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PAN & PAN JAZZ: CHILDREN OF OUR CENTURY
By Simeon L. Sandiford
It is not clear who coined the term Pan-jazz, but it is used to describe
either a solo Pannist or a small ensemble of Pannists; or a solo Pannist with a
group of conventional musicians, usually a pianist, a drummer, a bassist, a
guitarist, a saxophonist or some combination thereof, playing conventional jazz
or so-called crossover music. The main emphasis is placed on the Pannist as the
lead soloist. This music is characterised by spontaneous improvisation.
Pan-jazz is traceable to the late 1950s in Trinidad when the late Scofield
Pilgrim, Ray Holman, Earl Rodney, Emmanuel 'Cobo Jack' Riley and others began
experimenting with playing calypso and their own compositions in a jazz styling.
At the same time, they were trying to extend the range of the soprano pan so
that it could be used as a viable substitute for the piano.
Partly out of the experimentation of such people, the Panorama competition
was started in 1963. It is interesting to note that Panorama compositions (which
are essentially variations on a theme played in calypso tempo) are also full of
improvisations called runs. However, these are not spontaneous, but are taught
aurally to steelband musicians by the arranger. This, however, is Pan Jazz and
its beginnings. But Pan Jazz is the child of Pan; what are its origins?
The Steel Pan sprang from the hunger, pain and defiant joy of the ex slaves
of Trinidad and Tobago, people of the rough streets and ghettos. Here was a
people's burning need for self-expression and identification. A need so strong
that it fashioned something new to proclaim itself. The majority of today’s
players still learn by rote and play without any tangible financial reward.
Pride of performance is everything to them and this is what empowers their
music. To hear steelband music is to hear the soul of Trinidad and Tobago.
From crude beginnings the Steel Pan has evolved to acquire a breathtaking
sophistication. The Steel Pan has demonstrated the capacity not only to ¬extend
the range of orchestral music but also to replicate the sounds of many other
instruments. Because of this gift of mimicry, entire symphonies have been
faithfully rendered solely by Steelbands. Yet no other instrument possesses the
bell like echoing, the silver purity, of the Steel Pan. Stephen Brookes, writing
in Insight of December 6, 1988, says,
"Playing classical music on the pan … has shown just how broad and
colorful the steel band’s musical palette really is. From delicate,
shimmering passages that suggest the ethereal sound of a glass harmonica to
detailed counterpoint and intricate passagework and thundering, unstoppable
percussive crescendos, the sound of a full-size steel orchestra is, in a
word, extraordinary. It has an uncanny ability to evoke the sound of
trumpets, woodwinds, even strings. Ringing with complex harmonics, the sound
is almost hypnotic.”
The range of different tones emanating from steel orchestras has elicited
enquiries about the presence of synthesizers from those hearing pan for the
first time. So what is Steel Pan? What are its features?
The Steel Pan is the only new family of acoustic instruments to have been
invented in the last 100 years. It is the National Music Instrument of the
Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It was invented there circa 1940. The Steel Pan
is a definite pitch, acoustic, and percussion instrument. It consists of a
circular steel playing surface stretched to a concave shape, attached to a
hollow, metallic, cylindrical resonator called a 'skirt". The playing surface Is
divided into an optimum number of convex sections called “notes", each of which
is acoustically isolated and tuned to a definite pitch. The instrument is
usually played with a pair of hand held rubber tipped, non sonorous mallets
called “sticks”. Persons skilled in the art of playing the Steel Pan are called
The ensemble or orchestra, which usually consists of a family of Steel Pans
encompassing a range of approximately six chromatic octaves, is known as a
steelband or steel orchestra. It is often supported by a rhythm section
consisting of a variety of other indefinite pitch percussion instruments which,
when played in harmony, regulate the tempo of the music. The most highly
regarded features of Steel Pan playing of the whole orchestra are demonstrated
through the extended arrangements of Calypsoes called 'Panorama Music".
Panorama is a unique steelband competition, totally indigenous to the culture
of Trinidad and Tobago. It was inaugurated during the Carnival Season of 1963
and is customarily held during Carnival. As many as 100 steel orchestras, each
consisting of between 50 and 100 players, spend four to six weeks of long,
irregular hours learning an arrangement of a calypso. Each band is allowed a
maximum of ten minutes to interpret and extend a melody that is originally about
11/2 minutes long. The arrangements when fully exploited are varied, Interesting
and challenging. The structure of a typical arrangement includes an
introduction, statement of the melody, harmonic and melodic developments,
changes of key, changes of rhythm, modulations, improvisations and a finale. The
headiest victory for a Pannist is to be part of a team that 'wins a Panorama '
and this is pursued in a manner that may best be described as obsessive.
The music for each orchestra is laid down aurally by a respected arranger in
such a way as to give endless delight to the audience while, of course,
maintaining the vigorous tempo that is the very spirit of Carnival. The
countrywide competition itself takes place in various venues over a period of
about two weeks, the country being divided into zones. The grand finals take
place at the Oueen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain, on Carnival Saturday night
before a highly-charged audience of between 35,000 and 50,000 patrons. The
massive outdoor stage measures 274 feet by 48 feet and each orchestra occupies
up to 90 per cent of it.
Over the years, Panorama competitions have become an integral part of some of
the other hundred and fifty odd Carnival celebrations throughout the world. Some
of the more notable ones are in Grenada and Antigua, Notting Hill in England,
Caribana in Canada, Labor Day in Brooklyn and Boston Carnival.
In the recent past, however, while Panorama continues to be the foremost Pan
playing event, the potential of Pan has steadily developed. A “Pan in Concert”
tradition is evolving rapidly and in prestigious and far flung places from its
indigenous roots: Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. and
Symphony Hall, Boston; and in countries like Japan and Morocco. And it is in
this concert setting that the many facets of Pan are displayed and its best
players exhibit their extraordinary artistry.
Clive Zanda, Rudy Smith, Robbie Greenidge, Andy Narell, and Annise Hadeed and
others have been responsible for maintaining the Pan Jazz tradition initiated by
their earlier colleagues. Modern Pan-jazz in Trinidad and Tobago consists of a
fusion of the rhythms and characteristic styles of Calypso, Shango and East
Indian music with traditional jazz rhythms. Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and Ken
“Professor” Philmore too, play these fused rhythms at home but also present the
newer “smooth jazz” rhythms. The versatility of the pan instrument allows as
varied musicians as these, and Pan groups such as Panazz, to respond to eclectic
tastes for calypso, Broadway melodies, big band swing, reggae and symphony.
Listen to Pan, calypso or jazz, marvel at the artistry and feel the soul of a
Ronald H. Lammy contributed to this 1999 edition of an earlier
writing first published by Mr. Sandiford in 1997