Family of steel
During the Carnival season, large steel orchestras dominate the national Panorama competition, but year-round, the spirit of musical innovation is also kept alive by smaller ensembles, like the Laventille-based Codrington Pan Family. Israel McLeod learns more
At twenty-five years old, Khari Codrington is the manager of one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most versatile and melodic steelpan ensembles. Over the past eighteen years, the Codrington Pan Family has become synonymous with excellence and professionalism in music. Whether winning local music festivals consecutively, performing live before royalty, or creating history in 2015 as the first musicians to showcase the steelpan at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, the Codrington family’s impact on the steelpan fraternity has been nothing short of outstanding — especially considering the size of the ensemble.
It’s a hot and busy day in Port of Spain as I meet Khari. It is already mid-October, and many of T&T’s steel orchestras have begun preparing for the musical war ahead. Who will win the 2017 National Panorama Competition, just a few months away? “Will it be you?” I ask Khari, after debating with him the view that having a sponsor makes a significant impact on one’s standing in the competition. “Who knows,” he chuckles, then adds, “We’ve made it this far.” It is a stark reality that, in the midst of all their achievements to date, the Codringtons still remain an unsponsored band.
While the family’s early years were spent in Tunapuna, along Trinidad’s East-West Corridor, the Codringtons consider themselves to be a product of the creative hub of Laventille. “The Hills”, as the area east of downtown Port of Spain is also fondly known, is a vibrant part of the country’s social and cultural fabric. For generations, this community has consistently birthed and inspired icons in the fields of fashion, theatre, dance, literature, and — most undoubtedly — music. More specifically, you cannot talk about the hills of Laventille without referring to the origins and growth of the steelpan — the only musical instrument to have been invented in the twentieth century, as all Trinidadians know. Laventille is the home of numerous globally renowned steelbands: Desperadoes, Highlanders, Blue Diamonds, Tokyo, Sun Valley, and Laventille Sound Specialists. And last, but certainly not least, Laventille is also home to this talented group of young men and women, guided by Khari Codrington.
We have actually chosen the current Desperadoes panyard on Frederick Street as the location for our interview. Apart from being accessible, it allows us to enjoy the rehearsal of the Despers youth band. I ask Khari about the Codrington Pan Family’s early days as performers. He begins by saying that music has always been important to him and his siblings.
“When we began in 1999,” he says, “it was our dad together with mom and the first four children — Kareem, Kaijah, Keisha, and myself. We would set up lower down on Frederick Street — in front of Sun Tings Souvenir Shoppe — and take turns at playing the tenor pan. That is how we started — with only one steelpan, but plenty of passion and charisma. My mom or dad would keep the timing for each of us, and that portion of the pavement would become our stage. Even then, music was not only what groomed us, but fed us, basically.”
Khari recalls how that pavement spot was where their first and only corporate sponsor to date, SWMCOL — the Trinidad and Tobago Solid Waste Management Company — laid eyes upon them. “It was cruise ship season, so on this particular day we were really busy. Tourists and Christmas shoppers were plentiful, but among them stood Ray Brathwaite” — then SWMCOL’s executive chairman. “Initially, it was he who approached my dad and asked to have a word with him. Dad politely acknowledged him, but never did speak with him that day — he was mindful of the negative comments that some passers-by would make.” Khari explains: “For what it is worth today, none of those comments about us being exploited as children affected us, because we not only enjoyed performing but also we understood that, as a family, it was necessary to stick together and use our talents to further ourselves.”
The Codringtons’ dedication and charisma was what caught the attention of Brathwaite, who supported the expansion of the band between 2006 and 2009, during his tenure at SWMCOL. With that additional fiscal support, the Codrington Pan Family were able to diversify their efforts. For some of the siblings, like brothers Kareem and Kaijah, it meant completing the advanced steelpan tuning course at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and putting those skills and knowledge to use daily. For others, like Khari and his sister Keisha, it thrust them further into the practical and academic worlds of teaching as well as arranging and composing music for the steelpan. One of their most successful compositions to date saw the band take first place at the 2013 Pan Is Beautiful competition, seven points ahead of seasoned competitors like Renegades, Caribbean Airlines Invaders, and Exodus.
