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How the Steelpan Went From Being a Poor Man's Piano to an Elitist's Toy

Pan, as a young instrument well shy of 100 years old, has such a recent history that many of the early pioneers responsible for the development of the steelpan as we know it are still alive and well today. It was not long ago, before the reluctant acceptance of pan by the Trinidadian bourgeoisie that pannists were outlawed, ostracized, criminalized and imprisoned for their steelpan endeavors. A large part of these steelpan endeavors included public street performances.

The steelpan is an instrument that was born and raised in the ghetto, and those associated with it in the early days were branded as social pariahs as they already belonged to a marginalized social, economic and political class. Pioneering panmen not only had to endure the subjugation of their fellow establishment oriented Trinidadians, who were essentially local bootlickers of the colonial establishment, but also the ire and disdain of the colonial establishment itself. Bearing in mind that the colonial establishment in question was a co-conspirator in the mass genocide of 70-100 million negroes during the transatlantic slave trade, enduring the ire and disdain of such a blood thirsty colonial regime is not something to be taken lightly, ever. This is the milieu in which the steelpan was born. 

Recently, the inherent dangers of busking while black were discussed on this blog as well as how being a Negro pannist busking on the streets of Europe and North America is likely to place one in direct conflict with the authorities and other hostile members of the public at regular intervals. Not only does busking carry a stigma, but being a negro busker playing an exotic instrument (pan), which was invented using discarded materials, carries multiple stigmas simultaneously. Bearing the burden of all of these negative stigmas in one ugly package represents a constant challenge to Caribbean pannists who employ their pans and skills for the purposes of busking. This is by no means an easy burden to carry and it is not an undertaking that is advised for weak individuals lacking conviction and fortitude. 

Although the steelpan has earned the distinction of being called the ''National Instrument of Trinidad & Tobago'', the relationship between the instrument and the Trinidadian society at large is ambivalent to say the least. This is to say that the history of steelpan and the stigma it has historically carried is still currently greatly hindering the progress of the instrument, especially in the way of full scale, practical acceptance of the instrument on the part of the society as a whole for the 11 months out of the year when Panorama is not a consideration. 

The steelpan will most likely forever carry the stigma of an instrument that was created from trash (discarded oil drums). Even today, when hearing lay persons attempt to describe the origins of the steelpan to others who have never seen the instrument, these lay persons will ignorantly claim that the steelpan is made from a ''trash can''. Ignorant as this may be, it is a further testament to the ugly reality of the wide scale stigmatization and stereotyping of the steelpan that still exists to this very day. 

Despite this stigmatization, the steelpan has become somewhat of a novelty toy for elitists on different levels. Regarding one such level, the issue of how the pan was stolen by Swiss Vandals who substituted nitrided sheets for oil drums and called it a ''Hang'', while creating an elitist handpan cult comprised of wilingly misguided Europeans has been discussed in this blog previously. However, the topic of steelpan elitists in our midst has not been addressed until now. 

 

Busking Pannists and the Double Bind of Carrying the Burden of Two Stigmas; Bum and Panhandler

Any pannist or self-proclaimed pan enthusiast who has a negative view of pannists who choose to perform on the streets and in public spaces is a hypocrite for the simple fact that the only stage early pannists had at their disposal were the streets and public spaces. This is not to say that pan should be limited exclusively to street performances, but instead, that this historical relationship between pan and street performance should be preserved.

Fast forward a few decades later to today, and the general consensus among many in the world of pan is that steelpan busking is taboo. One gets the impression that it is seriously frowned upon whenever the subject arises in pan discussions. 

If Earl Rodney, who is one of the greatest pannists currently active today can busk proudly with dignity and class, this is unassailable evidence in itself of the legitimacy of the busking artform as it relates to the steelpan. Earl Rodney represents the true history of pan on so many levels. 

However, due to a combination of ignorance and fear of being socially stigmatized along with an already heavily stigmatized instrument, many in the steelpan community do their best to downgrade pannists who busk while distancing themselves from busking altogether. 

A case in point is as follows in the form of a YouTube comment published in response to the following brilliant video of Earl Rodney busking:

''Great artistry, makes me wonder though , why do our greats have to resort to playing on a street corner for mere pennies?Is there some way that they can be doing more meaningful things with there great talents?''
The above comment by Wayne Joseph reflects ignorance at it's worst regarding pannists who busk. Fortunately, there are still sensible people who are willing to rebuke such foolish notions. In response to Wayne Joseph's misguided comment above, the following comment was posted:
''+wayne joseph Not at all, this is a paid practice session. I think busking is a true art form. You only get paid what people are willing to give. If you catch people's ears and hearts then that is a beautiful thing. Something every musician lives for.''

