Stories of steel — the future of the steelpan | Panorama

Carnival is the season of steelpan. But behind the Panorama stage, the future of T&T’s national musical instrument will be shaped by administrators, craftspeople, arrangers, and educators — like these men and women profiled by writer Sharmain Baboolal and photographer Mark Lyndersay

  • A modern touch: notes on a new steelpan are marked using pre-cut magnetic stencils. Roland Harragin’s pan tuning factory delivers small runs of instruments now, but maintains a tradition of hand-crafting of the instrument that reaches back to its beginn
  • Beverly Ramsey Moore. Photography by Mark Lyndersay
  • Roland Harragin. Photography by Mark Lyndersay
  • Kaijah Codrington marks the surface of the steel drum prior to sinking it. Photography by Mark Lyndersay
  • The steady process of sinking the drum begins with a mallet covered with duct tape, shown here, then continues with a pneumatic hammer after the basic shape is achieved. This speeds up the smoothing process from hours to minutes. Photography by Mark Lynde
  • Roland Harragin has created templates to mark the segments of each type of drum. This one will become a double tenor. Photography by Mark Lyndersay
  • The Codrington brothers work together to mark off the note segments on the sunken steel surface. Photography by Mark Lyndersay
  • To create the notes on the drum’s surface, the metal surrounding each note segment is hammered in, leaving the raised bumps that are responsible for the music. Special care is taken to separate the resonance of each note segment, so that it doesn’t bl
  • The cut and shaped drum is heated prior to tuning, to temper the steel and remove any impurities from its surface. For all but bass drums, Harrington uses both ends of the steel drum to create instruments, but occasionally the steel will fail, ruining the
  • Mia Gormandy-Benjamin. Photography by Mark Lyndersay
  • Duvonne Stewart. Photography by Mark Lyndersay
  • Carnival season brings renewed attention — and anxiety — to the state of the steelpan, T&T’s national musical instrument. Photo by Rick Rudnicki/Alamy Stock Photo

The president

Growing up in Tobago, Beverly Ramsey Moore was banned from the panyard mere feet from her family home. It was no place for a girl, people said. Half a century later, she proved that the panyard — like the boardroom — is definitely the place for a woman, with her groundbreaking election as president of Pan Trinbago

Although it was just five footsteps away from the front door of her childhood family home, Beverley Ramsey Moore was banned from entering the Katzenjammers Steel Orchestra panyard, pioneered by her father and uncles in Black Rock, Tobago. Half a century ago, a panyard was very much a man’s world.

Rather, it was in the privacy of his bedroom that Ramsey Moore’s father Hugh taught his eldest daughter to play Michael Jackson’s “Ben” on the tenor pan, when she was just fourteen years old. “In those dark days,” she recalls, “it was taboo.”

Four decades later, in October 2018, Ramsey Moore was elected president of Pan Trinbago, the umbrella body for steelbands in Trinidad and Tobago — the first women to hold this challenging office. For years, she had tapped on the ceiling, until the glass shattered with her runaway victory against “an army of men who think it belongs to them,” as the now-fifty-eight-year-old grandmother puts it.

Once again, she went against her father’s advice. “Why don’t you leave those people alone?” Hugh Ramsey asked, knowing the controversy that led to the bankruptcy and near collapse of Pan Trinbago. “I am a fighter. I want to help to fix it. Daddy, I am a game changer,” Ramsey Moore replied, reminding him of her track record.

A relentless dedication to community service had evolved into a career in politics, as Ramsey Moore served two terms as representative for Black Rock in the Tobago House of Assembly, from 1996 to 2000. Then she was called on to help Katzenjammers, the “family” steelband. The gender taboo was a thing of the past, but her attempts to reorganise were still a battle.
Ramsey Moore’s narrative about “human capital development” did not sit well with the few remaining members of the steelband, but she earned the right to proceed, by one vote. Over the years, she pulled the Katzenjammers community back together, until they earned the title of Medium Band Champions in the National Panorama competition in 2011 and 2012.

By then, Ramsey Moore had moved on from being a band representative to a role as the only woman on the Pan Trinbago executive, encouraged by her peers because of her outspokenness at meetings.

Was there a point of weakness when she thought, this is not a woman’s business? “Never!” is her emphatic reply. “I see myself as my family. We are leaders in the Black Rock community, and I fear no foe,” she explains. In the Pan Trinbago boardroom she was confronted with toxic masculinity, but she stood firm. “I knew they did not know what they were doing, but I kept on insisting on a structure, openness, and good governance.”

Now she finds herself at the helm of Pan Trinbago and T&T’s entire pan community, staring into a financial abyss. In her first ninety days, she came under enormous pressure from both the T&T government and Pan Trinbago’s member steelbands. She shrugs.

