In a resolution adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly on July 24, 2023, August 11 will annually become known as World Steelpan Day. It is an occasion that honours the unique musical instrument, invented in Trinidad and Tobago, that has taken the world by storm.
As a community builder and driver of cultural, social and economic development, the instrument is well positioned to help advance the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, via sectors such as tourism and education, as well as science and technology.
Steelpan music, which reaches its height during Trinidad and Tobago Carnival's Panorama competition, is something to be experienced and, earlier this year, during the first such in-person event since the COVID-19 pandemic, I experienced it in a whole new way — going behind the scenes while producing a short film with director and cinematographer Walt Lovelace and photographer Jason C. Audain.
The result was a collaborative project page that we posted, which covers the experience from each of our individual viewpoints: film, photos, and words, republished here with permission in honour of this special day.
As a writer/producer, I’m a bit of an over-thinker: if something makes an impression on me, I tend to backtrack to the moment it first took root. So when (after years of absence) the production of this film pulled me back to Panorama, I was also pulled back in time — to 1970s Kiddies Carnival, where my awareness of the transformative powers of our national festival was ignited. As a child, it seemed very simple to me: all you had to do was put your heart into it — play a mas, push a pan — and Carnival would somehow work its wizardry.
1975 was the third year I competed as a junior masquerader and the first I was crowned Kiddies Carnival Queen. It was also the year Lord Kitchener won both Road March and Panorama with his “Tribute to Spree Simon.” Each time I took to the stage, this popular pan homage made me play my mas differently. It contributed to my victory; you cannot convince me otherwise. I danced that costume with more joy, more enthusiasm, and more pluck, propelled by an instinctive sense that pan was the core vibration; everything else reverberated off of it.
Pan music transcends even Carnival itself. Born out of struggle and (as the annual Kambulé reenactment reminds us) resistance against continual attempts to quell African expression, the steelpan is a light that has determinedly found its way through the cracks of deep pain. It’s a potent instrument, a tool to bring us together. So enthralled was I with this marvel that I even played for a short while, though I could never quite make it sound like the magicians in the big bands do.
Still, if pan were a movie (and there’s never been any doubt in my mind it’s screen-worthy, what with its gripping story, imaginativeness and spectacle), I was more than happy to be in the audience. I took in my first few Panoramas from the vantage point of the North Stand, where the limers go (more partying, less pan, but always copious amounts of souse). The Grand Stand is the polar opposite — and while both areas forge their unique brand of bonding, I felt myself to be in a type of pan purgatory, wanting to connect, but also wanting to listen.
I soon discovered the appeal of The Drag, where competing bands congregate as they await their turn to perform. There, on the parched grass of the Queen’s Park Savannah, is the best of both worlds. You are closer to the action and can move among the bands as the spirit takes you; much of the time, they are practising drills, but being close to the pulse when bands are doing a whole run-through is pure wonder. You can also talk to people — and if you really listen, the stories are sweet, like the melodic hum of a tenor pan. Sometimes, they’re bittersweet, reverberating deep from the belly of a bass. But they are all hopeful and glorious, as if their tellers know that dawn will follow dark, rubber will hit steel, and things will turn out fine.
The first day we filmed “We Going Pan,” the energy on the track was as I’d remembered it, but more enchanting. A flag woman practised her moves with carefree abandon; it wasn’t a performance, just bliss bubbling over as her waist caught the strains of a melody. Old friends embraced; young ladies blushed at the sight of a coquettish Dame Lorraine. Strangers rushed to help steer pan rack wheels out of a rut. Mothers danced with fussy toddlers until they laughed again. No one cared about constructs like class or race; on that level pitch, everyone was equal. It felt comfortable, like home, or Trinidad’s truest version of itself.
By the time finals rolled around, the vibe on the track was electric … spiritual, really; heaven touching earth. I smiled. Dust and music, suspended on a cool breeze. The call and response of vendors and patrons lilting as a lavway. Shreds of silver tinsel seizing the floodlights and sparkling like stars. The gentle rumbling of wheels on asphalt; shouts of “Mind yuh foot!” as the racks rolled past. People everywhere, looking out for one another. People finding meaning and solace and delight in the “pom pom pidi pom” of pan.
A Panorama-ready steelband reflects the dynamism of what we could be if we habitually came together at that elemental level, as if we were showing up for practice. Everyone would have a unique part to play. All would be welcome; no one excluded. Differences and diversity would be respected. There’d be a common goal. Genuine kindness. Patience. Flashes of genius. Love. Endless possibility.
It still stuns me that this radiant thing — this glowing gorgeousness that warms everyone who comes near it — came from us; from a resolve to create beauty out of, as calypsonian David Rudder says, our “unlovely.” Our country, our region, even the wider world to which pan has spread … they are all far from perfect. As an instrument, pan is imperfect too; music educator and steelpan champion Pat Bishop once said it was incomplete. It sure keeps trying, though. It improves, innovates, reinvents itself. It makes me want to be better — and it’s not just me.
From generation to generation, musicians, arrangers, composers, tuners, educators and pan lovers in general, devote themselves to this miraculous creation and it loves them right back. Pan is probably the finest reflection of our national watchwords; it is the best of us because it is our collective resonance. As much as Trinidad and Tobago has gifted it to the world, pan music will never sound the same anywhere else. It ripened in our fields, after all; forged itself out of our brilliant, fiery, beautiful, messy, heartbreaking, precious experience. That’s really something, when you think about it.