The Codrington Pan Family began competing as a small conventional band in the National Panorama Competition. However, the burden of managing an unsponsored steel orchestra became increasingly heavy, and in 2015 the family decided to withdraw from the competition and instead assist other unsponsored steelbands to participate. This provided the opportunity for Khari and Keisha to broaden their skill sets as steelpan arrangers. So for the past four years Khari has been contracted as the musical director and arranger for the C&B Crowncordians Steel Orchestra from Bon Accord, Tobago. During that time, the youth-based band made it to the Panorama semi-finals, and also made significant strides in the Tobago Panorama competition. Meanwhile, Keisha has served as the arranger for the Gonzales Sheikers for the past two years. The siblings are not the only ones to have tasted success at Panorama, however, as their father Cary has the distinction of being the only arranger to take the Birdsong Steel Orchestra to a national Panorama final.
As the Desperadoes Youth Orchestra wraps up its rehearsal, we conclude by discussing the Codrington family’s plans for the next two years. Khari mentions that his ensemble will continue to be “the first point of interaction with the steelpan,” for the thousands of visitors entering Trinidad for Carnival through the port facilities on Wrightson Road. “It’s not just about giving a performance,” he says, “but creating a memorable experience as the mecca of steelpan.”
Beyond Carnival, the group is also focused on releasing original steelpan compositions for consideration by the local and international film industry. Kareem and Kaijah will continue to supply steelpans to various orchestras regionally, while Khari and Keisha will delve deeper into creating exclusive recording opportunities for live instruments — with the steelpan remaining at the heart of their ambitions.
Find out more about the Codrington Pan Family via their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/cpanfamily
In the darkness before the sun rises on Carnival Monday morning, in the upside-down world of J’Ouvert, is a special kind of freedom, writes Lisa Allen-Agostini
The pre-dawn air is kissed with dew. Your mother wouldn’t approve of you out here, bareheaded, at this hour, and bathing yourself in cold, slick mud, to boot. You’ll catch your death, she’d say. But there it is: you are here, wearing a ragged t-shirt and your shortest shorts, barely decent and already half-drunk on rum and the wildness in the air.
Of that wildness there’s plenty: this is J’Ouvert in Port of Spain. It’s the official start of the two days of Carnival. You’re on a street in the city meeting up with your band, recreating a ritual hundreds of years old. J’Ouvert is not just the start of Carnival. It is, by some accounts, an utter reversal of everything that is true of the ordinary world by day. Decent people behaving badly, wearing costumes that point fingers at authority, mocking their own decency by their dress and manner.
Is that so-and-so wining down to the ground in a pair of thongs and high heels? And who is that in the ballerina’s tutu smeared with engine grease? Is that a man, a woman, or what? And how do they get those wire and papier mâché horns to stay on their heads?
But few people ask that sort of question at J’Ouvert. They are far too busy slathering mud or paint or cocoa or grease on their own bodies or someone else’s to care what their neighbour is doing or wearing.
There are exceptions, of course. In the darkness of one J’Ouvert morning I saw a tall, stern-faced man who looked out of place in the old lady’s wig and nightie he wore. He was standing alone in the crowd of masqueraders dancing by the band’s massive music truck. I couldn’t help myself. I had to walk up to him and take a wine. By the time the sun was hot, we were both covered in various colours of body paint mixed with whatever substances had coated the other bands we passed through that morning, rivers flowing together to form one massive flood of dirty, ecstatic masqueraders.
If Carnival is colour, J’Ouvert is its darker twin. The masquerades on these same streets later this day may be fanciful and pretty, idealistic, covered in feathers and sequins and rainbows. The mas for J’Ouvert, on the other hand, is often dirty and mocking. You’ll find here the jab molassie — molasses devils, invoking the spirits of enslaved people who died in the sugar coppers on plantations named Tranquillity, Woodbrook, Peru, which are now part of this bustling city. You’ll find the odd Dame Lorraine, a mas played by a man wearing a woman’s dress, obscenely padded in a slave’s parody of the European masters’ wives. You’ll find the tradition of old mas, where ordinary folks compete to stage elaborate puns to accuse priest and politician alike, or just to make a good bad joke. Imagine a man with a chamber pot in one hand and a sign in the other, and the sign reads “Po’ me one.”