 

There is no other profession that comes to mind other than busking where the individual earns nothing more than what others are willing to pay. The exploitative, profit driven aspects of capitalism are removed from the equation and it is precisely this reason why busking is arguably the most honest, honorable profession that exists. If the entire world operated on the principles that define busking, there is no question that the world would be a better place in which to live. 

 

A Few Out of Touch, Elitist, Pan Know-It-Alls From When Steel Talks Post Some Ill-Conceived Comments Regarding Busking and Pan

There is no question that When Steel Talks is no longer a reliable source when it comes to objective discussions about pan that are based firmly in history and the present reality. More proof of this fact lies in some disgusting comments that were published by some WST members earlier this month in response to an article about a Caribbean pannist whose freedom to busk was terminated in Canberra, Australia. The pannist in question, Courtney Leiba, is 79, married to a doctor, and has been busking in that location for more than 20 years as a member of the community. 

Some of the distasteful WST comments in response that article are as follows:

Reply by Ajamu Nyomba on November 5, 2016 at 8:03am

''This is a very sad but real story. More importantly, it should be a wake-up call to pan players in “foreign lands.” You cannot depend on Pan Trinbago, the World Governing Body for the Steelpan,” or Panorama, to survive as musicians. You have to “adjust to the environment.”  Join musician unions, art councils, form non-profit tax-exempt organizations, etc.

Recently I angered a producer for not wanting to play while people were entering the venue for a show. I stand firm. If there’s a program, and you want to use my band, then we want to be on the program, not entertain people as they enter the venue.

I think it is very sad that today pan players have to play on street corners, etc. for donations from passers-by. That is my personal bias. I represent the National Instrument proudly. 'Nuff said!''

If Ajamu Nyomba had any sense he would have recognized quite easliy that pannists who busk such as Mr. Leiba obviously do not ''depend on Pan Trinbago or Panorama to survive as musicians.'' The fact that Mr. Leiba has been busking for over 20 years in Canberra would be clear had Ajamu Nyomba read the original article in the first place. But again, this is merely a prime example of an ignorant, elitist pannist who is driven by a fear of stigmatization as well as ignorance as to what the art of busking actually involves.

Obviously Mr. Nyomba believes that in order to ''represent the National Instrument proudly'', this involves playing the pan on a stage that is not the street. This is a direct insult to a master like Earl Rodney who has achieved more than Ajamu Nyomba most likey ever will in the world of pan, and it would behoove Mr. Nyomba to read a book and study his pan history and embrace it, rather than disregard it and distance himself from it. 

However, the icing on the crooked WST comments cake comes from Bob Diaz, whose long-winded and hot air-filled reply is as follows:

Reply by bob diaz on November 5, 2016 at 6:55pm

''I was never in favor of pan playing in subways and street corners ect. Our band Caribbean Extravaganza has been performing outside of T&T since the late sixties and never once did we adhere to that, hell we never even put out a tip jar in any of our performances in all these yrs.When I see what pan can do with bands like Despers, Panam North Stars, All Stars, Silver Stars ect I marvel at the out come and wonder why are we limited to a side show, and then I figured it out.. For every product most important is marketing,knowing where and who they are then target them.  We in T&T have a tendency to aim at ourselves but we do not purchase enough to satisfy or support the market..If Courtney were playing another instrument whether exotic or conventional.the results would've been the same but that's no place to introduce an instrument that has potentials like pan..Now the solution,  very simple folks,  most conventional instruments were introduced to the public by performers, the more popular the artist the more exposure.  The sitar introduced by Lata Mangishka suddenly rose to fame and was featured in many Indian hits..We have mega trini stars like Niki Minaj and Machelle who could get us into Bet and all the major American networks but its not happening. Bob Marley has reggae music much more popular than calypso/soca and as we all know its lyrics are in no way in comparison  but which is more popular? Marley was aided by Johnny Nash,"I can see clearly" and the Jamaican Government, Bustamante..On the other hand pan got a boost from The group called Chicago and Grover Washington who wisely featured Robert Greenidge in " just the two of us",,Just imagine Niki Minaj featuring a full fledged Despers stage side as an opening act with her popularity with hip hop and she can do a mean reagae or soca backed by the all versatile steelband, tell me how could that fail in a talent starved market like we have today? The emerging "Codringtons steel orchestra" has the capability of entertaining any venue from night clubs to Carnegie Hall but they need the proper introduction and opportunity to prove themselves as the international professional artists they are..Maybe we can learn something from Donald Trump about starting a movement to make ourselves heard, er without the horror attachment of course..Seriously, though we need to do something to avoid situations like Courtney fighting a lone battle when there's so much help available...''

