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Good show, TJ

February 14, 2001
By Raffique Shah

MY fellow-columnist in the Express, Terry "TJ" Joseph, must be commended for the initiative he took in staging what was in effect a "pan jamboree" two Thursdays ago. Unfortunately for me, the lingering effects of injuries I sustained more than a month ago prevented me from enjoying what must have been an unparalleled "pan" treat. Really, just thinking about it, BWIA Invaders, PCS Starlift and Phase II Pan Groove, each in concert for one hour, makes my day. Thousands turned up to enjoy the feast served by these top bands, and because of their proximity to each other, patrons didn’t need to walk far to take in the entire night’s fare.

TJ, I should add, was also instrumental in putting together the "Laventille Pan Fest" sometime in September or October last year. For those who missed out on that one, it involved over 10 bands parading on the Eastern Main Road, each one on the road (as distinct from "pieces of bands" mounted on trucks) so that "panatics" could really enjoy the music, the full sound. It was ironic that Laventille, the disputed birthplace of pan (I don't want to get into argument with Norman Darway), and home to some of the best steelbands in the business, among them Despers, had had no such street festival until TJ and his crew put the show on the road.

This column, however, is not about singing hosannas to TJ. It is about how our Carnival, of which pan is a vital component, is being slowly slaughtered. I also intend to show that we who love pan and calypso and real mas' do not have to stand on the sideline (or sidewalks, in the strictest sense) and watch them die a slow, painful death. We can do something, many things, to reverse a degenerative process that others, especially those who can be dubbed the "Carnival controllers", are hell-bent on subjecting us to. In fact, if we allow bodies like the NCC, Pan Trinbago and the NCBA to achieve their dubious goals, Trini Carnival will die.

Let me explain further. TJ's Tragarete Road "Pan Fest" drew thousands of people, albeit non-paying patrons. They went there because they love the instrument, the music, and they want to see it re-assert itself on the Carnival landscape. As someone who enjoys going to panyards (er, sorry, fellas, pan theatres!) in the run-up to Panorama, I know how dedicated one has to be to stand or sit and wait, sometimes for half-a-night, on a band to play its Panorama selection. Up until about 9 p.m., pannists "coast" at various points, and even when the captain and arranger finally bring the entire band together, one has to endure a series of "runs" before the full tune is played–and that's if you are lucky.

Bearing in mind that most bands (the big bands are an exception) practice only one or two tunes for the Carnival, panyard-crawling can be an exercise in frustration. It is not until the eve of Panorama preliminaries that bands run through their selections several times a night. And rare is the occasion on which one is fortunate to hear bands play their Panorama selections AND their "bomb" tune. And it's not that these bands do not have wide repertoires. Hell, you can get carried away with the range of music bands like Invaders, Starlift, Phase II, Renegades, Despers, Skiffle Bunch, Tropical Angel Harps, Exodus, Pamberi (to name only a handful) execute with the finesse of full concert hall orchestras.

But the "Pan Jumbie" who spends nights at panyards does not enjoy this treat. So the Tragarete Road "jam" filled this breach. For those who argue that the bands get nothing from such exercises, that people only "want pan for free", that's not true. Most big bands have bars and shops, and fans who are treated to good music will think nothing of patronising their bars and buying items like T-shirts, caps, etc. To further enhance their finances, bands could look at raffling, say, a tenor pan each, charging $10 a ticket, with draws taking place the very nights such concerts are staged.

To augment my argument that pan needs new directions, new visions to survive, let me contrast the Tragarete Road "jam" with what happened on Panorama Saturday. The "drag" was relatively sparse with fans, the mood was almost sombre (except when some of the bands played their tunes), and in the stands there were just a few hundred paying patrons. I expect that will change today (I am writing this on Sunday morning): for the herds that will crowd the Grand and North Stands, Panorama means only one thing, in fact, only one day: Sunday. The other super-shows, like the various regional finals and Pan in the 21st Century (coming Sunday) are musically superior to Panorama "prelims".

But those "one night" pan lovers are blissfully unaware of that. In effect, therefore, steelbands enjoy two nights of glory: Sunday's preliminaries and the finals. Outside of these Pan Trinbago productions, bands have to use their own initiatives to generate interest in their music for the rest of the year. Some, like Renegades, have taken to hosting panyard concerts a few times a year. And the few "panfests" that have emerged over the years (Point Fortin pan parade, Couva Cropover) draw crowds, but because organisers have been lax, they, too, may lose their appeal.

For me, I do not get the Carnival "spirit" until I hear "good pan". Time was when Panorama signalled the start of the season. No more. Calypso is another "disaster zone", with few bards having anything of substance to sing, and fetes being a total waste of time unless you are so drunk or in a state of stupor that even "na na na na" repeated a hundred times does not make a difference to you. Listening to this year's fare, I am impressed with the female calypsonians, their lyrical contents, their voices and melodies. In a few years, don't be surprised to hear male calypsonians complain about "women being boss". If-or when-that happens, they have only their "na na na na" selves to blame.

And I shan't even dwell on the costumery-or lack thereof-that passes for mas' today. As someone who couldn't wait for "Carnival time again" since I was a child growing up in Freeport, I am now close to the point where Mayaro and Toco are beckoning. I used to brand all those who chose the beach instead of the city as mad people. Well, the degeneration I see in all the components that made my Carnival is fast pushing me to join the "mad people".

Which is why I started out by commending TJ for his pan initiatives. I wish more creative people, culture buffs who have visions for resurrecting our Carnival, will come forward and give of their ideas and time to resurrect what was once the Greatest Show on Earth. We are faltering badly despite the huge sums Government pumps into the festival, corporate sponsorship, a fully operational NCC, Tidco, and marketing our mas' via the Internet. If we are to rescue Carnival, it is people like TJ who would do it–not State-owned or subsidised "culture vultures".

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