Increasingly you’ll find abstractions: Mud Mas, Red Devils, Yellow Devils, Cocoa Devils, and so on, bands of mas players in no real costume but simple t-shirts and shorts splattered in whatever unguent it is they are “playing” this year.
J’Ouvert is the beating heart of Carnival because of the anonymity the darkness lends. In this darkness is the ability to be anyone or no one.
When the sun comes creeping up over Laventille to wash the city in gold, we are renewed. We stumble home, hose ourselves off, rest muscles sore from chipping for miles in the morning dew. Carnival has begun. A few hours later we will be back, chipping again in the hot sun, dutifully wearing our brilliant, happy daytime costumes. A smear of black engine oil behind one ear is the only sign that we had ever been anything else.
But though J’Ouvert is fleeting, it may well stay with you. Remember the tall man in the old lady’s wig and night? Reader, I married him.
“I never choose the mas”
Tracy Sankar-Charleau, who explores the spiritual roots of folklore through mas performance, on being “chosen” by her characters — as told to Tracy Assing
Every traditional mas character is alive. Every traditional mas person, whether they want to look at it that way or not, from moko jumbies straight down to a fancy sailor, they all have to deal in the spiritual aspect of it. You have a fancy sailor turn around and tell you, you can’t just do so and put on a costume and say you dance a dance like that — you have to be on a high. And, as I tell people, is not an alcohol high, it’s a whole different thing. Traditional mas has a level of spiritualism in it, and each character, each person, knows how to be.
We take on that character, whether it be for an hour or for the whole day. This is not just jump in a costume and palance yuh backside. This is awakening something when you need it to do something for you. For me, really and truly, the La Diablesse was on a whole different level. I am the vessel and I have to do whatever it is she tell me to do.
I’ve been playing mas for the last ten years with my mom. I started off with her. That didn’t happen until my thirties. I was doing photography work with her band, helping with her workshops. But then I became an individual performer — next year will make it four years. From there it just took off.
We are from an artistic family. My mom was a draughtswoman and also a seamstress. That was her job at home. We were always making something. Is she give us the courage to just start we own, so to speak. My sister, she does stuff with her, they are joined together. But I branched off on my own, because I decided to deal more with the folklore aspects of it, the spiritual aspect of it, and the part it plays within the whole persona of the mas. They do the Dame Lorraine. I play the Dame Lorraine, the fancy jab, the jab molassie, and in 2015 for the first time I brought out the La Diablesse. So in all it’s four characters I play. 2017 will make it five. I giving them my version of a burrokeet. This time I will be the one dancing the horse.
I was bored with the Dame Lorraine. It’s a cool character. It’s my mother. I am a little more out there. I’m a little more brackish and a little more loud and outgoing. When my mother realised I wanted to play the jab, and this was something I was pondering in my brain for years, she told me, “No, behave yourself. That ain’t for you. You sure you could blow fire?” Steups. Boy, nobody never teach me, I went and put kerosene in my mouth. It burn like hell! I do my own thing and after that it take off in less than a week. That was it. Second skin. I had a ball with it and then I realise I hadda make this my own.
I get bored a lot. I am always trying to figure out, yeah, this very macabre way to fit with the traditional, but then sometimes you want to put a little twist onto it and you want to do something a little more refreshing.
I never choose the mas. The mas choose me. It speaks to you. So you can’t just think that at the end of the day, you put on a costume. It doh work like that. You awakening something. And for me the folklore starts from somewhere. All stories have a beginning, and when it hands down through generations it takes on different faces and different meanings for everybody.
I like to lacouray myself. I like to showcase myself — but who doesn’t? On a normal, average, basic day I keep to myself. I try to stay away from people. I have friends, but sometimes they don’t even see me for months. I prefer to keep on the down-low, but when it’s time for me to pop up, I get to be me. I get to show you for a change, look at how it supposed to be done.