Navigating the 2019 Carnival season and Panorama competition is the first order of business. But there is heavy rebuilding work to be done, in the interest of not only financial survival, but better governance and accountability. For one thing, Ramsey Moore has promised to strip apart the constitution under which she was voted into office and repair the organisation’s weaknesses. “When communities embrace the steelbands once again, they won’t have the challenges they now face,” she says, ready for the uphill climb. A woman’s work is never done.

The tuner

Born the year before the steelpan made its international debut, Roland Harragin has spent his life perfecting the science and art of crafting pans, tending steel to create beautiful notes. Skilled tuners are a dying breed in T&T, he says — and how will pan survive without them?

How do you breathe life into metal? With a hammer.

When Roland Harragin was learning the art of steelpan half a century ago, the process was written nowhere. It was a matter of trial and error, and the most intriguing musical instrument of the twentieth century was developed along with the tools used to lovingly coax music from steel. It was and is a perfect balance of the scientific and the spiritual for the men who have made tens of thousands of instruments without a blueprint. “When you come to a hammer and say you are looking for a note, it has to be inside of you for it to come out,” says Harragin.

The molecular structure of the steel, the degree of heat, and the measurements of the notes on any of the nine pans, ranging from tenor to bass, can now be learned in a structured way, because of the cornerstones laid by tuners like Ellie Manette and Anthony Williams, along with second-generation craftsmen like Harragin. “Those before me got an inspiration” he says. “They were scorned by society and stayed in the backwaters to create this instrument.”

Harragin himself has crafted steel drums in Europe, North America, and Japan, and for at least fourteen different steelbands in T&T. He’s also the builder of the G-pans used by Trinidad and Tobago’s National Steel Symphony Orchestra. Still, he believes, “we have only scratched the surface . . . When I die, all my technical knowledge is going with me, because it is not documented.”

Born in 1950 and growing up on Schuller Street in east Port of Spain, Harragin became associated early on with the Joyland Steel Orchestra. The steelpan was in its rudimentary form, introduced to the wider world at the Festival of Britain in 1951, where the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) performed to amazed audiences. “Everyone was experimenting,” Harragin recalls, “and hid things from one another, so you could not go around anybody to learn to tune a pan . . . It was really noisy, because there were no harmonics, and the sound was irritating to society, but the guys who were developing the instrument were not seeing that.”

In 1968, after hearing a performance by Pan Am North Stars at Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain, the visiting British professor John Russell introduced the idea of concert pitch — a consistent standard for tuning musical instruments — to the pan community. “It made us on par with any orchestra in the world,” Harragin explains, “and the sound was further enhanced in 1970, when Rudolph Charles chromed the pan and created different instruments.”

Without skilled tuners, there is no steelpan. “But very few people know how to make the instruments from scratch,” Harragin says. “Now, we are in a crisis here in Trinidad. We do not have a drum factory to turn out the same metal consistently, and we will never have it even in my lifetime,” he predicts.

“All the strides are taking place in the Midwest USA. They will do it better, because they have the time, the money, and the technical know-how.

“The whole world wants this, and here at home we are losing our key people, with their knowledge,” Harragin says — on a pessimistic note, after a lifetime of making music possible.

The metal men

Roland Harragin doesn’t like his raw materials. He isn’t happy with locally manufactured steel drums, because they lack the precise and robust seal of factory-made metal containers intended to contain industrial liquids. But he also doesn’t care for repurposed drums previously used for chemicals — he calls them “poison drums,” with a distinct sneer, and won’t work with them.

And when Harragin realised he no longer liked “making morning” — working until dawn to mass-produce drums for steelbands across T&T — he scaled back an operation that once piled up drums as high as the first floor of his Belmont home to just fifteen to twenty instruments a month.

He does like his team, though, and is particularly fond of the Codrington brothers, Kaijah and Kareem, part of a pan family led by their father Cary. The work they do emphasises hand craft.

Pans are forged with hammers and chisels, a process that’s approached with a jeweller’s respect for materials and executed with a mix of intuition, tactile response, and a decades-old tradition of metallurgy.

Mark Lyndersay

The teacher

Traditionally, in T&T’s steelpan community, music is learned by ear and preserved in individual memory. But the scarcity of written documentation means that musical innovations of the past are often inaccessible. Music professor Mia Gormandy-Benjamin is working to change that, and train a generation of pan musicians with the skills to create a true archive of pan

How are we supposed to continue as a society if we don’t know the ideas of our pioneers?” asks Mia Gormandy-Benjamin. “How are we supposed to develop and create new ideas if we do not know what the old ones are? If they have it locked up?”

For Gormandy-Benjamin, these aren’t rhetorical questions: rather, they form part of the foundation for her work as assistant professor of music at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), where she trains a rising generation of steelpan musicians — laying the ground for what she hopes will be a tectonic shift in steelband culture.

