The mouth band
November 14, 2001
Archives Steelpan Origins
By Terry Joseph
Deserted by steel orchestras whose routes home did not coincide with theirs, revellers on Carnival Tuesday nights of yore did vocal impressions of pan instruments in lieu; forming what was aptly titled "a mouth band".
With passage of time even as the number of steel orchestras grew, transmigration and other social factors reconfigured Carnival Tuesday night's transportation requirements. Eventually, no one needed a mouth band anymore, deeming it primitive.
This rare talent for using vocals to deceive large groups withered into virtual extinction until politicians, collectively recognising its larger value, revived the concept and adapted it to their needs, Ironically, the political version has been used most effectively against the very instrument that inspired it.
Since independence, pan has listened to a plethora of promises from successive Governments. In 1962, Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams approved State funding of the annual Panorama competition, his primary mission to alleviate anxieties generated by gang hostilities.
And during the decade following social upheaval in 1970, he coaxed big businesses into sponsoring steel orchestras, as a way of demonstrating class integration. In 1979, during the height of an economic boom, Government claimed inability to pay appearance fees to steelbands, triggering a boycott of the very Panorama that was supposed to pacify them. Miraculously, in 1980, Pan Trinbago was awarded the Medal of Merit (gold).
On December 16, 1986, ANR Robinson became Prime Minister and in the year following awarded Pan Trinbago our highest honour-The Trinity Cross. However, prestige is not a negotiable commodity for pannists, so these Government initiatives, undertaken for all the wrong reasons, did little to help market the instrument and even less for music literacy among players.
Two days before the insurrection of July 27, 1990, Mr Robinson pledged $7.5 million to Pan Trinbago, demanding only that the organisation develop structures to guarantee prudent administration of all this windfall.
But for all its best-laid plans not one penny was actually disbursed until August of 1993 when his successor, Mr Patrick Manning, released the first tranche of $3.5 million to float Pan Trinbago's investment company (Panvesco), with a promise of more to come. Not to be outdone in the area of citation, Mr Manning dubbed pan "The National Musical Instrument".
Mr Basdeo Panday became Prime Minister in 1995. In a Queen's Hall address to pannists at their 1997 awards ceremony, speaking completely without provocation, he vowed to underwrite the World Steelband Music Festival of October 2000.
Adopted as Government Millennium Project, the festival's financial commitments to foreign participants were only recently settled after embarrassing threats to sue this country. Some local suppliers are still awaiting payment and the ten-per cent tariff deducted on behalf of Pan Trinbago is yet to be transferred to the organisation's account.
On January 12, 1998, Mr Panday, in the role of feature speaker at the opening of Pan Trinbago's pan factory, promised on national television the sum of $1.5 million to fund start-up. To this day, not one point five pennies has been released.
In 1999, he commissioned a detailed proposal from Panvesco chairman Lawford Dupres on the acquisition of a chroming factory in San Juan, a pan essential that was being pursued by a Grenadian businessman intent on taking it back to his country. Upon receipt, the proposal was sent to the Culture Ministry for a feasibility study. They shunted it to the Tourism and Industrial Development Company (Tidco) who, months later, returned the document untouched. It was then forwarded to Pannell, Kerr, Foster who did the work, the resulting bill somehow landing at Pan Trinbago who with no factory to show for it, was forced to pay.
On January 23, 2000, Mr Panday publicly named pan virtuoso Len "Boogsie" Sharpe an "official cultural ambassador", saying during a Sunday brunch at his residence: "With immediate effect, Mr Sharpe will travel with State representatives to promote indigenous arts." The project just never came on stream.
Worse, in July Cabinet took a decision to scuttle Panvesco and snatch back the $3.5 million given it under Mr Manning's watch. That act of singular insensitivity was shelved only after Pan Trinbago threatened legal action. The National Steel Orchestra (NSOTT), proposed in 1998 by Pan Trinbago, took two years to materialise after Cabinet appropriated the project and boldly decreed that its creators should have no input.
When the State-sponsored band finally got a home last May, its managers had to wait three months before receiving their first pay checks. On Monday last, NSOTT's telephone lines were cut for non-payment of bills. The political mouth band therefore remains blameless for the global spread and acceptance of pan. Last Saturday, representatives from pan organisations around the world met in Trinidad to discuss next year's World Steelband Music Festival. At month's end, the inaugural Caribbean Panorama competition comes off in Grenada.
Neither project has yet attracted Government's interest, a position diametrically opposed to that of every other country involved. Perhaps they, better than us, see the possibilities for pan.
So it is against this backdrop that I wish you all a Happy Divali, hoping that its promise of Light helps the mouth band out of the Dark Ages.