Really, hours could be spent dissecting Bob Diaz's comments in order to factually refute them, but unfortunately, time is a luxury and like many of the elitist dogs on WST, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks as they say. However, Bob Diaz has made it clear that busking with a pan is beneath him and his imaginary reality consists of one where ''Niki Minaj featuring a full fledged Despers stage side as an opening act'' would help the steelband cause on a meaningful level. In the reality of Bob Diaz, ''Maybe we can learn something from Donald Trump about starting a movement to make ourselves heard''.

 If Bob really cares to know why pan is and will most likely always be limited to a sideshow as far as it's originators are concerned, then it would benefit Bob and any other inquiring minds to study the following verses of Deuteronomy 28 very carefully. As Caribbean negroes and Trinidadians by default are modern day Israelites from the ''Lost Tribes of Israel'', the ultimate destiny and fate of the steelpan and its creators is clear. As Hebrew Israelites, Caribbean negroes are under a Divine Curse, and if the fact that the inventors of pan have historically profited the least from their invention while colonialists have profited the most is not enough proof, here is the Ultimate Truth;

Deuteronomy 28 

15 But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:

16 Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field.

17 Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store.

18 Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.

19 Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out.

20 The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me.

 

 

28 The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart:

29 And thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind gropeth in darkness, and thou shalt not prosper in thy ways: and thou shalt be only oppressed and spoiled evermore, and no man shall save thee.

30 Thou shalt betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: thou shalt build an house, and thou shalt not dwell therein: thou shalt plant a vineyard, and shalt not gather the grapes thereof.

31 Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, and thou shalt not eat thereof: thine ass shall be violently taken away from before thy face, and shall not be restored to thee: thy sheep shall be given unto thine enemies, and thou shalt have none to rescue them.

32 Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long; and there shall be no might in thine hand.

33 The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed alway:

 

 

36 The Lord shall bring thee, and thy king which thou shalt set over thee, unto a nation which neither thou nor thy fathers have known; and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone.

37 And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee.

38 Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it.

39 Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them.

40 Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy coasts, but thou shalt not anoint thyself with the oil; for thine olive shall cast his fruit.

41 Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity.

42 All thy trees and fruit of thy land shall the locust consume.

43 The stranger that is within thee shall get up above thee very high; and thou shalt come down very low.

44 He shall lend to thee, and thou shalt not lend to him: he shall be the head, and thou shalt be the tail.

45 Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee:

46 And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever.

47 Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things;

48 Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee.

49 The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand;

50 A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young:

51 And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee.

52 And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.

 

Undoubtedly, Caribbean negroes and negroes in the west are a perfect fit for these Biblical curses as few other groups have experienced such suffering and ill fate. The few other groups who have experienced atrocities on a similar level are also not surprisingly members of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Is it highly hypocritical when a member of the steelband community adopts and internalizes elitist, colonial world views regarding busking, while simultaneously being aware (consciously or subconsciously) that the pan is an instrument founded by ''street people''? We think so.

Is it devilishly dubious to claim that you ''represent the National Instrument proudly'' because you refuse play pan on the street, while knowing (consciously or subconsciously) that the steelband performance was born on the street? We definitely think so. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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  • Shaqq on

    From Busking, to being an accredited Volunteer with the Second-chance Scholarship Awards Foundation, we introduced Steelpan as a part of the Civic program for a credit in four Correctional facilities in Ontario with the MYCS

  • Shaqq on

    From Busking, to being a Volunteer with the Second-chance Scholarship Awards Foundation, we introduced Steelpan as a part of the Civic program for a credit in four Correctional facilities in Ontario with the MYCS

  • Shaqq on

    From Busking, as a Volunteer with the Second-chance Scholarship Awards Foundation, introduced Steelpan as a part of the Civic program for a credit in four Correctional facilities in Ontario with the MYCS

  • Michal on

    There are so many people who love the music of a piano. But anyone can’t buy a grand piano. Because the price of a grand piano is so high. The digital piano is perfect for every type of people. Because the price of a digital piano is so much cheaper than a grand piano. Best digital piano reviews

  • Hameed on

    Introduced Pan BUSKING to TTC, proudly the first steelpan player to oppose the transition commission to be allowed to play in the subway. www.thepanpiper.com



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