To harness the boundless energy of young steelpan students, making them a part of that change, Gormandy-Benjamin is well prepared. Pan has been the focus of her academic life, including twelve years in the United States, starting when she embarked on her journey at Northern Illinois University as a teenager in 2005. Confident with a résumé that already included performances in the US, Austria, and Australia, the young Gormandy-Benjamin quickly learned that, although she was among the best that Trinidad had to offer, she had to up her game.

Eventually, the award-winning 4.0 GPA student — who was NIU’s Most Outstanding Woman of the Year for 2011, when she graduated with a master’s degree in steelpan performance — found new purpose when she decided to pursue a doctorate. “I chose topics that involved the steelpan in Trinidad,” she says. “I found that a lot of information I was looking for wasn’t readily available, until my teacher suggested I study ethnomusicology. Her academic quest led her to Florida State University, where she became the first steelpan player awarded a grant by the American Musicological Society, to do research for her dissertation on pan in Japan.

“Going abroad was eye-opening,” Gormandy-Benjamin recalls. “In Trinidad, we think we are the land of steelpan, and we are the only ones to play. In the United States, there are more steelbands than we have in Trinidad, and steelpan teachers have resources to get assistance. In Japan, like elsewhere, there is a hunger for our rich cultural history.” At home, meanwhile, a lack of access to formal musical training and documentation limits the development of many promising pan players.

Gormandy-Benjamin is working to change that. At UTT’s performing arts academy in Port of Spain, she engages her students to help shape a bank of information through PanNotation, an online database. “Students won’t just have access to it, but can have their research papers or performances published,” she explains with enthusiasm.

The surge of musically literate students entering the panyards — a domain where for decades players prided themselves on learning “by ear” — means a significant and growing change in the steelpan fraternity. Whereas in the past — as recently as the 1990s — landmark music from Panorama winners was transcribed and sold overseas with no permission from the steelband virtuosos, the new corps of trained musicians can transcribe and document the arrangements created each year, keeping it in T&T’s archives: a resource for composers, arrangers, and musicians of the future.

The arranger

When Renegades won the 2018 National Panorama Competition, it signalled a return to victorious form for the legendary steelband — and a career highlight for Duvonne Stewart, one of the most talented and ambitious of the new generation of pan arrangers

“I take a song about a minute and ten seconds in duration, and turn forty-eight bars into three hundred bars of music, with sheer creativity of self-spontaneous arrangement with nine different voices applied through the steelband,” says Duvonne Stewart, summarising the all-important role of musical arranger.

“I have etched my name in a space where it cannot be erased anymore,” declares the forty-two-year-old, whose sixteen years as an arranger have earned him twenty-one competition victories — but none as meaningful as bringing the 2018 National Panorama title home to the BP Renegades, the band that bred and nurtured him after he left his home in Tobago and moved to Trinidad at the age of nineteen.

It was Renegades’ first Panorama victory in the seven years — an almost Biblical term — since Stewart was handed the band’s arranger’s baton, previous carried by the late and legendary Jit Samaroo, whom Stewart idolised when he was a player with Renegades in the 1990s. In the nine years from 1989 to 1997, under Samaroo’s direction, Renegades won the Panorama title six times.

Stewart’s talent is homegrown, but it was during a three-month stint at the University of Nantes in France, where he taught a series of masterclasses, that he truly blossomed. “I was thinking, I am the best, until I landed in Paris in 2002 and threw my ego into the River Seine and started from scratch,” he says.

On returning to T&T, Stewart’s ambitions were translated into a series of Panorama victories with bands in the east, north, and south of Trinidad, while he steadily earned respect in the international steelband diaspora as well, arranging for bands in Britain and the United States and engaging students at the University of Liverpool and Howard University in Washington, DC. “I could see the transition process of a new generation of arrangers,” he recalls. “Somebody had to open that door.

“In the 80s and 90s the arrangements that came from the virtuosos were very technical to articulate,” says Stewart. But now, “A new generation has evolved. Raw. Uncut. Unplugged. I am trying to send the message clearly, without trying to be difficult, or two or three notches above the average listener, without them being misled.”

For last year’s Panorama, Stewart created a phenomenal arrangement of “Year for Love”, a statement song by Aaron “Voice” St Louis about gang warfare in east Port of Spain, which has claimed several lives close to the Renegades family. “I want to tell the story real and true,” Stewart says.

And in 2019, he is once again treating with a fundamental problem in his community: the male-female relationship. “It’s the reality for families that reside around the band, and I will paint that picture with my music,” Stewart promises. At the Renegades panyard in Port of Spain, he’s assembled a cadre of international players from bands he has arranged for in the US, Britain, France, Japan, and St Vincent.

And he’s ready to step into the hallowed halls of T&T’s music history: this era, he boldly predicts, will come to be called the Duvonne Dynasty, taking up the mantle of earlier virtuosos.

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