Exploring pan culture

Dr. Rita Cox (R)and Minister Mitzie Hunter
Dr. Rita Cox (R)and Minister Mitzie Hunter

Last Saturday,  Eyes  took the opportunity to visit the  Rita Cox’s Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection at the  Malvern Library in Scarborough and borrowed a book: ‘Carnival Music in Trinidad , Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture.’

The author,  Shannon Dudley, first played in a steelband at Oberlin College in Trinidad and Tobago,  and then worked as an apprentice to steel pan tuner Cliff Alexis, eventually proceeding to graduate  in ethnomusicology at the University of California.

She  framed the music in terms of three interrelated issues that “cut across musical genres” – tradition, social identity, and performance context/function.

She noted according to one theory, the very word “calypso” is rooted in an appreciation of verbal dexterity: the term is thought to be an anglicized version of “kaiso,” a word that may be derived from the Hausa language in West Africa and is still used by Trinidadians to express their pleasure at a clever turn of words in calypso performance.

By the way, Eyesers, unlike the carnival here in Toronto, in the 1950s and 1960s  steelbands were the music of choice for the road and calypsonians depended on the steelbands to popularize their songs (in instrumental renditions) on carnival day. Whatever the format- live or recorded, instrumental or vocal – music for the road has always been essential to carnival, and it has been the job of the chantwell (nineteen century minstrels), and the calypsonian to supply it.

In 1992, Prime Minister Patrick Manning declared the steel pan Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument, giving official recognition to a sentiment that many Trinidadians had shared for a long time.

“Pan, calypso, and carnival are the only things we have to make us proud today and in the future; and of these, the only ones we can claim entirely is pan. This is the cornerstone of our culture,” according to mas’ man Francisco Cabral.

Dudley said it is common for musical genres, instruments, sounds, or lyrics to trigger feelings of belonging – of community, ethnic, or national identity- but in the case of the steelband, this identity symbolism is particularly  important.

Eyesers, do you know steelbands playing arrangements of Kitchener’s songs won more half the Panorama competitions (nineteen out of the thirty-seven) between 1963 and Kitchener’s  death in 2000, and “Pan in A Minor” is considered one of Kitchener’s classic pan tunes?

‘Pan in A Minor’ was Jit Samaroo’s arrangement for Renegades Steelband, based on theme and variation. The theme is the melody of Kitchener’s original calypso. Variations are made by repeating the chord progression of the theme by changing the melody.

Sad to say, steelbands have lost their place as the preferred music for carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, being replaced by recorded music or live singing on trucks.

Meanwhile,  in Toronto, the steelbands have an option to play on the road or in the stadium-  providing they take the road before or after all the bands during the Parade route-  or run the risk of  being  locked out.

Oh well,  as Machel Montano put it: “Hold on to de Big Truck.”