Monday, 8 February 2010

Pan in Development

I think it might have been some time in 87/88 when the current Trinidad Express Editor-at-Large Keith Smith and I were walking through Independence Square in Port of Spain that I came up with the theory that if Trinidad and Tobago were to abandon oil (we were not yet full swing into natural gas) and our feeble attempts at mass tourism and the 1980s version of (carbon-laden) heavy manufacturing we could have found a suitable developmental alternative in the form of the steelpan industry.

Keith responded with his customary grunt of approval/disapproval which sometimes translated into a smile that really meant: “Bullshit!” Then we turned to talk of politics and how Lloyd Best had been right about the NAR all along. The “bourgeois revolution” was how I described the administration in one “Debate” column.

Soon, the discussion caused me to forget and virtually abandon my steelpan theory.

Then came Best’s version of the same plan. He called it “school in pan” – a play on an official thrust then to put “pan in school”. The head of the country’s largest Hindu organisation had countered at some stage that if the steelpan were to be put in school, so should the dholak, dhantal and sitar.

I suppose he had a point if in all musical instruments we truly find keys to ourselves that do not reside in any other area of human effort; not even the writing of poetry.

But there cannot be any comparison between the playing of pan and the skills required to play the sitar. They are simply different instruments with different requirements for mastery. Which is better? The piano or the guitar?

What makes the two different in the context of Trinidad and Tobago is that the best steelpan players in the world and the best steelbands reside in the place of the instrument’s birth. There is little dispute that the winner of the annual Panorama steelband championship is, without much doubt, the leading steelband in the entire world.

Perhaps in time the baton will pass. It is already passing to some in the United States, Britain, Japan, Scandinavia and other parts of the world where people have recognised the beauty of this instrument. That is par for the course. Black Stalin was mistaken to believe that in legally owning the pan-stick and the pan itself, we could patent the ability to master an instrument.

Pan is also not, of course, the greatest musical instrument in the world. The musicians would explain how technically limited it really is and, therefore, how magnificent the Len Boogsie Sharpes and Robbie Greenidges and Ken Profession Philmores are as masters of the pan.

I suppose what Best meant was that steelbands brought to Trinidad and Tobago society a form of democracy and civility and education that had the potential to bring about the kind of transformation needed to take our country forward. It was thus much more than a question of taking pan to school, but the challenge of taking the school to pan.

I sincerely believe that if Best and I were the ones having that Independence Square chat over 20 years ago he too would have similarly grunted, but filed the thought and come back with it as an offer to promote the nation in pan.

If I remember correctly, I thought then it would have been possible to have downed tools at Pt Lisas and O’Meara and Pointe-a-Pierre and taken up our steelpans as export product, community developer and as a tool to move the country forward politically.

All of this came to mind on February 7 when I sat in the shambles the Ministry of Culture calls the “stands” at Queen’s Park Savannah where people are being asked to witness our greatest moments.

On the stage were both school and pan – Junior Panorama 2010. And I thought, as Mikhail and his colleagues played, that this wonderful experience that brings so much joy to our children was far more important than anything else the country has to offer to them. Much more, certainly, than the bullshit now being called “conference tourism” or the natural gas downstream industries that are proving to be as problematic as they are temporal. The gas, my friends, will run out.

Apologies for the melodrama. It happens every year around this time. And each year I am more convinced that few have truly understood the value of pan and what is possible because of it.

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