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Pan now in danger

By Terry Joseph
June 17, 2005

When calypsonian Merchant released "Pan in Danger" some 25 years ago, the song quickly became the anthem of the steelband movement, although his lyrics reflected a hopeless misunderstanding of information received; quite unlike last Sunday's flawless and even more alarming admonition from Dr Pat Bishop.

Fact is, pan was in no danger from sinister foreigners as Merchant's skewed interpretation indicated but rather, on the brink of a major technological breakthrough. Having been apprised by then Pan Trinbago president Arnim Smith of events that occurred during a visit to the SAAB auto plant, the calypsonian misconstrued it to mean: "Sweden done start already, setting up pan-factory to manufacture we own culture."

Contrarily, Sweden had been very kind to us, allowing a team comprising Smith, tuners Bertie Marshall and Anthony Williams and engineers Richard Mc David, Clemont Imbert et al to use high-tech equipment at the SAAB facility to test research on mass-production of the steelpan.

The SAAB experiment was successful but before any of its findings could be implemented, Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams cut State funding to Cariri, which hosted much of the research, scuttling the project.

Had Merchant been more thorough, he would likely have alerted us to the very danger of which Dr Bishop spoke last weekend, instead of whipping up insularity over aliens stealing pan, fuelling a frenzy sustained for decades, distracting us from more important issues.

One such issue is pan research and development which, curiously, made much greater strides during its primitive period than is the contemporary case. Dr Bishop accurately described pan as a defective instrument, her comment focusing on the lead drum's continuing inability to produce pleasing tones from its high-end notes; a critical aspect of any soprano recital.

Except where unbridled pan fanaticism is further impaired by a conspiracy of hearing deficiency and parochialism, it is easy to agree with Dr Bishop since, compared with its lower register, the top octave of even the most scintillating soprano instruments almost invariably delivers a corky, muted sound and even with current technology, it seems our finest tuners still cannot hurdle this problem.

What Dr Bishop's Lydian Steel (and others, including Robert Greenidge and Andy Narell) have been doing, is using a single performer to play a combination of tenor, double-second and guitar-pans to more faithfully and evenly reproduce piano notes above Middle C, a technique infinitely more appropriate to Spiderman than any pannist wishing to include flair and flourish as part of the performance aesthetic.

Interestingly, master-tuner Bertie Marshall, in an interview with this reporter during his birthday celebration earlier this year at the Mas Camp Pub, made an observation conceptually similar to Dr Bishop's but in respect of the low-end orchestral voices of the steelband, saying he didn't like how the notes sounded, expressing hope some funding agency would provide him with the wherewithal to continue experiments aimed at improving the result.

To distill the thoughts of Marshall and Dr Bishop, the crucial high and low registers of the steelband's orchestral voices are suffering from a type of laryngitis and since it is a band comprising percussion instruments exclusively its musical issue is severely affected. Unfortunately, this is only a problem to the discerning ear and pan aficionados are hardly famous for this particular trait.

Instead of attempting to bore holes in the conclusions of this combination of artisan and academic critique, pan's custodians should instead spend time identifying precisely who is going to determine and then apply remedies, since no existing steelband has the money to do it.

Increasing prize money for the annual Panorama competition will do little for much needed research and development but for the Government who, unprovoked, declared pan the national musical instrument, it is a significantly easier route since auditing R&D requires a different kind of thinking than is normally applied to funding vindicated by conventional accounting practices.

Happily, the sheer magic of pan still has the rest of the world as excited as a mosquito in a nudist camp. Since I arrived in New York (to take in Sunday's final of the World Steelband Music Festival at Madison Square Garden), everyone who recognises my accent sings the instruments' praises, their appreciation largely compiled from Hollywood's portrayal of the pannist.

Writing in Tuesday's New York Daily News, columnist Jared McCallister gushes:

"When the World Steelband Music Festival comes to town Sunday the stereotype of the solo steel drummer playing background music for a tropical vacation can take a holiday of its own."

Also due for a long vacation is the hope that pan will continue to astonish new listeners and engage fresh markets without the benefit of critical research in metallurgy and other related sciences.

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