What happens when I am playing the La Diablesse, I am trying to come out of it. I am always crying, I am always sorrowful. I cannot always not be who I am. This is the woman herself. This is the Lady of Sorrows. It come like I am living out the whole entire thing.
I still express myself in my photography, but this is more fun. I like to be able to feel things. I like to touch it. With my mas I get to touch it, I get to actually bring something to life. I get to bring it out to you, and you can literally come up, touch it, smell it, see me, embrace it. It’s like reading a story and that’s all it is, it’s all up here in your imagination — but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could literally manifest itself and materialise in front you? I get to do that. I get to take the stories that we all have and make them into something where it’s a fascination even for the oldest of the old.
The birth of La Diablesse
After several years of portraying a traditional Dame Lorraine in her mother June Sankar’s well-known band, Tracy Sankar-Charleau began an exploration of other mas and folklore traditions through individual performance. At Carnival 2015, she debuted a new character, La Diablesse, based on the notorious cow-footed temptress of T&T folklore. But Sankar’s La Diablesse also incorporates elements of the Haitian voudou deity Erzulie Freda, embodying both love and sorrow, and borrowing some visual iconography from the Roman Catholic Madonna. Photographer Maria Nunes recalls the impact on Sankar’s audience: “The whole of Victoria Square erupted. People were truly gasping.”
Sankar’s vivid portrayal took on a new intensity after the death of her husband in October 2015, killed during an attempted robbery. They had been married for nearly two decades, and had four children. Just a few months later, Sankar’s 2016 mas portrayal channeled her sense of loss and rage into a searing and powerful performance that stunned audiences who had grown accustomed to nostalgically pretty “traditional” mas characters.
“My Carnival no longer starts or finishes”
Photographer Maria Nunes, celebrated for her avid documentation of traditional mas and steelpan, on her earliest Carnival memories, her first encounter with masqueraders from behind the camera, and how Carnival has become her life — as told to Nicholas Laughlin
One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing jabs in Mayaro at Carnival time. I was maybe six, seven, eight years old. It’s an indistinct memory — I can’t tell you what they looked like — but it’s something that stayed with me: these men playing jab, going house to house in Mayaro, and the surprise element.
But my first truly formed, deep impression of Carnival was that the year of [Peter Minshall’s Carnival King] The Sacred and the Profane — that was 1982 — my father took me to the Kings and Queens finals in the Savannah on Dimanche Gras. And I was mesmerised by The Sacred and the Profane, and [masquerader] Peter Samuel bringing the costume over all the photographers at the edge of the stage. It’s a distinct memory. The way it was set up then, the photographers were all down below the stage. I remember the power of how he came on the stage. And he moved those wings and brought the whole costume over the photographers. My father never took me to Kings and Queens prior to that, and I have no idea why he took me that year. And after that, he died in June 1982.
My interest in photography was formed by a childhood of having family holidays in Mayaro and Tobago documented and put in an album every year. At university, I bought myself a Pentax K1000 camera, which was a great first camera in the days of film. I started to become really passionate about photography when I was working at the St Andrew’s Golf Club [north of Port of Spain], where I was the general manager. The lands around the golf club are untouched forest, and on hikes I was struck by the beauty of the interior of the forest. I had the club’s camera, and that’s when I started to seamlessly take photographs.
Then at Carnival 2007 I spent Monday at a friend’s office on Carlos Street [in Woodbrook, west Port of Spain]. We were there just liming, eating, drinking, and I heard these whips cracking outside. I thought, what is this? And I went outside to see jab jabs beating up one another on Carlos Street. I was just mesmerised. To this day it reminds me that what I now take for granted, someday somebody sees for the first time. I ran for my camera, and those were my first photos in Carnival.
