Caribbean Beat Magazine

Pantastic

Pan and jazz go together so well — especially when played by Trinidad and Tobago’s Panazz. Simon Lee explains

  • Panazz players during  a recording session, 1999. Photograph courtesy Panazz Players
  • Courtesy Panazz Players

Trinidad’s Panazz players

Panshots take one:

Derek Walcott Square, Castries, St Lucia. A scorching May high noon in Jazz Festival Week 1996. A mixed crowd: primary school children in peach and grey, navy and white, playing in the grass; hard-hatted construction workers and bank staff on lunch hour; tourists sipping beers and sampling barbeque chicken. From under the giant casuarina tree in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception come the first tentative notes of a tenor steel pan, fronting a 12-strong steelband.

Within a few beats, conversations are broken off mid-sentence. Heads turn towards the stage as the ripple of sweet steelpan surges through the crowd. The whole square is galvanised by the swirling ringing momentum. Spontaneous smiles break out, pelvises begin to sway in recognition of jazz standards like Take Five, Misty and I’ll Remember April.

Schoolboys beat the turf in imitation of one of the bass players, who, judging from his height, can’t be much older than them. The set shifts scores from North America to the Caribbean, taking the delighted audience with it and announcing the steelband’s Trinidad origins with tight ringing versions of Lord Kitchener’s Iron Man, David Rudder’s Bahia Girl and Andre Tanker’s Pull de Bull. This is Panazz’s introduction to St Lucia, and the crowd doesn’t want to let them go.

The Panazz Players were formed in 1993, under co-leaders Barry Bartholomew and Yohan Popwell, to compete in Trinidad’s inaugural Pan Ramajay competition for small steelbands. Most of the players came from the much larger conventional steelband Neal and Massy All Stars, one of the big rollers in Panorama, the national steelband competition held every carnival.

From inception they were committed to playing jazz and would have called themselves Panjazz had it not been for a jazz and steelpan festival of the same name. Bartholomew says they wanted to avoid the reggae and pop repertoire favoured by many small pansides once they move beyond playing calypso. There was a challenge in soloing over the top of the fast-moving chord progessions which characterise much jazz.

Their first arrangements were done at Bartholomew’s home, listening to his jazz albums, including work by the late great pianist Errol Garner, known for inspiring happiness and humour in his audiences. “We knew which styles appealed to us and what we could adapt to make phrasings which would sound appealing on pan,” explains Bartholomew. A major element taken directly from jazz was the fast-walking bass line. “Our basses are tuned to sound as close to the acoustic double bass as possible.”

Their approach was highly successful and Panazz romped away winners of the first three Ramajay competitions in 1993, ’94 and ’95, playing a selection of jazz and calypso. The hat trick “gave us the motivation to go on. It was very much an accomplishment, but then it was time to leave the competition arena and go on to the next level . . . taking pan to higher heights; to have our own band and instruments.”

Panshots take two:

Pigeon Island, St Lucia, May 1996: the Jazz Festival is nearing its finale. The main stage awaits Dr John the Night Tripper from New Orleans. But the crowd is magnetically drawn to a smaller side stage where Panazz are in animated mid-session. For many, it’s a scintillating introduction to steelpan. The sheer exuberance of front line tenor players Dane Gulston and Sheldon Webster, with Natasha Joseph on double seconds trading breakneck riffs, is infectious. When 12-year-old Donnel Thomas solos on bass he’s met with a frenzy of videocams. It’s only when Dr John is being introduced that the crowd drifts main stage.

Interaction with its audience is one of Panazz’s hallmarks. The enjoyment they manifest in performing spreads swiftly from the stage. Bartholomew says the criteria used in choosing a new number are whether it’s challenging musically and will it be fun in performance.

When they played the first Caribbean Night at the Boston Symphony Hall in 1997, opening for veteran calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow, they negotiated the difficult acoustics so well and received such a “great response” they were booked to return last November as headliners. “We love to perform and put on show, and the stage theatrics improve with audience energy,” observes Bartholomew.

But their stage show is entirely unstudied, a spontaneous expression of their improvisational style. “Now we’ve been together so long, the camaraderie is for real, relaxed,” says Barry. The audience interaction continues after the performance, as part of their touring duties now includes workshops for kids. Trinidad could not have hoped for better ambassadors for the national instrument.

In the space of six years, and with four CDs behind them, Panazz have not only proved themselves Trinidad’s best small panside but have also registered seriously in the world beyond. In October 1996 they were the only instrumental act invited to perform at an international percussion festival in Japan. At the 1997 Sunshine Awards in New York they won the award for best steelband recording. This year they were nominated for two awards.

In November they will play at the opening of the Caribbean Music Expo at the Jamaica Grande resort in Ocho Rios, and later in the month at nearby James Bond beach at the UNICEF/UNFAO Telefood ’99 concert, to be broadcast in December to a worldwide audience of 500 million.

Panshots take three:

Vizcaya Palace, Biscayne Bay, Miami, September 1997. The private cocktail party to launch the first Midem Latin American and Caribbean Music Fair. The grounds and state rooms of the Renaissance-style palazzo are flooded with music industry magnates. While soca, salsa and merengue pulsate from a stage in the bay, Panazz, dapper in their appliqué shirts, play an indoor cabaret set. By the time they leave Miami, they’ve been booked for two weeks at the Epcot Centre at Disney World where they will go on to sell more CDs than any other act in 1997, and become a regular fixture of the repertory season showcasing indigenous music.

Closing shot:

Pan Ramajay in Trinidad, July 1999, now a showcase for pan and Caribbean jazz. Besides pan maestro Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, two legendary jazz guitarists, Jamaica’s Ernie Ranglin and Trinidad’s Fitzroy Coleman, play the first night. The audience response is awed, reverential. But when Panazz take the stage with Barbadian saxophonist Arturo Tappin — who has been collaborating regularly with them the last two years — the Savannah Grandstand erupts. The jam of liquid steel and rampaging sax threatens to lift the galvanise roof, and does lift the audience from its seats, swallowing them deliriously in the music.

For more on Panazz Players, visit their website at www.panazz.com