weren't selected by arrangers at first hearing.

It is the ultimate irony, coming from those who wish to have their Panorama performances appreciated for much longer than a single season.

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