Because of that, I went out exploring the streets, and took my first photographs of traditional jab molassies — the black car-grease ones — on the corner of Ariapita Avenue and French Street. I’ll never forget it, because there was this one man in total car grease, and I was glued to him. He had these horns that were like two cones. I’ve come to understand that people sense when you’ve zeroed in on them with your camera, even though they haven’t seen you yet. And that sense that passes between two people, I experienced for the first time that day. As he passed me, he turned around to give me a look, with a laugh, and he stuck out his tongue as if to say, Ah give yuh that. He was fully aware, I realised, that I had not moved my gaze from him.
So that was the beginning. And around that time my path crossed with [photographer] Abigail Hadeed, and we must have spoken about my experience that Carnival. Because the big moment for me was that Abigail invited me the following year, in 2008, to go with her into downtown Port of Spain on Carnival Tuesday. That was what permanently changed my life. I don’t say that lightly. Whatever scales were on my eyes got peeled off, in a hurry. I experienced the heart of east Port of Spain in a whole different way, and sailor mas for the first time in any significant way. The people that I got to know then, I still know today. It was an introduction to a world, thanks to Abigail. And it proved to be such a big, big world.
When I took the plunge in 2010 — after twenty years of a normal salaried life — into professional photography, I knew I had to have a website. That was the first way I started sharing my photography — I would share a link on Facebook and people would go to the website and comment on the galleries. I got a lot of encouraging feedback. And it went from there.
My exploration of blue devils continually fascinates me. I could never get tired of photographing that expression. The first time I photographed moko jumbies on a Carnival Saturday at Junior Carnival, that blew my mind. And I’m developing a relationship with Ronald Alfred’s jab jab band [based in Carapichaima, central Trinidad]. I’m always seeking an elusive photograph of the essence of that art of the whip in motion. How to convey it to people so they can hear the whip crack in the photo? Or the dance of the sailor? Those are the things I seek after. When I’m deep in the moment with a jab jab, with a moko jumbie, with a blue devil, is when I think I am most immersed in what I am doing.
I want the performer to see how beautiful and amazing they are. In the photos, they see aspects of their performance they aren’t even aware of.
From that first year I went into Port of Spain with Abigail, I remember feeling this terrible sadness at the end of Carnival. I wanted it to keep on going. Every year when Carnival ends, I feel I just want a little more time. It’s all crammed into such a concentrated period of time — I’m going day, night, day, night, for two weeks. But I also know that’s part of what it’s all about, and if there was more room to breathe, it wouldn’t be the same. It used to be I felt this terrible sadness. Now it’s just a continuum, because the relationships I have built with the people I have photographed, so many of whom are truly now my friends, are year-long relationships. So my Carnival no longer starts or finishes. It’s now my life.
A lens for mas
After years of working as a teacher, golfer, and golf club manager, Maria Nunes found a childhood fascination with photos turning into a professional interest. For the past decade, a major portion of her work has been devoted to documenting traditional performance traditions within Trinidad Carnival, from the blue devils of Paramin to individual performers like Tracy Sankar-Charleau (interviewed on page 56). Her already immense archive — Nunes says she has at least thirty hard drives full of still images and video — includes all aspects of arts and culture, but Carnival remains an obsession, and her images are among the most widely shared and discussed by contemporary mas aficionados.
Music in motion
The steelpan is Trinidad and Tobago’s musical gift to the world, and its apotheosis is the National Panorama Competition. For Nigel Campbell, Panorama’s “little rebellion” is about much more than the music
I am a steelpan fan. Not necessarily an overt steelpan junkie, but I appreciate the music born here in Trinidad and Tobago, and the sound that makes that original music. This is ours, and once a year, we can all participate in a festival celebrating that sound and reminding those who are sensitive to the subliminal signs of what researcher Kim Johnson calls “the audacity of the creole imagination.” The annual Panorama competition is more than music: it is history and individual biography, it is sociology and science, rhythm and motion. It is tonic and elixir for Carnival. It is fun. I become a “people observer,” trying to create stories out of the snippets of overheard conversations, and the sights and sounds of this organised chaos we call Trinidad Carnival.
