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Knocking yourself out

By Terry Joseph
Feburary 24, 2006

"The engine-room
it could go on forever
see them jump and prance
give theyself a chance
in the heat
The engine-room
It could never die
'cause is nine months
mih mother
make me check out she heart

-David Rudder

This is a country of far too much noise, relatively little of which is organised in an aurally pleasing way and we quietly acknowledge that, so when Pan Trinbago decided to ban rhythm sections from Panorama, least surprised were those who actually create the cacophony in the North Stand.

Arguing that its member steelbands were being disrespected, Pan Trinbago outlawed the North Stand noisemakers, a curious twist, since the rhythm section concept actually began in the Grand Stand in the 1960s, with the likes of Jason Donawa, who made the annual Panorama pilgrimage from San Fernando, bringing his trumpet to add melodic highlights to tempo created from rudimentary percussion.

When steelbands began facing judges seated in the Grand Stand, among the unstudied consequences was a demonstration of disrespect for North Stand patrons, given the way in which orchestras set up for the contest, pannists showing only their backsides to that audience, robbing them of the joy of seeing the performer in flight; that courtesy reserved exclusively for customers in the Grand Stand.

Quite naturally, North Stand patrons felt fair reciprocity for the "kiss my arse" posture was similarly collective disdain, which is probably why rhythm sections assumed greater authority, providing performance art for those who wished to see the faces and hands of players, a fundamental requirement of any musical presentation, developing the concept to the point of distraction.

Now, none of this must be taken to mean iron-beaters should be banished merely for banging on wheel hubs with pencil-thin steel poles, because "iron" has been part of steelband culture from inception and delightfully so. Indeed, to have heard the likes of Corey Fraser, Knicker Best, Mai Fan or, for that matter, Neville Jules or Bobby Mohammed with the signal "bell", rousing the band to new accent, remains among my more precious experiences.

"Iron men" of precise tinkle or exemplary dexterity have always been among the steelband's more exciting visuals, not merely the sight of a section leader raising the instrument from elbow-level to shoulder height to usher a more vibrant phrase or generally light fresh fire under his "folay" men. They have been celebrated in calypso, Lord Shorty trumpeting Corey, David Rudder embracing the lot, The Mighty Tallish going the fantasy route, narrating a conversation between various components of the engine-room.

But Carnival is also constructed on a series of competitions and rhythm sections of the North Stand were not to be left out of the 'Rama. They graduated from simple snare-drum, iron and cowbell to elaborate displays of a variety of exotic shapes and sizes of instruments, with concomitant rise in the level of noise from these new configurations.

Quite naturally, this led to informal competition between such groups and it became a question of who could bring more "t'ing" and make the loudest noise. Unfortunately, there was no attempt at synchronising tempo, so several different rhythms were played simultaneously, amounting to a dizzying din that soon disregarded the main event completely; making their own rules about what is really important on Panorama day.

Meanwhile, the sheer size of these groups supplied event organisers with another kind of headache, since a rhythm section of 20 players utilised North Stand space intended for ten times that number of standing patrons. By extrapolation, two dozen such groups (which appeared to be the number this year) could displace up to 4,000 customers, in a stand perennially plagued by rumours of overcrowding and unflattering remarks about management of the facility.

So it came to the point of imposing a ban on rhythm sections for the conspiracy of reasons already detailed and, as confessed in a letter appearing this week in the Express, the censure was no surprise. It may not be the perfect solution but it is at least a good start to the debate, leaving the engine-room to speak in its own defence.

But it has to be said that it is they knocked themselves out, a clear case of too much of a good thing although, happily, if there is room for compromise, we have more than enough time for mature dialogue on the issue; as long as no group gets the crazy idea of providing a little background tempo for the talks.

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