Birdsong – Pan for the people

birdsong – Pan for the people

Founded in 1973, birdsong holds a unique position among steelbands, writes Joy Lapps-Lewis (inset).
By Joy Lapps-Lewis

My first encounter with birdsong took place in January 2012 when I stumbled upon a beautiful panyard on my way to the nearby Blue Edition bookstore in Tunapuna, Trinidad.

Oddly enough, one year later I ended up back in that very same Birdsongpanyard and this time I was there to play four pan for Panorama under the direction of my soon-to-be-mentor Andy Narell.

Prior to our arrival for the 2013 Panorama season, Dennis Phillip, birdsong Academy’s director and board member, reached out to me and all of the other international players to welcome us and share some information about the steel orchestra. It was at that moment I began to understand just how special this organization was.

Led by pan pioneer Teddy Belgrave, birdsong was founded in 1973. According to co-founding member Andre Moses, Belgrave had a desire to start a steelband at the University of the West Indies’ St. Augustine campus. He endeavoured to create a diverse band membership including UWI students, staff members and members of the surrounding community. By 1974 the band entered its first Panorama competition helping them to develop recognition as a “serious band”.

In the mid-1970’s Curepe Scherzando, a nearby steelband lost its major corporate sponsorship funding for Panorama. Though unfortunate, it was this event among others that was a catalyst for Belgrave and other visionaries in the pan community to develop a new philosophy; “Pan for the People”. This school of thought encouraged steelbands to engage their community and tap into a diverse range of resources to maintain the stability of their respective groups. By 1985, birdsong band settled in nearby Tunapuna and was well on its way to becoming an organization with a unique mission, vision and objective.

Today, the panyard on the corner of St. Vincent and Connell streets in Tunapuna is home to the birdsong Academy that includes a year-round Saturday program serving 80 young people and a summer vacation program with enrollment of up to 110 students.

In January 2014 they launched an afterschool program serving 125 children. Faculty members include the likes of jazz pianist Raf Roberson, drummer Sonalal “Killa” Samaroo and Andy Narell. Robertson and Rudy “Two Lefts” Smith are among some of the past Panorama arrangers, both great fits for a band committed to pushing the boundaries of the steelband both in and out of the Panorama context.

Narell, an internationally known pannist, composer and arranger, has most recently accepted the role as birdsong’s Panorama arranger in 2013. He asked if I would be interested in coming to Trinidad and playing for the band and I accepted the invitation.

The following spring I had the opportunity to travel to Paris and spend almost two months studying harmony, improvisation, recording techniques for steel pan and the music business with him. It was during this time that I not only learned more about Andy’s music career, but I also learned a great deal about many of his core values as a musician, music educator and community “artivist.” Andy’s family history of social activism, coupled with a love of music, makes it no surprise that he would begin a meaningful relationship with the birdsong community.

As a musician and arts educator with experience in arts administration I can’t help but have a special appreciation for birdsong. I spent many hours in that panyard and saw the children coming to pan programs after school, attending various music lessons and observing board members and other volunteers work tirelessly throughout the Panorama season.

Overall, I was most impressed to learn that in keeping with the ideals of its founders, birdsong had developed its first social enterprise in 2002. They employ community members and reinvest the profits into their organization.

This self-generated income complemented by support from individuals and corporations have contributed to birdsong’s sustainability. Though challenging at times, this model of self-sufficiency has allowed birdsong to write its own rules and continue to blaze a trail of uncompromised musical excellence and true community building.

Patrons interested in supporting birdsong steelband, academy or scholarship fund can contact birdsong Academy Director and board member Dennis Phillip at

Joy Lapps-Lewis is a musician, arts educator and composer.