One of Trinidad & Tobago Carnival‘s most beloved traditions is the Panorama steelband competition, in which the country's many ensembles vie for the coveted title of best band in a range of categories delineated by orchestra size. There is also a Junior Panorama contest for young musicians. This year marks the diamond jubilee of the Panorama competition since its inauguration in 1963 and, given the two-year hiatus that Carnival celebrations experienced because of COVID-19, the event was being met with much anticipation.
While the preliminary stage of the Panorama competition takes place at the pan yards where the various bands meet and practice within their different communities, the semi-finals, by far the most popular round of the contest, takes place at the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain. Known as the “Carnival Mecca,” steel pan enthusiasts can take in the performances from the Grand Stand — where the judges, media, and more “serious” pan enthusiasts are stationed — or the North Stand, which attracts more party-goers.
On Sunday, February 5, I pivoted between these two spaces but also spent some time on “The Drag,” the area leading to the main stage where the bands line up in order of appearance and practice their drills. Supporters often help roll their instruments, which are mounted on clusters of wheeled platforms with canopies, onto the stage, where bands battle for a place in the finals of the most prestigious prize in steel pan music.
Wanting to travel light, I decided my smartphone would have to suffice for photo-taking. The results offer an on-the-ground view of the 2023 Panorama experience.
A lone pigeon makes its way across the grass, looking for scraps of food that people may have left behind. This photo was taken around 11:00 a.m. local time, and the event was carded to start at 1:00 p.m. The Savannah was quiet, but the cool breeze blowing through the tinsel lining the canopies of Sforzata's steelband racks hints at the excitement that is to come.
Large, flatbed trucks transport the instruments for the competing steel orchestras from all parts of the country. This year, one semi-finalist came from Tobago, the smaller of the two islands. Transportation costs can be steep, and account for just one of the expenses that must be paid for bands to compete at this level, costs that are typically offset by corporate sponsorship.
Most patrons may not have paid too much attention to this Grand Stand speaker silhouetted against the blue sky, but without it, they would not have been able to hear and appreciate the nuances of the different types of steel pans coming together to form that orchestral sound. Steel pans are acoustic instruments, and microphones must be placed on stage to amplify the music for the large crowd.
I was struck by the juxtaposition of colour in this photograph, as a member of one of the medium-sized bands gets ready to help push the pans onto the track in preparation for their stage appearance.
No Panorama competition is complete without the presence of nuts vendors. Their mobility allows them to go into the stands, which helps them competing against the wide selection of food available. Most of them have a trademark tagline, which they shout as they go, to help differentiate their product offering.
Band members of the Siparia Deltones, a south-based medium-size band, push their instruments onto “The Drag” as their turn to play draws nearer. I love the way everyone, from band members to bystanders, pitches in to help carry the instruments.
Flag women, to whom calypso legend Lord Kitchener paid tribute in this classic song, are another Panorama staple. Each band has at least one flag woman who dances — while expertly wielding a flag — as the band performs, helping to give the audience a taste of the Carnival spirit. A tradition that requires both confidence and skill, the role of flag woman is one of great honour. Flag women are usually photographed on stage, but I was thrilled to get this one on “The Drag” as she joyfully practised her moves, unaware that anyone was looking.
A beloved traditional Trinidad and Tobago Carnival character, Dame Lorraine is defined by her exaggeratedly voluptuous derrière, which she flings this way and that while promenading (as she is seen here escorted by her gentleman) or dancing. The character was developed as a parody of 18th and early 19th-century colonisers, who would dress up in elegant costumes of the French aristocracy at their lavish dances on Carnival Sunday. In the past, men were the ones who donned the Dame Lorraine costumes, but modern iterations have women predominantly playing the character. As this Dame Lorraine swooshed past me on the arm of her man, I was lucky to get the reactions of the trio in the background, who were charmed by her charisma and style, and were quick to get their own smartphone snaps of the moment.
Meanwhile, both stands and “The Drag” were full of people — from children to senior citizens — who had all come out to hear their national instrument.
The crowds were large, but from my observation, well-behaved, though the announcer did have to ask the North Stand patrons to clear the aisles on more than one occasion. The juxtaposition of this image of riot police looking on as a band readies itself for its performance, therefore struck me as slightly dystopian.
By the time night fell and the large bands took to the stage, the energy was electric. I love this long exposure shot of a steelband rack being pushed onto the stage while the official summons them forward, as if the band is racing towards its collective destiny.
With my phone's battery running low, not to mention low light, my last shot of the night was this photo of the band Starlift's performance of The Mighty Sparrow's “Witch Doctor.” Stilt walkers from the moko jumbie band Moko Somõkõw danced throughout their steelband performance, appearing otherworldly as they towered over the players against the velvety sky.
Also well-loved traditional Carnival characters, moko jumbies harken back to West African tradition, where they are revered as gods who watch over their villages, keeping away threats and evil which they can easily see from their great height. Their presence in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is a reminder to us that the sacred, ritualistic aspects of our own traditions run very deep.