First things first: Carnival is not a spectator sport, but a participatory event, or a series of participatory events: soca fetes, pre-dawn J’Ouvert, costume masquerade, soca and calypso competitions, and Panorama. Panorama finals, a celebration of and a competition among the best steelbands nationally, happens in the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain — the Big Yard, as we refer to it locally — on the Saturday night before Carnival. It includes bands from all over the two islands, performing eight-minute arrangements of calypso and soca tunes.
Panorama finals are the end of a series of gatherings that awaken a spirit anybody can partake of. The best introduction is a panyard crawl in the weeks before Carnival, to sample the sounds and sights of that urban space where late-night practice makes for a blending of musical dexterity and wilful determination. As in the FIFA World Cup, there are just a few winners in the history of Panorama, but that hasn’t stopped bands from all corners of the islands from competing for the idea of Panorama champion. Arguments about “who play better,” and “who had more excitement in the pan,” and “that is not a tune for Panorama” resonate for months after Carnival is over. Panorama is more than music.
Panorama is music in motion. The motion of the players rocking and grooving to the sound and rhythm of the engine room, the percussive centre of the steelband. The motion of the fans dancing to this music, percolating at a clip rhythm that guarantees body and tempo should become one. Dancing is inevitable. Dancing in time with the music, more so. Chipping (slow, steady sliding steps as you move forward with the bands), wining (sexy and suggestive gyrating of the hips, preferably with a partner), and jumping up (vertical with hands in the air, and in time with the music) are the dances of Carnival and the dances inspired by pan music. Shoes, then, become mandatory. Slippers may work, but if pedicures are important, sneakers are better.
When you consider that the early Panorama preliminaries in the 1960s were judged “on the move” — with steelbands in racks being pushed on wheels by partisan supporters from the community — you may question whether we have gone backwards or away from our Caribbean instinct to move. Now we have bands being judged in static formation on a stage, facing one direction, orchestra-like, in defiance of the urge to jump up. What ends are we serving, a European ideal of conformity or a Caribbean reality of participation, joy, and movement? I guess the answer can be better considered depending on where you are seeing and hearing the Panorama. For we do have a couple of options: the drag or the stands.
The real action takes place on the drag, a strip of tarmac that wends its way in and out of the Savannah, passing in front of the Grand Stand, an evolution of the old horse racing grandstand. (The original was demolished in 2006 to be rebuilt as a clone in 2011). That original pavilion for the Sport of Kings birthed a sister stand, the North Stand, which has become the playground of and a magnet for the imitative “mimic men” of the middle classes, pretenders looking to become one with the people. Between the drag and the North Stand, you can sense what an atmosphere of true liberation — and libation — the Panorama can be.
The North Stand is the fun place to be if you’re liming in the stands. A cacophony of rhythmic iron-clanging, hand-drumming, and bottle-and-spoon-beating makes for a noisy air of communal spirit. Rum rules, and the idea of the primacy of music is slowly giving way to the idea of a new kind of hedonism that travel writers casually describe as a selling point for Caribbean people.
All this pleasure becomes evident when you’re on the drag. From this vantage point, you can hear every band do a final practice performance of its competition tune, and it’s all free. Restriction and freedom are two opposites that have shaped Trinidad’s history. At Panorama, on the drag, they live side by side.
Panorama, to some, is the apotheosis of the steelband. To others, it reflects a growing decay of the communal spirit associated with the movement and a movement. Commercialism and a kind of redundancy have eaten away at some of the appeal of Panorama. But for me, it is a rekindling of hope that we are masters of our domain, not necessarily conforming to the dictates of the gatekeepers who rule media and creative enterprises. It is our little rebellion. Our fantasy that for a day, after many days and nights in those panyards, those crucibles of creativity and sweat and fire, we as a nation can make something that will last the test of time. It is also our chaotic and fervent and rhythmic moment when time stands still, literally — when we can all move as one to the beat.
2017 Panorama highlights
30 January to 7 February preliminary judging in panyards and communities across Trinidad and Tobago
12 February National Panorama Semi-Finals, Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain
23 February National Panorama Finals, small steelbands, Skinner Park, San Fernando
25 February National Panorama Finals, medium and large steelbands, Queen’s Park Savannah